Walk the Line

SOUND BITES

Which director would you like to work with that you haven’t before? “I can’t think of any one person. There’s so many of them.”

How do actors balance commerce vs. art? “To be honest, I don’t think about the financial rewards or the box office expectations. For the movie that I’m doing next, I’ll probably get paid less than I did six years ago.”

Up next: “I can’t confirm anything.”

It takes guts to try and fill the boots of Johnny Cash.

But in James Mangold’s “Walk the Line,” Joaquin Phoenix delivers. Like Jamie Foxx did last year with Ray Charles, Phoenix inhabits, rather than impersonates, the icon. With his wounded intensity and craggy good lucks, it’s a role Phoenix seemed born to play.

The 31-year-old actor does all of his own singing in the film, a remarkable accomplishment considering that before shooting began he couldn’t carry a tune. “I tried to sing a little as a kid, but I was just awful,” says the actor, who spent six months in intense vocal and guitar training with the film’s composer, T Bone Burnett. “But there was no way I was going to do the part and not sing the songs. Performing on the stage and playing the role were completely intertwined. Music was his life, so it was only fitting that I approach the character through the music first.”

Phoenix researched the role heavily, watching performance footage and interviewing Cash’s friends and colleagues. But it was the singer’s two memoirs, “Cash: An Autobiography” and “The Man in Black,” that proved most valuable. “I liked it best when it came directly from John, because I could refer to how he would react in all the aspects of his life — his music, his women, his drug addiction,” says Phoenix. “I didn’t want to just do an impersonation. It’s more about understanding why somebody does what they do. It had to become a natural thing instead of just doing a move he would do onstage.”

Phoenix credits Mangold for giving him the room to find his way into the character. “James never put this pressure on me to be Johnny Cash,” he says. “That was freeing, because I had to own it rather than try to be the icon who’s larger than life. Our relationship was a father teaching his son how to ride a bike. You think you’re riding alone, but the whole time he’s got his hand on the frame, waiting to catch you if you fall.”

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