"I like the Beatles. And Bright Eyes..."

Joaquin Phoenix on his musical tastes, and channelling Johnny Cash for Walk The Line

Did your own personal tragedy – losing your brother River to a drug overdose – help you understand Johnny Cash as a drug addict?
I see in hindsight that people would assume that I would use or project my personal experiences into this role but that’s never been of help to me in any of the work I’ve done, from the very beginning. I’ve never found it beneficial to rely on any of my personal experiences and, if anything, it made it more difficult because it made me self-conscious of what other people thought. The first time I thought about it was when I was asked the question by a journalist after I made Walk The Line. I went to Memphis for four months of preparation, and I spent that time forgetting about myself. It was a new place and it was about creating that character so any time my personal life comes into it, frankly it fucks me up.

How did you get comfortable playing a musician?
Johnny Cash had told the producers that whoever played him should be able to hold the guitar with a real level of comfort. The first time I picked one up, it was totally foreign and uncomfortable and I wondered how I would be able to pull this off. But after months of playing guitar every day, whether I was on the phone or watching TV, it became such a part of me that it gave me a level of power that helped me really understand where he was coming from.

Is it true you met Johnny Cash after you made Gladiator?
Yes, he liked that movie and invited me for dinner so I met John and June before I’d ever heard about this movie. It was amazing. I had dinner at their home and the thing that stood out for me was their love for each other was so palpable and they were all about family. John just started strumming chords when we sat down in the living room and he and June wound up singing ‘On The Banks Of The River Of Jordan’ and they’re looking into each other’s eyes. I was always cynical about lovers singing because I thought it was corny and commercial when they did it on TV or in concert, but we were in their own living room and it was not a performance so I got the sense of what they were like at home alone. It was deeply moving.

What did you rely on most to bring Cash to life?
I primarily used John’s own words, because he wrote two autobiographies and he also had an unedited transcript from his autobiography which was useful. But it’s tough because everybody else had a different idea of who John was and you could talk to three people who’d been in the same room with him and they all had different stories about the same event. I spoke to the family but then I never got to meet with John and June before filming. We made plans a few times, but one of them would get ill and cancel so I never got that opportunity again after I knew that I was going to play him.

How did you feel about doing the singing yourself?
I have a lot of respect for singers because you feel really vulnerable going out there. At the start I wasn’t that great but I worked on it for five hours every day for four months and learned lyrics and chords and suddenly I could hit notes that I couldn’t hit a month earlier and got more and more confident. Reese had such a great voice that I was intimidated when we had to do a duet but she was incredibly supportive and it helped a lot to know that we were both going through this experience together.

Are you looking for a relationship like John had with June?
I’m not going to talk about my personal life in that way but I will say that I am not ideal boyfriend material at all. It’s difficult when you travel as much as I do and my work always comes first. When I went to make this movie I came out to Los Angeles for four months and then I was in Memphis for another four months so as long as I work like that, I don’t know that I’ll have much of a personal life. Right now there isn’t anyone.

How important is music in your own life?
I have always loved music but it’s ironic that everybody in my family – even my mom – plays guitar and I’m only one that didn’t learn it until this movie! When I got this part I called my mom and said, “I’ve got to play guitar now!” I don’t listen to much pop music but I listen to any kind of music that gives me a strong emotional reaction.

So what are you listening to now?
I’m listening to Elliot Smith, because he has a great vocal style, and I love The Beatles so they are still my favourite band of all time, especially all those John Lennon melodies like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. I also listen to Bright Eyes and a new band called Ringside.