"I was determined not to suck in this movie..."

She tried to drop out when she first heard her singing voice, but Reese Witherspoon’s in line for her first Oscar now

Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. Did you celebrate?
Thank you. No, I was asleep! I was in Berlin and I was jetlagged. My publicist came in screaming. I thought it was my daughter at first and I thought, “Why is she screaming?” They woke me up and told me and I was very excited. I called my mother and my husband [Ryan Phillipe]. It’s exciting because the film he was in, Crash, is nominated as well for Best Picture.

How did you get involved with Walk The Line?
James Mangold, the writer and director, approached me two years before he even had a script. He said, “I’m going to make a film about Johnny Cash” and I think my eyes came out of my skull. I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, which is like the centre of country music in America, so not only did I know everything about Mr Cash but I knew about June Carter Cash. The Carter family are the foremost country music family of our time. I even played Mama Maybelle Carter in my fourth grade play so I was so excited when he said he was making the film.

How difficult was it for you to play someone so many people know?
It was definitely different for me because I’d never played a real person before, so creating a character based on research was a new process for me. Usually it’s just constructed from your own imagination but this consisted of watching a lot of videotapes, reading books and meeting musicians. I met her children and we talked at some length, I got to see their house and see what was in her closets. There were whole rooms full of all her performance outfits that she kept for 50 years or something. I was so amazed by how much of a modern woman she was – she was married to two different men, she had children by both of them and was divorced twice. She was on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley! (laughs) So she was a pretty tough cookie.

How did you find the singing?
I tried to sound like her from the very beginning and it was one of those things where I thought I was going to be fantastic. I listened to the CDs and I sang in my car for months before I had a voice lesson or did any recording. I was like, “I’m going to nail this.” We had an initial meeting and it was the first time I’d met Joaquin and he was nervous but I was like, “Get me in there coach, I’m ready!” Jim thought that was great and Joaquin was thinking, “I hate her.” Then I actually started to record and when they played it back, I was like, “Who’s that? That’s me? Oh you’re kidding? You’re kidding? No, because I’m much better than that. No I don’t hit all those awkward notes, I wouldn’t make a mistake like that.” I hit the panic button – I called my attorney four times saying, “Get me out of this movie, get me out of it.” I was determined I wasn’t going to suck in the movie. After many discussions they got me back and I started working with a vocal coach and it took me five months to get to the point where I could even hear the playback and it didn’t sound like nails on a chalkboard – really it was that bad!

So how brutal was the rehearsal schedule?
I was doing vocal lessons in the morning, auto-harp lessons in the afternoon and then all late-afternoon and evening we would record for four or five hours – I’d also just had a baby by the way, which is probably why I was a little bit cuckoo but it was a busy time, yeah.

How was it working with Joaquin? Did he throw himself into it in the same way you did?
You know, having to watch an actor pretend to be that low is wrenching and I saw Joaquin do things in this movie that I’ve never seen an actor do before. He really put himself in this performance and I would watch him disappear into the character. He would turn up in the morning as Joaquin and he’d go into make-up. Then he’s go onstage and he was Johnny Cash – ‘JR’, as we called him, and that was amazing.

Even though your past roles are vastly different to this, you seem to be drawn to playing a certain type of woman…
I have a natural inclination towards playing strong women – women who know who they are and know what they want, those kind of women make sense to me. They’re the kind of women I grew up with, I understand and gravitate towards. The thing about this character is she didn’t suffer fools. In the ‘50s she was a huge star, she was this woman who travelled all over and played with every major star out there and every single one of them had a crush on her and she wouldn’t give them the time of day – so it’s just a great character to find. Apparently John and Elvis had a big fight over her – something happened with her and Elvis, and John was just in a jealous rage every time his name came up. You find out these little things that are just so interesting.

Is it stressful being in a relationship with another actor, especially when one of you is working more than the other one?
It’s important to keep this business in perspective. You go up and down, and if you’re a woman, your career begins earlier but I suspect Ryan will be around a lot longer than I will, so I’m trying to make the most of it while I’m here. When he works, I don’t and vice versa. We help each other as well. I don’t think I could have played June five years ago – I wouldn’t have had the kind of life experience that made me understand what she deals with. It’s interesting also because I had my kids so young, it’s like I’m growing up with them, so the things they’re interested in really influence me. My daughter will talk about a book or a character she’s really enjoyed and I’ll go and try to get the rights to the book! So yeah, I basically use my children for my personal gain…

After such an impressive vocal performance, will you keep up the singing?
Well, I think it would be fun to do a musical because I love going to Broadway and watching shows but I don’t know – my daughter doesn’t like my singing, she tells me to stop. She says, “Mom, more driving, less singing.” You can’t ever think you’re great when you’ve got a six year old around. They keep me grounded – you can’t have your head in the clouds when your heading out the door to an awards show and your daughter throws up on your shoes.

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