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Playing It Straight

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. (Left, By Mark Seliger; Above, By Suzanne Tenner -- Twentieth Century Fox)

Actually, we are sincere. Everyone says comedy is harder.

"Do they? I don't know why people think dramas are harder to make. Something like this that is time-intensive. A lot of rehearsal and a lot of reality-based elements involved. That is a big challenge. But the usual dramatic film, you come in and do your performance. Listen, they're both hard, really, but I can't explain how infinitely harder comedy is."

So people think: She's finally doing something serious?

"It's like, wow, the big surprise is" -- Witherspoon counts a beat -- "she is not a complete buffoon!"

She adds: "I don't know how to feel about that."

Later, she says, "I'm not 'Legally Blonde.' I'm not Tracy Flick. I couldn't get jobs for a year after that because people thought I was that crazy and angry and controlling and strange. But yeah, um, I'm not."

* * *

Maybe now Witherspoon will be denied work because Hollywood is convinced she's a country-western star.

For six months, Witherspoon took singing lessons two hours a day, recorded three or four hours more. Spent six hours a week learning to play the autoharp. When she began preparing for "Walk the Line," she couldn't read sheet music.

When she was 12, Witherspoon attended a summer camp for aspiring Broadway actors in the Catskills. "There was singing, dancing, acting and I was firmly encouraged to pursue acting. I was told I wasn't a singer. So this was really out of my comfort zone." All of the songs in the film are sung by Phoenix and Witherspoon, and though they do not exactly mimic Cash and Carter, they come close. Variety's Todd McCarthy, calling Witherspoon's June "a sensational job," says the actors' vocals are "surprisingly good" (and predicts the film, though a bit "prefab," will play huge in Middle America).

What Mangold, the filmmaker, says he wanted was their chemistry onstage. "Because when you think about it, it's a story of falling in love with a woman you can only be alone with onstage." Because for most of the 10 years on screen, Johnny and June were married to other people, and their love was forbidden fruit.

"The thing I respect about the film is it's a realistic relationship," Witherspoon says. "It's a film where people are tortured they can't be together. They're hopelessly flawed and human. That is love and relationships. Life is complicated. Marriage and divorce and children and feelings and social rights and wrongs. It's beautiful in that way."


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