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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)

Their son, John Carter Cash, 35 and an executive producer of the film, says of June and Johnny, "I know they're up there, and they couldn't be happier." Before the couple died, he says, they approved of early drafts of the script and the casting of Witherspoon and Phoenix. "It's a very true thing," Carter says. "My father was lost. He had exhausted and hurt all those around him, but he found God through my mother. My mother was the door to his salvation. The message is the light. Not the darkness." Witherspoon, he says, "took on the role with a full heart and plays it with reverence and style and I know my mother would have loved it."

Preparing for his role as Cash, Phoenix is said to have lived in his character. That is not Witherspoon's way. "My technique? I hate it when actors talk about their technique." But she gives it up. "These things are inexplicable. Part of it is practiced. Part of it's from your soul. Part of it instinct. Most of it is throwing it all away and being in the moment. Learning as much as you possibly can until you feel like you're going to burst with information and then just forgetting it all. Look, it should be in you after six months of reading and learning and study. You absorb the character.

"You're in the place they were in. You're in the clothes they wore. I had on the exact same outfit June wore in one of her performances."


And it was weird, Witherspoon whispers. "It fit perfectly." She remembers walking through the couple's home on a lake outside Hendersonville, Tenn. The two had just died -- June in May of 2003, Johnny four months later. "She had closets full of furs. I'll never forget it. She just loved fur. Closets full of antique instruments. Mandolins, autoharps, guitars. Hundreds of them in beautiful condition, properly restored."

Could Witherspoon still feel their presence?

"So much of the time playing that part I felt her energy. I know that sounds hokey-pokey. She shepherded me through it. I'm not terribly involved in things like ghosts. It really felt like she was there. A feeling of guidance and support. Of overseeing. Things come into your life for a reason. There has to be some kind of destiny to it."

Like, why?

Think about it, she says: She is asked to play June Carter at the age that Witherspoon is now. They're from the same city. "And I have studied that person and know that family and studied that music." She played Mother Maybelle Carter in a school play. "What is the likelihood of all those things aligning? Some of it has to be destiny. That it's fated. Or maybe it's my own idea that I wanted her to condone it. I definitely felt it. Then when I finished, it was gone."

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