Less than a day after the Oscar nominations were announced, Best Actress frontrunner Reese Witherspoon stopped by the Dorchester Hotel in London for a quick chat about Walk The Line, the Johnny Cash biopic that has already seen her collect a number of awards, including a Golden Globe. Close-Up Film was there to talk about red carpets, musical biopics and motherhood.
Congratulations on the Oscar nomination, Reese! What happened when you found out you’d been nominated?
I was in Berlin and because I was jetlagged, I’d fallen asleep on some couch somewhere and my publicist came in screaming and she goes “Aaaaaaagh!” I thought it was my daughter as I was having a dream and I thought, “Why is she screaming?” They woke me up and told me and I was very excited and called my mother and my husband [actor Ryan Phillippe]. It’s exciting too because the film he was in – Crash – got nominated too for Best Picture. Of course I’m disappointed about Jim [Mangold, director of Walk The Line who missed out on a Best Director nomination] because you can’t make a movie by yourself. Joaquin and I did not direct ourselves, but these things happen and I know that Jim is very happy that the film is getting recognised in a lot of different ways.
At this stage, everyone always says how great it is just to be nominated, but how much do you really want to win?
I think every actor there wants to win, otherwise what’s the point? (laughs) I mean, I’m 29 years old and I’m really lucky to be there and whatever happens I have plenty of awards for this movie and I feel very blessed. If this was it for me, I’d feel really content.
Where do you keep all the awards?
Various places. My daughter (Ava, 6) sneaks them off to the room and dresses them up! She’s gotten quite jaded over the whole thing. When we come home after the awards she goes, “Well did you get it or not? Where is it? Are you gonna take it to my room?” So it’s sweet and she enjoys that.
Joaquin Phoenix said that he wanted to do the film even before he saw the script. How strong was your faith in the film?
James Mangold approached me two years before he even had a script and said, “I’m gonna make a film about Johnny Cash”. I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my skull! I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, which is the centre of country music in America, so not only did I know everything about Johnny Cash and his life but I knew everything about June Carter Cash and the entire Carter family, who were the foremost country musicians of our time. I even played “Mama” Maybelle Carter in a fourth grade play, so I was so excited when he said he was making a film.
So did the music of the Carter family inspire your performance?
Absolutely. Because it was shot in one of the places I grew up, it was a very personal experience for me as I knew the music so well and I knew the feeling, attitudes and culture behind the songs, which is a huge part of getting into a character. I look at “where are they from? What is their orientation towards family? What is their spirituality?”, and in Walk The Line a lot of those were just very easy connects for me. Then there was the whole challenge of singing, playing an instrument and doing live performances that was frightening but completely exhilarating.
Not only were you singing on screen for the first time, but you also had to capture someone else’s voice. How hard was that?
Well, I started working on trying to sound like June from the very beginning. I thought I was going to be fantastic! I was listening to CDs and singing in my car probably a month before I had a voice lesson, and I thought, “I’m gonna nail this!” In my first meeting with Joaquin, actually the first time he and I ever met, he was saying, “I don’t know when we should start” when I was like “get me in there, cos I’m ready!” Jim was like “oh that’s great” and Joaquin was like “I hate her!” Then I actually started to record and when they played it back and I was like “who’s that?”. When they said it was me I said, “oh you’re kidding me! No, no, I’m much better than that! I don’t hit all those awkward notes, I don’t make mistakes like that” Then I hit the panic button and called my attorney four times in a row saying “get me outta this movie!” because I was determined that I wasn’t gonna suck. After many discussions they finally made me go back and start working with the vocal coach and it took me five months until I could hear the playback and it didn’t sound like nails on a chalkboard. Really. It was that bad! It was incredibly frustrating. I was doing vocal lessons in the morning, then autoharp lessons in the afternoon, then we’d have a little bit of lunch and then record for four or five hours. I’d just had a baby as well, which is probably why I was a little cuckoo! Then I’d go home and take care of the kids. It was a busy time. It was very crazy.
You mentioned singing along to songs in your car. When you were younger, was there anyone who you’d pretend to be in front of the mirror?
Well I always wanted to be Dolly Parton when I was a little girl. I was obsessed with Dolly but I also really wanted to be a Broadway kid. One summer I begged my mother to send me to this camp where they evaluate you and basically tell you whether or not you’ve got a shot at making it. So I gave my whole revue and I was told completely, without exception, that I should never sing again. It planted this seed in me that I was just not capable of singing and nor should I be asked to, and if I was asked to, I should refuse adamantly! So when this all came up I was so terrified! I guess with the right musical training and with the right determination you can conquer anything. One of my biggest accomplishments I got through this film was overcoming that fear.
One of the great things about Walk The Line is the chemistry between you and Joaquin. How did you find it working with him?
The rehearsal process was actually really helpful because we spent every day together for six months in this tiny old house, rehearsing and singing and practicing our instruments. There were days when I was frustrated and he’d support me and there were days when he’d wanna stomp out of the door and I’d say “don’t go – you just keep trying”. By the time we got on the set we had a really close friendship. He’s a great guy and I really respect him because he had so much passion for this part, and so much passion to play that character. He’d go home every night and just keep rehearsing, playing his guitar, singing his songs and reading more books. It was just really inspiring.
To promote the film, Joaquin performed at Folsom Prison to all the inmates, just as Johnny Cash had done years before. Have you any plans for a singing career now?
After the movie came out I got these calls from country music record labels going “d’ya wanna make a record?” Um, no I don’t! I have no desire to do that again, partly just because the performance was so challenging for me. I could do it in a tiny little recording studio, but then we had to go out in front of thousands of extras and it was just terrifying. But I would love to do a musical, either on film or on stage as I grew up loving musical theatre. My favourite musical at the moment is Wicked, which I think is really well done, beautifully staged and art directed. Oh gosh, I like West Side Story, I like Oklahoma, and that kind of classical musicals. I thought Chicago was great and so fun. I think that would be a great challenge for me.
After Ray last year, and with other musical biopics planned for Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop in the coming year, is this something you’re fond of and is there anyone else you’d like to see profiled?
I think it’s just fascinating because it’s just a completely different world with musicians. They travel constantly and their lives are so interrupted, but they lead really fascinating lives. I’d love to see something on Brad Knowle from Sublime as I don’t know enough about him, but I think his music is just haunting. Or Jeff Buckley. Peggy Lee would be interesting. I think she was a visionary, sexy woman at a time when people didn’t think that was very appropriate.
Walk The Line finishes just as Johnny and June start their journey together as a couple. Did you feel this was the best way to end the film?
Well we had to make room for the sequel! I don’t think this film in any way tells the story of John and June in total as they had over 30 more years together but I would love to see a film about different times in their lives particularly the end, which I felt was very inspiring with his renaissance [Cash’s final albums with producer Rick Rubin are seen by many as his best]. They were just really cool people and it was great to make a movie about them.
Did you find that the lives of John and June were influential in your own life?
I think every experience of making a film is educational. It’s very revealing because the reasons you chose the film or certain scenes in the film are always, upon reflection, very revealing about a time you’re in or something you’re going through. I had an immediate connect with June’s background and culture, but I was really inspired by what a modern woman she was. She was married to two different men, had children by both of them, divorced twice and was one of the only women travelling on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Johnny, so she was a pretty tough cookie and they all had so much respect for her. She was just a really informative character to play. Even people who know Johnny Cash’s music don’t really know very much about June Carter. In the 50s, she was a huge star. She was a great comedienne, she was this travelling woman who sang with every major male star out there and every single one of them had a giant crush on her but she would just not give them the time of day! And that’s just such a great character to find. I thought, “Oh this is gonna be so fun!” Apparently, Johnny and Elvis had a big fight over her, and she had a whole thing with Elvis where he was completely infatuated with her and Johnny would have this jealous rage every time his name came up. You find out these little things that are really interesting.
Walk The Line is a love story in the great Hollywood tradition. Has it taught you anything about love?
I think it gives you a lot of hope that it’s possible to find love at any moment in your life. You can get along and you can make mistakes and they might still be there for you. I think Johnny and June had a very particular connection that was destined and very real.
You have been a successful comedy actress for some years now so do you find it frustrating that Oscars tend to favour dramatic roles?
Well, comedy is perceived in a certain particular way, but there are comedies that transcend and really permeate this idea of what is a serious film, and I think Alexander Payne’s films About Schmidt and Sideways really appeal to the Academy voters. I mean, I don’t feel any prejudice. I’ve been an Academy member for six or seven years myself, so I think it’s just a matter of taste and performances that make people inspired enough to vote or nominate. I think I’m very lucky.
With an actor husband, it must be difficult to juggle the responsibilities of parenthood.
Well Ryan’s been the breadwinner all year this year. He’s been working like crazy. He’s starring in Clint Eastwood’s new film [Flags Of Our Fathers] and he’s now doing a film about [FBI agent turned Soviet spy] Robert Hanssen. But we just have a really great relationship and I think we have the business in perspective. It’s important to realise that in this business you go up and you go down, and particularly as a woman as your career starts a lot earlier than it does as a man. I suspect that he’ll be around for a lot longer than I will. I’ll try and make the most of it while I’m here. While he’s working I don’t work and vice versa.
You have played a number of strong female roles. Is that something that is reflected at home too?
I think there are a lot of women out there that are basically organising, taking care of, wiping the bottoms of, feeding the mouths of, teaching and educating and helping their families. I think that’s what a lot of women do without any sort of acknowledgement or pat on that back. That’s just what we do. I think movies are great and I have a great time making them but they are not what keep you warm at night and it’s not the most important thing on this life journey. I feel really blessed that I have two wonderful healthy children keeping me grounded and sane (laughs) and throw up on my shoes before an award show! Just so I know, y’know, it’s God telling me to keep it real.
Has becoming a parent influenced the roles you choose?
Yeah. It’s interesting because having had kids so young, I find that I’m a kid too and I’m growing up with them so things they’re interested in really influence me. My daughter will talk about certain things that she really enjoys and I think, “wow that’s a good idea!”, or characters she likes so that I try and get the rights to the book (laughs). Yeah, I basically use my children for my personal gain!
You just mentioned buying up rights for your own production company (Type A Films). How is that coming along?
Well I initially created the company just to start developing material and films that I wanted to make. There’s a project right now called Penelope that I was thinking about starring in, but because of time constraints, we ultimately decided it would be better with somebody else. Christina Ricci’s playing the part and we’re shooting in London and I’m really excited about that because it’s a great opportunity for so many people. It’s a fable about a girl who has to come to terms with having a pig face and learn to love herself. It’s really colourful and interesting and fairytale like. The company grows in different ways and I try to grow with it.
Between films and family you make it all look so easy!
Ha! It’s because I’m an actor! No, it’s not easy at all. I’d be lying if I said it was. I have to turn down roles that I really wanna do because of travel. And that’s okay, I mean, make peace with things in your mind. Like my kids right now are home with my husband, but I’m missing something important at my daughter’s school and that makes me feel sick inside. But the benefits outweigh the bad parts. I have to think that I’m so lucky to have these kinds of problems.
Apart from Penelope, what’s next for you?
I dunno, I’m open to suggestions, I’m completely unemployed! I need a job, and I have no idea what to do next! That’s a difficult decision. A producer sent me a copy of [Otto Preminger film] Bunny Lake Is Missing and it’s just a fantastic part for a woman. Bunny Lake is being written right now and I am starring but I don’t know what the future will hold yet.
Finally, back to the Oscars and a question you’ll soon be sick of. Do you know what you’re going to be wearing yet?
Oh well, I dunno! It’s funny how it always becomes about clothes. It’s just very bizarre. You work your butt off and then you win an award, and it’s still all about your dress. You can’t get away from it. I definitely like dressing up but I wish it wasn’t such a bit focus over everything, because it should be fun and frivolous. I think people spend too much time worrying about stuff like that but I’m excited! I think it will be fun.