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Now you see him, now you don't

Joaquin Phoenix went deep to find the spirit of the late Johnny Cash. But it wasn't easy getting there -- or back.

October 23, 2005|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

IN a pivotal scene in "Walk the Line," the new biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, the maverick country singer goes behind the gray walls of Folsom prison for a 1968 concert that would become a landmark live recording.

As he sings about lost souls and redemption, Cash strikes such a nerve with the 1,000 or so convicts in the prison cafeteria that many believe he's actually spent time behind bars himself. During one especially dynamic number, the inmates unleash their excitement by rushing to the edge of the stage.

It's a dramatic moment, all right, but the fact is, it didn't happen that way. I covered that concert for The Times, and I remember.

The mood was tense because two weeks before, some inmates had held a guard at knifepoint, and the warden warned them that the concert would be stopped if anyone left their chairs. As Cash sang the classic line, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," guards with rifles prowled an overhead ramp, keeping an eye out for trouble.

But there's an honesty to the scene that captures the spirit of that day, and the sense of self-affirmation and hope the concert gave those men. In the film, Phoenix captures the spirit of Johnny Cash by doing essentially the same thing -- straying from the literal to get at something true.

Unlike so many actors in biopics -- including, some would say, Jamie Foxx in "Ray" -- Phoenix never seems to be just imitating a subject. Instead, he takes liberties in evoking him as the film weaves together the contradictions of Cash's life (from drug addiction to spiritual awakening). The result: a character whose emotional center seems somewhere between Phoenix himself and Cash.

"What was wonderful about John was he did what was truthful to him," says Phoenix, who even did the vocals for the songs in the film. "He spoke his mind regardless of whether it was considered popular at the time.

"He also didn't want to be held back because of a public view of what he should be. I liked that and identified with that. The music and film I have always liked are from people who seemed to speak from the soul."

As the actor sits in a secluded corner on the patio of Chateau Marmont, he tends to retreat inside himself, nervously fidgeting with his lighter and package of cigarettes. He gets up to say hello but then drops back into the chair. He's not arrogant or dismissive. He just is. He makes no attempt to charm or amuse.

Phoenix doesn't like interviews, he makes clear early in the conversation, because they make him feel like a salesman. But his energy surges when he talks about acting.

"I played this role in 'Hill Street Blues' when I was around 8 or 9, and I felt I really turned into another character, and everyone on the set responded so enthusiastically that every cell in my body was alive.

"And that's still the way it feels when everything turns out right. There are times when you hear, 'Cut, cut, cut,' but you've completely forgotten where you are. Those are the best moments, absolutely, and that's what I want to always aim for."

Phoenix, who turns 31 on Friday, has proved adept at that very thing. Despite more than a dozen films and an Oscar nomination for supporting actor for his chilling portrayal of a deluded Roman emperor in 2000's "Gladiator," Phoenix's performances have been so customized and varied that you have no idea what to expect when you see his name in the credits.

With "Walk the Line" coming out Nov. 18, this should be a good time for Phoenix. Critics at the Toronto Film Festival singled out his performance, and there's already talk that the performance could bring him an Oscar nomination.

But one senses in him a certain anxiety. If "Walk the Line" does hit big, it could bring him the kind of attention that has hollowed out many actors over the years.

"A lot of people in this business look for validation from the public to feel good about themselves," he says matter of factly, lighting another in an endless string of cigarettes.

"I don't feel that need. I made a conscious decision years ago not to try to let fame or public attention influence what I do as an actor."

Talk of fame, we learn, is difficult for a man who has built his art on disappearing.


HAVING spent maybe a couple of hundred hours with Cash between that grim morning at Folsom prison and the time I watched him perform at a neighborhood barn dance in Virginia just before his death in 2003, I was curious about how much Phoenix had in common with him off screen.

Not a lot, it turns out.

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