Now you see him, now you don't

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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.

ROLE PLAYINGHAVING 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.

Phoenix is considerably shorter and doesn't command attention the way Cash did. He shifts about uncertainly when approached by a fan, not quite sure how to react to the good wishes. It's an awkwardness I've seen in lots of musicians, especially members of the '90s grunge brigade. Phoenix has the natural temperament to play Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder or the late Kurt Cobain. That leaves him far from Cash, a deeply spiritual man who, while shy, would go out of his way to make fans feel welcome. He wanted to lift people in his music and in his interactions with them.

Cash exuded energy. Phoenix seems to save his for the next role.

Phoenix grew up loving the Beatles and hip-hop, not country music, but he was immediately intrigued by the challenge of playing someone as legendary as the Man in Black, whose music earned him a rare place in both the rock 'n' roll and country music halls of fame.

"That's the way it always works for me," Phoenix says. "I look at the character before I even read the script, to see if there is something unique about him.

"I've done some movies that I'm not all that fond of, but I don't think I did them for the wrong reason. The first time I read the script, I'm not even paying attention to what else is going on, I'm just focusing on that character. I want to see where he's going."

"Walk the Line" director James Mangold had a gut reaction about Phoenix after seeing his photo in a newspaper around the time of "Gladiator."

Mangold, whose credits include "Girl, Interrupted" and "Cop Land," had been thinking about doing a film on Cash for years, but he was hoping for a version that had some of the edgy, psychological wallop of the film "East of Eden." He saw similar themes between Cash's story and Elia Kazan's 1955 film, including forbidden love and the struggle for parental approval.

And for his lead, he wanted the youthful vitality and smoldering intensity of that film's James Dean. Phoenix seemed to fit.

In his first talks with Mangold and "Walk the Line" co-producer Cathy Konrad, Phoenix probed. "Are you doing imitations?" he says he asked the director. "Are you re-creating these historical events? And he said no. He said that if people want to hear Johnny Cash, they can buy his record. If they want to see him, there are documentaries. That gave us a lot of freedom."

It took years for "Walk the Line" to move from concept to shooting — film biographies were out of favor and studio after studio passed, sometimes twice, before 20th Century Fox gave the OK to the $28-million project. Phoenix used that time to immerse himself in Cash, both his recordings and books.

"His music was really the gateway for me to understand him as a person and to understand how he spoke," he says, slumped in his chair. "I'm talking about his actual records and demo tapes. What struck me early was that he didn't have a country accent at all. The key thing about him was the rhythm of his sentences."

The challenge, he says, is learning everything you can about the subject but not turning yourself over to him.

"When you start reading these books and listening to the tapes, there is a long distance between you and him, but the more you study him, the closer you get," he says. "The important thing once you get into the shooting of the film is that you never think about any of those things again.

"There was a period when I was very conscious of how John walked. He didn't bend his legs when he walked. He also had a certain posture. I tried walking consciously like him. At some point, however, all that has to become natural. If you are trying to remember to do it like John did, you probably aren't doing your job. It's when you get into that natural state that you really feel alive as an actor."

Mangold, who also wrote the script with Gill Dennis, insisted that Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (playing wife June Carter Cash) do their own singing because he felt it would bring them closer to the characters.

After working with a vocal coach, they spent months in the studio recording the soundtrack album with T Bone Burnett, the rootsy musician who put together the music for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?".

Phoenix, who didn't even know how to play a guitar before getting the role, says he was terrified when Mangold asked him to sing.

"Even now, if you said, 'Here's a guitar, get up and sing a song for those people over there,' I couldn't do it," he says, gesturing to some patio diners. "I would … faint. But put me in a role and put those clothes on me and I'm absolutely able to do it."

THE ACTING GENEPHOENIX may not feel comfortable singing, but he fell in love with acting at an early age. "I'm into exploring characters, exploring the human condition," he says, squinting from the afternoon sun. "I'm into psychoanalyzing people. I think it's something I grew up around."

He was one of five children in a hippie-styled, missionary family that traveled extensively during his early childhood before settling in Hollywood in the early '80s.

"In the early days, we were definitely poor," he says. "We didn't have video games or TV or any of those things. We barely had toys. So I think that forces you to rely on your imagination a great deal. You make up games and act out skits. We were encouraged to express ourselves. I don't recall ever being told to shut up when I was growing up."

He had a close relationship with his older brother, River, and followed him into acting, doing TV shows before breaking into movies. Even at the beginning, he had a sense of purpose as an actor.

"There was a point when I was around 14," he says. "I made a movie called 'Parenthood' with Steve Martin, and it was a big hit, and I noticed scripts started coming in and agents were suddenly calling all the time. But the scripts had no meaning for me. They didn't reflect what I thought was valuable or what I wanted to explore.

"I'm surprised even now that I was aware of things like that at that age. I don't know why. But I decided I would just rather not do them. So I quit for a while."

When he returned to films a few years later, he wowed critics with his portrayal of Nicole Kidman's deluded teenage foil in the satirical "To Die For."

By the time of "Gladiator," he was on the cover of Details' "The Next Big Thing" issue. In that story, Phoenix was conflicted. He was confident he could act, but he wasn't sure he deserved all the praise suddenly coming his way. He called himself "unbelievably insecure" — something he overcomes by giving himself over to his characters.

"Most people have no idea what acting is," he says flatly. "They think all you do is reach back into your own experience for motivation. When they see that Johnny Cash lost an older brother, they think about me and my brother, and go, 'Ah, that's why you can do that scene' or whatever."

(River Phoenix, who had a breakthrough performance in the film "Stand By Me," was on a fast-track to stardom when he died of a drug overdose after collapsing outside a West Hollywood club in 1993. His brother was at his side.)

"The fact is I very much know how to separate my life from a character's life."

He illustrates the point with a story. Phoenix was working years ago with a director (unnamed) who knew from one of Phoenix's ex-girlfriends that the couple had gone through a heated argument.

When he had trouble with a scene, the director urged him to think about the argument with the girlfriend.

"I can't describe the feeling, but it was like having everything sucked right out of you," Phoenix said, still bristling from the experience. "An incredible self-awareness about my life came over me and completely took me out of that scene. It made me feel so self-conscious that I walked off the set for four hours.

"That director managed in one sentence to unravel months of preparation," he says. "It's something I learned about myself very early on. I develop a character and I get involved with the character and I start thinking about the world through their eyes, and I can't let in any trace of self-awareness."

It's the way he protects a process that seems somehow fragile — his guard against being part of an assembly line.

"There are actors who just want to be rich and famous and they succeed…." He stops. He worries that he's starting to sound pompous. "I don't want to be the one to judge others."

"Besides," he adds, after another pause: "I'm probably not above it. I reserve the right to change. Maybe in five years, maybe in one year, you may see me doing nothing but moth-alien science-fiction movies and getting paid a lot of money."

Record producer Burnett, who has known Phoenix for 15 years and also worked with Cash, doesn't see that happening.

"Like John, Joaquin has very little interest in the glitz of show business," he says. "He's driven by a genuine artistic passion. He also has a tender conscience. He won't allow himself to be corrupted."

A HOPEFUL AIRTHERE'S a lot of optimism in the "Walk the Line" camp as the film's opening approaches. It was originally scheduled to come out in the spring, but reaction has been so strong that it was pushed back to November in part to better position it for the holiday box office season and the Oscar race.

Though some early stories have noted the movie doesn't always avoid convention, the notices so far for the two stars have been mostly glowing.

On a recent morning, co-producer James Keach was in a Burbank editing room, showing home movies he took of the Cashes at their home outside Nashville. He feels Mangold's film is true to its subject.

"The one thing John said over and over was, 'Don't Hollywood-ize it,' " Keach says. "There are difficult moments in the film, but that was John's life. He was someone struggling to find the light, and he eventually did it."

Whatever the fate of the film, Phoenix doesn't plan to see it. He's rarely watched his movies.

"There's a part of me that is curious, but not really," he told me. "It doesn't really benefit me. I have the experience. I can see you wanting to see something you didn't experience, but I got the best of it. My experience blows away your experience in watching it."

And, he adds, he doesn't want to become self-conscious about his acting. "I don't want to imagine myself on the screen," he says deliberately. "The worst-case scenario is having people say, 'I look best on the left, shoot me from the left.' I don't want to think that way. I go out of my way to ignore those things…. I don't want to give in to that place. It's not that I'm above it; I fear that I'm susceptible to it."

Soon after wrapping up his work on the film, he took himself to Alcoholics Anonymous. It's tempting to think that he got too far into the role of Cash, who battled against drug addiction, but in fact, he says, the motivation to go to AA came from the reading he did in preparing for the part.

During his research, Phoenix says, he noted that the issue with alcohol isn't about the "quantity consumed, but about a behavior pattern and a way of thinking" — and he wanted to change that thinking.

Alcohol, he says, was "something I relied too much on, and I didn't want to…. I wasn't an everyday drinker. I wasn't crashing cars, getting arrested or beating up my girlfriend — all these cliché things usually perceived to lead to rehab. [AA] was more a way to learn more about myself."

It's been a year since he finished "Walk the Line," but you sense he's still going through acting withdrawal.

"When I go off to make a film, I always fall into … ," he pauses — " 'depression' is too dramatic a word. It's just a foreign state. I don't know how to function in that world yet.

"When I get on the set, I cut myself off from all the things that make me comfortable and define me … the material things, my clothes, my pictures, my computer, whatever it may be. I pretty much cut myself off from my family and friends and tell my agents not to call me.

"I'm leaving me behind so I can find the things that make the character comfortable, so there's a period of a couple of weeks before that takes shape and I feel lost. You get new clothes, new friends. Then when the film ends, you go through the same process in reverse.

"You've gotten to a point where you feel comfortable as a character and suddenly those things are taken away from you. The studio takes the clothes. Your friends go separate ways. You are suddenly dropped off back on your doorstep."

Phoenix, who has an apartment in New York and a house here, says the process of cutting himself off while making a movie makes it hard on relationships, and he's not involved in a serious one at the moment.

But the urge to act is beginning to nag. "I've just now started being mildly interested in working again," he says, standing up and tucking his motorcycle helmet under his arm. "Mildly interested."

Phoenix heads through the hotel lobby down the stairs to the garage. He's almost to his motorcycle when a woman calls his name.

She introduces herself and reminds him of some previous meeting, apparently long ago. He nods in recognition, but it's not very convincing.

After an awkward silence, she blurts out, "You're huge now!"

Phoenix smiles gamely and wishes her well, then turns to the motorcycle, which looks out of place in this den of trophy cars and limos. His whole body seems to relax as he slips a helmet over his head and reenters his private world.


Contact Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, at calendar.letters@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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