Reese Witherspoon may indeed be one of Hollywood’ golden girls but fans of the actress will get to see a different side to her holding her own opposite Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Shrugging off Oscar talk for her sassy and emotionally truthful portrayal of Rosalind Carter, Witherspoon is as gracious and charming as always, politely chatting with the press while remaining cautiously aloof.
Question: Did you feel like you and Joaquin went on this journey together. He was talking about once he signed on there was this moment of utter terror. Did you feel like you were in that together?
Answer: Absolutely. At first it kind of felt like lost and set adrift… First of all I didn’t know I was singing. I signed up to do the acting bit. That would have been in a completely different contract. He and I went into that with a lot of trepidation. Particularly him. He was playing an icon that had such a recognizable voice. And me, I am just a perfectionist and totally afraid of stinking. [laughs] So we went into it and I was just determined to get the right coaches and the right people.
Question: So at which point did you feel you reached a comfort zone that you could do the acting and the singing?
Answer: The singing part was easier for me than the autoharp part. Playing the instrument was really difficult for me. I had never played an instrument. I don’t know how that even happens to people. Also, recording the album… You think you are a good singer when you are in the car. You can sing along. But then when you go in and you actually sing into a microphone for 4 hours straight…
Question: Do you sing in the shower?
Answer: No. I sing really loud in the car. And I am really good.
Question: Over music?
Answer: Yes. Along with… really. I accompany Lucinda Williams, Alison Krause beautifully.
Question: You think you’re good, put what about the other people in the car?
Answer: My kids tell me to turn it off all the time. The other day they sent me a CD of songs (from the movie) to check something out and Deacon put his fingers in his ears and said “I hate this song! Turn it off!” It was me singing! But all the practice and rehearsal really helps boost your confidence.
Question: There is a scene in the movie where you are accosted in the grocery store. You really got from that scene that June Carter displayed this incredible grace in the face of fame. Obviously you relate to that…
Answer: I think the really remarkable thing about her character is that she did all of these things that we sort of see as normal things in the 1950s when it wasn’t really acceptable for a woman to be married and divorced twice and have two different children by two different husbands and travel around in a car full of very famous musicians all by herself. She didn’t try to comply social convention, so I think that makes her a very modern woman. Really a woman who set a pace for someone like myself and created opportunities for someone like myself to be a working mother and be an artist. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to be her.
Question: You do seem to candle yourself very well. Where does that come from?
Answer: Basically I know my grandmother would be mortified if I did anything less. I grew up with a lot of emphasis on how to carry yourself. I don’t know. You just kind of are who you are in life. Don’t you think?
Question: Do you look at this as movie about music or is it really at the heart of it just a great love story?
Answer: I think there are a lot of different stories going on. Johnny Cash’s story of struggle and overcoming his impoverished background and different challenges. His drug challenged. Addiction. I think that is really remarkable. I think everyone really likes a story where you see a guy go from nothing – or a girl – and accomplish things we don’t feel capable of doing ourselves. But also the love story thing… I really like in this film that it is realistic and portrays sort of a real marriage, a real relationship where there are forbidden thoughts and fallibility. And it is about compassion in the long haul. Not just the short easy solutions to problems.
Question: You didn’t meet with June personally, but you did meet with her children. Was there one thing they wanted you to bring out about her?
Answer: Well I was informed upon meeting one of them that my boobs weren’t big enough. So I ran immediately to the costume designer and was like “I don’t think my boobs are big enough!” He said “I think we’ll be okay” But as far as accuracy, I think we are a little off there. But they just talked a lot about her personality and how she could just as easily have dinner with the man who pumped gas at the gas station as she could with the Queen. She was an amazing sort of person to be so open minded about humanity.
Question: Do you think perceptions of you will change because of this movie? How do you feel about that?
Answer: I just feel lucky to work. I feel like I am in such a rare position that I have gotten to get this far in this business as a woman and that I still am presented with challenging roles with great writers and great directors and great co-stars. These roles come along so infrequently. My husband and I talk about it all the time. Maybe every five years you get to see a role that really you are never gonna read anything like it again ever in your life. So you just have to keep looking for that and hoping it comes your way. You’ve got one role and 25 actresses that want it, you know…
Question: You just signed for something else…
Answer: There is a movie I am working on for Paramount called The Reckoning about a New York Times photojournalist that goes to Cambodia to look for MIA soldiers from the Vietnam war.
Question: Back to that sequence where you get tangled up with Johnny… You stop and look at him… In your mind was that the moment where she knew that one day they would be together. Because it said so much…
Answer: It’s interesting because that moment, the scene that is in the film, that moment, he said to her the night he met her, he said, “One day I am going to marry you.” She said, “Oh, you’re funny.” I don’t think that was the moment… I love the moment in the movie where her mother says “I can’t go down there. I am already down there.” Jim and I really worked on that a lot because one of the biggest struggles for me was “when did she acquiesce? When does she finally get it. And I love that her mother finally imparts that wisdom on her.
Question: Did growing up in Nashville give you a leg up on your knowledge of the culture…?
Answer: I think it absolutely gave me an advantage. I think I understand the history of country music because I grew up in Nashville and we had to study it in school. The entire 4th grade play was the history of country music. The Carter family was in it and I played Mama maybelle. So I knew a lot about Appalachian folk music and bluegrass and the history and the roots of it. But I think more than that I was very lucky to be southern. That’s something to me that is a cultural thing. Anywhere you are from. But particularly the south has a very strong sense of family and community and taking care of others. That is just a personality trait you can’t sort of fake. It’s hard to do Southern.
Question: Do you think you have mellowed over the years?
Answer: Yeah. I have a cold. I would normally be bouncing off the walls. I think motherhood…
Question: Changed you? Slowed you down?
Answer: Not slowed me down. I just have lots of things diverting my attention. Children. Running around.
Question: Did people’s perception of you change by you becoming a mother?
Answer: I don’t know. It is hard to say how you are perceived by others.
Question: What happens to actresses when they become moms? Do some doors open and others shut?
Answer: I don’t know. I know as far as people who see the films, I have many more people coming up to me now saying ‘I relate to you’ or ‘I relate to your struggle to be a woman and work and have children.’ I think that is a very common thing that happens in people’s lives. And I get a lot of respect from men.
Answer: I don’t know. A lot of men say I really respect what you’re doing.
Question: Would you like to do music on the road? A tour?
Answer: No. I would like to do another movie with music in it. A musical would be fun.
Question: I read you had a little bit of stage fright…
Answer: A little bit? They literally had to push me to get me up there on the stage and say “You have to do this. It is time. We are all waiting for you.” I thought I was going to throw up the whole first day. It was awful.
Question: How did you get over it?
Answer: Really, it helped watching Joaquin. for all the ducking and bowing that we did during the rehearsal process, the moment that he had to step on stage and be in the clothes and be Johnny Cash, he just had this incredible confidence. And he didn’t break. And he wasn’t nervous or insecure. Maybe he was on the inside, but for what I saw, he really inspired me.
Question: You once wanted to be a doctor. Are you shocked where you ended up?
Answer: Every day. I can’t believe this is what I do.
Question: What happened?
Answer: I don’t know. I think I had the compassion element and I had the empathy element. But I didn’t have the tolerating the blood and the squeamishness thing.
Question: Is there another real life person you would like to take on? A role?
Answer: I love country singers. I don’t know.
Question: How’s Ryan doing?
Answer: Great. He just finished Clint Eastwood movie The Last of Our Fathers.
Question: Anything fun planned for the holidays?
Answer: We are going to be working around Ryan’s schedule.
Question: You still doing the one person works, one person stays home thing?
Answer: It actually works out very well. I am luck I have had a whole year off…
Question: Are you going to be shooting in Vietnam?
Answer: I don’t know. We are trying to get it going now. I have no idea about the logistics yet.
Question: Do you want your kids to be actors?
Answer: I want them to be whatever they want to be. When they are 18.
Question: When you were starting out, did you think this was something you would still be doing today?
Answer: No. When I went to Stanford when I was 19, I was fully expecting to just be pre med, really. I didn’t think I would get this far.
Question: Do you have a favorite June Carter Cash song?
Answer: One of the songs that is not in the movie that I like is Long Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man. I think they have a great relationship on that song. It used to be at the end of the movie. I don’t know if it is anymore.
Question: Is there a soundtrack?
Answer: Yes. I have an album out. And I brag about it.
Question: Do you sing in the car [inaudible]
Answer: Truthfully I haven’t listened to any of the music. I couldn’t listen to a Johnny Cash song or a June Carter song. Probably for about a year I couldn’t listen to any of it. Finally I am slowly letting people… if it comes up on the iPod I am like, “Ok, you don’t have to turn it off…” We just listened to it so much. It became very personal.
Question: Apart from The Reckoning, do you have anything else coming up?
Answer: I am producing a film for my company called Penelope that Christina Ricci and Hayden Christiansen are going to star in. I am going to do a role in that. That is going to be next year. It is a fairy tale about a girl who has a curse in her family. She has a pig face.
Question: Christina Ricci has a pig face?
Answer: Yes. It is sort of a family curse and in order to get the curse off her family, she has to go through this process.
Question: Who do you play?
Answer: I play her quirky best friend.
Question: Potential for awards?
Answer: Obviously you make films so people can see them and enjoy them. Everything about that (awards) is just luck. You know? I feel really happy and very blessed to be in this position to have this job and this opportunity. I hope a lot for Jim and Joaquin. I think they really put their heart and soul into this movie. I have never seen two people so dedicated to a project. So it is nice to see people acknowledge them.