Walk the Line, the romantic Johnny Cash biopic featuring Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, actually marks the second time that Witherspoon has played a member of the legendary musical Carter Family. Don’t feel bad if you missed the first. ”I grew up in Nashville, so it’s definitely in me to want to tell that story and bring the importance of country music to the world,” she says. ”I played Mama Maybelle Carter in the fourth-grade play!” Witherspoon was never able to meet the real-life couple before they both became ill and passed away, husband following wife, in mid-2003. Phoenix, at least, got a chance to meet his match: ”I guess John was a fan of Gladiator, so he just invited me to dinner with the family, and I sat and listened to him play. It was three months later that [director] Jim [Mangold] called me about [the movie], just by chance.”
Cash signed off on both Phoenix’s casting and the script before his death. ”His son, John Carter, read the script to him,” says producer James Keach, a longtime family friend. ”He was having a hard time seeing. And he did have issues. When it got a little gnarly with his dad or his relationship with [first wife] Vivian, we would often say, ‘John, you’ve gotta tell the truth,’ and he would respond, ‘I just don’t want to hurt anybody.’ I told him, ‘We won’t hurt anybody — actually, the guy who looks the worst is you!”’ For Johnny Cash, that did the trick.