On a sweltering summer day in Mississippi, the cast and crew of Walk the Line are on location inside one of the Tunica area’s large-scale barge casinos, tricked out to resemble the Mint in Las Vegas in the 1960s. It’s a performance scene in which Joaquin Phoenix is playing Johnny Cash the way America loves and remembers him best: as a pill-popping, flop-sweating, emaciated, unhinged rock & roll wreck.
Well, maybe it’s only a small cadre of rockabilly cultists who prefer to think of him as the hopped-up maniac who’d knock down doors and kick out Opry footlights. More fans will hold to comforting memories of Cash as a genial father figure, stoic balladeer, champion of the American Indian, defender of the flag, even frequent Billy Graham Crusade guest. But most of that came after the hell-raising years, and it wasn’t from nothing that June Carter saved him.
”He’ll be out any second, folks!” Reese Witherspoon, as Carter, chirps at an audience of extras.
The band marks time: boom-chicka-boom. Eventually, Phoenix runs limping onto the stage, launching into ”I Got Stripes” like a man with a train full of amphetamines to catch. Witherspoon looks alarmed, and she isn’t necessarily pretending: In take after take, Phoenix has insisted on bumping his leg on an amplifier as he trots on stage, to appear all the more believably stoned. He’s injured his leg badly enough that earlier I glimpsed him backstage pressing an ice pack to his knee. On top of that, each take has him falling unconscious midverse, and Phoenix isn’t the kind of actor to pass out gingerly.
”I got chains, chains around my feet…” he sings, ”and them chains, them chains, they’re about to drag me down….” And he is down — oof! — this time falling onto the acoustic guitar strapped Cash-style to his back. Curtains close and a voice comes over the PA saying that it is now a ”closed set.” Meaning that if Phoenix is going to impale himself on a guitar or develop a fatal clot in his leg today, someone figures it’d be better to not have any note-taking witnesses.
You might figure that someone is Phoenix. Word is that he only wants to be called ”J.R.” (Cash’s actual given legal name) on set, so maybe it follows that he doesn’t want anyone in nonperiod clothes in his sight lines while he bangs his body to kingdom come. But on the drive back up to Memphis, the cell phone rings. ”Joaquin just wants you to know that he enjoyed having you on the set,” a publicist relays, ”and didn’t have any problem with you being there.” There’s something positively Cashlike in Phoenix’s commitment to living — or at least performing — on the edge. (The actor recently completed a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse.) But like Cash, he’s also mortified that this intensity might put anyone out or make him seem like a diva.
”Ah, geez,” he moans, 15 months later, when the issues of getting into character come up. As for being called ”J.R.,” ”I’m embarrassed about it now. But when I heard ‘Joaquin,’ it just didn’t feel right. It’s not a brilliant method. It’s simply that I don’t know what I’m doing, and I use all the help I can get. It’s an act of desperation.”