Playing It Straight
The room feels chilled, the blinds drawn, perfect for preserving cut flowers, and here Reese Witherspoon is arranged, back straight, legs crossed at the ankles, hands folded primly upon her lap. She is wearing a vintage dress from the 1940s, a black-and-white print, with a cashmere sweater wrapped around her slight shoulders. There are diamonds on her ears, around her throat — a cross — and on her ring finger, the big rock, a four-carat Asscher-cut stone. She is blond again, but you’re drawn toward her forehead, a prominent feature, as white as bone china, and there, just beneath the translucent skin, a delicate blue vein.
Reese Witherspoon looks? Crisp. Not brittle, not breakable. But as neat as ironed sheets, and there is something formidable about the way she holds her small self, turns her chin and narrows her eyes to examine a question as if it were a thing laid before her, and she might choose it, or not.
She explains that she does not “suffer fools.” She warns against “false praise” and the nonsense of “sycophants,” and we take her meaning. Born Laura Jean Reese Witherspoon, of the Nashville Witherspoons (an ancestor signed the Declaration of Independence), she was a model at age 7, winner of the Ten-State Talent Fair at 11, former cheerleader and graduate of Harpeth Hall school for girls. She radiates not hothouse flower, but a certain species of Southern woman, the steel magnolia already at age 29, porcelain doll on the outside, quarry stone inside.
This is not the Witherspoon that most movie audiences are familiar with. They know her best from the covers of fashion magazines and her comedies: Looming largest is the confection of a character Elle Woods, of the “Legally Blonde” franchise, and closer to her Southern roots, Melanie Smooter of “Sweet Home Alabama,” the popular romantic comedienne, as light and easy as a kiss on the cheek.
Now Witherspoon has ventured into deeper, darker waters in her turn as country music legend June Carter Cash, starring opposite Joaquin Phoenix, who plays a tormented Man in Black in “Walk the Line,” which opens nationwide Friday.
It is a most unusual love story of a most unusual couple — unusual in the sense that the two lovers come off as friends and soul mates more than hot bed partners. Though some of his rougher edges are sanded down, the film tells of the reckless genius of Johnny Cash as he rose from the Arkansas cotton fields to the Grand Ole Opry and of the twice-married mother he vowed to have as his own, June Carter, a daughter of the first family of country music.
June was the woman, Cash wrote in his 1997 autobiography, “who could see the kernel of me, deep inside, beneath the drugs and deceit and despair and anger and selfishness, and knew my loneliness.” It was June who saved him, when Cash was just “leather and bone, nothing in my blood but amphetamines.”
Mrs. Cash, of course, had her passions, too. Remember it was June, not Johnny, who wrote their love song “Ring of Fire” (“I fell for you like a child, oh, but the fire went wild . . . and it burns, burns, burns. “) The movie is generating early Oscar buzz, especially the performances of Phoenix and Witherspoon, who not only play the country music royals but sing the hit songs themselves.
The film’s writer and director, James Mangold, says his casting choice was intuitive. “What I knew about Reese, what most people know about Reese, is she’s got this almost copyrighted character she can do at the drop of a hat. And she has her trademark kind of movie, a Reese Witherspoon movie, about this sassy, confident, young, beautiful girl who can march into any situation and make it her own with this naive jujitsu.”
But, Mangold says, Witherspoon shares “more than you know with June. There’s another side to Reese. She’s incredibly sharp, incredibly well-read. She’s a mother of two, a wife, so many things that an actress in her twenties in L.A. is rarely. And that each of those choices about her life makes her a vulnerable and feeling and maternal figure. You’re struck by what a woman she is.”
Mangold explains, “What I mean is that most women of her age are playing girls. And we haven’t seen Reese as this woman before in the movies. We’ve seen her playing, one way or another, a kind of girl.” Witherspoon’s June, Mangold promises, “is going to blow people away.”
We broach the subject of her transformation — girl to woman, comic to dramatic — and as we are nattering away about what a break with the familiar this Carter-Cash, fire-and-ice film is, Witherspoon interrupts and says, “I think everyone is trying not to insult me.”
“This vague sense that I wasn’t capable of drama. I find that a little odd.”
Her nostrils flare ever so slightly. The blue vein almost imperceptibly throbs.
“This is all I did before comedy. All I did was serious dramatic roles. I, for the life of me, couldn’t get my foot in the door of Hollywood because I had too many dark indie credits.”
And Witherspoon is correct about how she is perceived. She emits goody-two-shoes. When she’s photographed by paparazzi, she’s at Disneyland with her two kids, or grocery shopping with her husband, the actor Ryan Phillippe, not falling out of her clothes in the VIP room of some louche lounge. And because of the oversize exposure of her “Legally Blonde” series, audiences don’t remember that she starred in some serious fare, namely “Fear,” in which Mark Wahlberg was her psychotically jealous boyfriend, or “Freeway,” in which Kiefer Sutherland played a murderous interstate killer to her runaway teen. These were released back in 1996, shortly after she dropped out of Stanford (where she was majoring in literature) to pursue acting.
“And all my serious dramatic performances suddenly weren’t getting me the jobs or opportunities that I really wanted,” she says. “People would acknowledge that. ‘I can’t cast you because the studios don’t want you because you don’t make them any money.’ . . . I have stacks and stacks of letters from great directors saying I can’t cast you because you don’t mean anything to the studios. That’s why I turned the boat toward comedy.”
Turned first to Tracy Flick, the crazed go-getter in Alexander Payne’s “Election” (which was critically praised) and then to the “Legally Blondes” (which were box-office bonanzas).
“And I was capable of doing comedy. I didn’t realize what a rarefied thing that was. It’s hard to do,” she explains. And as she’s saying all this, she’s poised, not a leg-bouncer, not a hand-fidgeter, just an answerer. “I’m lucky to have that as a part of my life. Lucky I haven’t had to play the insipid girlfriend parts, but to play great comedic roles. I mean, how many women get to do that in the history of film? We can talk about dramatic actresses a lot. Many, many. For years and years. But very few comediennes who jump out at you. And that is what I feel most proud of.”
Good for you.
“Well, I judge myself on different standards.”
Actually, we are sincere. Everyone says comedy is harder.
“Do they? I don’t know why people think dramas are harder to make. Something like this that is time-intensive. A lot of rehearsal and a lot of reality-based elements involved. That is a big challenge. But the usual dramatic film, you come in and do your performance. Listen, they’re both hard, really, but I can’t explain how infinitely harder comedy is.”
So people think: She’s finally doing something serious?
“It’s like, wow, the big surprise is” — Witherspoon counts a beat — “she is not a complete buffoon!”
She adds: “I don’t know how to feel about that.”
Later, she says, “I’m not ‘Legally Blonde.’ I’m not Tracy Flick. I couldn’t get jobs for a year after that because people thought I was that crazy and angry and controlling and strange. But yeah, um, I’m not.”
* * *
Maybe now Witherspoon will be denied work because Hollywood is convinced she’s a country-western star.
For six months, Witherspoon took singing lessons two hours a day, recorded three or four hours more. Spent six hours a week learning to play the autoharp. When she began preparing for “Walk the Line,” she couldn’t read sheet music.
When she was 12, Witherspoon attended a summer camp for aspiring Broadway actors in the Catskills. “There was singing, dancing, acting and I was firmly encouraged to pursue acting. I was told I wasn’t a singer. So this was really out of my comfort zone.” All of the songs in the film are sung by Phoenix and Witherspoon, and though they do not exactly mimic Cash and Carter, they come close. Variety’s Todd McCarthy, calling Witherspoon’s June “a sensational job,” says the actors’ vocals are “surprisingly good” (and predicts the film, though a bit “prefab,” will play huge in Middle America).
What Mangold, the filmmaker, says he wanted was their chemistry onstage. “Because when you think about it, it’s a story of falling in love with a woman you can only be alone with onstage.” Because for most of the 10 years on screen, Johnny and June were married to other people, and their love was forbidden fruit.
“The thing I respect about the film is it’s a realistic relationship,” Witherspoon says. “It’s a film where people are tortured they can’t be together. They’re hopelessly flawed and human. That is love and relationships. Life is complicated. Marriage and divorce and children and feelings and social rights and wrongs. It’s beautiful in that way.”
Their son, John Carter Cash, 35 and an executive producer of the film, says of June and Johnny, “I know they’re up there, and they couldn’t be happier.” Before the couple died, he says, they approved of early drafts of the script and the casting of Witherspoon and Phoenix. “It’s a very true thing,” Carter says. “My father was lost. He had exhausted and hurt all those around him, but he found God through my mother. My mother was the door to his salvation. The message is the light. Not the darkness.” Witherspoon, he says, “took on the role with a full heart and plays it with reverence and style and I know my mother would have loved it.”
Preparing for his role as Cash, Phoenix is said to have lived in his character. That is not Witherspoon’s way. “My technique? I hate it when actors talk about their technique.” But she gives it up. “These things are inexplicable. Part of it is practiced. Part of it’s from your soul. Part of it instinct. Most of it is throwing it all away and being in the moment. Learning as much as you possibly can until you feel like you’re going to burst with information and then just forgetting it all. Look, it should be in you after six months of reading and learning and study. You absorb the character.
“You’re in the place they were in. You’re in the clothes they wore. I had on the exact same outfit June wore in one of her performances.”
And it was weird, Witherspoon whispers. “It fit perfectly.” She remembers walking through the couple’s home on a lake outside Hendersonville, Tenn. The two had just died — June in May of 2003, Johnny four months later. “She had closets full of furs. I’ll never forget it. She just loved fur. Closets full of antique instruments. Mandolins, autoharps, guitars. Hundreds of them in beautiful condition, properly restored.”
Could Witherspoon still feel their presence?
“So much of the time playing that part I felt her energy. I know that sounds hokey-pokey. She shepherded me through it. I’m not terribly involved in things like ghosts. It really felt like she was there. A feeling of guidance and support. Of overseeing. Things come into your life for a reason. There has to be some kind of destiny to it.”
Think about it, she says: She is asked to play June Carter at the age that Witherspoon is now. They’re from the same city. “And I have studied that person and know that family and studied that music.” She played Mother Maybelle Carter in a school play. “What is the likelihood of all those things aligning? Some of it has to be destiny. That it’s fated. Or maybe it’s my own idea that I wanted her to condone it. I definitely felt it. Then when I finished, it was gone.”