That Phoenix may not strike many as a conventional leading man is exactly how he prefers it -- "I don't want to be a conventional anything," he says. That is partly what drew him to Ladder 49 in the first place. But his skeptics haven't seen anything yet. Wait until they get a load of next spring's Walk the Line, in which Phoenix portrays the one-and-only Johnny Cash (opposite Reese Witherspoon, no less, as June Carter).
Creative Loafing: What was it about Ladder 49 that appealed to you?
Joaquin Phoenix: A lot of times, there seems to be this need in Hollywood movies to have the protagonist be some kind of super-human hero, and then coming up with these bullshit storylines to give the character that sense of heroism. What I liked about this character and what was interesting to me about Ladder 49 was the inherent sense of heroism that goes with the territory of being a firefighter. Because of that, it felt like we could then maybe create a character who wasn't perfect or unrealistically heroic. ... I didn't want this to be a story about walking through a fire looking cool. I wanted to give it a greater sense of reality than that.
How did you prepare for this role? It looks like you beefed up quite a bit.
Yeah, I knew it would be a very physically taxing role, so I trained with weights and all that crap I only do when I get paid for it. I knew that was an important aspect to the role, going down and training at the firefighting academy and training with live fire, because I really wanted to have an understanding of what it's like to be in a fire. ... It's one of the greatest experiences I've ever had, making this movie and living with these guys and going out on runs with them.
You mentioned the inherent courage of these firefighters. What's the bravest thing you've ever done in terms of your acting career?
Well, at the time, I probably would've said Ladder 49 was the most physically and emotionally exhausting and demanding, but that was completely trumped by playing Johnny Cash. I don't know whether I'd call it brave, but there were certainly some things I had to overcome. I mean, given the choice, I probably wouldn't go out and sing in front of a big crowd of people, that's for sure.
Are you doing your own singing in the film as opposed to lip-synching to his recordings?
Just singing the songs, or trying to emulate Cash's vocal quality?
It's more about getting deep into what it was he was feeling, why it was he wrote these lyrics, rather than trying to do an imitation of him. [Singing] was something I had no experience with, and I'd barely even picked up a guitar before, even though just about everybody in my family knows how to play. I worked with a couple of vocal coaches, doing warm-up exercises, learning about how to open up your vocal range so that you can get comfortable with singing and breathing properly. Basically, though, I just listened to all of his music. I prepared for it by trying to write my own songs, trying to learn what it's like to have a concept in your head and then struggling to find the words to convey those ideas. Do you start with one lyric and continue it from there? How do the melodies or the lyrics change or evolve during the process of writing a song?
What are some of the added responsibilities of playing a real person?
There are some, but I have to say at some point, you just have to own it for yourself. There are so many fans of Johnny Cash out there, so many friends and family members, and initially I felt a great deal of obligation to telling the story accurately. I wouldn't have done the movie had he not completely signed off on the script ahead of time. He was really involved in the whole pre-production process, so that gave me a great deal of confidence.
Did you have a chance to meet him?
I did meet him briefly, but it wasn't related to the film. It was purely coincidental, several months before I'd even heard about the movie.
How did he live up to whatever expectations you may have had about him?
He was amazing. There was something very strong and bold about him, and yet something really vulnerable and compassionate, too. Those conflicting qualities seemed to live within him equally, which is probably what made him so unique.