TORONTO — When Joaquin Phoenix set out to become the Man in Black, the one easy step was the first one: He bought a guitar.
Phoenix, who plays country-music giant Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line," which opens Friday, plucked away on basic chords until he felt comfortable fingering his way along the frets. Then he unlearned his generic picking style in favor of a country strum, a freight-train roll that Phoenix verbalizes as "doom, chicka doom, chicka doom."
Then he unlearned that so he could move on to duplicating Cash's more syncopated rhythms, "doom, chicka chicka doom, chicka chicka doom," Phoenix intones. The final hurdle: Putting the sound all together with Cash's unique way of looping his arm around the back of the guitar.
"It was real, real slow," Phoenix told The Associated Press at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where "Walk the Line" premiered. "It was like three kinds of phases of having to go back to stage one. ...
"From previous experience with things, I know you put in enough work and enough time, you get to a level of comfort with something. But nevertheless, each time you go into it, it's new. You don't feel it's possible, or at least I don't. When I picked up that guitar, it felt so foreign to me, I just thought, 'How's this going to work?' "
On top of the guitar, Phoenix had to learn to sing, not just with any old voice but one of the most distinctive ever, the sonorous rumble behind such classic songs as "Folsom Prison Blues," "Ring of Fire," "A Boy Named Sue" and "Ballad of a Teenage Queen."
The result is a vibrant musical performance coupled with the most accessible dramatic delivery of Phoenix's career. With his reputation for brooding, laconic roles in such films as "To Die For," "Signs" and "The Village," Phoenix effortlessly embodies the dark corners of Cash, a man torn by childhood tragedy whose life nearly unraveled through addiction to uppers and downers.
The flip side
Yet Cash also was a joyful man, a lion among young lions in his early years touring with Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and the love of his life, future wife June Carter, played by Reese Witherspoon.
"Walk the Line" covers Cash's childhood through his long courtship with Carter that culminated in marriage in 1968.
Phoenix's openness playing that dynamic side of Cash may surprise the actor's admirers, said "Walk the Line" director and co-writer James Mangold.
"Everybody had an idea about Joaquin and kind of his relationship, his darkness and the things he had done playing more cynical or dark roles," Mangold said. "But this charisma when he gets behind the mike, the joy in him, the unmitigated joy you see in his face when he's watching Reese, and the love. These are things I feel we haven't seen before in his many roles."
After Jamie Foxx's Academy Award-winning turn as Ray Charles in last year's "Ray," "Walk the Line" could mark the second straight year the best-actor Oscar goes to a performer playing a recently deceased music legend.
Though he's been through Oscar season before with his supporting-actor nomination as the black-hearted emperor in "Gladiator," Phoenix squirms over awards questions, saying tersely he gives it no thought "because I think there's, like, danger in thinking about that."
Likewise, other aspects of the movie business discomfort Phoenix, who skips seeing his own movies, partly to avoid obsessing over things he felt he did wrong, partly to keep from tainting future performances.
"I was doing a scene in 'Walk the Line' and just suddenly stopped and thought, I wonder what's wrong?" said Phoenix, who just turned 31. "I realized I was stealing from myself, that I basically was just pulling a look from something I did before. I realized I was just kind of taking a shortcut and not really going through the process and going through the emotions.
"You want it to be a unique feeling attributed to the scene as opposed to just making a face. That's the danger of it. If I could be objective and watch the film as a viewer does, then it would be great, but I honestly would be too self-obsessed."
Since the drug-overdose death of his older brother, River Phoenix, in 1993, Phoenix has emerged as the most successful of a family of five siblings that includes sisters Rain, Liberty and Summer, who all have acted.
After an early career highlighted by a meaty teen role in 1989's "Parenthood," Phoenix took a few years off from acting after his brother's death. He returned with an acclaimed performance as a teen chump doing Nicole Kidman's dirty bidding in "To Die For" and has since moved between stark tales such as Oliver Stone's thriller "U Turn" and the Marquis de Sade drama "Quills" to commercial projects such as the animated Disney fantasy "Brother Bear" and last year's firefighting hit "Ladder 49."
Born in Puerto Rico, Phoenix moved around with the family, living in Florida, Mexico, Southern California and elsewhere. He was acting on television by age 8, about the time brother River was starting his career.
Phoenix has found himself reluctantly discussing his brother's death again as people ask how that tragedy affected his approach to playing Cash, whose older brother, Jack, died in an accident when they were children.
"I've seen directors talk to other actors about using personal experiences," Phoenix said. "Any time that's tried with me, it falls apart. It never works, because I feel like I use different parts of my brain to come up with something and to develop a character. I feel, if anything, a personal experience gets in the way.
"With John, there was so much, he talked a great deal about Jack and his loss, so I had a lot to draw on from his specific experience, which was not my experience. So I never really found it necessary to do so ... ."
Finding the right voice
Phoenix's main preoccupation was to get the music down. He went into voice and guitar training with music producer T-Bone Burnett ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?") uncertain if his voice would have to be dubbed.
In the end, the filmmakers decided Phoenix had captured the essence of Cash's vocals and let the actor do his own singing.
What does Phoenix think of his Cash imitation?
"I'm not John. I don't have that voice," Phoenix said. "It wasn't easy, but you just think, 'How is it that you can get there, and it sounds close and it's not distracting?'
"Jim Mangold told me we're not doing an impersonation of Johnny Cash. We're trying to catch the essence. If people want to hear Johnny Cash, there's a whole bunch of records they can buy," Phoenix said.
"I will say, I'm pleased with the outcome."