One might assume that Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix would have consulted with legendary country troubadour Johnny Cash when researching his role in the Cash biopic Walk The Line. Unfortunately, Cash died before production on the film began in earnest, and Phoenix was never able to discuss the specifics of Cash’s life with the Man in Black himself. But they did get to meet, and it was in somewhat bizarre circumstances.
Phoenix’s first role from which he received major acclaim and public attention was as Commodus in Gladiator (sorry, Spacecamp, maybe next time). As the conniving and scheming son of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, Phoenix channelled petulant rage and bitter immaturity into a character that couldn’t have been further from his stoic, kind-hearted but flawed Cash. As it turns out, Cash himself was a big fan of the film and the character.
As a guest on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2005, Phoenix reflected on how Cash was at a dinner party he was attending after Gladiator‘s release. Without even having heard that Walk The Line was in its early phase of production, Phoenix was nevertheless stopped by Cash on his way out for Cash to compliment him on his work in Ridley Scott’s Roman epic.
According to Phoenix, Cash told him: “My favourite part is when you said, ‘Your son squealed like a girl when they nailed him to the cross, and your wife moaned like whore when they ravaged her again and again and again…’ I love that part.” Cash was, of course, referring to Commodus’ attempt to provoke Maximus’ anger in a state where Maximus could not kill Commodus. It’s a dark and compelling scene, and it left an impression of Cash.
Phoenix takes about Cash in reverent tones, likely because he had just finished Walk The Line and Cash had only been dead for a little over a year. Obviously, Cash’s noticing of Phoenix’s talent left its own kind of indelible mark on the young actor, and perhaps it was that acknowledgement that led to his acceptance of the legendary role in the first place.
See Phoenix discuss the moment, below.