Matt Ross Talks RING OF FIRE, Playing Johnny Cash, Research for the Role, Working with Jewel, Why He Didn’t Do His Own Singing, and More
From director Allison Anders, the Lifetime original movie Ring of Fire (premiering on May 27th), recounts the meteoric rise to fame for June Carter (in what is a truly remarkable and impressive performance by Jewel), first as part of The Carter Family – the First Family of country music – and then as a star in her own right. Along with taking a personal look at her first two marriages and her life with her children, the film also showcases her infamous courtship with Johnny Cash (in an equally impressive performance by Matt Ross), and illustrates how his drug addiction affected their lives.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actor Matt Ross (American Horror Story, Big Love) talked about how he came to be a part of this film, his desire to work with Allison Anders, how playing someone as iconic as Johnny Cash scared him, all of the research that he did, how impressed he was by Jewel, as an actress, what it was like to do the live performance scenes, his decision not to do his own singing, and how much of an understanding he has now of Johnny Cash, the man. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did you come to be involved with this film? What ultimately sold you on it and made you decide to sign on?
MATT ROSS: Probably (director) Allison [Anders]. Years ago, Allison was going to direct an independent film about Johnny Cash. This was before the James Mangold movie. It was a great script, and it was about Johnny. I had met her for that, years ago. They ended up pulling the plug before they did the movie, and I’m assuming what happened was that they pulled the plug because of the Joaquin Phoenix/Reese Witherspoon movie, and they figured that no one would see this one when there was a big Hollywood one. But then, Allison got involved with this one. She was talking to me about it, and I love her and thought it would be a kick. I think all of us had trepidation about it because it has been done recently, in a pretty fantastic manifestation with Walk the Line, which I never saw before we made this movie, but I knew about it. I think the selling point of Ring of Fire, and the reason to do it, is to tell the story from June’s perspective. It’s very much the June Carter Cash story and not the Johnny Cash story. Johnny is just one of the relationships in her life. And I thought that made sense. You certainly don’t want to tell the Johnny Cash story. That seems silly. It’s been done too recently. But, if it’s her story, then it made a lot of sense to me.
Even though he wasn’t the main focal point of the story, was it still daunting to take on Johnny Cash?
ROSS: It scared me. I played Glenn Odekirk, who’s not famous, but was a real person. He designed the Spruce Goose and a lot of the airplanes for Howard Hughes. I played him in The Aviator, but no one knows who he is, so it didn’t have any of the challenges, other than trying to figure out who he was. No one’s response would be, “That’s inaccurate,” or “That’s accurate.” Personally, I hesitated because I feel like, just as an audience member, every five minutes, the first thing we all do is go, “Does he look like that person? Does he sound like that person?” You have to deal with that challenge, in some way. I was talking to a friend of mine – an actor named Sam Rockwell, who played Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I called him because I didn’t really know what to do and I didn’t know if I should do it or not, and he contextualized it for me, in a way that I felt like I could do it. He said that he and George [Clooney] had talked about not doing an impersonation, but an interpretation, and really just trying to capture the soul of the person. That gave me license to think, “I may fail. People may look at me and say I don’t look enough like him or I don’t sound enough like him. But, if I can honor the spirit of the man, then maybe there’s something there.” I think that’s a wiser thing. Otherwise, you’re doing an impersonation.
Did it help that there was so much written about him and there are so many videos of him?
ROSS: A positive about playing someone that is both iconic and contemporary is that there’s a great deal of footage. I read a lot of stuff about him. One thing that’s different about doing a smaller film for Lifetime, then doing a big-budget film, is that you have less time and less money, so I only had three weeks to prepare. If it were a huge movie, you’d have months and months to prepare. So, I read everything I could and there are a couple great documentaries. Just on YouTube, alone, you can find some footage of pretty much any song you’re looking for. There’s just a great deal of material out there to glean from.
Did you read the novel this story is taken from (Anchored in Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash by John Carter Cash), or did you find it easier to stick with the script?
ROSS: Interestingly enough, I’m not sure I read that book. I think I read four or five books. One of his band members, who’s also a major musician, in his own right, has a book. There were two autobiographies that Johnny wrote, and I found them both instructive and, ultimately, not as helpful as some of the other people’s books. It’s not that he wasn’t honest. He was very honest about his addiction. But, it was very helpful, to me, to get perspective from some other people who were in his life that were affected by his behavior. He had a serious addiction. I found that, by looking at it from a variety of personal angles, I felt like I was able to get a more complete picture of how she perceived him and how his band member’s perceived him. I think his first wife has a book. So, I was able to piece together what I felt was probably closer to the truth than his own interpretation. He was very hard on himself, and he talked in more generalizations. There were some instances where he was really abusive to people, and Johnny didn’t talk about that. He talked about being ashamed of his behavior, but in some other places, you could actually find the things he did. He was incredibly apologetic and really ashamed of his behavior. It was really clear that he was not very good at being a bad guy, and he didn’t mean to be, but he was abusing himself so radically.
How challenging was it to tell so much story over such a big time period, with such a short shooting schedule?
ROSS: The reality of making a movie like this is that before lunch, you’re in the 1940s, and after lunch, you’re in 1988, and after dinner, you’re back to the ‘20s. That’s how you move. And when you do that, there’s only so much time to do the transformation with costumes, make-up and hair.
When you do a role like this where it’s in a different time period and you have specific costumes, do you feel transported?
ROSS: I think the costumes really help. A lot of them were pretty atrocious. A lot of the movie takes place in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and there were some pretty theatrical costumes. Johnny was in his rhinestone and leather period. And that certainly helps. As much as possible, one of the fun things for me, about acting, is trying to transform. Transformational acting was the reason why I became an actor, in the first place. Your hair and make-up and the costume are the tools that you have, and it makes you feel like that person. When you look in the mirror, you don’t feel like yourself and it changes the way you move. I love that stuff.
June Carter would be a challenging role for any seasoned actress. When you found out that Jewel, who had only really done one acting role, quite some time ago, would be playing her, were you nervous about that, at all?
ROSS: No, when they first told me it was Jewel, I thought that was a really inspired choice. I had read the script and knew there was a lot of music in there. Getting someone who can actually sing the songs was a really inspired idea. And then, in terms of the acting, she’s a very expressive performer. I remember when she first came out, and I went back and looked at stuff, and some of her performances are so moving. There were a couple that blew me away. She’s so expressive, and so lets the song rush through her and across her face. She’s a performer, in a real way. She’s an interpreter. She gets out there and tells stories through song and with her voice. So, I thought she could do it. And then, when we got there, I have to say that I was very impressed.
A lot of acting requires you to be a charming version of yourself. A lot of what happens in the industry is that you are cast based on other things that people have seen you do, or how you are perceived to look or sound. If everyone thinks you’re bizarre and creepy, then you play bad guys. If everyone thinks you’re beautiful and wants to kiss you, then you play the lead role. That happens, and you end up doing the same thing, over and over again, and you’re not allowed to transform. Whereas with theater actors, it’s assumed that you’re good and that you can play a 75-year-old man who’s a paraplegic. But, Jewel transformed.
She wore contacts and had a thing for her teeth because June’s teeth were quite different, and it changed her jaw. Jewel really did transformational acting, and she gave herself quite a challenge. But, we had plenty of time to work together. We all worked on the script together while we were there. She’s very savvy about story, and though she’s green, she’s very open. There is a degree of bravery that’s required to go into a situation where a lot of people are watching you and/or filming you, and to go with what’s going to happen. I think a lot of people are closed off and scared, and Jewel had none of that. She was very willing to jump off. And she could roll with the punches. I was very impressed. I told her, and I think it’s true, that if she wanted to be a full-time actress, she’s absolutely capable of doing it.
Was it fun to get to do the performance scenes, or was that the most nerve-wracking aspect of this?
ROSS: That was the part of the movie that Jewel felt most comfortable with, because she does that, and it was the part of the movie that was the hardest for me and that I was the most scared about. I played guitar when I was a kid, a little bit. I can tool around with a guitar, but I’m certainly not a musician. I learned to play all those songs. I told them, from the beginning, that I am not a singer. I can sing, but it takes an incredible amount of work for me to sound acceptable. It’s not my voice in the movie. I said, “If I’m going to do the role, you really need to get someone that sounds like Johnny Cash. I can’t do it in three weeks.” If I had worked with a vocal coach for a couple of months, I feel like I could have done something, but there wasn’t enough time. So, I was relieved of that burden, and it became about just playing the songs and moving like him. That part was slightly frustrating because I had tracks that I had to match. Rather than me interpreting the songs or me singing the songs, my performance in those specific instances, was predictated by a template set down by the vocalist. I had to match that, rather than me being able to interpret it, so that was challenging. As we did it more and more, I became more and more comfortable, and it actually became fun.
Do you feel like the experience of doing this film really gave you an understanding of Johnny Cash and his music that you didn’t have before?
ROSS: Absolutely! Mainly because I was forced to research the man, in an in-depth way. When you listen to someone’s songs, their soul comes through. But, a lot of singer/songwriters don’t always write their songs. Johnny was also a star for so many years, and he had so many musical manifestations, from the beginning to the end. He was essentially country, but there was folk stuff in there, there are hymns, and there is some rock stuff. A lot of his Christianity came out through his music. I think I knew about him the way you know about famous people. You’ve heard their music and maybe you know some things about them. I certainly knew that he had a very famous storybook love story with June, but I didn’t really know about his life. I didn’t know the logistics of how he became successful. One of the things that’s fun about that is that sometimes you grow up knowing about someone because they were famous, but you don’t really know what they were like before they were famous. I think the thing that I didn’t know, more than anything, was what a beautiful man he was. A lot of the stuff we know about Johnny was this real rebel, rock ‘n’ roll, country, “Fuck you, I’m doin’ my thing,” attitude, and he did have that. He was this outlaw musician, but he was also deeply religious and a really caring man. That’s what I learned in the books. He was a very lovely man, when he wasn’t on drugs. He was kind of a monster when he was.
Your work on Big Love and American Horror Story was great, and both of those characters were so different. Do you intentionally try to pursue roles that are so different from each other?
ROSS: When people talk about careers, I always feel like the connotation of a career is that you’re actually choosing things. That’s true, if you’re ridiculously famous. But, for journeyman people like myself, you audition for roles or are sometimes offered things, and you decide if you want to do it or not. It’s not like I have 50,000 choices and I’m choosing what I want to do next. It’s more about what comes across your plate. The challenge and love, for me, of acting is if you get to transform or do something you haven’t done before. That’s fun. But, I have to say that, if I only play bad guys, I would be happy because they’re fun.
Ring of Fire debuts on Lifetime on May 27th.