Becoming June
Singer-songwriter spent last June in the role of iconic Mrs. Johnny Cash in “Ring Of Fire”

by Lee Valentine Smith

Sitting on the stage of The Tabernacle, Atlanta’s folk-art adorned church-turned-concert-venue, director Allison Anders leans forward in her canvas chair, intently watching singer-songwriter Jewel prepare to shoot a transitional scene. As players in the roles of the Tennessee Three file past, she points toward Jewel and excitedly says, “She talks, she moves, even her posture is June Carter. She’s June!” She’s really set the bar for new actors.”
 
Later, new mom Jewel joins Anders, settling into a director’s chair, appropriately emblazoned JUNE on the back. It’s between shots, and Jewel is in full costume, with dark wig, vintage dress, blue contacts, and prosthetic teeth. She’d just breast-fed her then-11-month old son backstage and was eager to discuss her role in “Ring Of Fire,” a made for Lifetime Television film, originally set to debut last fall, but finally slated to air on Monday, May 27 at 8 p.m.
 
“When I work with musicians, there’s a persona that they bring, an ease on stage,” continues Anders, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who often casts legendary rock and punk artists in her films. “Jewel knew exactly how the guys in the band would be teasing her, and how to exit the stage. She brings a realism that is beautiful. She’s really set the bar for new actors.”
 
You almost expect to hear June’s familiar voice the minute Jewel begins to speak. She saved that for the cameras during a grueling schedule that captured an incredible five decades of June Carter’s life in the ultra-condensed span of a 19-day shoot. Even by high-pressure television standards, it was fast paced -- but Jewel says she loved the challenge and the constant costume and wig changes. Including a week of pre-production, recording new vocal tracks at a nearby studio, the entire production was completed during the sweltering month of, you guessed it, June.
 
“I did a movie a long time ago, [1999’s “Ride With The Devil”] and looked at trying to maybe do both careers, music and acting,” she says. “It’s hard to balance it all and have a personal life so I made a conscious decision to stop. I didn’t think I’d ever go back to acting. And then, with my baby, I haven’t been touring because I don’t want to do anything to really take me away from him. But I got this call out of the blue. They said I could bring him with me on-set so I could keep breast-feeding.”
 
Actor Matt Ross (“Big Love,” “The Aviator”) capably co-stars as Johnny but he’s a secondary character in the story. This is June’s much-deserved moment in the spotlight. The film continues in the tradition of Jewel’s role in Lilith Fair [the popular late ‘90s concert tour that featured Jewel alongside several generations of influential female musicians] and Anders’ dedication to strong, female-led features. It’s an emotionally raw look at June’s career, marriages and family. Unlike “Walk The Line,” this account isn’t cold, hard Cash, it’s exclusively told from June’s perspective. “It deals with some hard issues and there are some tough scenes in it,” Jewel says. “It spans her life.”
 
John Carter Cash's 2007 book, Anchored in Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash is the basis for the screenplay and Jewel promises the film will offer plenty of fresh insight. “People know that she was loyal, and all about that side of her, but she was also very funny. She was a comedian and she wrote songs.” June even co-wrote one of Johnny’s biggest hits, the title-referenced “Ring Of Fire.”

With this version of the story, Jewel says that even casual fans can learn more about the real person behind the often-brash image. “I think people will see a different side of her because this movie is really able to get inside of her and focus on the real June. She was very bright and really complicated.”
 
To become June, Jewel says the first step was to find that distinctive voice. “One of my favorite things was to get her accent. She had a really specific way of speaking and I like that. And it’s completely different than my speaking voice. Getting that down really helped me find her character.” Also helpful was the fact that she can relate to June on several intensely personal levels. “I was raised in a musical family, too. In a very rural small town. We grew up on a homestead, had an outhouse and no running water. “And,” she laughs, “I had squirrel stew as a kid, same as June did!”

She smiled when reminded that during the ‘96 Olympics, the real Johnny and June performed at the Tabernacle, then part of the House Of Blues franchise, on the exact spot where she was sitting.

“I got to open for them in England,” she says, recalling fond memories of her successful, late ’90s European tour. “I had sold out the Royal Albert Hall two nights in a row and I was headed on to the next city, but the promoter said, ‘Hey, Johnny and June need an opener, would you consider staying and opening for them?’ I was tickled to do it.”

“They were very gracious,” she continues. “June had nice perfume on. I said, ‘You smell lovely!’ She said, ‘You want my perfume?’ I said, ’Oh no, no, no. I wasn’t hinting that I want your perfume.’ But she wouldn’t take no for an answer! She went through all of her luggage and dug out that bottle of perfume and gave it to me. It was very sweet.”
 
“She doesn’t deserve to be known as just Johnny Cash’s wife,” Jewel concludes. “She deserves to be known for the all talents she had. I think this movie really portrays that. I really think it will surprise a lot of people.”

And Jewel’s fans will be surprised by just how much -- for at least for one humid month in Atlanta -- she totally became June.

“Ring Of Fire” airs Monday, May 27 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.

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