Jewel on Playing June Carter Cash: 'I Needed People to Forget About Me'

Jewel in Ring of Fire Key Art - P 2013
Patrick Ecclesine/Lifetime

Jewel in Ring of Fire Key Art - P 2013

Jewel takes on the role of country music legend June Carter Cash in Lifetime's original movie Ring of Fire.

It's not the first time the icon has been brought to life on the screen. Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for her portrayal in 2005's Walk the Line, but that movie centered more on the life of her husband, Johnny Cash.

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Ring of Fire, meanwhile, tells June's story from her point of view (it's based on the book Anchored in Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash, written by her son, John Carter Cash). It spans from her early beginnings in the rural mountains of Virginia to her turbulent marriage to Johnny, played by Matt Ross (American Horror Story, Big Love).

"A lot of the time she's portrayed as a woman that married the famous Johnny Cash, but she was a famous artist in her own right, and famous before marrying Johnny," Jewel tells The Hollywood Reporter. "She gave up quite a big career to focus on being a wife and making her marriage work. She was a modern woman -- she was divorced and supporting two children -- but did something very traditional when she met Johnny. It's an interesting dichotomy."

Ahead of the movie's premiere, Jewel -- who also was recently named the national ambassador for ReThink, a public awareness initiative was developed by Housing Authority Insurance that aims to change public perception about public housing -- also reveals the preparation she did to play an icon, why she was initially hesitant to sign on for the movie and what she thinks will surprise viewers most about June.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did you become involved in Ring of Fire?

Jewel: They cold-called me. I had taken some meetings about some TV shows, for my husband [World Champion bull-riding superstar Ty Murray], really. But I guess I made an impact on the producers [Asylum Entertainment produced the movie, with Steven Michaels and Jonathan Koch serving as executive producers], and they said they wanted me to star in this movie for them. I said I wasn't an actress and I wasn't the right person for the part, but they wouldn't take no for an answer. At the time, I was breastfeeding [her son, Kase, who was born in July 2011], and they said he could come on the set and feed whenever I needed.

THR: Was that the thing that ultimately changed your mind?

Jewel: I did one movie role in 1999, Ride With the Devil, and I wanted to pursue acting. But I got a look at what it would take to have two full-time careers. At the time, I was still building my musical career. After that, I read a lot of scripts, and it was hard to find really interesting engaging, transformational roles for women, much less ones that would carry a movie. A lot of times, the roles were someone's girlfriend, and they were not that interesting. So I decided to concentrate on my music career and my family. An amazing role doesn't come around very often for women, one that explores the highs and the lows and where you're able to transform into somebody else. This was a significant role for an actress, and it came at a good time in my life. I had taken a year and a half off to have a baby, and I wasn't planning on touring. It was a great time to do this, and the challenge of trying to pull it off appealed to me.

THR: How much did you know about June before you signed on?

Jewel: I was a fan, but I knew as much as any fan would know, more of a casual awareness. I knew she was raised with outhouses [like me]. So we bonded. [Laughs.]

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THR: What kind of research did you do into her life?

Jewel: I did quite a lot of research. There were no dialect coaches on the movie … so it was up to me to really nail her accent. And her singing style was quite different from mine. I did a lot of studying of her voice and her body and her mannerisms, her posture. I studied her at every age, and I read everything I could find on her. We also have a lot of friends in common in Nashville [like Waylon Jennings], and a lot of people were kind enough to talk to me to round out my picture of her. It was really important for me to transform into June because I am a famous singer in my own right, and I wanted to make sure to avoid people turning on the TV and asking, "Why is Jewel wearing a brown wig?" I needed to be able to disappear into June, and make people forget about me as a singer and get tucked away into the story of her.

THR: How much time did you have to spend in makeup every day?

Jewel: I had to wear blue contacts and prosthetic dentures. But the makeup was very little, except for the aging.

THR: What surprised you most about June and Johnny's relationship?

Jewel: This movie isn't just the love story of Johnny and June. It really tells June's story. If you look at it from that aspect, the script really hinges around therapy and shows a grittier look at what it's like to live with an addict. She lived with Johnny Cash and was a star, but celebrity only goes so far. This shows what it's like to live with an addict and how physically draining and exhausting it is. A lot of people didn't realize the toll it took [on her]; there were wounds that wouldn't heal, tremendous body pains and side effects of dealing with the stress. She ultimately had to face her own issues and the fact that she was an enabler in their relationship prior to his getting into [the] Betty Ford [Center].

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THR: What misconceptions do you think people have about June?

Jewel: She was very bright. A lot of people might assume she wasn't because she was an Appalachian and known for her hillbilly comedy. But she was tremendously bright and very witty and had a vivacious personality.

THR: Her son wrote the book on which the movie is based. Did you get guidance from him as well?

Jewel: When I took the role, he called and said I had his blessing and he was very happy about me playing the role. I was raised in a very rural part of Alaska, with an outhouse, and a lot of people make fun of that stereotype when you come from that background. He wanted his mom portrayed as more than that, more than a hillbilly, as a three-dimensional person. He was glad I got the role and was able to bring that out in her. He was very sweet and talked me through the whole process. Afterward, we did a little movie premiere in Las Vegas and I had him come out and sing with me.

Ring of Fire premieres at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Monday, May 27, on Lifetime. Watch a clip from the movie below.