Jewel Portrays June Carter Cash For Lifetime

It helps to have a singer portray a singer, of course. The onstage scenes came naturally to Jewel when she played the role of June Carter Cash in the new Lifetime movie, “Ring of Fire.”

Jewel’s experience came in handy in an unexpected way during a key scene in the film, which premieres Monday (9 p.m. EDT). Her character is shown writing the movie’s title song, which became a signature hit for future husband Johnny Cash. She writes about falling in love with someone not her spouse, figuring she was going to hell – the “ring of fire” – for it.

“It would have been very difficult to do if I hadn’t written songs and known what my process was,” Jewel said. “I had no idea what it was like for her to write. So I just had to write like I did.”

The movie is based on the book about June’s life, “Anchored in Love,” written by her son John Carter Cash. While the 2005 theatrical film “Walk the Line” depicted June and Johnny’s love story mostly from his perspective, “Ring of Fire” is a portrait of June before she met Johnny, during their courtship and through their long marriage.

The movie’s executive producer, Jonathan Koch, said he’d had dinner once with Jewel and husband Ty Murray and came away impressed, particularly by her sense of humor. He called to ask her to portray June Carter Cash when he agreed to make the movie.

“The first thing she said to me was, ‘You know, I’m not an actress,’“ Koch recalled.

That’s not completely true; she made “Ride With the Devil” with director Ang Lee. But the 39-year-old Jewel, who has lately concentrated on making music for the country and children’s markets while raising her son, had decided not to pursue the field. There are only so many hours in a day, days in a week.

“I sort of made a personal decision,” she said. “Do I need to be rich and famous or do I need to have a more balanced life? So I let acting go.”

Koch constructed a relatively compact schedule that enabled her to say yes.

Jewel did her research, impressed with a musical career that began with country music’s legendary Carter family (actress Frances Conroy plays Cash’s mother, Maybelle, and musician John Doe plays her uncle, A.P. Carter). She had met June and Johnny in London when she was the opening act for one of their concerts, calling them “lovely people.”

As a divorced, single woman working to support two children in an era where that was unusual, Cash was “a modern woman before they really existed,” she said.

“She was a really, really charismatic, bright woman who was formerly known as Johnny Cash’s wife and I’m glad Lifetime decided to tell her story, because she had an amazing career before she even met Johnny,” she said.

Jewel also enjoyed bringing out the wit that flowed naturally from Cash as a young solo musician and later as her husband’s foil.

“Jewel’s hilarious,” Koch said. “She’s really funny. She really took to this part. If you ask her, I think one of the things that drew her to this opportunity was that she had a chance to be funny.”

Cash’s sense of humor had its limits, though, best illustrated in a scene where June rejects some corny, demeaning lines written for her as she was about to sing on Johnny’s television variety show. Johnny backs her up.

There was certainly nothing funny about the years of drug abuse she had to put up with, both at the beginning of their romance and later in life. Johnny Cash, portrayed by Matt Ross in “Ring of Fire,” is admitted to the Betty Ford Center after June told him in an intervention that if he didn’t take care of his problem, he’d lose his wife.

When she visits Johnny at Betty Ford, June is surprised when a therapist turns to her and says she needs to talk with a professional, too. She had to take her own health into account, and Jewel noted that June suffered back pain and other physical problems perhaps brought on by the mental strain.

“It’s very common for the spouses of addicts to die before the addicts because the stress of addiction is worse than the drug,” Jewel said. June Carter Cash died of complications from heart surgery in 2003, four months before Johnny Cash died.

Beyond the usual pressures involved in trying to make a good movie, Jewel and the filmmakers had to deal with the legacy of “Walk the Line.” It was a popular, well-regarded film that earned Reese Witherspoon an Academy Award for playing the same character that Jewel was about to tackle. Koch said he didn’t worry about the comparison because “Ring of Fire” is a different movie told from a different perspective.

Jewel said she saw “Walk the Line” when it came out and was impressed with the movie and Witherspoon’s performance. She didn’t go back and watch it again after agreeing to the part; there was plenty of footage of June herself available to study in preparing for the role.

Photo: A&E Television Networks, Annette Brown/AP
Matt Ross as Johnny Cash, left, and Jewel as June Carter Cash in a scene from the Lifetime Original Movie, “Ring of Fire,”

“I was aware that her winning the Oscar would put a lot of pressure on me,” she said. “She hit a high standard, so I knew I had to hit at least as high a standard because I would be compared to that. But I like that kind of pressure. I think that’s one of the reasons that I took the job, because I knew it would be a difficult role – not just because of Reese winning the Oscar, but because it was a difficult script. I had to have a full-on breakdown. It wasn’t just a sweet love story.”