Similar to how her Election character chewed up anyone in the way of the high school class presidency, Reese Witherspoon was tenacious in her trajectory from child actress to superstar. Playing easy-to-root-for underdogs in films like Legally Blonde, she became one of the top-paid actresses and won an Oscar for Walk the Line. Suddenly, the hits stopped coming. Witherspoon has come out the other side with Gone Girl and Wild, films that are squarely in the Oscar race. Her Screen Actors Guild best actress nomination this morning is a good sign of things to come. Here, Witherspoon discusses how these movies reflect her own evolution and helped her find new footing.
In a very successful but unusual year you: Bared yourself bravely and without vanity in Wild; didn’t show up for the first half-hour of The Good Lie; allowed Gone Girl to get made without you as its star; and reunited with Walk the Line’s Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice, albeit in a tinier role than the one that won you an Oscar. What prompted this radical makeover?
I met Jeff Nichols when he was making Mud. He said, “I assumed you just would never do a small part.” I came away thinking, “I wonder why he said that?” For whatever reason, people had made decisions like this about me and it got in the way of my first love: acting and telling stories. I decided to obliterate that. Mud encouraged me to think more expansively about what I could accomplish if I diversified.
I grew up watching actresses like Debra Winger and Gena Rowlands and saw contemporaries like Naomi Watts and Julianne Moore take all kinds of risks. I’d take meetings with development executives who’d tell me what audiences wanted to see me do. “You can’t curse, have sex scenes or do drugs.” I realized how detached I’d gotten from the films I wanted to make. I started this production company, Pacific Standard, with Bruna Papandrea with a whole new directive: to tell stories that had some lasting effect and reflected who I am as a dynamic, 38-year-old woman who’s had a lot of life experience.
You stopped making decisions based on how you thought the audience wants to see you, in favor of how you want to be seen?
More like, I had stories I wanted to tell and I’d become increasingly frustrated. It wasn’t a lack of parts I could have played; it was the lack of complex roles for women in general. So the first two books we got were Wild and Gone Girl. Look at those characters: flawed, complex, embarrassed, humbled and fierce—all the things real women are. It became disheartening to find this bounty of films with complex characters and so few are women. If this helps change the conversation, I’d be so happy. People call me now. “How did you do it? How can I do this? Does it come down to reading a lot of books? Where did you find the money?”
We analyze why there aren’t enough great roles for actors of color, and the answer is a lack of decision-makers of color. At Sony, Universal and Fox, women call the shots.
You say they call the shots, but they work for gigantic corporations with mandates that don’t include onscreen parity.
So how did you get around this?
These projects go through years of development, and things get stripped down and taken out based on what a mass audience wants to see. I just knew Wild would die in development. There’s too much in it that would have to be discussed, and would never be agreed on by all the people who decide what version to tell. So we financed development, brought this fully formed Nick Hornby script to several studios with the caveat we were not changing a word. Within a day, we had three major movie studios ready to make it.
Why did you respond so strongly to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir?
I’ve been doing this long enough to have read thousands of scripts and books. I’d never seen one about a woman alone in the wild, on a journey in an epic landscape like that. On a personal level, I related to the loss and grief. I’ve been divorced. I’ve been a single mom. I’ve had to say goodbye to people that I loved in my life. The way Cheryl synthesized those emotions made it feel like my story and everyone’s story. We are all on a solitary journey.
You said you took it in stride when David Fincher said you weren’t right to play Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. It couldn’t have been that easy, when you form a company to create vehicles for yourself and get one that has the most complicated lead since Lizbeth Salander.
I did not start the company for that; the imperative was to create interesting roles for women. I’ve never thought I was right for every single role, and I’m actually thrilled to help craft opportunities for actresses. When I spoke to David, it was with no ego involved. Mostly, I was thrilled one of our first movies was going to be directed by one of the great American filmmakers of our time. My job as producer was to support him and learn all I could. I’ve known Rosamund Pike for years. I was excited about the idea of her playing someone so different.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned from Fincher?
Before he ever shot a frame, he knew every single shot he wanted, and even how he wanted the film marketed. The clarity.
What if Jean-Marc Vallee had said you were too likable to play Strayed?
Cheryl and I had that conversation. I said, “Do you want me to play you? Is there somebody else? Make sure you really want me.” She said, “Reese, I just know it has to be you.” That was it. It is her life. Film lasts forever, and from now on, people will think I’m Cheryl, and Cheryl is me. That is a big gift to hand someone, it involves implicit trust and it’s a scary burden.
Christopher Nolan cast Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar because of this small budget movie Mud. What did that film do for you?
It ran against the perception of me. I love what I do—acting and seeing great actors do what they love. Sometimes you get away from that and things become too much about commerciality and commerce and not about storytelling. I feel part of that again, and it’s nice.
You had a slump after Walk the Line. What did the adversity teach you?
Eva Marie Saint said something really great. “You know, I’ve been on the back of the bus, and I’ve been on the front of the bus,” she said. “The most important thing is, just stay on the bus.” That’s all I’m doing. As artists, we’re just always trying to find that connection to audiences. I’ve learned you’re going to struggle in this business and you’re never going to always be on top. Life would be boring if you were. I’ve learned more from missteps than success.
That 1,100-mile walk allowed Cheryl to start over. What’s the lasting effect of that torturous shoot on you?
I had a lot of trepidation about the open depiction of sex scenes, my mother dying, using heroin. I’d never done that in a film and I had a choice to make as an artist. I was the producer, I could only have told the parts of the book I was comfortable with. But I responded to Cheryl’s story because it was so emotionally brave. She bared parts of her life that no one would want other people to know about, to make people feel less alone and not so stigmatized, embarrassed or ashamed of their life experiences. I had to be just as open. It was hard and I would complain to her in emails. “I’m dying. Why did you make do this?” She said, “Sorry, but this is how I was.” When I was little, I used to read Jack London stories, which were never about women. I look at Lena Dunham’s emotional bravery and how she helped women to not feel ashamed of their sexuality. People have told us over and over: You can’t. Be afraid. Be ashamed. When I read Cheryl’s book it sent chills up my spine because I recognized that Jack London quality and thought how nice it might be for a young girl to see something like that on film, about a woman.
Reese Witherspoon photographed by Mark Mann