For a few years after her 1991 debut as a love-struck tomboy in Robert Mulligan’s The Man in the Moon, movie cultists thought they’d have Reese Witherspoon all to themselves. In the mid-1990s, when other young actresses were taking leads in forgettable slasher moviesroles that Witherspoon vetoedthe Nashville native opted for ensemble parts in a succession of striking films. She was a trailer-trash Little Red Riding Hood in the corrosive Freeway, a perky overachiever in the biting Election. She brought color to the black-and-white family-values fantasy Pleasantville. By decade’s end, she seemed destined forif not superstardom, perhaps something better: the kind of name recognition that says a movie contains some ambition and intelligence.
Witherspoon’s stock split overnight, however, with the release of last year’s surprise hit Legally Blonde. Made for a comparative song, Witherspoon’s first tailor-made starring role grossed over $100 million worldwide. Though the bright, blond Harpeth Hall graduate had a decade of stellar performances to her credit, the numbers vaulted her onto the A list. In Hollywood, power shifts according to sum gain rules: The wild success of Blonde put Witherspoon in that elite class of actors who can open movies by name alone.
The reward for such success is part financial, part creative control. Last week, Witherspoon secured a $15 million payday to reprise her Legally Blonde role. (In the sequel, Red, White and Blonde, her sorority-babe legal eagle goes to Washington.) The true sign of her changed status, though, is that she will also produce the film. In what seems like a mere heartbeat, Witherspoon has risen from a character actor of tremendous range to that hybrid Hollywood multi-threat: producer, actor, superstar. She’s a ruling force! A demigoddess! Just don’t say that nonsense to her face. Witherspoon has no patience for the celebrity millsomething she credits to her Middle Tennessee upbringing.
And yet here she is, on a Sunday afternoon in L.A., in the midst of a grueling, spirit-crushing gauntlet of promotional interviews. The occasion is her new film Sweet Home Alabama, a pure-pop star vehicle designed to capitalize on her Blonde firepower. Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, an up-and-coming New York fashion designer who is forced to revisit the Alabama homestead she fought to escape. The movie’s South may be iffy in its observational detailsc’mon, nobody smokes?but Witherspoon is not. As in her other roles, she shows a ferocious dedication to her charactera willingness to be subsumedthat carries not a trace of star vanity or Method tics. In terms of range, quicksilver timing, personal confidence and an effortless light touch, she’s in many ways the female equivalent of her Election co-star Matthew Broderick.
For our interview, Witherspoon couldn’t be less self-conscious. Relaxed and congenial, she wears almost no makeup, and is dressed more for hanging around the room and watching a DVD than meeting the press. She’s got on a white button-down shirt with a yellow tee underneath, a pair of comfortable khakis, and she sits barefoot with her feet up on the chair, sometimes rocking back and forth while she talks. She’s clearly fatiguedshe pushed the interviews up so she could rush home to Ava, her daughter with actor Ryan Phillippebut when she hears she’s speaking to a Nashville publication she perks up. She is quick to inquire about locals we might know in common. (Scene contributor Margaret Renkl was her English teacher at Harpeth Hall“the best teacher I ever had,” Witherspoon says. “I just wrote her a letter the other day.”) When we discuss some of the city’s quirkier personalities, she releases a laugh that’s both derisive and delighted. Getting Witherspoon to laugh is something you feel proud of.
Although she says her Sweet Home Alabama character is close to her in spirit, there’s a clear, almost clinical straightforwardness about Reese Witherspoon in person. When asked to compare herself to actresses who have come before her, she’s quick to admit that none come to mindand she’s ready to move on to the next question. The daughter of a Nashville surgeon and a pediatric nurse, she mentions that if acting hadn’t worked out, she considered becoming a doctor. On first impression, she would have made an excellent diagnostician: analytical, decisive and certainly able to act without looking back. We spoke to Witherspoon last Sunday at the Century City St. Regis, on the Avenue of the Stars.
Are you surviving the junket?
Yeah. It’s a long day. It’s been a long two days, actually, but it’s OK. It’s what I do for a living. Some people are aggressively negative, though. It becomes a little tiring.
Aggressively negative how?
What do you hate most about your life? What do you hate most about acting? What do you hate most about Los Angeles? I mean, is it OK not to hate anything? Is that alright with y’all?
I read that you got your start in acting doing a commercial for a local Nashville flower shop? Was it Emma’s?
The supoylative florist. Actually it was Joy’s, right next to Emma’s. Elizabeth Adams was my down-the-street neighbor and her dad is Dr. Adams, the famous pediatric dentist in Nashville, and her grandma is Joythe owner. So we went to her house and made a local commercial.
And you were bit.
Yeah. So I went and took some acting classes at Belmont after that. My mom signed me up.
At what point did acting become a craft for youwhere you became conscious of what you were doing and approached your roles more intentionally, as opposed to something that a precocious child was drawn to?
That’s a good question, because it did change for me when I was 19 years old. I did Man in the Moon at 14 and then about six or seven movies while I was in high school. But when I moved to L.A. I did this little film called Freeway. And that inspired me to do more character work. Before that I was playing the daughter, the girlfriendroles that weren’t very fulfilling. I wasn’t doing a lot background and detail work on my characters either. But then I did Freeway and I got really into the physicality and accent of [the] character. But I didn’t know how people were going to receive that film. So I went to Stanford for college and was waiting for the movie to come out, and I thought, Well, if this doesn’t go well, I’ll just quit and go to med schooljust do something elsebecause I really wasn’t getting a lot out of the whole thing.
When Freeway did come out, though, some people liked it and some people hated it, but overall, I got a positive response to my performance. So it really inspired me. I thought, Oh, I get it now. This’ll be fun. I can do my character work and different voices and different physicalities, and people will like that.
Both Freeway’s Vanessa Lutz and Election’s Tracy Flick are such clearly constructed characters. Did you model them after particular people?
It was instinctive. I felt like I knew that type of character, that type of personality. The work became finding that person’s truth, coupled with a desire on my part for complete and total honesty in the portrayals. With Lutz, it was central to convey her need to demand total honesty from certain people. I understand that kind of determinationthat drivewhether it be toward the truth or self-discovery. Or whether it’s simply blind ambition.
There’s this tension in your characters between ambition and a sense of connection. Even your Sweet Home Alabama character struggles with that conflict.
Yes. Though the way I connect them is that they all lack self-awareness. They don’t see the way other people perceive them. And that lack of self-consciousness allows them to be free in their own personalities.
Is that quality essential to playing comic roles for you?
It’s funny. It’s funnier when someone’s being funny and they don’t know it. That’s my main goal in comedy. I don’t try to be funny. I try to represent reality. I do a lot of homework. Like when I did Legally Blonde, I went to a sorority for two weeks at USC and sat with the girls and talked with them and watched how they interacted. It’s never my goal to mimic or caricature people. I really want to represent them in an honest way. And when you do that, it becomes funny. Because everyone’s life is funny when you look at it from a certain perspective.
Alexander Payne [director and writer of Election] is such a genius. He opened me up to that perspective. He can manage to find something funny in every person, in every scenario, in every situation. What he doesn’t think is funny is movies, or movie stars, and glorified, glamorous life. Because it’s not real enough. It’s not mundane. There’s something hysterical about the mundane.
Do you rely heavily on your directors? Along with Payne, you’ve worked with Robert Mulligan [To Kill a Mockingbird] and Robert Benton [Kramer vs. Kramer], highly reputed directors with storied careers and strong personalities. As an actor, do you put yourself completely in their hands?
It depends on the director. It depends how much they want to direct me. With Alexander Payne, for instance, it was a real collaborative process. We were both trying to figure out Tracy Flick and how she would respond to different situations. We kept building on that together. He’s such an amazing satirist. He writes his own stuff, and it’s hysterical on the page, but he’s open to everything during production. I created the physicality and the voice and some of the scenarios. And he got me into a high school undercover for a few days for research, and I got to simulate high school life again.
But overall it’s not as collaborative as some people would think it is. I work more instinctually, and the director has a separate jobsetting lenses and angles and shots and editing. That’s what I liked about working with [Sweet Home Alabama’s] Andy Tennant. He’s so decisive, which is so nice, and commands a certain authority on the set because he’s such a nice man. But he knows his shots, and he hires appropriately, and when it comes to the actors, he trusts them enough to say, OK, do your thing. You have to trust him and he has to trust you.
Your role in Sweet Home Alabama requires a very naturalistic style of acting, which presents a different set of demands on you as an actor. Was it more difficult to play?
For every actor it’s different when you do heightened kinetic work vs. a more naturalistic style of acting. And the latter was really hard for me. I chose this role because I thought I’d done a lot of over-the-top characters and I thought it was time to pull back and do something more representative of my own personality onscreen, just basically for the challenge of it. I’d never really done something in my own voice, with my own physicality. That was hard.
What’s hard about it specifically? Is it that you don’t have the same sense of perspective? That clear sense of range, scene by scene?
Well, you’re not doing something created out of imagination. You’re more yourself. And I don’t see myself as the kind of girl people want to watch onscreen for two hours. It’s not like I’m inherently that charismatic. So I feel like it’s easier to use someone else’s charismaa character’s charisma. To pretend I’m someone else. Whereas to use your own voice and sense of humor makes you very vulnerable. You have to say, OK, this is me, like it or not. Hope you like it.
Do you return to your own films? Look at them with a critical eye? Word is that you’re a perfectionist.
I don’t ever watch my own stuff. Although I have to go back and look at Legally Blonde for Legally Blonde II: Red, White, and Blonde just to listen to my voice in that film and see some other stuff I did physically.
Are there films you return to as an actress? For the sake of craft?
Oh yeah, everything. Not just films. Everything I watch I get little things from, even reality television, which I find constantly fascinating, like American Idol. You can’t underestimate how great that material is for an actor to observe realitylike that Big Brother show.
Are there films you return to over and over?
I watch a lot of Goldie Hawn movies. I love Private Benjamin. Overboard. Overboard is one of my favorite movies. It’s hysterical.
What do you feel your weaknesses are as an actress?
Admittedly I’m not great at criticism. I don’t take it well. I get really defensive. Not just creatively. I mean anywhere. That’s probably my biggest weakness.
When you did Robert Benton’s Twilight, you worked with this absolute heavyweight cast: Gene Hackman, Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Giancarlo Esposito, James Garner. Although you’d already done several leads, you were still a relative neophyte as an actor. Did any of those actors take you under their wing?
Susan’s been wonderful. I’ve kept in touch with her. She’s been helpful to me with different situations I’ve gone through as an actor and a person. She’s also a mother too, and that plays into her thinking as a professional, and she understands what I’m dealing with in that respect. I’ve experienced a lot of things not everyone can relate to, but she’s been very helpful. It’s hard, though, because there’s not really one answer to any of the problems you face in this industryor in any life in any industry.
Are there particular moments in your previous films that you’re more proud of than others? Moments when you felt more on point, or hit high notes? I love the scene in Election when Tracy Flick learns she’s won the election for class president, and she hops around outside the classroom ecstatically. It’s the only moment in the film, apart from when she tears down her opponent’s posters in a rage, that she’s completely out of control. Can you talk about some of those moments that come to mind?
The things I enjoy doing and enjoy playing I can talk about. I don’t usually isolate certain moments. But I love the scene in Sweet Home Alabama when Melanie gets drunk with her close friends, but is lashing out at them at the same time. At that point, I don’t think you’re with her in the audience. I think you get to go against the protagonist. You say, Ugh, I don’t like that girl very much. And she has to make amends for herself. Because it’s a universal experience to do something stupid and selfish and experience the shame that goes with that. It was fun for me.
What about Fear?
I got nothing.
What about Freeway?
The courtroom scene. Where she tells [Kiefer Sutherland’s character] Bob Wolverston off.
Got anything you want to tell your peeps back in Nashville?
What’s up, Nashvegas? I’m coming home soon! Get it ready for me. I hear there’s a really good barbecue restaurantPig & Piewhich my parents frequent, like, three times a week. I can’t wait to go back home.
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