On Friday, Reese attended the Texas Conference for Women in Austin, where she talked about how she developed Hello Sunshine, and increasing the presence of women in the media. Reese re-iterated her statement from the 2015 Glamour Women Of The Year Awards about ambition not being a “dirty word”, and said that ambition is about supporting and encouraging those around you.
Unfortunately I’ve only found one official photo from the event – which you can find in our Gallery. Below are a couple of articles/interviews from the event, and browse through our Twitter ‘moment’ for social media reaction to Reese’s key-note speech.
Actress Reese Witherspoon Encourages Women to be Ambitious
Early on as an actress in Hollywood, when Reese Witherspoon attended meetings to discuss her movie characters and mentioned a character flaw she would like to accentuate, the male producers would almost always say yes, but that would make her unlikable.
In those meetings, Witherspoon said she felt like she was always reminded she had to stay in her lane. Stay in a place that felt comfortable for everybody and conformed to some other person’s definition of what made a woman likable.
“I think as I got older I said, I’ve had enough of that,” Witherspoon said.
“Women are complicated, they are complex, they are dynamic,” Witherspoon said. “Those are the women I want to see on the screen.”
That led Witherspoon to create her own production company that focused on movies with strong female characters as the stars.
Witherspoon discussed her life, her career, launching her business and her role as an advocate for other women Friday afternoon at the Texas Conference for Women during a keynote interview with 60 Minutes Correspondent Sharon Alfonsi. More than 7,500 people attended the sold-out conference that featured a full day of speakers, breakout sessions, networking and more at the Austin Convention Center.
Witherspoon’s production company has produced Gone Girl, Wild and the HBO drama series Big Little Lies. She self-funded the company for the first five years, and now it is profitable, she said.
In 2010, Witherspoon got a script that she thought was bad. The two women in the movie didn’t seem to have any purpose other than obsessing over the same man. She sulked about it and complained to her agent. Witherspoon also sought out studios that were producing movies starring women. And she couldn’t find any worthwhile projects. Then she decided to do something about it and that’s when she started her company.
Witherspoon read a lot of books, she knew what made a good movie, she knew a lot of screenwriters and she knew movie studio presidents. She decided to take a risk. She called up two friends who were good at business and they helped her create a business plan.
“Ambition has been inside me since I was a little girl and I wish I could turn it off sometimes,” she said.
But ambition is not a dirty word, Witherspoon told the audience.
Witherspoon said she read a study recently from Columbia University about traits in women that made them good job candidates and ambition ranked low.
“Why is that such a negative trait in women?” Witherspoon asked.
“We have to reframe this idea about women and ambition that women are out for themselves,” she said. “They are usually out for their family, their community, their schools, out for their business that is going to help those areas, out for the government.”
Women who are very ambitious are often perceived as selfish, Alfonsi said.
“Yeah, I hear that all the time and it’s simply not true,” Witherspoon said.
Women wake up and they do things for their family, their kids, their husband, their community, their charity, and they rarely have time for themselves, Witherspoon said.
“Women are natural leaders and organizers and they don’t even know it,” Witherspoon said.
Witherspoon started working when she was 14. She grew up in Nashville. Her dad is a doctor and her mom is a nurse. They didn’t understand her desire to pursue acting, but they supported her.
When she got the starring role in a movie at 14, her teacher put up a picture of Witherspoon on a bulletin board and someone took a pen and stabbed her eyes out at her school. She said she learned to put her head down, do her work and not call attention to herself and to stay quiet about her accomplishments.
At 29, Witherspoon won an Oscar. But she didn’t put it on display until a friend came to her house and commanded her to put the Oscar by the front door.
“It’s interesting how even women who are very accomplished in any kind of aspect of their life, we learn how to tone it down,” Witherspoon said.
Women need to own their accomplishments and be proud of them and they don’t need to tone them down, she said. And there is room for plenty of women at the top, she said. It’s not about one and done.
“Instead of scarcity, I think we have to think of abundance,” Witherspoon said. “And when we do lift ourselves up, we have to lift up women with us…You have to lift other people and tell them how amazing they are.”
Right now, Witherspoon’s production team is working on four television shows and they are being written by women of color, LGBTQ women, disabled women, women from all walks of life, Witherspoon said.
“In order to change the stories, we had to change the storytellers,” Witherspoon said. “To be authentic, to really walk the walk, to invite people into the process.”
Reese Witherspoon on feminism, motherhood and why she loves Austin
More than 7,000 people crowded the Austin Convention Center on Friday for the 19th annual Texas Conference for Women, which this year featured a star-studded lineup including research professor and speaker Brene Brown, New York Times best-selling author Shawn Achor and Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon.
Before her keynote speech, Witherspoon spoke with the American-Statesman on topics ranging from the inequality in Hollywood that prompted her to start her own media company to why she has fond memories of Austin from her childhood.
Statesman: Why did you want to be part of the Texas Conference for Women?
Witherspoon: It’s an incredible group of people, women all coming together, so many female business owners, talking about tools and relationships that are really helping develop their businesses. I was excited to be part of it.
More women were elected to Congress this week than ever before. How do you feel about the political climate in the United States?
I think it’s a time when women are feeling incredibly motivated to become leaders in the business world and in politics clearly. It’s remarkable that so many women have run for office and have gotten elected. What we see is that’s an incredible step towards representation in our government, but we have to keep going. I think moments like this and conferences like this bring women together and help us see that we are there to support each other and help each other succeed.
Your created the media company Hello Sunshine, which focuses on female storytelling. Why was that important to you?
Around 2010 I just started seeing the amount of scripts that had women at the center of them really start to diminish. I went around to every studio and said, “Tell me what you’re developing for women,” and, with the exception of one studio, they weren’t developing anything. They just didn’t have the kind of mission to tell women’s stories. I thought, that is my drive in life, not just to tell my story or stories about women like me, but movies and television shows that tell the stories of every woman: women of color, LGBTQ stories, stories of disabled women. And tell them with more accuracy. Not seeing as many women behind the camera was really bothering me. I self-funded a company that started with writers and books that I was reading and taking those books and turning them into television shows and movies. I had no idea it would be successful, but I just knew I was driven to change the stories I was seeing and the women around me were seeing.
Hello Sunshine also has a book club. What do books mean to you?
As a kid, I was always escaping through books. It’s a creative outlet for me, and writing is a creative outlet for me. I think of my books as my friends. I had this accumulated base of knowledge about how to turn a book into a screenplay and then get it made into a movie that I didn’t really acknowledge in myself until my husband actually said to me, “Why aren’t you doing that? That’s a skill set. You have all the skills, why don’t you just do it?” It took the people around me to say everything you do, everything it takes to succeed is inside of you already. I read a lot of books, I just started optioning them, finding screenwriters. I knew all of them basically, and I knew every studio. I just started putting the packages together and going forward. My first projects were “Wild” and “Gone Girl” and “Big Little Lies.” I went from thinking I couldn’t accomplish something to going, “Oh, I’m actually pretty good at this.”
You’re also a mom of three. What advice do you give to working moms struggling to find balance?
I really rely on my communities around me. I rely on my friends, I rely on my mother, I rely on the women I work with. We have revolving leadership. No one’s ego is first. We accept help when we need it, we let each other fail, we acknowledge our successes as much as our failures. Creating a community where people feel safe to create and safe to be successful and safe to fail has really been helpful in my life and in my career. It’s hard for a lot of women to accept help. I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older how to say, “You’re right, I need help, can you please pick up the kids after school because I have an important meeting?” I really rely on the moms around me and the businesswomen around me to help me grow.
Have you spent much time in Austin?
My mom actually went to the University of Texas for her Ph.D. I was here as a kid for three or four summers. We lived here, me and my brother and my mom. My mom went to school all day, and my brother and I went to camp and basically rode our bikes around Austin. I love this city. It’s such a great place, and a great place for kids, too, to explore and feel safe.
Do you have any favorite Austin memories?
Barton Springs, I remember going there every weekend with my mom and her fellow students who also had kids and were trying to balance motherhood. And I remember river rafting, we’d get in the tube and go down the river. It was really fun.
Earlier this year you announced that “Legally Blonde 3” is happening. Why did you want to sign on for that?
Creating Elle Woods was a big moment in my life. The success of that movie was surprising and so wonderful. If you talk about feminist role models I think Elle Woods is a really interesting example of how you can be a modern feminist. You can love getting your nails done and your hair done and you’re feminine, but you’re also really determined to know your worth and get what you want out of life. I’m excited to revisit what Elle Woods is like in her 40s, which I think is a different kind of world. She faces different challenges I think a lot of people will relate to.
What do you hope the next 10 years will bring for you?
I’m just really excited about the mission of Hello Sunshine to tell women’s stories and put women at the center of their stories. We have a lot of really great projects right now. I’m working on a show with Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell for Apple that’s being written by this incredible show writer, Kerry Ehrin, who has just done fabulous work on “Friday Night Lights” and “Bates Motel.” Our director is a woman, Mimi Leder. I’m just really enjoying a moment where my industry is starting to recognize the talent and the artistry of so many women around me.
Reese Witherspoon spoke with 60 Minutes’ Sharyn Alfonsi about her career as an actor and why she started Hello Sunshine, a media company focused on bringing forward stories that center around women. At first, she just wanted better roles for women in Hollywood. “My business plan could not involve the incumbent power structures. Because they didn’t value women in movies,” she said. So she funded the company herself and soon realized that she had to think bigger, getting more women into writing rooms and director’s chairs. “We have to reframe this idea that ambition in women is about women out for themselves,” she said. Witherspoon used private equity to pay for a screenwriter to adapt Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, and then presented it to the studios and said: Take it or leave it. I got to reauthor the process that I thought was set in stone.”
“Women are leaders, women are problem solvers,” she said. “We are who we need.”
“It’s our job to push society forward,” Witherspoon said. “We are our mother’s children and our grandmother’s children, but it’s our world now to give to our daughters and sons.”