Belle du Jour
Reese Witherspoon might have been just a beautiful, frighteningly capable southern debutante, but at age six she decided she wanted to act. Now she’s a beautiful, frighteningly capable movie star, whose most recent picture, Legally Blonde, earned her a $7 million raise. Between aerial cartwheels, she tells KRISTA SMITH about being the lone American in The Importance of Being Earnest, learning not to push herself too fast, and starting a family with Ryan Phillippe
Dressed in a baby-blue tank top that exactly matches her eyes, with her blond hair flying loose, Reese Witherspoon is executing backflips in a gymnastics center in Culver City, that mysterious area Angelenos describe as the great neighborhood no one lives in. She has suggested that we do something fun for our interview instead of just staring at each other over glasses of iced tea in a hotel garden. Witherspoon has been into gymnastics on and off her whole life, but as she gears up for two possible new films, one set in the world of women’s tennis and the other about trapeze artists—the latter of which she is developing with her husband and fellow actor, Ryan Phillippe— she is taking her workouts more seriously than ever. She spots me as I walk in, gives me a warm hello, and introduces me to her coach, Christopher. I am immediately struck by how good she is, in spite of the fact that everyone I’ve talked to has said there is nothing Reese cannot do if she puts her mind to it. She has the perfect gymnast’s body: five feet two, slender build, with the shoulders slightly bigger than the hips—in other words, just a few genes away from gold-medal champion Shannon Miller.
However, as she says, the only thing that ever grabbed her was acting. “There was a little girl who lived down the street and her parents owned a flower shop, and they asked me to be in their local commercial and I was just bit,” she says in that unmistakable sweet, preppy voice. “I came home and told my mother I wanted to be an actress. It all came from me. It was all self-generated.”
Today, Christopher’s main job is teaching her some new tricks, including the aerial cartwheel—a cartwheel with no hands. She doesn’t get it right every time, but she doesn’t seem to mind, and you can tell that she’s having a great time trying. She doesn’t look at all like a movie star—or a wife or a mother, for that matter. At 26 she looks like a teenager getting ready for a meet. As she perches on the balance beam, I ask her if she ever competed in high school. “Oh, no,” she says, “I was never competitive in sports. I just did it for fun.” Christopher interjects, “Well, if you would have competed, you would have won.” Witherspoon replies pertly, “I won at everything else.”
She moves on to the trampoline and smiles at the look on my face when I see how good she is at that too. “I think that if acting ever didn’t work out for me, I could be a professional trampolinist,” she has told me. I will learn in the course of our time together that Witherspoon is very suspicious of compliments. “I don’t like it when people sugarcoat things for me,” she says. “You know, I’m honestly the best judge of my own work. It really rings insincere to me when people are too complimentary. There is a lot of empty flattery in this industry. You have to keep a really level head about when you’re good and when you’re not.”
As the session comes to a close, a dozen little girls pour in to take their first gymnastics class. I ask Witherspoon about her own daughter, Ava, who is two and a half. “She’s not old enough,” she says. “You have to be three.”
Up until this point, she has not been recognized. But now a buzz goes up as one of the mothers on the bleachers IDs the star of Legally Blonde, last year’s comedy about a girl who attempts to win her boyfriend back by attending Harvard Law School. Suddenly, heads are turning, and the energy changes. Witherspoon is no longer just a cute girl in a gym but a celebrity who gets millions of dollars for every film she makes. She’s slated to get $8 million for the next one, which would be a $7 million raise. Legally Blonde, made for a song by MGM, grossed more than $ 100 million worldwide and promptly turned Reese Witherspoon into a star. Before that the industry regarded her as a talented, independent performer who consistently did good work, most notably as Tracy Flick, the ruthlessly ambitious high-school student in Alexander Payne’s 1999 film, Election. Wth that her cool quotient skyrocketed, but Legally Blonde moved her into a whole new category. She is now on the very short list of women who can “open” a movie and pack houses on the first weekend.
One after another, the little girls come up to her for an autograph. She smiles and patiently takes her time with each child, writing little notes with perfect private-school penmanship. I ask her if she minds. “Oh, no!” she says. “These are the girls that go see my movies, and I hope they buy tickets for the next one.”
This month Miramax is releasing Oscar Wide’s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Oliver Parker, who three years ago delivered his very stylish adaptation of An Ideal Husband, by the same author. Witherspoon, who plays Cecily, is the only American in a formidable cast that includes Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O’Connor, and Judi Dench. Rupert Everett plays Algernon, the object of Cecily’s affection.
“Cecily is one of the trickier parts to cast, because very often it can be an irritating character,” says Parker. “It’s meant to have a youthfulness and strength, but usually you get someone too old. This is a sweet young thing, but the more you get to know her, the more you realize there’s a really tenacious, wise creature in there. There are very few actors Reese’s age with that sort of maturity. You’ve got to have someone who has a sort of blazing intelligence without showing it off. And she is extremely smart, as you know.”
The Importance of Being Earnest was a happy coincidence for Witherspoon, because Gosford Park, in which her husband had been cast, was filming in London at the same time. Her choice to play a role that was 180 degrees from Elle Woods, her character in Legally Blonde, was also a wise career decision. “I hadn’t done a lot of period stuff, and I saw it as a challenge,” she says. “It was a good way to initiate myself to a foreign accent but not have the lead in the film. I worked on the accent every day, four hours a day, for six weeks. I worked really hard, because you know you can sink or swim in these situations.”
Mastering the language of Oscar Wilde is not easy to do. I ask Oliver Parker if he was nervous about Witherspoon. “Absolutely,” he says. “It’s a very daunting prospect, slotting into this thing, which is on the whole a very British possession, and to come in as an outsider, especially when you are surrounded by the likes of Judi Dench. But Reese is a terrific little impressionist. She works like crazy, and she is meticulous-something of a perfectionist. I don’t think she would have taken it on unless she thought she could get there.”
I contacted virtually everyone Witherspoon has worked with, and there wasn’t one person who didn’t call me back. They all volunteered that they would love to work with her again. Marc Platt, who produced Legally Blonde and remains a close friend of Witherspoon’s, tells me, “She has an unusual ability as an actress to play very extreme characters with tremendous integrity and great comedic skill. But what sets her apart is that the truthfulness she gets in all her characters is complete and pure. I always wanted to do my best work because I knew I was getting hers.”
Alexander Payne agrees: “In general, with actors, it’s like tennis. Good players tend to improve the playing of those around them. Reese was just always good. She could do a whole speech and get every word right—like, to the article, or to the preposition. And I mean exactly right.” Robert Luketic, who directed Legally Blonde, tells me that when he was auditioning people he would tell them Reese Witherspoon was playing Elle Woods, and they would all say, “Oh my God, I love her.” Raquel Welch told him, “I really like the script, but I want to just tell you, I love Reese Witherspoon. If she’s going to be in it, then count me in.”
Gary Ross, who directed Witherspoon in Pleasantville, compares her to Jack Lemmon. “There is no one in this generation that has her chops,” he says. “Reese is incredibly funny, can hold the center of a comedy, and is unbelievably real at the same time. She will probably win three Oscars. That is honestly the kind of career she can have.”
Andy Tennant, who just finished directing Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama, a romantic comedy about a southern girl from a small town who moves to New York in search of a more cosmopolitan life—the role Witherspoon says is the most like herself of all the ones she has played—tells a story that gives a perfect picture of her: “We were working long days, and Reese and I lived in the same apartment building in Georgia. I was waiting for the elevator one Sunday morning, and I hear this scream from hell emanating from somewhere in the building—I mean, it’s just awful. As the elevator arrives, the sound gets louder. Then the doors open, and there is Reese, at 7:30 in the morning, trying to balance a Starbucks with a screaming baby and two bags of groceries. She has herself and the coffee pinned to the wall, and she just smiles at me and goes, ‘Hi.’ Then the doors close and up they go.”
Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon was born on March 22, 1976, in New Orleans, Louisiana, into a family steeped in history on both sides. “John Witherspoon, my first ancestor, came over from Scotland. He was the president of Princeton University and signed the Declaration of Independence.” That side of the family eventually made its way down South. The Reese side—her mother’s side—is from Tennessee and Virginia. “I could walk to my grandmother’s house after school. It was a wonderful feeling,” she recalls. “I’d like to be able to give that to my daughter, that sense of innocence maintained.”
Her father was a lieutenant colonel in the reserves, and the family spent the first four years of Reese’s life in Germany, where he fulfilled his draft obligation for the Vietnam War. Her parents had met when they were students at the University of Tennessee, and they still live in Nashville. So does her older brother, John, who is 29. John Draper Witherspoon became a surgeon, and Reese’s mother, Betty, has a Ph.D. in pediatric nursing. “You wonder where all my drive comes from? My dad scored a perfect score on his S.A.T.’s and a perfect score on his MCATS, and graduated at the top of his class from Yale. My mom has five or six degrees. My brother and I both went to college, but neither one of us graduated.”
She did, however, attend Harpeth Hall, the prestigious girls’ school in Nashville, whose famous alumnae include Minnie Pearl, of the Grand Ole Opry, and Amy Grant, the Christian pop singer. A Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and a debutante, Reese was destined to be your average beautiful southern belle. So how did she manage to have Hollywood in her pocket by the age of 26? There was no uncle in show business, and she was not a born sex symbol like Marilyn Monroe or a perfect 10 like Kim Novak; she was just an attractive girl with a funny name from Nashville. She recalls, “When I first moved to Los Angeles, I went to see a doctor, and he said, ‘Reese Witherspoon? Well, that’s a name you’ll never see in lights.'”
Reese took her last acting class when she was seven. “My parents were always incredibly supportive,” she says. “They thought it was a hobby for the first four years.” In 1990, Robert Mulligan, the director of To Kill a Mockingbird, arrived in Nashville to film The Man in the Moon, about a girl coming of age in the South in the 1950s, and Reese lined up with all the other townies to land a part as an extra. In short order she landed the lead. Soon after that she got an agent, Steve Dontanville, who still represents her at William Morris, and she acted in small films such as Jack the Bear and A Far Off Place at the same time she was going to her prom and beginning classes at Stanford University. Two roles— Vanessa, a tough-talking welfare teenager, in the cult hit Freeway, and Mel, a privileged Hollywood daughter, in the noir thriller Twilight—made her decide to quit college and concentrate totally on a film career.
Witherspoon reminds me of that girl in high school all the rest of us were a little scared of but at the same time in awe of—so pretty, so smart, so together that it made your day if she just said hi as she passed you in the hall. Then when you run into her 10 years later, you realize that she was only a normal girl with insecurities just like yours. “I feel really comfortable in my skin now and comfortable with the choices I’ve made in my career,” she says. “I don’t feel locked in to anything.” I ask her if there was ever a period when she didn’t feel comfortable in her skin. “Yeah,” she replies, “most of my life.”
You have to drive up slowly to Reese Witherspoon. Having started out as a child actor and been burned a couple of times in a tough business, she has learned to keep her cards close to the vest. “My nature is to be really super nice, open, and giving. I’m an I’ll-tell-you-all-my-secrets-in-one-conversation type of person,” she says. “But I’ve learned to be more reserved, which doesn’t come naturally. I know sometimes it’s not fun being friends with someone who does what I do for a living.”
“She is the most capable friend I have,” says Selma Blair, who met Reese in 1998, on the set of Cruel Intentions, Roger Rumble’s teenage version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. “When I got my pictures back from my Outward Bound trip, Reese was the first person I called. First, because she was my only friend who would at least pretend to be interested. And second, she even asked me questions about them. She is really interested in things beyond the business.”
Witherspoon admits that she has few close friends, but most of the ones she does have she has had for a long time and is fiercely loyal to. “I’m really discerning about whom I let into my life,” she says. After Election was released, she recalls, “people were really scared of me and would walk around me because they thought I was Tracy Flick. And part of me is like that character. I think there is no way to hide parts of yourself. There is a reason you’re attracted to roles.” She seems to make even the most controversial characters she plays sympathetic, and she isn’t afraid to play unlikable characters. “She’s got no attitude, which is, you know, unfortunately, rare,” observes her Pleasantville co-star and friend Tobey Maguire. “She’s just a really good actress, and she’s really funny. Reese is one of those people that whenever I bump into her it brightens my day. It’s not about her vanity. She’s here to stay. Slow and steady wins the race.”
Most people at Witherspoon’s age are still trying to figure out what they want to do when they grow up. I ask her if you pay a price for having the drive to arrive where you want to be when you’re so young. “My parents used to call me Little Type A,” she says. (Her production company is called Type A Films.) “I was always very busy and driven. Part of that is great, and part of that can tear you up. . . Why, at the age of 14, did I decide to become a professional? I was so driven to balance my own checkbook. It seems bizarre to me if I think about a 14-year-old doing the things I did. I’m starting to learn that the pace at which I run is not conducive to a healthy life. I’ve worked hard and pushed myself hard, and … in the end something is going to crack. I don’t know what it is yet. I am just figuring this out about myself … and I am starting to learn to pull back. I’m trying to take those moments where everything is going well and enjoy them. That’s why I thank God that Ryan and I got married. There are times when you think, Are these the right decisions that I’m making? Ultimately, I think it has been really helpful to have the person who knows me so well for a husband, who experiences the same kind of frustrations and lives the same lifestyle.”
It takes courage for a rapidly rising young starlet to get married and have a baby, but Reese Witherspoon is happy she made the choice. She met Ryan Phillippe on her 21st birthday and married him two and a half years later, when she was six months pregnant. Ava Elizabeth Phillippe, who was born on September 9, 1999, is named after Ryan’s grandmother.
I ask Phillippe what first attracted him to his wife. “We would have conversations on the phone before we even had our first date. We would cover every subject imaginable. She would challenge me, and I would challenge her. What struck me most about her was her mind, although she was also adorable and sexy. I was struck by her individuality—a self-possessed woman with her own ideas about things,” he says. Today he even concedes to her obsession with monogramming—sheets, towels, stationery—saying, “She is very southern, endearingly southern.”
Ryan Phillippe is a Yank from Delaware, an only boy with three sisters. After spending six months on a soap, he exploded onto the screen as a teen heartthrob in White Squall and I Know What You Did Last Summer, then proved himself as an actor in Cruel Intentions, a film he had to talk his wife into doing. As the American posing as a valet in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park last year, he showed critics he could hold his own in the greatest assembly of English actors in memory.
One gets the feeling that this young couple is capable of anything. “Reese had never held a baby until our own, whereas I grew up taking care of kids, so it was a much more natural transition for me,” Phillippe says. “What impresses me most is her ability as a mother. She constantly keeps me excited and engaged, and I’m always interested to hear what’s on her mind. We try to be as mutually supportive as possible, but it is incredibly taxing because of our schedules and all the obstacles inherent in living out a relationship in the public eye. Our lives are complicated, but we make the effort. We have both matured so much in five years; 21 is so much younger than 26.”
They don’t go out much publicly, and certainly are not seen at every event getting photographed. They like to stay home with their daughter and their English bulldog, Frank Sinatra. “We both cook and enjoy doing that together. Reese didn’t know how to cook very well when we met,” Phillippe tells me. “I remember the first meal she tried to make me was Hamburger Helper. She has come a long way.”
After Ava was born, they made a decision not to spend more than a week or two apart from each other or the baby. “No movie is so important that it would be worth sacrificing our family life,” Phillippe says. The actress Jennifer Coolidge confirms this with a funny incident that happened on the set of Legally Blonde. “I remember Ryan was leaving to go somewhere, and Reese was crying in the driveway. Ryan said, ‘What are you crying for? You’re going to see me for the rest of your life.’ I mean, what girl wouldn’t want to hear that?”
The pair involve themselves in a number of charities. They’re both supporters of the Fulfillment Fund’s College Pathways Project. As Witherspoon explains, “Education is a big thing for us. I have a couple of scholarships that I’ve started on my own with schools back in Tennessee. Ryan and I want to create opportunities for kids who really work hard but don’t necessarily have the monetary means of financing an education.”
Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe stunned viewers across the country when they walked onto the stage at the Kodak Theatre during the Oscars in March—the most breathtaking acting couple since Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. And when she asked to read the winner of the award for best makeup, he replied, “You make more money than I do. Go ahead.” Not only were they great-looking and talented, but they managed to crack the best joke of the night.
When I ask Witherspoon what she would like to be doing in the next 10 years, she talks about having more children and then adds, “I’d like to direct.” And when Reese Witherspoon says it, you know she means it. Alexander Payne responds by saying, “That’s news to me. Yeah, she can do anything. But it kind of scares me that she wants to direct, because she’ll push all the rest of us off.”