Reese Witherspoon is sitting on a dais in a ritzy Beverly Hills hotel with Jake Gyllenhaal and some of the other stars from her latest film, Rendition, along with the director, Gavin Hood. They’re answering questions about the film, a dramatic thriller about one of the most controversial aspects of the “war on terror”, the practice of “extraordinary rendition”. That’s the heavily criticised procedure used by the CIA to secrete suspected terrorists to countries such as Egypt and Morocco, where they can be interrogated – and tortured – without being subject to US law.
Witherspoon plays the wife of an American-Egyptian chemical engineer who disappears after boarding a flight from Cape Town. She gradually learns that her husband is suspected of being a terrorist, and has been “rendered” by the CIA to a North African country, evidently Morocco. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the CIA analyst charged with overseeing her husband’s interrogation, who becomes troubled by the morality of what he and the US government are doing.
As they answer questions, I find I’m not really listening. I am transfixed by Witherspoon, whom I am going to be meeting in person in a few minutes. She’s the only woman on the panel of six, and, even at a distance, her very blonde hair and very blue eyes, sitting within exquisitely tiny features, are quite mesmerising among the heavy-set, dark-haired men up there. It’s incredibly hard to grasp that this tiny creature, who looks as fragile as a miniature porcelain doll, is by far the most successful, most powerful and best-paid person in the room.
According to the most recent survey by the film-trade paper The Hollywood Reporter, Witherspoon, who is 31, is now America’s highest-paid actress, outstripping Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie. She has been able to command a salary of $15m a movie for the past four years, since the twin successes of the first Legally Blonde film and the romantic comedy Sweet Home Alabama. Her status was cemented when she won a best-actress Oscar in March2006 for her spirited performance as June Carter Cash, singer and long-suffering wife of the country legend Johnny, in Walk the Line.
Today, on the stage, she seems distant and distracted. Of course, everyone in the room knows there have been tabloid rumours, in the past few weeks, that Witherspoon and Gyllenhaal, who have been discreetly placed some distance apart on the stage, have been seeing each other. Everyone also knows that she filed for divorce from her actor husband, Ryan Phillippe, at the end of last year.
Whatever I may be reading into her demeanour, Witherspoon certainly gives off almost nothing of the super-perky, relentlessly optimistic effervescence that she has imprinted on the public mind through her spot-on performances as the upwardly mobile Southern debutante Elle Woods in the Legally Blonde movies. That Southern-belle pedigree is no Hollywood fabrication: Witherspoon comes from a wealthy Tennessee family (her father is a surgeon) that is descended from one of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence. In the past, she has made much of her debutante background, of how her conservative Southern values, perfect propriety, immaculate manners, mono-grammed napkins, thank-you notes and neat drawers set her apart from many Hollywood stars.
A couple of minutes after the press conference ends, I am ushered into a room a few floors above. Witherspoon has gone in just ahead of me – and, as I walk in, I am startled to find her curled up in a tiny ball in the corner of a large couch, her little body shaking and shivering uncontrollably in a thin black dress. The room is freezing, because the air conditioning is on far too high, but until I ask her if she’s okay, and if she would like it turned down, she seems instinctively determined just to brave her way through, as if it’s another obstacle she can overcome with sheer force of will. After the air-con is adjusted, her publicist hands her a huge white towelling robe. Thus, I begin interviewing America’s most successful female movie star with her completely enveloped in what looks like thick cotton wool. Things will only get stranger.
One of the things I’m keen to explore with her is the fact that she has built her astonishingly successful career mainly by playing women, such as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, who seem to have an absolute sense of their own destiny, a dead-on certainty about who they are and who they want to be. That seems to be very much who Witherspoon is herself, incredibly focused and goal-orientated, with a very Southern, and conservative, sense of the life she has always wanted – a life she quickly made for herself after she arrived in Hollywood, becoming wealthy beyond anyone’s dreams, married to a Hollywood dreamboat, with whom she has two adorable children.
In Rendition, on the other hand, she plays a woman who is having to deal with events that are out of her control. However determined she may be, there’s nothing she can do to persuade the US government, which won’t even acknowledge that it has kidnapped her husband, to let him go. She’s also having to contend with her own doubts about him – uncertain what she really knows – and what that may mean for the carefully constructed edifice of her apparently perfect suburban life. It’s not hard to extrapolate that Witherspoon must have been going through similar anxieties about her own life around the time she was making the film, after her seven-year marriage to Phillippe fell apart at the end of last year. The tabloid rumours were that he had an onset affair with his Australian co-star Abbie Cornish, something both have denied.
I ask Witherspoon how she found it to play a character swimming helplessly in a world she couldn’t control. “It was difficult,” she admits. “It was really challenging playing that bewilderment and confusion and isolation. She doesn’t know what she is dealing with. She is so disorientated, and she also has the burden of being pregnant, which is limiting in itself, and the inherent vulnerability in that. It was hard, sad, alienating and isolating.”
Witherspoon acknowledges that she has always been incredibly driven, and has felt a deep need to prove herself to other people. Even now, after rising to the top of the pay charts, with an Oscar under her belt, she says she feels that she is “underestimated”. “I honestly don’t know where that comes from. As a child, I made great grades in school and had some friends – not a lot of friends, but a significant number – and, I don’t know, I’ve always felt this need to accomplish and push myself further. And I don’t feel like people really have any idea what I am capable of.”
It’s a sad answer, but it makes me realise how hard it must have been for her, especially as a woman in Hollywood, to achieve what she has. She agrees. “I don’t ever rest on anyone’s ideas of what they’re going to do for me – I never have,” she says. “My mother impressed that on me at a very early age. If you want something done, do it yourself. I have operated under that sensibility for a very long time.”
As Witherspoon begins to open up a bit, I say that I can’t help feeling how strange it must have been for her last year, winning her industry’s highest accolade at the beginning of the year, her marriage falling apart at the end, all in the fierce glare of the media. Although I stress that I am not trying to pry into her private life – and I wasn’t – as I finish my question, I am startled to see her publicist suddenly come crawling into the room on her hands and knees from the hallway, where she has evidently been hiding. Without getting up, she admonishes me not to ask personal questions.
I have interviewed the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in the deepest forests of Arkansas. I have been surrounded by machete-wielding guerrillas in the jungles of southern Mexico. I have powwowed with murderous, drug-crazed gang leaders in the slums of Belize. But, believe me, you have never known terror until you’ve confronted one of Hollywood’s most ferocious publicists coming at you across the soft carpet of a Beverly Hills hotel room on her hands and knees.
It seems such a shame, too, to shut Witherspoon down at this point. In the past, the actress has often talked about how many young women, who find so few admirable role models in the media, have been inspired by the resilient character and conservative values of Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods. Surely the flip side is that it would be great for those young women also to know that things don’t always go your way, however determined you are, however rich and successful you may be, however much you may feel as though you have it all. What also surprises me is that Witherspoon has often talked, in the past, about how much she dislikes celebrity interviews where “everything is painted so pretty, and there’s a lot of truth that nobody really wants to hear”.
Of course, it wouldn’t be surprising if Witherspoon were depressed, as most people are when coping with divorce. I thought she had been brave to acknowledge, in a recent interview in an American magazine, that about a month after her marriage ended, she found herself sitting in her car in a car park, unable to get out. And, as I say goodbye, I can’t help looking back at a young woman who does seem trapped, like a beautiful, sad princess, in the tower of a magnificent dream castle she has built for herself. But perhaps I just caught her on a bad day.
Rendition opens on October 19
Source: The Sunday Times