Smart steel magnolia that she is, Reese Witherspoon is coming home to serious fare after time away from the screen.
The 31-year-old actress – who had big hits in confections like the Legally Blonde movies, Sweet Home Alabama and Just Like Heaven – stars in Rendition as Isabella, a Chicago woman whose husband, an Egyptian-born chemical engineer (Omar Metwally), is suspected by U.S. authorities of having knowledge of a bombing; with no charges leveled, he’s flown to North Africa for a cruel secret interrogation. Through several characters’ viewpoints, director Gavin Hood’s drama, opening Friday, peers unblinkingly into the confusion and conscience-searching that the war on terror has wrought.
For Witherspoon, whose first film, at 14, was The Man in the Moon, Rendition allowed her to continue a professional route that hit a peak with her Best Actress-winning performance as June Carter Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line.
“The film [addresses] an issue you read about, but may not feel connected to,” Witherspoon says. “I’m really lucky that I’m able to do [movies] like this, and that people accept me doing different things.”
“Reese never wanted Isabella to simply shrilly protest her husband’s innocence,” says Hood. “She in fact says, ‘Tell me what you think he’s done.’ Reese wanted to make sure Isabella had a certain dignity, as well as a real belief in justice.”
Witherspoon has experienced a lot in her young life. Raised in Nashville, she planned to pursue a medical education but gave in to the love of performing she discovered as a child model and actress. Among many strong portrayals – including in the thoughtful fable Pleasantville (1998) and the sly high-school satire Election (1999) – she made Cruel Intentions and fell for her co-star Ryan Phillippe. The couple had two children: Ava, now 8, and Deacon, now 4. In late 2005, after six years of marriage, Witherspoon and Phillippe separated. Their divorce was finalized just last week.
It was a lot to fit into her 20s, but Witherspoon says it all felt natural to her.
“Well, I fell in love and got married. It was a good thing, it was a part of the journey of my life,” she says. “And [then] I had kids … And I was ready for it. I had lived a very different kind of life, starting out working in films from the time I was 14 years old, and traveling all over the world. And in ways, I was very much a 23-year old woman [when she became a mom], but in some ways I had a lot of life experience that made me a little bit different, ready for different kind of stuff.
“[But] I don’t think you can be ready for anything in life,” she continues. “I think life just sort of happens to you. You’re sort of on this ride, and you just have to be open and ready to go with it.”
After her Oscar win, it was reported that Witherspoon was about to break the $25 million-plus glass ceiling for A-list actresses and become Hollywood’s highest-paid woman, for signing to an as-yet-unmade thriller called Our Family Trouble. She asserts it was just rumor.
“It would be hard to walk into a room [with a director] knowing that!” she laughs. “I’m just grateful to be here, and grateful for whatever they want to pay me. I’m more than happy to be where I’m at, and feel blessed to be here. I don’t think I’m going to be leading the revolution.”
She says that despite being an actress women can relate to whether she’s sporting pink ensembles, wooing leading men or doing serious work, she doesn’t feel powerful.
“It’s not like I have some big red button, and you never know what’s gonna happen – when I press it, the floor might open up!” she says. “I don’t feel too powerful. Not with two kids who are pulling me in all directions.”
A vital issue on film
Since production began on Rendition 18 months ago, its real-world issues have become more urgent.
“When we started the film, we thought, ‘Will these allegations of torture still matter when the movie is released?'” says director Gavin Hood, a native of South Africa whose 2006 movie Tsotsi won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. “The sad irony is that the film is even more topical now.”
Rendition co-producer Mark Martin and writer Kelley Sane decided to fictionalize reports of the CIA spiriting suspects with knowledge of terrorism to undisclosed locations after reading a February 2005 story in The New Yorker.
“The film is generating a debate, and more than that, you can’t ask for,” says Hood. “Our primary responsibility was to demystify the idea of rendition and torture, to give it a human face, while keeping the story gripping. We felt this movie had something to say.”
“I don’t think a single movie can change people’s minds, but it can help open people’s eyes,” says actor Peter Sarsgaard, who plays a well-meaning congressional aide who tries to help Reese Witherspoon’s character in Rendition. “If you can be part of a general tide toward understanding or having empathy, that’s one of the most important things a film like this can do.”
A Oscar by 30. What’s next?
Reese Witherspoon, like Jodie Foster and Hilary Swank, hit the Academy Award jackpot before ending her third decade. The next professional, and personal, steps are crucial.
Jodie Foster won her first award in 1989 at 26 for The Accused; three years later, she won for The Silence of the Lambs. Since her initial Oscar, Foster has sometimes gotten sappy (Sommersby, Anna and the King), but has mostly picked projects based on her strengths. She has directed (Little Man Tate), done big stuff (Contact, Panic Room, Flightplan) and did a cool side role (Inside Man). Last month, she starred in The Brave One, which opened at No. 1.
Hilary Swank, one-time Beverly Hills, 90210 regular, went indie legit in Boys Don’t Cry and won her first Oscar in 2000 at 25. But bad choices followed, including the chintzy costume drama The Affair of the Necklace and the goofy sci-fi epic The Core. Clint Eastwood rehabilitated her career with Million Dollar Baby, which netted her a second Best Actress Oscar in 2005, but Swank’s affection for pulpy fare brought her to this year’s silly horror flick The Reaping.
Reese Witherspoon was a box-office champ thanks to 2001’s Legally Blonde (which made $90 million) and 2002’s Sweet Home Alabama (at the time, the biggest September opening ever). Her Oscar win in 2006 for Walk the Line, which went on to make $120 million, seemed like a coronation at age 29. Yet Witherspoon chose to stay private, and retreated from screens until this Friday’s Rendition. She’s about to make the comedy Four Christmases with Vince Vaughn.
Source: NY Daily News