Reese Witherspoon made her first film, The Man In The Moon, aged 14. Last year, she won an Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in Walk The Line and later separated from her husband Ryan Phillippe. Her new film Rendition is about the transfer and harsh interrogation of US non-citizens in countries where they are suspected of terrorism.
Did Meryl Streep’s involvement in this film help attract you to the project?
Of course. I was nervous the day I had to work with her. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it but she was wonderful. She’s completely intimidating, completely professional and had a thousand ideas – but as soon as you cut, she’s the nicest, warmest, funniest person.
Who else has intimidated you on set?
Matthew Broderick when I did Election. I’d grown up watching his films and always thought he was so funny. He had that wonderful wry comic wit. I was more scared to meet Matthew than anyone I’ve ever worked with. He was an icon and I had a crush on him when I was little. I used to think he was so cute.
Did you tell him?
Of course not! And I certainly never told his wife.
Have you ever felt prejudice in your own life, as you and your husband do in Rendition?
Yes, when I went to Stanford University when I was 19. I’d already done several films and I really felt this prejudice against me because I was an actress. Some of the students thought I’d only got in there because I was an actress but I applied the same way as everyone else under my real name, which is not the same as my acting name.
Were you a good student?
I was pretty good. I was always on some sort of tangent thinking about things other than what was at hand. I was a very last-minute kind of person but I loved writing papers and doing my research in the library. I was studying English Literature but I was only there for a year.
How has winning an Oscar changed your life?
It creates opportunities for me to be in different types of films. It helped me to get this job.
Where do you keep the Oscar?
In the living room.
Are you one of those people who believes there’s a master plan for all of us?
There’s definitely a grand design for people’s lives – otherwise I wouldn’t be a little girl from Tennessee in the middle of Hollywood. I have no reason to be here so, yeah, I do definitely believe in destiny.
Your parents are both in the medical profession. How did you end up acting?
I wanted to be an actor from the time I was seven. My parents thought it was a very strange choice but they were really cool about it because they knew I really wanted to do it. They’d drive me to lessons and auditions and I really appreciated that because you don’t want to feel that your dreams are stupid. I once sat next to a guy on a plane who complained he didn’t want to take his kid to ice-skating lessons because they were too expensive. He was sitting in first class. I told him: ‘I’m so glad I didn’t have a parent like you.’ My family has always supported me and revelled in my success.
What aspects of your personality have affected you in your career?
My upbringing as a small-town girl in the South has been both beneficial and detrimental. First of all, I grew up trusting everybody. Why would someone want to do something mean to anybody? I had to train myself out of that and learn not to believe everything I heard. But I think I’ve been able to create success on my own terms while still being a kind and conscientious person. I like people, I care about them and I care about the films I make. I have a real respect for the audience and I think that’s a lot to do with my upbringing.
What are your particular beauty tips?
I just try to exercise, eat well, take care of myself and use a lot of sunscreen. That’s about it. I don’t think about that stuff too much. I’m lucky to have other people who worry about how I look. That’s pretty nice.
Why did you do this film?
Because it has a lot of different, wonderful elements to it. There is definitely a romance to it. There are thriller aspects. It’s not just a film with a message where you sit there for two hours. It raises a lot of questions and makes you think about a lot of the practices that are going on nowadays and whether or not they are legal, ethical or even constitutional.
Do you agree with the practice of rendition, knowing what you know now?
Any mistreatment and the procedures that go on within the film are absolutely inexcusable and unconstitutional.
Would a female American president make serious political changes?
I don’t know. It’s impossible to imagine one person being able to resolve conflicts that have gone on for thousands of years but I’d like to think that there would be some wonderful changes.
What do you think of Hillary Clinton?
Obviously her being a front-runner is a marked step for women in this country and one I talk about with my daughter frequently. It’s an exciting presidential race with a lot of interesting candidates who could change the course of American history.
Do you have an all-time favourite film?
Probably Splendor In The Grass with Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Such a good film.