Reese Witherspoon plays against type
There’s a moment in her new romantic comedy, How Do You Know, when Reese Witherspoon makes an unusual request of Owen Wilson.
He’s her unreliable boyfriend Matty – a major-league pitcher who can’t resist the lure of other females. She plays Lisa, a young woman whose entire life has revolved around softball and who can’t cope emotionally when she’s dropped from her team.
So along comes this crucial moment when Lisa says to Matty: “If I wake up in the middle of the night and start crying, just ignore me, please.” Witherspoon cites this speech as an example of something she herself would never say in real life.
“I usually play really verbal characters, and this woman is sort of more interior,” Witherspoon points out.
That made Lisa a fascinating challenge, because Witherspoon couldn’t really draw on her own life experiences to portray her.
“I’ve done a lot of comedies where a woman talks about her romantic dynamics and is always kind of talking about men and what she should do. But this is a woman who has a hard time conveying her emotions and doesn’t even really want to talk about things -which is sort of an interesting female character.”
In the film, which opens Dec. 17, Lisa thinks her whole life is slipping away because, at 31, she’s been cut from her team. Because she’s uneasy talking about feelings, she feels emotionally isolated. Furthermore, her romantic life is in turmoil because of Matty’s irresponsibility and the unexpected intrusion into her world of another male. This is George (Paul Rudd), whose own life is falling apart because he’s the target of a federal investigation into high-stakes financial crimes.
Oscar-winning writer-director James L. Brooks says his film is really about love – or rather about the saving grace of love for people whose lives are in chaos.
The title is essentially asking: How do you know when you’re in love? Witherspoon thinks this is a great question for a movie to pose. She also suggests that nobody is capable of answering it better than Brooks, whose earlier hits include Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets.
Jack Nicholson, who plays George’s amoral old dad in the film, figures that Brooks is maybe the best screenwriter in the world. For Witherspoon, the script for this movie was a continuing revelation.
“The great thing about working with Jim is that it was all there. The character was in his head for a while, and then it was all on the page. Sometimes, you’d come in and you’d look at the dialogue and say, ‘How am I going to make this come out of my mouth and sound real?'”
But, of course, it would sound real. Which is why making a Jim Brooks film was a new experience for the 34-year-old actress. At times, Lisa may feel so emotionally constrained that she’s a woman of few words – but in Brooks’s screenplays, every word counts.
“I never had this experience as an actor where everything, down to the word, was exactly what my character would say. I had to find a way to create a character around this perfect dialogue, and the biggest challenge for me was that she was not verbal and that I’m used to playing really talkative characters and women who speak about their relationships and talk about love and dynamics and boys with their girlfriends.”
By contrast, Witherspoon was playing the type of young woman who’s apt to say: “Shut up. I don’t want to talk to you right now. I have to go.”
A character who isn’t even sure she ever wants to have a family represents something alien to Witherspoon. Again, an interesting challenge. “And I think Jim wrote it beautifully – someone who is not afraid to be honest in maybe not wanting what other women want. Obviously, it’s not myself. I have two kids, I’m very sort of settled down. But it was cool to play that girl.”
It was also cool to be sharing the screen with Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd.
“How lucky am I to work with two of the most talented, funny, attractive, hysterical men?” she giggles. What also intrigued her was that her scenes with one co-star had a different dynamic from her scenes with the other. It’s was like shifting to “a totally different movie . . . like being in two different plays that intersect at the end.”
In fact, the dialogue often gave her the feeling of being in a stage play.
“It’s a testament to the writing that you can play a scene in 26 different ways. You can play it funny, you can play it sad, you can play it all different ways.”
One of the high points of the film is a disastrous blind date between Witherspoon and Rudd. As an exercise, the two of them switched parts and read each other’s lines – and this gave them a deeper understanding of the scene’s comic and emotional dynamic.
Softball represented a different kind of challenge when Witherspoon accepted the role. Lisa only has a few ball scenes at the start of the film, but the actress worked hard. She wanted to be physically convincing in these scenes, but she also wanted to understand the psychology of a dedicated sports person.
“It was incredible. . . . I’m not really that athletic, so when Jim said he wanted detail and specificity, he was really saying, ‘I want you to work with coaches and train.’ I did it for four months, three hours a day.
“I’m still not any good at softball, but I learned a lot. It’s a totally different culture. Someone who is an athlete – she walks differently, she carries herself differently, she has a different emotional approach to life. . . . To a play a character who has a shelf life or an expiration date or knows that, by the beginning of her 30s her career’s over, was an interesting culture to explore.”