Reese Witherspoon is always in the ‘Know’ about her life
You don’t become the queen of romantic comedies without learning a few things about matters of the heart.
Reese Witherspoon, actress and mother of two, is well-versed in the mysteries and mores of love, and she spends hours discussing and debating them with her girlfriends.
“I’m literally the girl who talks constantly about relationships. I hang up with one (friend), and I pick up the phone and call another one. It’s an ongoing dialogue all day long,” she says. “I don’t understand a woman who doesn’t talk about love and relationships.”
She has been through a divorce (from actor Ryan Phillippe) and breakups (most notably with actor Jake Gyllenhaal), but Witherspoon isn’t one to get hung up on past amorous calamities. She views them as life lessons.
“You gotta be glad that you went through them, and you gotta be glad that you learned from them,” says Witherspoon, 34. “You gotta learn what you want.”
And like so many of the romantically challenged, you have to figure out if he’s the one for you. That’s the perplexing question Witherspoon toys with Friday in How Do You Know, a rom-com with the actress playing a past-her-prime softball pro who gets cut from Team USA and finds herself torn between two guys: a self-absorbed jock (Owen Wilson) and a somewhat neurotic businessman (Paul Rudd). But unlike Witherspoon, who exudes certainty and self-assurance, the character of Lisa is a romantic naïf.
“She’s not very good at articulating her feelings. She’s never been in a serious relationship. She’s almost an innocent,” says Witherspoon. “She doesn’t care if (men) call her back if she slept with them. She’s having sex for fun and sex for sport.”
So in that way, she’s loose and easy, just like Witherspoon? The actress, who is not exactly known for any public sexual peccadilloes, doesn’t miss a beat. “Trust me, that’s the quote I need to have picked up everywhere!” she says with a laugh.
That incisive wit, coupled with her grit and spunk, was what enamored writer/director James L. Brooks, who wrote the part with Witherspoon in mind. Having her portray an athlete, he says, was a metaphor for what it means to be a woman today.
“It’s how strong women have to be in dealing with life,” Brooks says. “You have to be soft but also tough. Reese has that strength. She’s very strong and has everything else going for her. She’s been doing it since she’s a kid and has discipline. She’s a real pro.”
Witherspoon trained with softball players for three months, five days a week, to nail Lisa’s physicality — like her clunky walk and awkwardness in high heels — and mannerisms. “And there’s 20 seconds of softball in the movie,” Brooks sums up. “There’s nothing she can’t take on.”
McG, who directed Witherspoon in the upcoming action flick This Means War, goes further, saying that Witherspoon’s allure is universal — a rarity among her peers.
“She brings intelligence, sass, humor and beauty. It’s the multidimensional approach that’s so appealing to men and women,” he says. “She’s the true embodiment of ‘lit from within.’ You can’t fabricate that. It’s impossible to do anything but fall in love with Reese Witherspoon.”
Indeed, some stars are less-than in person — they’re paler, more wan, muted and less attractive versions of the red-carpet gods and goddesses gawked at in magazines. Not Witherspoon, who oozes confidence and self-awareness, plus a vivacious charm. “She’s really funny and dry and thoughtful and subtle,” Rudd says. “She’s aware of everything. She doesn’t miss a beat.”
Life isn’t all about acting
Witherspoon knows how to play to her strengths. She has balanced prestige with popcorn, earning a best-actress Oscar as June Carter Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line while also cashing in at the box office as Elle Woods in the Legally Blonde flicks. According to Forbes, Witherspoon earned $32 million from June 2009 to June 2010, second only to Sandra Bullock. She runs the production company Type A Films, which she started a decade ago, and has, among others, the film version of Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife in development for Sony. And she’s still one of the few sure things in Hollywood: Her last major release was 2008’s Four Christmases, which raked in a very festive $120 million domestically.
Off-screen, too, the mom to Ava, 11, and Deacon, 7, is a blend of dazzle and relatability. Witherspoon, who hails from Tennessee, is exceedingly courteous and polished. “She’s a good person, and she has those Southern manners,” Brooks says.
That genteel exterior and her dazzling grin belie a shrewd businesswoman. McG calls her “literate and street-savvy. She comes from a very academic background, and she’s as smart as a human being can be.”
But she’s no Steve Jobs, Witherspoon insists. “I’m really not assertive. I’m not awesome at business, either. I’m learning to get better. I’m just very conservative and afraid everything is going to go away.”
The reality that Hollywood doesn’t exactly embrace wrinkles isn’t lost on the fresh-faced Witherspoon, who’s active as a producer and hopes to direct one day because she’s aware that there may be an expiration date to what she does for a living.
‘We’re all just people’
“As an actor, you think about that a lot, especially as a woman. It’s very important to cultivate a personal life that you’re just as interested in as your work life. Hopefully you’ll hang around like Meryl or Diane Keaton or Annette Bening. I think about that, and I think it’s important to have a lot of different interests in life.”
At that, Witherspoon has also succeeded. Ask her, and she’ll tell you that she’s a homebody who puts dinner on the table — stews and roasts are her specialty — and likes nothing more than losing herself in a page-turner, including The Passage by Justin Cronin and David Sedaris’ Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, plus the Twilight books.
For Witherspoon, civility means keeping parts of her personal life to herself. She handled her 2007 divorce from Phillippe with grace and restraint, barely discussing it in the press and focusing instead on her movies and raising her children. She’s open, to a point.
“I don’t have anything to hide. I don’t feel shame or embarrassment for the things I’ve gone through,” Witherspoon says. “What experience have I had that millions of other women haven’t had? And men, too. There’s nothing rarefied about my experience. We’re all just people.”
Her son and daughter, says Witherspoon, keep her young. They play electric guitar — the White Stripes are a favorite — and dance around the house. Kids? She’d like a few more. Matrimony, she’s not so sure about.
“I don’t think about the marriage thing as much. But it would be nice. I believe in it. I really do. It kind of redefines itself for you. I’m more clear, or realistic, about what it is.”
She’s equally thoughtful and circumspect about her current boyfriend, agent Jim Toth. Asking about him elicits a sunny grin from Witherspoon.
“I’m definitely happy. I’m happy with all the experiences I’ve had. I’ve learned what I don’t want. I’ve probably gotten closer to what I do want. It’s good.
“The best barometer is your friends. I have no perspective. Somehow when they say it to me, I feel happy. My mother said, ‘You seem like your old self.’ Where did I go to? Where have I been?”
Balancing act, with no fanfare
In addition to War, Witherspoon has the film version of Water for Elephants in the can and several projects in various stages of development. She’d like to work with David Fincher, Alfonso Cuaron or Quentin Tarantino, but she’s honest about her struggle to balance filmmaking with the reality of raising two kids.
“Sometimes my children (ask), ‘Why weren’t you in school?’ I have such guilt about it. It’s terrible. (I tell them), ‘I know it’s hard to be without your mom sometimes or I can’t be room mom or go on all the field trips, but when you go to college and out into the real world, most people will have that experience,’ ” Witherspoon says. “Actually, their mothers probably worked longer. My mother worked all day and all night, and every weekend, as a nurse. My mom always said, ‘Your job is your life insurance.’ You can’t depend on anybody but yourself. I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have my job.”
So if you’re expecting a tirade about the price of fame, look elsewhere. Witherspoon raises her eyebrows and gives a little half smile. “I’m lucky, man. I know what the alternatives are.”