Reese Witherspoon claims to have discovered at least one segment of the female population that is not inclined to talk about feelings.
Those would be female athletes.
In James Brooks’ romantic comedy How Do You Know, Witherspoon plays Elise, an Olympic veteran softball player who’s finally “past it” at age 31 and cut from the team. In her adrift state, she has to sort out her feelings about the two men in her life — philandering Major League pitcher Matty (Owen Wilson) and nice guy businessman Frank (Paul Rudd) facing federal fraud charges on behalf of his less-than-ethical father (Jack Nicholson).
“I’ve done a lot of comedies where a woman talks a lot about her romantic dynamics and is always kind of talking about men, and, like, ‘What should I do?’ ” she says.
Then she started meeting actual softball champs, including Sue Enquist, who has coached UCLA to 11 national championships. “Jim had done a lot of legwork meeting all these female athletes (as he was writing the script),”
Witherspoon says. “And really, they talked about very little other than the game. They never talked about their relationships. I was always trying to get more out of them, and it was really hard.”
So it was that Witherspoon got to play an almost stereotypically male character, inept with her emotions, sandwiched by unblinkingly honest males (Matty is frank about his philandering, Frank is candid about pretty much everything).
It’s kind of a switch in dynamics for a romantic comedy, she admits. “This character doesn’t even really want to talk about things, which is sort of an interesting female character. My character says to Owen (Wilson) at one point, ‘If I wake up in the middle of night and start crying just ignore me, please.’ What woman would ever say that in real life?”
Offscreen, however, she says all bets were off. “Every time I’d do a scene with Owen, I would get really attached to Owen. And the day that Owen had to leave, I just started crying out of nowhere. And Jim (Brooks) was like, ‘Stop crying. This is Owen’s scene!’ Then I’d go do scenes with Paul and I felt like I was cheating on Owen. It felt like a totally different movie which was nice, like being in two different plays.”
She did sympathize with the single-mindedness of a pro athlete, and the inability to take ‘no’ for an answer. “I really wanted to be a Broadway kid, and so I went to all these camps in the Catskills and I had to sing and dance and act. And I remember getting through the singing session at the end and I had my evaluation and they said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t sing.’
“I think that I told that story when I won an award for Walk the Line. I was like, ‘Thank God I didn’t listen.’ But it was hard to get over that mental block because someone had told me, basically, ‘You don’t know how to do that. Don’t do it.’ So you have to be careful what you say to people.”
Another of Elise’s quirks — an apartment full of Post-It notes with positive-thinking aphorisms — is right out of Witherspoon’s own home.
“I’m definitely one of those people that has Post-Its everywhere, like, the six evils in the world and how to avoid them. I really do. Desire, greed, envy — I try to tell myself all those things to avoid.
“Of the positive affirmations, I have to say that ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ is a pretty good one that’s sort of guided me through life.”