The Sunday Telegraph Interview
Life teaches Reese Witherspoon all she need know
REESE Witherspoon is hooting with laughter. She’s just heard how co-star Jack Nicholson answered the inevitable question prompted by the new romantic comedy How Do You Know: how do you know when you’re in love?
“When you call your lawyer and start enquiring about pre-nups,” is how the legendary actor responded.
Witherspoon’s answer is a little more thoughtful. It’s also topical, because she’s just announced her engagement to her boyfriend of a year, Hollywood agent Jim Toth.
He proposed over the Christmas holidays with a four-carat diamond ring, outshone only by the huge smile the actress has been wearing ever since.
“I’m old enough to know I have no idea,” laughs the 34-year-old, looking ultra-chic in a black Proenza Schouler dress and sky-high Louboutin heels.
“In my 20s, I used to think I knew everything. Now I’m learning that as you get older, you begin to have the perspective that you don’t really know anything.
“Life is this great journey; you just never know what’s going to happen. So I kind of rely on my friends and family – they seem to know better than I do. They’re like, ‘You’re really happy!’
“And I think as you get older, what you want changes too. What you’re looking for in a relationship in your 20s is totally different from in your 30s.”
But Witherspoon’s 20s weren’t just a journey, they were a roller-coaster. At her 21st-birthday party, she met actor Ryan Phillippe, later her co-star in the movie Cruel Intentions. At 23, she married him and they had a child, Ava.
The same year, Witherspoon was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role as an absurdly ambitious high-school student in the indie comedy Election.
Two years later, she leapt to the top of the A-list with the massively successful guilty pleasure Legally Blonde. A son, Deacon, now seven, soon followed.
But no one could have predicted that right before she turned 30, she’d win the ultimate accolade: an Oscar, for her role as June Carter Cash in Walk The Line.
She and Phillippe split later that year, and her subsequent relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal ended after two years.
Witherspoon and Toth had crossed paths because he worked at the agency that represented her, and a quiet relationship soon blossomed into something special. “It’s very comfortable to be with somebody who understands my career, but doesn’t do what I do,” she has said.
In recent years, Witherspoon’s career has taken a back seat to her kids. She’s appeared in just four films since winning the Oscar, including How Do You Know.
This latest film tempted her because director James L. Brooks – the man behind the modern classics Broadcast News and Terms Of Endearment – wrote the role for her.
“It was a privilege to play one of his feisty, spitfire women,” Witherspoon says now, sitting in the bistro at New York’s Ritz-Carlton hotel.
She plays Lisa, a fiercely driven professional softball player who has dedicated her life to the sport.
When Lisa has to choose between two suitors, a straight-arrow businessman (played by Paul Rudd) and a baseball pitcher (Owen Wilson) who is a player in more than one sense of the word, she discovers that she’s not nearly as good at relationships as she is at softball.
“Before I had kids, I was very competitive and aggressive,” Witherspoon admits. “So I could relate to the role of Lisa on that level.
“After you have kids, it helps you get out of that very myopic focus on career. It kind of put my whole life in perspective, and stopped that endless cycle of self-obsession.
“It was fascinating to play a woman who wasn’t really verbal about her romantic dynamics. She has almost a masculine attitude about love and relationships. I’d never seen a woman like that on film, so it was really a joy.”
Witherspoon insists she has no regrets about having kids at a young age, and would love to have more.
She and Ava, now 11, like to go shopping together, and look spookily alike. “Oh, thanks,” Witherspoon says. “I look just like my mother, and she looks just like her mother – we just all look alike.”
Motherhood, she adds, “is a big responsibility that tends to shift and change throughout the years”.
“It’s been really fascinating, and I’ve felt really lucky to be able to guide them through life, and take care of them.”
Witherspoon may have more balance in her life these days, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t go all out for a role.
For Walk The Line, she learned how to sing and play the autoharp. For How Do You Know, she trained three hours a day, five days a week, for months, working with Olympic softball players and a national coach to get her skills up to scratch – even though most of those scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor.
“It was pretty intense,” she says. “They would pitch balls to me at 75 miles per hour (120km/h). I put on a lot of muscle.”
I tell Witherspoon how good it is to see a woman on screen who looks healthy rather than super-skinny.
“I’ve never had eating hang-ups,” she replies. “I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve never been considered a sex symbol or anything like that.
“It’s not like how I look in a bikini is going to affect whether I get hired.
“I’m pretty athletic,” she continues with a laugh. “But my softball career’s probably over.”
How Do You Know is in cinemas on January 26.