Reese Witherspoon New baby, new production company and two of the best roles of her career – Reese Witherspoon is at the top of her game. She talks ambition, inspiration and why her girlfriends keep her sane, with Rosamund Dean.
There are some actresses who are so adored on screen, you almost don’t want to meet them, in case the reality doesn’t live up to the fantasy. Reese Witherspoon is one. This is the woman who taught us the ‘bend and snap’ in Legally Blonde, played Rachel’s little sister in Friends, and won an Oscar as resilient, conflicted June Carter in Walk The Line.
Sitting in the bar of the Beverly Hills Hotel where we are to meet for afternoon tea, I wonder: how can the real Reese Witherspoon possibly compete? Then, she strides in, all impenetrably dark sunglasses and stylish black sweater thrown over a red Carven dress.
For a second, she looks intimidating, but then the glasses come off, that megawatt smile comes on and I relax. She actually is the charming southern belle we know and love, her conversation peppered with ‘y’know’ and ‘y’all’.
‘Yeah, people definitely hug me a lot, and hand me their babies,’ she says of her girl-next-door image. ‘But it’s better than people throwing stuff at me, right? I’m always met with smiles.’
And – brilliantly – she counts some of our other favourite actresses among her closest friends. She recently enjoyed a girlie beach weekend in Mexico with Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore.
‘They’re just as charismatic and fun as you would imagine,’ she laughs. ‘It’s nice to hang with Drew because we both just had babies and we can support each other. And Cameron is such a funny, bright gal. She’s an incredibly sharp business-minded woman, but she disguises that side of herself. It’s her secret alter ego. It’s important to nurture your friendships and have fun because you can’t be a good mom unless you’re taking care of yourself.’
Witherspoon is incredibly family-focused, mentioning her husband and children affectionately and often. She also has an admirably good relationship with ex-husband Ryan Phillippe – father to 13-year-old Ava and nine-year-old Deacon – from whom she separated in 2006. She married talent agent Jim Toth in 2011 and their son, Tennessee, was born in September last year.
The tabloids made much of Barrymore and Witherspoon’s post-baby bodies on the Mexico trip. That level of scrutiny would send most of us over the edge, but she is diplomatic. ‘Well, there were lots of girls on that trip, it wasn’t all actresses. But we’re the ones who get photographed in our bathing suits,’ she rolls her eyes. ‘Great.’
She’s used to the attention, of course. Witherspoon has been landing leading roles for over two decades and, although she remains best known for comedy, her career includes everything from psychological thrillers (American Psycho) to period drama (Vanity Fair).
This year, she stars in two roles that are a world away from Legally Blonde. First up, she is the beautiful-but-damaged love of Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive in the wonderful coming-of-age story, Mud (released this month), then the mother of a murdered child in autumn’s true-life drama, Devil’s Knot, with Colin Firth and Stephen Moyer.
Both films are set in Arkansas – part of the draw for Witherspoon, having grown up in neighbouring Tennessee. ‘Mud is a story about where I’m from,’ she nods. ‘I grew up in that environment, on the water. My brother and I would spend all day tinkering with mechanical stuff and running around. The southern parts of America have their own dialect and sensibility and [writer/director] Jeff Nichols understands that because he’s from Arkansas.’
The film follows two boys who discover Mud hiding out and try to reunite him with estranged girlfriend Juniper. Jeff Nichols wanted Witherspoon for the role from the offset.
‘When I originally cast Reese, I told her I needed her because Juniper is spoken about through the entire film, and I needed the audience to recognise her importance as soon as she walked across screen,’ he tells me over email. ‘You have to believe Mud when he speaks about her character and you must believe he would go to such lengths to be with her. Reese commands this type of attention.’
McConaughey agrees: ‘Mud completely deifies Juniper, and there is no way she can live up to that.’ Interestingly, he adds: ‘Reese was the person I pictured as Juniper before we even began.’
It’s funny to see her sipping tea in the hotel’s very swish Polo Lounge, when her character in Mud is all Daisy Dukes and tattoos. She grins at the mention of McConaughey: ‘My husband is his agent, so I knew him already. He’s one of the world’s greatest storytellers. When he talks, you just want to listen. He’s got that wonderful syrupy Texas voice.’
Surely somebody somewhere is writing a romantic comedy in which these two can star together? It makes perfect sense. In a genre of many bad films, McConaughey and Witherspoon both know what makes a good one. Well, most of the time.
‘It really depends on how much you want the main characters to get together,’ says Witherspoon. ‘I can watch Bridget Jones any day of the week. And When Harry Met Sally, or Sleepless In Seattle. Any Nora Ephron film, basically.’
In fact, Ephron has been an enormous influence on Witherspoon’s life. Shortly before the beloved writer and director died in June last year, they had been working together on a biopic of American jazz singer Peggy Lee, which was to star Witherspoon.
‘Nora became a dear friend and gave me so much advice – about love, about work, everything,’ says Witherspoon, who says she feels very lucky to have received advice directly from the writer whose books inspired so many women. ‘I quote her books all the time, whether I’m talking to my daughter or my mother; I’m always thinking about Nora’s words. She really cared about helping other women.’
The idea of women supporting each other is crucial to Witherspoon. She has been approached to be the face of countless beauty brands, but chose Avon because of their work with women’s initiatives, like breast cancer charities and domestic violence campaigns. When I ask if she’s a feminist, she doesn’t miss a beat: ‘Absolutely, of course.’
And then reels off stats without pausing for breath. ‘Even now, in America, a woman makes 87 cents to every dollar a man makes. If you’re a black woman, you make 75 cents. You’re a Latin woman, it’s 67 cents. And this is doing the same job. There is enormous inequality in pay and inequality in the workplace to this day.’
These days it’s hard to talk about women at work without mentioning Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her much-discussed book, Lean In. Sandberg’s mantra is one that Witherspoon firmly believes in: women should put themselves forward at work, stop putting themselves down and stop worrying about being ‘ambitious’ (a euphemism for ‘aggressive’ when talking about a woman).
‘As women, we shrug and smile and say, “Oh… me?” because it makes it socially acceptable for us to be successful,’ says Witherspoon. ‘But there is a balance between being an arrogant jerk and being someone who is proud of their accomplishments. We need to let successful women show off and support them. Because men don’t spend any time putting themselves down. They don’t waste their breath. You have to be the best version of yourself and, if that means you have to be a bit self-promoting, then it’s okay. It really is. Because who’s going to believe in you more than yourself? Other than, maybe, your mother.’
She cites an example: her Academy Award for Walk The Line, which now sits proudly in her living room ‘wedged between some macaroni art from Ava when she was little and a sculpture that Deacon made’. But there was a time when she kept it in the bedroom because she didn’t want to show off. Only when a friend told her she shouldn’t hide her light under a bushel did she move it into the front room. ‘Because Lord knows every day is not a success,’ she says with a wry smile, ‘every year is not a success. You have to celebrate the good.’ And Witherspoon has a lot to celebrate.
With such a long and varied career, at just 37, she is something of an industry veteran. With nothing to prove, she’s ready to take some risks. Having dabbled in producing over the years, she has formed a new company, Pacific Standard Films, with friend Bruna Papandrea. They have several projects in the pipeline, including an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, on which she has enlisted Nick Hornby to write the screenplay.
‘I’ve gained a lot of confidence as a businesswoman over the years,’ she says. ‘I feel like I know what I’m doing now, and also that other people know that I know what I’m doing. I’m very driven.’ She scrunches her face up in a look of determination that reminds me of Tracy Flick, the superkeen high-school presidential candidate she played in 1999’s political satire Election, her breakthrough role.
‘Yeah, I really like to have a task or a goal,’ she laughs. So work is going well and life in the Witherspoon household sounds golden, but refreshingly normal. She tells me about the rush to get everyone to school on time with all the requisite book bags and guitars (clearly, in LA, kids take a guitar to school).
She hopes her eldest, Ava, will go to university, but admits it’s difficult to argue her case when she got into the prestigious Stanford but left after a year when her career took off. ‘She’d better get her butt to college, basically!’ she laughs. ‘But right now we just have to make it through junior high. It is not easy being 13. I’m reliving it through her and every time you don’t get invited to a birthday party, it’s the most horrible feeling.’
With her solid family life, it’s easy to forget that Witherspoon has been through some really tough times in the past few years, including the divorce and time as a single parent. It was at those times that her female friends really stepped up.
‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know what I would have done so many times in my life if I hadn’t had my girlfriends,’ she says. ‘They have literally gotten me up out of bed, taken my clothes off, put me in the shower, dressed me, said, “Hey, you can do this,” put my high heels on and pushed me out the door! But you do have to work at friendships as much as you would any relationship. So, even when I’m really busy, we always manage to find each other on Saturday nights for a drink.’
Witherspoon is great company, laughing easily. But the biggest laugh of the afternoon comes when I remark that when it comes to balancing her family and career, she seems frighteningly together and on top of everything.
‘Hahahahaaah,’ she exclaims, with a look that says it certainly doesn’t feel that way. ‘Things have got to give all over the place. Ever since I had the baby, I can’t remember anything. Seriously, this child stole my brain. I’m sure I’m losing friendships over forgetting to get back to people. But you can’t keep up with everything. I’ve got a 13-year-old, a nine-year-old and a baby. It’s like CNN ticker tape running through my mind at all times [puts on robotic voice]: “Where is Ava? She’s okay. Good. Where is Deacon? He’s okay. Good. Where is Tennessee? Is he okay? Yes. Great. Back to Ava…” It doesn’t stop.’
One thing that clears her head is building boards on Pinterest. Yes, really, she is completely obsessed with the pinboard-creating social networking site.
‘Obsessed,’ she repeats, firmly. ‘My husband says, “Are you buying those things?” And I’m like, “No, I’m just putting pictures of them on my electronic pinboard.” Then I get to organise them: so this is my dream kitchen, these are my favourite handbags, these are hotels I want to visit, jewellery I really need to buy… I have a whole board of monogrammed accessories, I like to put my name on everything.’
She waves her Breton-striped iPhone case around as an example. It is emblazoned with ‘Reese’ on the back. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’ she says with a helpless shrug. ‘It’s expensive and I don’t need it, but it’s got my name on it!’
Our afternoon tea is winding up. She has ignored the tower of sandwiches in favour of a bowl of berries, but then so would you if you were photographed on the beach right after giving birth. It seems a love of tea is not Witherspoon’s only British a affection. She talks enthusiastically about Downton Abbey and then professes a love of Sharon Horgan’s dark BBC Three comedy, Pulling.
‘Sharon is so brilliant,’ she enthuses. ‘She finds comedy in the mundane, and how absurd everyday life can be. She and I are actually working together at the moment.’
Whaaaat? A Horgan/Witherspoon co-production? ‘Yes, it’s a Sharispoon… a Reesegan… a Horgaspoon!’ she exclaims, delighted with her portmanteau. ‘It’s The Top Secret Untitled Horgaspoon Project.’ We can’t wait.