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Reese Witherspoon Knows Rom-Coms Need an Image Makeover

Romantic-comedy heroines can seldom have it all. They’re either professionally successful and unlucky in love, or great with the kids and unfulfilled at work or in the bedroom.

But in “Home Again,” a comedy due Sept. 8, Reese Witherspoon is a walking empowerment meme, complete with a wardrobe of pristine white blazers: she’s a newly separated 40-year-old, the mother of two precocious girls who starts a promising career as an interior decorator and shacks up with a hot 27-year-old.

“It never would have even crossed my mind that she couldn’t be all those things,” the writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer said, adding, “That wasn’t my experience growing up.”

Ms. Meyers-Shyer, 30, is the daughter of two filmmakers: Nancy Meyers (“It’s Complicated”) and Charles Shyer (“Baby Boom”). She spent her formative years on movie sets, before making her directing debut with “Home Again.” (Nancy Meyers served as executive producer.)

“In certain ways, Hallie knows more about the movie business than I do,” Ms. Witherspoon said.

Ms. Witherspoon, 41, has lately taken a big leap as a filmmaker herself, starting a production company to focus on projects led by women, with hits like “Wild,” “Gone Girl” and, earlier this year, the HBO mini-series “Big Little Lies,” about mothers in wealthy Monterey, Calif., that starred Ms. Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, among others. (A follow-up is being discussed with Liane Moriarty, the author of the novel on which it’s based, Ms. Witherspoon said.)

Speaking by phone from her Los Angeles home — and pausing briefly to greet Tennessee, the youngest of her three children — she spoke passionately about the changing roles for women on screen and how she wants to be a part of that change. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Here’s a twist: Your character in “Home Again” has a hot and heavy romance with a younger man, and she doesn’t even apologize for enjoying it.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that on film in a way that the woman’s not some sort of creepy predator. She’s actually just a woman and she’s appealing to a 27-year-old guy. I thought, why do we continually see this with leading men, but we never see a woman in this position? I’ve dated younger guys, but I just never saw a movie about it.

It just underlined to me that we need more perspective in film, we need to have different voices telling these stories. Otherwise how does society change? How do we change the conversations we’re having if we’re hearing stories from the same voices over and over again, or the same demographic’s voices?

Why do you think the romantic comedy has fallen out of favor as a genre?

The romantic comedy as it existed 15 years ago just isn’t viable. I think people know that every life doesn’t have a happy ending, and they’re not going to be force-fed some idea of what romance is. Also, people know their lives aren’t necessarily defined by one romantic relationship solving all their problems. So there’s that reality check. But I don’t think of this as a romantic comedy, I think of it as a modern comedy. It’s those life decisions that change the course of human experience, and a woman’s experience, that are just as big in scope and as profound as any kind of big thriller movie. Because we’ve all faced those decisions.

Aside from “Legally Blonde,” your career hasn’t been sequel-driven. How does it feel to have fans clamoring for another season of “Big Little Lies”?

We had no idea there was going to be such a reception for it, and it’s just been fantastic. I think people really want to see older women on film, women working together on film. I’ve never had an opportunity to work with my contemporaries in that way — we all had leading parts, and got to dive deep on character. They should be making more shows like that.

Do you go into studio meetings now armed with data to show how much demand there is for this programming?

Sometimes! It’s empirical data that there’s an audience there, and they want to see programming with women in it, of all ages and of every color. Even the responses from other women in the industry were like, “Yes!” They were writing Nicole and I constantly, going, “This is amazing! Can I be in it next time?”

What other character types would you like to see change on screen?

I was with Mindy Kaling today, and we were talking about women of color onscreen, just not seeing people. I just don’t see Asian characters on screen that look the way any of my Asian friends look or talk, with the exception of one or two shows. Latina characters. That kind of misrepresentation is always so curious to me. There’s a lot of stuff that just doesn’t reflect reality, and I think audiences are looking for a little more truth. They still want storytelling and fantasy, escape, but I think there’s still room for the world to reflect what they see in their everyday lives.

Think about all the little girls. What movies are they going to? It really worries me! And little boys, too. You never see a girl starring in her own movie? That’s weird to me.

I grew up with Holly Hunter and Debra Winger and Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn. Where are the women who are the stars of their own movies, those comedies that you watch 15 times?

On cable, until you can quote every word.

I watched every Meg Ryan movie. It was like an event when Meg Ryan had a movie coming out. What comedy person is that now? There’s definitely an evolution that needs to happen. When I think about little girls and what they see, it makes me want to get up in the morning and work harder.

(New York Times)

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The Morning Show (2019)
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