Another accolade for Reese was announced today – she is the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Entertainment Innovator of the Year’! Reese features on the front cover of their November issue, with a gorgeous new photoshoot and a fantastic, inspiring new interview. The interview focuses on Reese’s recent foray into producing, and features quotes on Reese from her husband Jim, and Nicole Kidman. Find the interview below – it’s a great read – and see photos in our Gallery. The magazine hits news-stands on November 4th so be sure to pick up a copy. Congratulations on this new honour, Reese
How Reese Witherspoon is Changing Hollywood for Women
With projects ranging from her HBO series ‘Big Little Lies’ to her production franchise to her growing lifestyle brand, Witherspoon has become a force in female storytelling
THIS PAST MAY, Reese Witherspoon experienced the closest thing she’ll get to a college homecoming when she returned to Stanford University, where she studied English literature for a few semesters in the mid-1990s but never graduated. Students invited her to be the featured guest at the Stanford Graduate School of Business’s View From the Top speaker series and asked her about her multifaceted career as an Academy Award–winning actress, producer and entrepreneur. Afterward, she popped over to the dorms with her 18-year-old daughter, Ava, to surprise whomever lived in her old room. “I knocked on the door, and a girl was in there,” Witherspoon recalls. “She opens it and screams, ‘Oh, my God! My mom is going to freak out; she just loves you!’ ”
The trip down memory lane prompts Witherspoon, 41, to ponder what might have happened if she hadn’t left the university for Hollywood after freshman year. (She took a leave of absence in 1996 to star in Pleasantville and Election.) After a critically acclaimed debut at age 14 in 1991’s The Man in the Moon, why would an aspiring actress enroll at Stanford and move to Northern California in the first place? “I was never going to be an actor who lives in their car because their dream was so big. [If acting didn’t work] I would have gone from Stanford to medical school and become a surgeon. Right now, I’d probably be the premier surgeon and pediatric cardiologist at Vanderbilt University,” she says, pausing. “What? I’m just being honest. I’m ambitious, and I’m over hiding that.”
“Of all the nasty words I’ve heard that are used to describe women, the one that has the ugliest connotations is ambition,” says Laura Dern, Witherspoon’s friend and co-star in the 2014 film Wild and this year’s seven-part HBO series Big Little Lies. “I don’t know why that’s declared conniving for women, because I’m constantly inspired by Reese’s ambition. You have a dream? She makes it happen.”
In the past decade, Witherspoon, mother of three, top-earning actress, powerful producer and, most recently, fashion designer, has become a new face of feminist filmmaking. Last year, the New Orleans–born, Nashville-raised entrepreneur founded Hello Sunshine, dedicated to realizing stories about women. She had created her own production companies in the past, including Type A Films, founded in 2003 and later dissolved, and then Pacific Standard in 2012. But Hello Sunshine (which absorbed Pacific Standard) is poised to become a Hollywood juggernaut, spanning feature films, TV series and digital content. The Oscar-nominated movies Wild and Gone Girl , as well as Big Little Lies, which won eight Emmy Awards (including one for outstanding limited series), were all projects produced by Witherspoon from books she discovered and optioned. She’s the 21st-century version of silent film star Mary Pickford, known as the first America’s Sweetheart, who co-founded United Artists in 1919, at the age of 27, so she could distribute her own films, or Lucille Ball, the I Love Lucy star who became the first female head of a major studio when she bought out ex-husband Desi Arnaz from their Desilu Productions in 1962. However, whereas those pioneering women were looking for a seat at the table, Witherspoon is seeking a larger piece of the pie.
“All we’re asking for is 50-50,” says Nicole Kidman, Witherspoon’s co-star and co-producer of Big Little Lies, citing a 2016 study for the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University that reported that only seven percent of filmmakers in 2016 were women. The Motion Picture Association of America found that women accounted for 52 percent of moviegoers in the same year. “A lot of women procrastinate or say, ‘I’ll do something,’ ” says Kidman. “But Reese is a doer.” She finds it thrilling to watch Witherspoon bounce between her duties as an actress, producer, designer and mother. “I always say to her, ‘You don’t understand how rare this is!’ To her, it’s like, ‘Yeah, now what?’ She can do it all standing on her head.”
On-screen, Witherspoon is best known for playing women who get things done, from Tracy Flick in Election to June Carter Cash in Walk the Line to Madeline Martha Mackenzie in Big Little Lies. Her most iconic role is Elle Woods, a pink-loving, Chihuahua-toting sorority girl whose ditziness belies her intelligence and who trades California frat parties for Harvard Law School in 2001’s Legally Blonde and its 2003 sequel. “At least once a week I have a woman come up to me and say, ‘I went to law school because of Legally Blonde,’ ” she says. “It’s incredible.” Not that she’s surprised by Woods’s allure: “You can be unapologetically feminine but also smart and driven.”
Throughout the early 2000s, with blockbusters like Sweet Home Alabama and critical hits like Walk the Line, which won her an Academy Award for best actress in 2006, Witherspoon joined a small club of actresses who commandeered multimillion-dollar paychecks per project, including Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz and Sandra Bullock. But, according to Witherspoon, that Hollywood game changed in 2008: “As our friends in the music business understand, everything went digital.” She cites the loss of DVD sales in particular. “We lost about a third of our revenue, and studios had to recalibrate their development. The first thing to go was the $30 to $40 million [budget] movie,” she says. “Those are the movies women star in. Women like me coming up through the business didn’t star in $100 million movies.”
In 2011, Witherspoon was sent a script that was so disappointing she called her agent at the time to complain. “He told me every actress in Hollywood wants one of these parts,” she says. “There were [roles for] two women, and they were both deplorable, disgusting, horrible.” (She refuses to identify the film but says it was theatrically released.) Witherspoon was smack-dab in her mid-30s, a time when talent and even ambition aren’t always enough in the movie industry for women. “I thought, This is my line in the sand. We women are too talented to be fighting over roles like this.”
Witherspoon confessed her frustration to her husband, Jim Toth, an agent at Creative Artists Agency who represents 15 of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars, including Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. (With Toth, whom she married in 2011, Witherspoon has a son, Tennessee, 5. With her first husband, actor Ryan Phillippe, whom she was married to from 1999 to 2007, she has Ava and a son, Deacon, 14.) “She was saying to me, ‘Everything I get offered is crap,’ ” Toth says. “I told her, ‘Even though I’m your husband, I’m still an agent, and I know the group that gets the first offers on all the good parts—and it’s you. There’s just nothing good out there.’ ” Then Toth helped Witherspoon identify an asset she had that some of his own clients didn’t: “Reese is a reader—a voracious one.”
Witherspoon starts and ends her days with her nose in a book, nonfiction in the morning (“something that gives me food for thought,” she says) and fiction in the evening (“escapism!”). “I read every night in the bath, and if it’s good I keep reading in bed,” says Witherspoon, who regularly finishes a book in a single sitting or has three going at once. In June, she did a deep dive into Joan Didion. In August, she decided to read all of Ann Patchett’s books. She cites her paternal grandmother, Dorothea, a former first-grade teacher, for seeding her love of literature. “When I was around 3, she started reading me big books without pictures, and she’d do all the voices,” Witherspoon recalls. “I would look up at her and be like, Where did she think of that voice? That started me reading.” Shelves in her Los Angeles home are stacked two and three rows deep with books. She runs her own book club through Instagram. “Writers are my rock stars!” declares Witherspoon, who has more than 11 million followers.
Toth told her: “You define the opportunity if you can remove the frustration.” Being a doer, Witherspoon launched the film production company Pacific Standard with veteran producer Bruna Papandrea and the mission to focus on female-centered content.
Around this time, Cheryl Strayed was about to publish her second book, Wild, a memoir about a 1,100-mile, one-woman hike of self-discovery along the Pacific Crest Trail. “I was just waiting,” Strayed recalls, “and wondering if anyone in Hollywood would make it a movie.” She’d heard Witherspoon was on the hunt for content, particularly for women, for her new production company, so she sent her an advance galley, making her one of the first to receive the book before publication. Witherspoon devoured the whole thing on a flight from New York to L.A. (“I was a sobbing mess,” she says) and quickly got on the phone with Strayed’s agent. Within days, she and Strayed were having long conversations about love, loss and motherhood—not the typical celebrity chitchat Strayed expected. Unbeknownst to Witherspoon, Strayed kept notes during their calls and still has the notebooks. “I can look at them and say she made a lot of promises on those phone calls—and she honored all of them,” Strayed says.
Wild was published in 2012. The film, the rights to which Witherspoon acquired “with my own money,” came out two years later and hauled in $52.5 million worldwide at the box office. “She gave me a big gift as a new producer,” Witherspoon says of Strayed. The film, adapted by Nick Hornby (thanks to Witherspoon, who approached him to be a part of the project), earned her and Dern Academy Award nominations for best actress and best actress in a supporting role, respectively. “It was a fairy tale,” Strayed says. “If I weren’t me I would want to smother me.”
Around the same time, Witherspoon was optioning another female writer’s book: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a thriller about a jaded wife who fakes her own murder to incriminate her cheating husband. Flynn had doubts about the book’s Hollywood potential. “I got a lot of feedback that it was complicated and hard to unravel, which I think was code for, ‘Oh, it stars a woman? Pass!’ ” she says, adding she couldn’t understand why a morally complex female was such a foreign concept. “Don Draper. Tony Soprano. Walter White. We have all these male antiheroes that do despicable things, and we’re fascinated by them. Women are human beings too: They do good stuff and they do bad stuff. What a surprise!”
Witherspoon snapped up the rights for Gone Girl—“She’s a little sassafras who gets shit done!” says Flynn—and asked David Fincher to direct. Hollywood insiders’ interest piqued when it was announced that Witherspoon would not star in the movie. Fincher “had a great idea that it should be a woman we don’t know very well,” Flynn recalls. The lead went to Rosamund Pike, who was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress.
“She’s no dummy,” Toth says of his wife. “You get Fincher to direct a movie, and he says the role is right for someone else—so the movie is better, and another woman gets a great role too: That’s a win-win.” Furthermore, shooting schedules for Wild and Gone Girl clashed, so without Witherspoon in the latter, both filmed simultaneously. The result: For 11 weeks Witherspoon’s production company had two of the year’s top women-focused films at the box office at the same time.
She’s bringing women’s stories to the small screen as well. Big Little Lies was one of 2017’s biggest TV sensations. Based on Liane Moriarty’s darkly comedic novel about a group of mothers with grade-school children and a murder at a school fundraiser, it stars Witherspoon, Kidman, Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz and explores themes of feminism, communication and domestic violence. “I remember when we went in and pitched it. It felt powerful, which is uncommon as a woman in that position,” says Kidman. “Actually, it was fun!”
Richard Plepler, the CEO of HBO, remembers the initial meetings with Witherspoon and Kidman. “A good pitch is when you can see that someone is breathing what they are presenting, as opposed to saying it,” he says. “They breathed this story. They understood the material. They had organic intuition. And they were right.” He watched rough cuts of early episodes and thought, “Holy shit, this is good! It was clear we had something special.” (Neither HBO nor Witherspoon has confirmed a second season of the hit show, but it’s a poorly kept secret in Hollywood that a follow-up story is being discussed with Moriarty.)
Director Jean-Marc Vallée collaborated with Witherspoon on both Big Little Lies and Wild. Witherspoon first met him when she was looking for a director for the adaptation of Strayed’s memoir. “We started to talk about the book, and we had tears in our eyes,” he says. “Two crybabies in a restaurant at noon. Reese wanted to serve and honor these words and this woman.” Vallée’s challenge to Witherspoon in Big Little Lies was to be less comedic: “Her instinct is to be funny, but when she needs to be dramatic she can get there right away. It looks so easy for her to do her magic in front of the camera. She arrives on set and five minutes later—bang! It takes some actors time to get to these places, but Reese? Five minutes.”
During filming in and around Monterey, California (an artistic license from the original story, which was set in suburban Australia), Witherspoon was sometimes in disbelief that so many top actresses were in a single project. “Laura, Nicole and I kept looking around saying, ‘We would never be on set together!’ ” she says. “My part is equitable to her part, which is equitable to Laura’s part, which is equitable to Shailene’s and Zoë’s.” (It was the first time that Witherspoon and Kidman worked together, and tabloids reported infighting between them, which both women find ridiculous. In conversation, Kidman refers to Witherspoon as “my baby sister.”)
Witherspoon is especially proud of Big Little Lies because it was her “hat trick,” referring to her third win as a producer. “I wasn’t being offered opportunities to grow my company until I got that third hit,” she says, noting that’s not always the case with first-time male filmmakers. “A guy has one hit at Sundance, and he gets Jurassic World.”
Last year, Witherspoon announced the formation of Hello Sunshine, a production franchise with Otter Media, the joint venture between the Chernin Group and AT&T . Witherspoon has a team of 15 employees, and they have a full slate ahead: four feature films and six television shows in various forms of development. This summer, news broke that actress and producer Jennifer Aniston would return to television with Witherspoon in a show co-produced by Hello Sunshine. (It will be the second time they’ve appeared on the small screen together: Witherspoon played Aniston’s younger sister on Friends in 2000.) In March, director Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, co-starring Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey and Mindy Kaling, hits theaters. The film is based on Madeleine L’Engle’s acclaimed novel of the same name and marks the first time an African-American female directs a movie with a budget over $100 million. Witherspoon also acquired the rights to several books, including Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, and Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll.
Witherspoon’s desire to tell stories centered around females has spilled into areas beyond Hollywood, too. In 2015, she launched Draper James, a lifestyle brand with three stand-alone stores (with another opening by the end of 2017) and business at Net-a-Porter and Nordstrom. The collections include ready-to-wear, accessories and home goods. A bestseller is a tote bag that says TOTES Y’ALL.
“Well, I was being approached by other brands that were based in the Northeast, and I thought, I don’t really know anything about that, but what I do know is how beautiful the South is, and I had this incredible upbringing there,” says Witherspoon, who owns a house in Nashville, where her parents live, and named the company after her paternal grandparents, Dorothea Draper and William James Witherspoon. Southerners “are proud about their culture and their values—and they should be.” Sales for Draper James have doubled for the past two years.
“Reese is like every other founder I work with, and I mean that as a compliment,” says Kirsten Green, the founder of Forerunner Ventures, a venture capital fund that has invested in high-performing start-ups, including Draper James, Birchbox, Glossier and Warby Parker. “She doesn’t keep business hours. She is always available, always interested, always weighing her options. This is not just another celebrity brand.”
Elizabeth Arden also announced this year that Witherspoon is the “storyteller in chief” of the brand, which is a new sort of spokesperson that transcends print and commercial modeling. It’s a job Witherspoon didn’t wait to come to her: She personally called Ron Perelman, the head of Revlon , Arden’s parent company, and asked him to lunch to discuss a potential collaboration. At the restaurant, “I brought one of my people with me, and she came alone,” Perelman says. “That to me is very impressive. When an individual, whoever it is, is strong enough and powerful enough that they show up and say, ‘Boom, here I am.’ ”
Though Witherspoon realized in her 30s that acting wasn’t her only skill, she still treats all meetings—whether about financing or pitching a TV show—like an audition. “I know I’m good at things,” she says. “And I’m over being bashful about it. Do basketball players have to sit there and act coy? Tell me something: Does LeBron James twiddle his thumbs and say, ‘Jeez, I’m kind of great at shooting, and I guess I’m OK at dribbling and passing’? No, he’s like, ‘I’m amazing! I rock!’ I wish more actresses had that kind of bravado.”