Reese Witherspoon’s Second Act: Big-Time Producer
From Oscar-winning actress to Emmy-winning producer: After taking charge of her career, she makes deals with HBO and Apple.
A few months ago, Reese Witherspoon realized everything had changed.
HBO’s glossy, seven-episode drama, “Big Little Lies” — which Ms. Witherspoon starred in and helped produce — won eight Emmy Awards, including the one for best limited series. From the Microsoft Theater stage in Los Angeles on Sept. 17, to swelling applause, Ms. Witherspoon spoke of how important it was to bring “women to the front of their own stories and make them the heroes of their own stories.”
Not long after that night, she found herself in demand.
“It opened a lot of doors for me,” Ms. Witherspoon said in an interview this past week. “People wanted to be in business with me as a producer in the TV space. My mission was to create television for other women, for other female storytellers that are actresses, other directors and other writers. I think it just clicked in people’s minds.”
Since then, Ms. Witherspoon has transformed herself from an actress increasingly frustrated with the roles she was being offered into a producer with a slate of projects that puts her in the company of series creators like Dick Wolf, Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy.
Last month, HBO ordered a second season of “Big Little Lies,” with Ms. Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, among the key companies behind the show. In addition, Apple has bought three Hello Sunshine projects as part of its push to compete with Netflix, Amazon and Hulu in streaming. That amounts to a third of Apple’s TV purchases to date.
One of the series — which is set to star Ms. Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston as hosts of a fictional morning news show — marks one of the most expensive deals in TV history: With a 20-episode commitment, Apple has pledged roughly $240 million to make it, according to two people familiar with the series. Ms. Witherspoon’s other two Apple projects will star Octavia Spencer and Kristen Wiig.
Apple’s top TV executives, Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, said in a statement that Ms. Witherspoon had “an extraordinary knack for being a step ahead of the zeitgeist.”
The rise of Hello Sunshine — with projects centered on strong, complicated women — syncs up perfectly with the #timesup movement, which counts Ms. Witherspoon as a major player, and gives evidence that the risk-averse Hollywood establishment may have learned something from the blockbuster success of “Wonder Woman” last year.
“People are desperate for this kind of storytelling about the female heroes that have always been in the shadows and now are coming into the light,” Ms. Witherspoon said.
Ms. Witherspoon, 41, does not have the track record of super producers like Ms. Rhimes and Mr. Murphy, who have created hit shows for more than a decade, but she has already put a lot of distance between herself and the pack of actors who run production boutiques as a hobby.
Ms. Rhimes, the hitmaker behind “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” who recently signed an deal with Netflix, called Ms. Witherspoon a “boots on the ground” producer.
“Reese has been very smart about what she wants to do,” Ms. Rhimes said. “She has leveraged her power in a very smart way to get big projects done. She knows what she’s doing.”
Casey Bloys, the president of programming at HBO, said he was impressed by her willingness to get into the minutiae.
“Reese is a movie star, she has a movie star’s presence, she’s a great actress — that all goes without saying,” he said. “What surprises people is I can call Reese on ‘Big Little Lies’ and have those conversations, saying, ‘How do we get this deal closed?’ — and she’ll go off and get it closed.”
One of her recent producing coups was to add Meryl Streep to the “Big Little Lies” cast. Along with her “Big Little Lies” co-star (and fellow executive producer) Nicole Kidman, Ms. Witherspoon lobbied Ms. Streep, a three-time Oscar winner, to come aboard. She said yes in an email to Ms. Witherspoon and Ms. Kidman on the day “Big Little Lies” was nominated for six Golden Globes. (The show went on to win four.)
“I’ll never forget the day I got that email,” Ms. Witherspoon said. “I called Nicole, and I just started to cry.”
That catharsis was a long time in coming, said Ms. Witherspoon, who had seen a number of her projects wilt. She grew weary of hearing that the industry had reached its quota of female-driven movies for the year. At the same time, she was starring in mostly forgettable movies — “How Do You Know” and “Devil’s Knot” — and her box-office stock was dropping.
She took control of her career by making a deeper commitment to producing. An avid reader who often posts photos of her favorites on Instagram, she started optioning book after book, partly motivated by a conversation she had with her husband, Jim Toth, an agent at Creative Artists Agency.
“I talked to my husband around that time, when the movies weren’t working for me,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘Are these movies you want to be making?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m waiting for the scripts to come in.’ And he said: ‘You don’t seem like the kind of person who sits around and waits for the phone to ring. You read more books than anybody I know, so why don’t you start making them into your own material?’
“And I thought about my mom, who said, ‘If you want something done, do it yourself,’” Ms. Witherspoon continued. “You can sit there and complain about it, or you can do something about it. Instead of having people make calls for me, I called every studio head myself: ‘Hey, it’s Reese!’ I’ve known everybody for 27 years. They knew me when I was 14 years old, all of them. I’ve made movies at pretty much every studio. It’s still the same 200 people who are working in our business.”
Ms. Witherspoon’s previous production company, Pacific Standard, had hits with the 2014 movies “Wild” (based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed and starring Ms. Witherspoon) and “Gone Girl.” It came to an end in 2016 when Ms. Witherspoon split from her longtime producing partner, Bruna Papandrea.
Ms. Witherspoon sought outside investment when she was ready to start Hello Sunshine, striking a deal with Otter Media, a company owned by the Chernin Group and AT&T, which bought a 30 percent stake in her new production house.
In addition to the three Apple projects and “Big Little Lies,” Hello Sunshine has two potential series in the running at ABC and NBC. Several film projects are also in the works. Among them, Fox 2000 has picked up “Something in the Water,” based on a thriller by Catherine Steadman about newlyweds whose Bora Bora honeymoon goes awry, and Sony’s TriStar Pictures has given the green light to “A White Lie,” based on a 2016 novel “The Gilded Years,” by Karin Tanabe, about the first black woman to attend Vassar College, in the 1890s.
Hello Sunshine, which recently named Sarah Harden, formerly of Otter Media, as its chief executive, also has plans to create short bursts of digital-friendly content. At the moment, though, Ms. Witherspoon is making her name in the producer ranks because of her work in the hypercompetitive streaming market.
Her planned Apple series with Ms. Aniston — the “Friends” star’s return to a lead role in a television series — was inspired by “Top of the Morning,” a book by the CNN media reporter Brian Stelter on the so-called morning TV wars. For that one, Apple has pledged to make two 10-episode seasons, without so much as a script written. Two people familiar with the project said Apple would pay $12 million to $15 million an episode. (By comparison, “Game of Thrones,” one of the costliest shows ever made, has a budget of $15 million an episode for its final season.)
Unlike the stereotypical Hollywood producer or celebrity, Ms. Witherspoon is a deep reader — which has impressed the women who are working with her on Hello Sunshine’s other Apple projects.
Colleen McGuinness, a former “30 Rock” writer who is the show runner for the planned series based on a short-story collection by Curtis Sittenfeld, was surprised that Ms. Witherspoon had read the book before their first meeting. When Ms. McGuinness mentioned this, she said, she “got a look” from Ms. Witherspoon.
“We laughed about it, and I said, ‘Yeah, most people don’t,’” Ms. McGuinness said.
During a meeting about the project starring Ms. Spencer, the writer-producer Nichelle Tramble pointed out a book in the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in Ms. Witherspoon’s office — “The Alice Network,” a novel by Kate Quinn set in the 1940s. That led to a discussion of the lack of female leads in historical dramas.
“That she was such an intense, true and avid reader was very exciting and a little bit shocking,” Ms. Tramble said.
Ms. Witherspoon marvels at how the business is changing. A few years ago, she said, prospects were dim for actresses over age 40. She hopes she can help change that in her new role.
“You get older and the phone does stop ringing,” she said. “It’s systemic, because the people who are writing the stories aren’t 40-year-old women. You write what you know. Well, there were no 40-year-old female screenwriters, and now women of color are writing screenplays and getting them made at big studios.
“I’m as incredulous as everybody else,” she continued. “I never thought this would happen.”