Reese Witherspoon’s phone stopped ringing. Now she’s making the calls
Sitting next to Nicole Kidman in makeup on the set of “Big Little Lies,” Reese Witherspoon had questions. Loads of questions. What was it like to work with Stanley Kubrick? How did you do the musical numbers in “Moulin Rouge!”? Witherspoon loves movies. At age 44, she has been working on sets for three decades and enjoys nothing more than digging into film lore.
Kidman, though, had more existential musings she wanted to explore. “Do you ever think about dying, Reese?” Kidman would ask her costar. “Because I think about it all the time.”
“And she’s like, ‘Nope, I don’t think about it because I know where I’m going,’” Kidman relates over the phone from her Nashville home. “I wish I had her certainty. Reese doesn’t fear things, that’s for certain.”
Hearing Kidman’s story, Witherspoon laughs, chalking her faith up to her Episcopal upbringing in Nashville. She went to church every Wednesday and Sunday, singing her heart out in the church choir for nine years and loving every minute of it.
“I don’t have a lot of fear, that’s true,” Witherspoon says. “There’s a time and a purpose and a place, and I don’t fear death, because I know there’s heaven. I know it.”
We’re talking on the phone in early May, Witherspoon from her home in Pacific Palisades, where she’s been sheltering in place with her husband, Quibi exec Jim Toth; her college-student daughter, Ava; and younger sons, Deacon and Tennessee. The national protests against racism and police violence following the police killing of another black man, George Floyd, are weeks away. At this moment, all I’m wondering is how Witherspoon can be so certain about the afterlife. It’d be nice to feel sure of something right now.
“My daughter asked me that the other day, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I just know,’” Witherspoon says. “I believe deeply that there’s a higher power — and I don’t know what that is — but I just don’t fear dying. A lot of people have these repressive experiences with religion, and I didn’t. I felt this incredible acceptance and that everyone has a gift and we’re all God’s children and your purpose in the world is to find the gifts that God gave you.”
Unlike the entitled woman she played on the Hulu limited series “Little Fires Everywhere,” Witherspoon possesses a self-awareness about her privilege and position, knowledge forged through 30 years of working in Hollywood, seeing and experiencing inequities that made her push for equal-pay-for-equal-work agreements and to start her own media company, Hello Sunshine, to, among other things, tell stories about women – all kinds of women.
In short: She has found her purpose.
“I’ll never forget, I had a financial advisor tell me, ‘You need to start saving,’ I was like 37, and he said, ‘You need to start saving right now, because you’re going to be making drastically less money in your 40s. Basically, you’re not going to have much of a career,’” Witherspoon remembers. “And he’s apologizing, but not really. ‘I’m sorry to tell you, but somebody has to be honest with you.’ I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget! It put me in a panic state.”
I ask what happened to that financial advisor.
“Oh, I fired him,” Witherspoon answers quickly, laughing. “I don’t need that kind of …” She pauses, looking for the right words. Witherspoon likes to be precise, and as she has grown older and come to understand herself better, she’s honed a candor that’s refreshing in its aversion to nonsense.
“I believe in abundance,” Witherspoon continues, landing on the phrasing. “I believe creativity is endless. I mean, I can get on the phone with Diane Ladd and she can talk for two hours about creativity, and everything she says is spot-on. There’s something inside artists and actors and filmmakers that’s insatiable. And if you are one of the lucky ones, as I am now, you get to put things up on their feet and see them be made. I feel really lucky every day.”
Three of those projects she produced — Season 2 of HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” the Apple TV+ series “The Morning Show” and Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere” — ran this past year, a bounty that would have knocked Witherspoon’s financial advisor sideways. Then again, Witherspoon never would have envisioned this bounty a few years ago, either. But after meeting with every studio head in Hollywood, asking what projects they were developing for women and finding the answers unsatisfactory (“We’re doing one movie for a woman and we can’t have two” was one response), Witherspoon took matters into her own hands, founding Hello Sunshine in 2016 to develop female-driven projects.
“I wasn’t getting calls … and I’m still not,” she says. “The phone’s not ringing. If Nicole and myself aren’t doing this work or Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie and Laura Dern … we’re working hard to create a surplus. We have to give each other ideas and produce for each other, because no one’s out there thinking of us first.”
Witherspoon says she felt that acutely after she won her Oscar for playing June Carter Cash in the 2005 film “Walk the Line,” an achievement that, instead of opening up opportunities, left her feeling “frozen” for several years. She likens the time to a scene in “Fleabag,” where Phoebe Waller-Bridge goes to confession and begs the priest for direction. “Tell me how to be.”
Agents had told her for years to never play a mother because it would age her and ruin her career. Witherspoon couldn’t wrap her head around what she was hearing. She gave birth to her daughter, Ava, when she was 23. The world knew that. There were hundreds of photos of Witherspoon out and about with her kids. She was a mother, and being a mother transformed her life. Why couldn’t motherhood be thoughtfully explored in movies and television?
“There was a lot of talk about who we were supposed to be for other people,” Witherspoon says, “and, trust me, I listened to it for a long time. It was like we’re supposed to only create fantasy people.”
“Little Fires Everywhere,” adapted from Celeste Ng’s bestselling 2017 novel, uses motherhood to explore issues of race and class. Witherspoon plays Elena Richardson, a perfectionist mom, not far removed (at least initially) from her tightly wound Madeline on “Big Little Lies.” The story centers on the contentious relationship between Elena and single mother Mia Warren, played by Washington, who executive produced the series along with Witherspoon, Liz Tigelaar, Lauren Neustadter, Pilar Savone and Lynn Shelton.
Shelton directed four episodes of “Little Fires,” including the premiere and finale episodes. She died last month at age 54 from a blood disorder, a shocking loss that devastated those who had worked with her, including Witherspoon, who also collaborated with Shelton on “The Morning Show.” Her death happened after our initial conversation, and Witherspoon subsequently emailed some thoughts, asking, if possible, to include her full response:
“The loss of Lynn has hit me very hard. Lynn was an incredible collaborator on both ‘Morning Show’ and ‘Little Fires Everywhere.’ From our very first meeting on the set of ‘The Morning Show,’ it was clear that she felt most in her element being on a set. talking to actors, designing shots with the camera teams and organizing her shots with various crew members. Helping everyone work together to achieve a common creative goal. Her bar was high, but she always focused on delivering her best one shot at a time.
“She was a great listener. She cared about everyone’s perspective and understood that filmmaking is a truly collaborative art form. An incredibly hard worker, she never stopped pushing to make every scene better. She had deep levels of empathy that translated to her direction. I really noticed how much time she took with each one of the teenage actors to completely understand their characters. Inside and out. She spent hours getting to know them — she took them all bowling and ate lots of pizza dinners with them, getting to know their strengths so that she could encourage the best performances.
“When we first met about her being the producing director on ‘Little Fires Everywhere,’ she came in with a stunning vision board. She spoke passionately about her personal story of becoming a mom and exploring her own identity through motherhood, and explained how the book had really spoken to different parts of her life. Kerry and I immediately felt like she was the perfect person to direct the show.
“Lynn brought so much creativity, truth, talent, empathy and honesty to our show. I feel enormously grateful that I got to collaborate with her so closely on this final piece of work in her varied and beautiful career. (It’s really incredible to look back at her extensive body of work.)
“She was a truly wonderful human and a vibrant talent, gone way too soon. I will never forget she and I collaborating on the final scenes of ‘Little Fires’ when we were burning down the house with all the children. She helped mold every performance and pushed us all to the utmost extreme (in careful, kind ways) to give the most honest version of those moments. I trusted her to be free enough to lose control. That is my highest compliment I can give a director. She made me feel free.”
Witherspoon says people often ask her why she feels such a sense of urgency in telling so many women’s stories across an array of platforms — in addition to the movies and TV series, Hello Sunshine produces podcasts and digital series and serves as a home to a book club. Well, she might feel certain about what happens after she dies, but these days, that’s just about it when it comes to any positive assurance about the future. So when, if, things return to normal, she hopes to resume that mission.
“Think about the hundreds of years, if not thousands of years of lost women’s stories,” Witherspoon says. “How the hell can I not feel that there’s a sense of urgency? Every woman I know that is working to tell stories of women or marginalized groups feels the same way. You don’t know how long a window will last. You hope it lasts a long, long time, but you never know.”