Almost 20 Years After ‘Legally Blonde 2,’ Reese Witherspoon and Regina King Talk About Changing Hollywood
HBO’s “Watchmen,” Regina King plays Angela Abar, also known as the masked police detective Sister Night. A drama about the legacy of racial trauma, “Watchmen” shows us the way we live now through the lens of the eponymous 1986 graphic novel — a world in which costumed vigilantes are very much a real thing. Reese Witherspoon — who worked with King in “Legally Blonde 2” in 2003 — was in three shows recently: “Big Little Lies,” “The Morning Show” and “Little Fires Everywhere.” In the last one, set in upper-middle-class Shaker Heights, Ohio, in the ’90s, she plays Elena Richardson, an uptight white woman we would now call a Karen. Angela would arrest Elena for her white privilege.
Note: This conversation for Variety‘s Actors on Actors took place before the protests over police brutality swept through the United States — which is too bad, because “Watchmen,” which aired in the fall, was prescient about such things.
Reese Witherspoon: I feel like I met you when I was 23 years old.
Regina King: I know — we have grown children. We met each other on “Legally Blonde.” Remember when you got Sally Field to play that part? We were just fanning out. And you got to do that again on “Big Little Lies” with Meryl Streep. How do you do it, girl? Putting on your producer cap and your acting cap — are you wearing them simultaneously?
Witherspoon: Well, I try and make them an offer they can’t refuse. I knew I wanted to work with you too. I remember seeing you in “Jerry Maguire,” and I was like, “I’m going to work with her.” You had a spirit inside of you. You have won so many Emmys at this point. Do you have a favorite moment, or a moment that just sits in your heart, that you can never forget? Or the Oscar!
King: They’re all special moments. What about you? I remember when you won the Oscar, and I might have had one drink three times at the Vanity Fair party, and it was such a pure moment. I remember standing at the table eating In-N-Out burgers with your Oscar there. It was so joyous, but you were still my girl.
Witherspoon: The thing I love about you is the stacking of achievements isn’t just for your own gain and benefit. That you are determined to make a lot of change in our business by committing to hire more women, more people of color — to put them in the driver’s seat. I think there’s such an alignment between a lot of women of our generation, about how we do not want to leave this business the way we found it. And you feel it, right? I feel like if we all look like we’re busy and doing three and four and five jobs, it’s because we’re trying to make up for lost time.
King: Speaking of that, this year was humongous [for you]. In these past couple of years you’ve just — as a producer especially — really tapped into the streaming cable world. You have three big shows. Did it just fall that way?
Witherspoon: It took me three successes for people to say, “OK, that’s a real thing; she is a real producer.” Even after we did our first two movies, “Gone Girl” and “Wild,” we weren’t making any money. I could barely keep the company open. It wasn’t this economic boom until I started doing more audience engagement through book clubs and getting on Instagram and promoting women’s stories. People don’t want to see the same 20 people making movies over and over again with the same 20 actors.
You can’t anticipate what’s going to happen in our industry. But it’s incredible how media has changed and the importance of home viewership, in that there’s this bar of excellence now, right? And I see that in your show. It is so beautifully made, “Watchmen.” I want to say there’s this moment in the very pilot episode of “Watchmen” where this little boy is watching a black sheriff. And you see him watch this man be the hero of the story. And you see his face light up, and then it goes to his mom, and she’s playing the piano, and her face is sinking because she knows it’s a story. Regina, it just got me.
King: One of the things about “Watchmen” that blew me open when I read the pilot was all of these historical things that actually happened that are within the story. Then the pilot airs, and how many people had never heard of Bass Reeves? And when I see so many people not knowing, of all races, of all ages.
Witherspoon: I didn’t know. I didn’t know.
King: But we have this revisionist history in our country that some people just refuse to acknowledge is revisionist history. It’s mind-blowing when you talk to Damon Lindelof — he’s the creator of the show. A lot of this story came from his discovery of the Tulsa massacre from reading “The Case for Reparations.” And he was just blown away that he didn’t even know. He probably would not like intellect to be the only feather in his cap, but he is an intellect. And he was embarrassed that he didn’t know. And through our mini-conversations, I was like, “You shouldn’t be embarrassed, but what you’ve done with your discovery is quite powerful and part of what is the point of the human beings’ plight on Earth.” If he did know about the Tulsa massacre a long time ago, and learned about it in school, he probably wouldn’t have written about it today. But having that discovery today, and it blowing him back, he was able to give a lot of people history lessons.
“Watchmen” was a big world built out the way it was. Yet the beautiful thing about storytelling is it can be a small world and still pull you in. When I watched “Little Fires Everywhere,” I just found it so exciting, because as a producer myself, I know that this was not this humongous budget. All of you were storytellers and make us feel like we were in those places. Talk about that!
Witherspoon: Well, “Little Fires” was just an incredible journey. I felt so fortunate to be able to partner with Kerry Washington; she just works so hard. That great experience of being able to look at a time that was actually 30 years ago and think: “I was a teenager then. What did my mom say about sexuality, race, class? What were the things that I was told that maybe were true or not true? How was I insensitive?” No one spoke to me about sexuality when I was a teenager. I didn’t understand what homosexuality was. My grandparents didn’t explain it; my parents didn’t explain it. I had to learn from somebody I met on an audition in Los Angeles.
King: Oh wow.
Witherspoon: We incorporated some of the conversation I had with my grandmother afterward. She said: “Homosexuality is very rare, Reese. That’s not a thing that happens very often.” And we put it in the script.
King: And you actually — Elena said that line.
Witherspoon: Elena says it because that’s what was said to me in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1994. I do want to talk a little bit about Lynn Shelton, who died recently. She was the director of “Little Fires Everywhere,” and our co-producer. She was our partner. Kerry Washington, myself, Lynn Shelton and the showrunner Liz Tigelaar and the producers. We threw our whole heart and soul into this production.
Lynn spent so much time with the teenage kids, making them feel comfortable. She also was a visionary herself, and made so many movies without listening to what people told her she could or couldn’t do. She got so many independent films financed; she worked for so many incredible actors; she did so many television shows. She’s so beloved in our Hollywood community, and I hope that — I just send love to her family. And know that her work will always live on in the hearts of so many people who were touched by her kindness and her artistry.
King: What a blessing to learn from her, to work that closely. There’s no better education to me than the experiential kind.
Witherspoon: You and I spoke about this before we began: It feels odd to be talking about our work right now, but I have to say, I always think when I’m talking about it, it’s such a privilege to talk about your work. Right now, all I want to do is get back with my community. I don’t know where you were in your work process, but I’m sure you’re missing your family, your work family.
King: Absolutely, absolutely. We are truly a part of a community. And that’s why it is important to talk about Lynn, it really is. Because it is an opportunity to let everyone else know just how big our community is.
Witherspoon: I have to be honest: I think this is the longest I haven’t worked since I had a baby.
King: I said the same thing the other day. I’m still waking up at four, five in the morning. I have to trust and believe that our community, along with the rest of the world, are going to find our way through this — and how we’re going to get back to it. It’s going to take a lot of trust.
Because at the end of the day, the reality is the reality. There’s not going to be a vaccine anytime soon. We have to understand that while we’re telling people, “Stay home, stay home,” there are people out there who are not in financial situations that — to say that to them is almost insulting, coming from certain messengers. So I try to be very careful about saying that too much, because I do understand that some people don’t know where their next meal is going to be right now in this moment.
Witherspoon: God bless the people who have to make decisions that affect people’s health and our economy. That’s a lot of responsibility. Are you going to maybe go back for Season 2 of “Watchmen”?
King: You know, I don’t know. Honestly, I feel like I think HBO would want it back in a heartbeat, but if Damon Lindelof doesn’t see an entry point for Season 2 — I think that the possibilities are infinite, but I feel that if Damon doesn’t see it, then it’s going to be a no for me.
Witherspoon: It sounds like you all have a great relationship. Between “The Leftovers” and “Watchmen,” maybe you guys will do something totally original together.
King: Yes, yes, yes. I discovered this from working on “Southland,” because that experience was so great, I don’t want to be a part of anything if it’s not a collaborative situation. Damon is such a great collaborator, and at this stage, what’s the point if we can’t feel like we’re taking some bit of ownership? But what about you? Do you feel like there’s a possibility of Season 3 of “Big Little Lies”?
Witherspoon: I never say never, because we thought “Big Little Lies” was going to be one season, and we had no idea we were going to go back. But I will say “Big Little Lies” is one of the most fulfilling creative experiences for me. Just working with those women — Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Zoë Kravitz and Shailene Woodley, and now Meryl Streep — it was just a dream.
Every day, I got excited to go to work. I couldn’t wait to improvise with Laura Dern, or Meryl Streep. Nicole is just a class-act partner, and that began my TV-streaming producing career, these partnerships with incredible women like Nicole and Jennifer Aniston on “The Morning Show.” Which we are doing a Season 2 of “Morning Show.” We were four weeks in, and we had to shut down production. So we are going to get back as soon as people are going to let us back to work.
I just feel really grateful to be in this position in my life — in my 40s, working more than I’ve ever worked in my whole life. I feel like it’s a great time to be an artist in our business.