Face to Face With Reese Witherspoon
One of Hollywood’s most bankable female stars opens up about being funny, being ordinary, and being a mother.
Funny, blonde and whip-smart — what more do you need to make it in Hollywood? Would you believe ordinary? Not everyday ordinary, but wise, kind and down- to-earth ordinary. Loves to cook and takes her kids to Sunday school ordinary. That’s Reese Witherspoon. What’s uncommon about her is that she’s all that and one of the most bankable female stars in the movies, not far behind Julia Roberts.
Witherspoon, the daughter of a physician and a pediatric nurse, is also deeply driven. The one-time cheerleader and debutante left her hometown, Nashville, at age 18 to attend Stanford, but dropped out when her acting career took off. At 29, she has 21 film roles to her credit, among them the ingeniously goofy Gen X heroine Elle Woods from Legally Blonde. The working mom also has a 6-year-old daughter, Ava, and a 23-month-old son, Deacon, with her husband, actor Ryan Phillippe, and a home life that could be straight out of suburbia.
On the eve of the release of Just Like Heaven, in which the fresh-faced actress strikes up something of an otherworldly romance, Reader’s Digest shared a few laughs with Witherspoon. Humor, after all, is what she says she does best.
RD: You’ve described yourself as being sort of dorky when you were a kid …
Witherspoon: I wore big Coke-bottle glasses, and I was the shrimp of the class, the last to develop, which is so hard as a girl.
RD: But you’ve said that because you were funny, you were able to use humor …
Witherspoon: … to make friends. Yeah, I wasn’t like the most popular girl, but I was definitely friendly and outgoing.
RD: Were your parents funny?
Witherspoon: My mother is very funny and laughs all the time. And she made me feel funny, because everything I ever said was funny to her. So that builds your confidence.
RD: What kinds of things would you do to make her laugh?
Witherspoon: I was always doing impressions. I remember I used to do this whole routine where I would answer my telephone with different accents, and my mother and father thought it was hysterical.
RD: You’ve been compared to Lucille Ball, Carole Lombard, Judy Holliday, Goldie Hawn. Which one’s the closest fit, do you think?
Witherspoon: That’s a very generous, kind list. I don’t even think I can touch the soles of any of those people’s shoes. But lately I’ve been really thinking about careers. And I’ve been thinking I like Tom Hanks. I love that he can do so many things. I think he’s incredibly smart and accessible.
RD: Do you think you’re smart?
Witherspoon: I’m so stupid in some ways. Sometimes I don’t get the most obvious jokes. But I think I’m savvy. Like with comedy. I’m not intellectual. My dad is. He uses words that no one can possibly understand nor care to look up. I’m more emotionally intelligent. I can intuit people’s behavior and their feelings. That’s what I do for a living.
RD: Do you want people to look back and say, “She was really funny”?
Witherspoon: It’s so important to me. I mean, you play to your strengths. And to me, that’s one of the only things I’ve got.
RD: Oh, come on.
Witherspoon: I’m really serious. I mean, if I’m going to make it in this business, I’m not going to make it on being sexy. It’s just not who I am. It’s better to focus on what you’re good at. Celebrate yourself, but know that playing the Kathleen Turner character in Body Heat — it’s just not going to happen for me.
RD: After Legally Blonde, you became something of a role model for girls. Do you see yourself that way?
Witherspoon: Absolutely. I’ve got a daughter. I try to think, What kind of person would I want to look up to if I was 12 or 13? It’s important to have respect for yourself. Don’t throw your intellect away because it’s popular now to be physical and beautiful. Honestly, there’s such a movement in that direction right now, and I don’t really understand it. I try not to get on my soapbox about everything, but it’s just hard for me. I think about how many people had to work hard to get the vote for women, to get women into college, get women better jobs — for equality. Some of those people who seem to be throwing away their intellect should think more about how they are re-creating an old image of inferiority.
RD: Speaking of historic movements, I heard that one of your ancestors was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Witherspoon: Oh, yeah. My father is John Witherspoon, and the signer of the Declaration of Independence is John Witherspoon. He came over from Scotland in the 1760s and lived in what is now New Jersey, and he served the Revolutionary effort. He also was the sixth president of Princeton, a pretty accomplished guy.
RD: The drive to achieve seems to run in the family.
Witherspoon: My dad’s an ear, nose and throat surgeon. He works extremely hard. And my mom’s a pediatric nurse who is completely driven. She has six degrees, and she taught me about taking care of yourself and that it’s important to have a sense of independence. She was a great example of being self-made.
Her Upcoming Films
RD: What about the Southern hospitality? Was that really part of your household growing up?
Witherspoon: I think that’s sort of a natural part of being Southern. It’s just what’s expected there, in the schools, in the community, in the social events.
RD: How much of it has transferred into your own household today?
Witherspoon: My husband grew up in a very similar way, so we have a lot of the same values. We’re not as strict about Missus-this and Mister-that. I had to say, Yes, ma’am, and Yes, sir. My children just have to say please and thank you.
RD: Someone who’s directed you once said you’re the most opinionated actress ever. It’s an interesting combination — the polite Southerner who says what she thinks.
Witherspoon: I’m just chatty. But I do express my opinion.
RD: Where did you get the confidence to say what you think?
Witherspoon: Probably from my dad. He likes to have intellectual arguments with me all the time — it’s one of his favorite things. And I liked all that debate and mock trial stuff in high school. It’s important to know how to make your points.
RD: Do you think it’s helped in your career?
Witherspoon: Yes. Confidence is everything in this business.
RD: Let’s talk about your new movie, Just Like Heaven. In it, you play a ghost.
Witherspoon: My character is a workaholic, and it’s about what happens when you fail to nurture your spirit and your life comes to a crossroads. My character’s spirit leaves her body and puts her on a journey to discover who she is.
RD: You co-star with Mark Ruffalo. What is he like?
Witherspoon: He’s a very nice, funny guy, and a family man. He has a wife and two kids, and the director, Mark Waters, has a wife and kid. It makes your life a lot easier when you’re working with people who want to go home at the end of the day, not start the parties.
RD: You also have Walk the Line coming out this fall, in which you play June Carter Cash. Are you a country music fan?
Witherspoon: I love country music, and am definitely a big Johnny Cash fan. But my favorite country singer of all time is Dolly Parton. Ever since I was six years old, when people would say, “Who are you going to be when you grow up?” I’d say, “Dolly Parton.” I think she’s an amazing songwriter, and she has such a beautiful voice. And she’s so kind and giving and open, even after years of being in the business. She’s a nice country girl, with a lot of sense and a lot of pizazz. I think she’s great.
RD: You do your own singing in the film.
Witherspoon: It was harrowing! We had to have six months of rehearsal, where I had to study with three different voice coaches and finally found this great person who took me as far as I was going to go. And then I had to take lessons to play the Autoharp in a couple of scenes. I wanted to quit every day. [Laughs]
RD: I thought you said you wanted to be a country singer when you grew up.
Witherspoon: I did take three years of singing lessons — beginning when I was, like, nine. It’s such a gift. And it’s something I just barely learned to do.
RD: When did you realize that acting was what you wanted to do with your life?
Witherspoon: Probably not until I was about 19. I was at Stanford and thought I was going to be pre-med. I’d done some commercials beginning when I was 7. I got a role in this movie called Freeway playing this really angry, aggressive, violent young woman who believed wholeheartedly in the truth. I had such satisfaction afterward, and I thought, That’s what I want to do.
RD: You ended up leaving Stanford shortly thereafter, right?
Witherspoon: I loved school, but I got this job doing a movie called Twilight with Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon and Gene Hackman. That led to Pleasantville and I started getting busy. Then Ryan and I got married and had a baby and …
RD: Do you ever think you’d like to go back to school?
Witherspoon: No. I’m just not that kind of person. And you know, life is a constant learning experience. I learn so much with my kids. I read tons of books and study what they’re studying. My daughter’s six, but still, she learns about marine life and plants. She’s fascinated with building habitats for pandas — in the backyard. She puts her little stuffed animals in the habitat, and then she makes charts that they’ve been fed.
RD: Did you ever guess you’d be so into being a mother?
Witherspoon: It took me a long time to acclimate myself. I was scared to death. I was 23, got home from the hospital and nobody gave me any instructions. My mother had to go back to work, and I didn’t know what to do. I was terrified. The first six months were unbelievably difficult. I didn’t sleep. Luckily, I had really good friends.
RD: Did you find the second time to be easier?
Witherspoon: No, just as hard.
RD: What else do you want to do in your life?
Witherspoon: So much. I feel a lot of personal responsibility because of how much I’ve been blessed. I do work for the Children’s Defense Fund, which is Marian Wright Edelman’s program. She’s just tireless about getting children out of poverty. I do a lot of fund-raising events for them. When we had Legally Blonde Barbie dolls, I gave all my proceeds to them. You can always give more, and I look forward to creating opportunities for young women.
RD: Are you as driven as people say? Are you a perfectionist?
Witherspoon: I don’t believe in perfection. I don’t think there is such a thing. But the energy of wanting things to be great is a perfectionist energy.
RD: So do you have any desire at some point to do something entirely different?
Witherspoon: No. I kind of really like what I do. But I think about what I’ll do when maybe it’s not as easy for me to work and have jobs.
RD: Is it hard to juggle two show business careers and two kids?
Witherspoon: Surprisingly, not as difficult as it seems. You have to have sort of a “Things will all work out” attitude. We go everywhere, all four of us, together. It’s going to change this year a little because Ava’s starting real school. But Ryan and I don’t work at the same time, so it’s not that hard.
Living a Normal Life
RD: How do you try to make life normal for your kids?
Witherspoon: Ryan and I didn’t grow up like this at all, with this much attention. We’ll just try to keep their feet on the ground and raise them with the values we were raised with.
RD: What religion were you raised in?
RD: Do you go to church?
Witherspoon: Yes. I take the kids to church and Sunday school. They love it. I really think it’s important for a child to feel that there are things that are bigger than your life out there.
RD: I heard you’re a big reader. What do you like to read?
Witherspoon: I get crazy in a bookstore. It makes my heart beat hard because I want to buy everything. I love books. I just got the new Sue Monk Kidd book and the new Melissa Bank novel, who did The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. I love Lorrie Moore. She’s my favorite.
RD: When do you find time to read?
Witherspoon: I read while the kids play. I can see them from the kitchen window. And I’m a fast reader.
RD: What do you guys do when you’re not working? What do you do for fun?
Witherspoon: I cook a lot, almost every night. I love to cook comfort food. I’ll make fish and vegetables or meat and vegetables and potatoes or rice. The ritual of it is fun for me, and the creativity of it. I used to be a terrible cook. For our first date, I made Ryan Hamburger Helper, which is basically what I grew up on. I make my own version of it now, with macaroni and cheese and hamburger meat. And the kids — it’s their favorite dinner.
RD: So when you go home tonight, will you cook dinner?
Witherspoon: Yes. We’re having friends over. I do a 15-minute fish in a pan. Five minutes on one side, five minutes on the other side, and then like five minutes in the oven. It’s great.
RD: It sounds so unbelievably normal.
Witherspoon: There’s this older gentleman who’s been in and out of Hollywood for years and years. And he said to me, “You know, Reese, what’s extraordinary about you? Your ordinariness.” And I think that is a huge compliment.
RD: But at some point you don’t live a normal life.
Witherspoon: The thing is, we’re not extravagant people. It’s just unbelievable the amounts of money we make. But we don’t spend it. It’s too scary to spend it. In your mind, you always think you’re at the same place you were when you grew up. We don’t have multiple houses and fancy cars. We each own one car, and we have a reasonable house. It’s a lovely place to be, but it’s not extravagant.
RD: Do you ever wake up and pinch yourself?
Witherspoon: A lot. I’m always endlessly surprised about the people who come into my life, who I get to collaborate with. I feel really overwhelmed by those opportunities. But it’s not like I fell off the turnip truck and suddenly became who I am. I really have worked hard for it, and I have to acknowledge that. I care about what I do, and I have a sense of pride in my work. And you can never be totally settled as an actor or artist or musician. You have to keep the fire under you, because that’s what makes you better.