How Reese Witherspoon went from A-list actor to bankable producer of Big Little Lies
It pays not to underestimate Reese Witherspoon.
The Oscar-winning actor, mother of three and super producer of Foxtel’s Big Little Lies has been finding a way to go after what she wants since her teenage years.
Enrolled to study at prestigious Stanford University, the then 18-year-old was largely taking on college at the urging of her mother Betty.
Having played small roles in movies since the age of 14, Witherspoon had already set her heart on a career in showbiz, but was being thwarted by her more sensible mother determined her daughter would get a tertiary education.
That was until Hollywood kept calling.
“I called my mother and I said, ‘Mum, they want me to be in a movie and it pays more than my tuition.’ I could barely afford my tuition, so she was like, ‘OK, well as long as you promise to go back.’ I did the movie and then I got another movie. I called her and she was like, ‘It’s fine if you are doing it but as long as you go back to college’,” a routine conversation that would continue, Witherspoon explained, “until I bought her a house when I was 27 years old. Then she was fine!,” she laughed.
More than 40 movies later, Witherspoon is still calling the shots in her career — plotting her own course and creating her own opportunities with her production company, Hello Sunshine.
She would apply this same single-minded focus and determination when it came to her latest success story — co-producing HBO drama hit, Big Little Lies with Australia’s own Nicole Kidman.
Secreted an advance copy of a book by local author Liane Moriarty, Witherspoon devoured its pages in 24 hours then called her agent “and I said, ‘I have to get the rights to this.’ They said, ‘That’s great but the only person who is going to go against you for the rights is Nicole Kidman.’ So I was like, ‘Hmmm, well, I’ve met her once or twice’ and I called her and said, ‘why don’t we just do this together?’ And she was like, ‘great!’,”.
What followed was one of the breakout hits of recent years, starring both Kidman and Witherspoon, as well as Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz and Shailene Woodley.
It tells the story of five women who struggle with motherhood, marriage problems and the oppressive judgment of their exclusive community on the scenic Californian coast.
Two years later, season two will check back in with the “Monterey Five” about six months after the shocking end to season one, when Kidman’s abusive on-screen husband, played by Alexander Skarsgard is — spoiler alert — quite literally bumped off.
Witherspoon sums up the purpose of the new episodes in one question: “did they get away with it?”
Joining the ensemble, and cast in the role of pseudo investigator, is Meryl Streep, playing Skarsgard’s mother; devastated by her son’s death and suspicious it wasn’t the accident his wife and her friends claimed it to be.
Witherspoon’s character Madeline Martha Mackenzie in particular comes under intense scrutiny by the unfiltered matriarch — setting up some of the most dramatic, and hilarious, scenes of season two.
The opportunity to work opposite one of her acting heroes and acclaimed leading ladies of a generation was just too delicious for Witherspoon.
“I might or might not have thrown an ice cream cone at her in a scene because she made me mad,” Witherspoon explained.
“It’s one of the top moments of my entire career. And I hit her. I nailed it! She turned around and she was like, ‘Yeah, you got me!”
Getting Streep to sign on was pie-in-the-sky ambitious for the producers, but such was the reach and reputation of the first season, Witherspoon said, it was shockingly easy in the end.
“Nicole and I sent her the script and then we sent her an email. She called us the day of the Golden Globes (last year) and was like (sarcastically), ‘Well, I know your show is really struggling so I have decided to join and make it even better!’ We were like, silent screams and hugging ourselves.”
From social media posts, Streep slotted into the cast like one of the girls, joining in on group activities at a local bowling alley hired out by Kidman and Witherspoon as a cast and crew thank you.
While she was engaged by Moriarty’s material from the get go, Witherspoon admits she never saw herself playing Madeline, who is married to Adam Scott’s Ed McKenzie, shares custody of another daughter with James Tupper’s Nathan Carlson but is keeping secret her previous affair with a local theatre producer, Joseph Bachman (Santiago Cabrera).
“I’ve always had fun playing Madeline,” she explains, “even though I was reluctant to play the character initially. It was Nicole who talked me into playing her and I’m so glad she did. She’s a mother trying to do the best she can so playing her is kind of like second nature to me.”
The show’s powerful themes of domestic violence, problematic co-parenting and surviving sexual assault were embraced by audiences, who demanded a follow-up — forcing Moriaty and executive producer David E. Kelley to write a second season.
“We’ve set the bar super high for ourselves but we’re excited for this season and for everyone to see how we’ve done,” Witherspoon says.
“We always said that we would only ever do another season if we felt it was going to be as good as the first,” adding, “I’m pretty sure we’ve done that.”
“I think it has the same level of drama and humour as last season,” Witherspoon said, “but from a different perspective. You know who these women are now and what they have been through and that has opened up a lot of different aspects to the story.”
BEFORE Big Little Lies, Witherspoon had established her credentials as a bankable producer — turning other literary bestsellers Wild and Gone Girl into Oscar-nominated feature films.
Next on her Hello Sunshine slate is the adaptation of Gail Honeyman’s brilliant book, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and another Aussie title, Jane Harper’s The Dry — which she chose to introduce to fans first through her own Oprah-style book club.
Winfrey is a career mentor, Witherspoon revealed, using their experience co-starring in Ava DuVernay’s 2018 movie A Wrinkle In Time as an opportunity to pick the media mogul’s brain.
“Every free moment I would ask her what she has learned. In a way, she has multiple masters degrees in human behaviour. She’s done over 34,000 interviews with people, so I would say to her, ‘What do people want? What is the one connective tissue of humanity and of people you have met?’ And she just said, ‘People want to be seen. They want to be acknowledged and they want to know that they are understood’.
“I thought that was really beautiful and so poignant. If I could help people do that, I would feel really proud of the work I had in this world.”
BIG LITTLE LIES STARTS ON MONDAY, JUNE 10 ON FOXTEL’S FOX SHOWCASE