Reese Witherspoon, Rising Star
When Reese Witherspoon arrived at Stanford University as a freshman in 1995, she wanted to be anonymous on campus, but Hollywood kept calling. She was taken aback when she returned to the dorm one day and found her roommate subbing as a personal assistant. “She’s like, ‘Okay, Reese, yesterday your agent called, and then your publicist called, and you’re going to be doing that photo shoot,'” Witherspoon says. “I can’t even imagine having to be the roommate of some girl who’s an actress. But she was really cool about it,” she adds, her immense blue eyes wide.
Such are the trials of an up-and-coming actress at a prestigious American university. From her first day at the sprawling campus in Palo Alto, California, Reese was never just a face in the crowd. Having already appeared in such films as The Man in the Moon, Fear, and S.F.W., she soon discovered that the incoming freshmen had been watching her for years on the screen. “I think the movies I did up until then were pretty much targeted for that age group,” the 21-year-old actress says. “I had never been in a place where that group was so concentrated. Everybody [on campus] knew me by different characters, which surprised me.”
While everyone at school adjusted to having a movie actress in their midst, Reese majored in English lit and built her career – livng, as she says, “two completely different lives.” After completing a full year of credits, she took a leave of absence when she won a role as the neglected daughter of two celebs in The Magic Hour [which later was renamed Twilight] (due out this December). The film stars Oscar winners Susan Sarandon, Paul Newman and Gene Hackman.
Reese wasn’t the first high-profile Stanford student to interrupt her education. Golf extraordinaire Tiger Woods left this year to turn pro; other luminaries currently enrolled include Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes and The Wonder Years actor Fred Savage. Reese admits to have seen only Savage on campus. “Tiger Woods was supposedly there, so was Dawes, but I never say them,” she observes. Now that Stanford has First Daughter Chelsea Clinton, Reese says, laughing, “Fred’s going to be very disappointed that he’s not the campus celebrity anymore.”
Still, the decision to leave college wasn’t easy, considering the alternative – logging 12-hour nights on a movie set. Sitting in an air-conditioned trailer on the set of the film Pleasantville, Reese sounds like she’d rather be studying playwright William Inge (Picnic, Splendor in the Grass), one of her favorites.
“Hollywood eats you alive,” she says, tossing a cookie to Cheech, her barking, hyperactive Chihuahua. In person, the honey blond exudes a healthy glow. “I’m one of those highly organized people who like to have everything meticulously in place. Now it’s too hard to plan a dentist appointment, much less plan three months ahead to enroll in classes.”
Stacked on a table in her trailer are books like George Orwell’s 1984 and T.E. Vadney’s The World Since 1945. She reads a lot while waiting to shoot. “I’m one of those people everybody can’t stand. I mean, I really enjoyed school,” she explains, her hair in pin curls. She will later don a poodle skirt and saddle shoes – Pleasantville is about two siblings (Reese and costar Tobey Maguire) who get magically transported from present time to a ’50s TV show. “It’s about how their ’90s mentalities transform that ’50s world into a more modern place,” Reese says.
Whether she’s juggling decades or shuttling between the Stanford quad and Hollywood, Reese Witherspoon’s root are firlmly planted in the South. She was born Laurajeanne Reese Witherspoon in New Orleans on March 22, 1976 (her mother’s maiden name is Reese). While her father worked as an Air Force flight surgeon, the family traveled throughout Europe until Reese was five, when they settled in Nashville. At seven, she made her first commercial for a local flower store and convinced her parents to let her attend acting classes after school.
At age 14, she auditioned to be an extra in the film The Man in the Moon, a young girl’s coming-of-age drama set in the rural South. To her family’s surprise, she landed the lead. Reese calls her screen test “a very eye-opening experience. That was really when I asked my family, ‘Are we going to do this seriously?’ We decided that I would try one movie, and if it turned out well, then we’d see what happened.” The Man in the Moon earned strong reviews, establishing its star as a promising Hollywood newcomer.
After making a few films (like Jack the Bear and A Far Off Place) in Hollywood, she had a thorny time re-adjusting to life at home. “I had this newfound independence, and I couldn’t believe my mother was asking me to come home at one in the morning on prom night,” she reveals. “I was like, ‘I don’t think so! I’m staying out all night long and I’m not coming in. Period!'”
Reese also “came out,” debutante-style, attending two balls. “It’s more something you do out of tradition and respect for your family, rather than something you do to get a husband, like it used to be,” she says. But acting, she says, gave her so much freedom that she didn’t need to rebel. “I never went through that period where I hated my family,” she explains. “I was away so much that I never really had to hate them.”
Acting also allowed her to shed some of her Southern manners. Case in point: Last year Reese played the daughter of a drug-addicted prostitute in the film Freeway, opposite Kiefer Sutherland. “I had to say things I never said before in my whole life,” she says. “Being Southern, there are just certain things you don’t talk about.”
But she accepted the challenge and loved it. That is, until her mother came to the set. Reese was dressed in a leather miniskirt and a tiny tube top. “My mother watched me solicit myself,” she laughs, lapsing into a mint-julet drawl. “She’s like, ‘I don’t know, Reese. Are you sure this is what you want to do for a living?'”
Reese was sure, and although Freeway didn’t generate big box-office results, it was a break-through performance. “Now they don’t always think, Oh, she’s just a nice little Southern girl,” she says. “People want to see actors push themselves and do things they wouldn’t do, and for a long time I played it really safe. I’m not so scared anymore.” Tobey Maguire agrees that the Freeway role “redefined” Reese. “She took a chance, and it came across really well,” he says.
Though Reese Witherspoon isn’t quite a household name yet, the actress does admit to having a certain cachet. “I’m huge with parking-lot attendants,” she exlaims, laughing. “Huge!” She explains: “I’ve done small enough films so people feel like I’m their own private secret. They say, ‘I saw that movie! Nobody else saw that movie!'”
Reese lives on her own in Los Angeles and misses her family like crazy. She phones her parents and her only brother, John, a 25-year-old Harley-Davidson mechanic, almost every other day. “I don’t [feel like I] have ahome here,” she laments. “It’s sad sometimes, like on Thanksgiving when you can’t go back because it’s such a short holiday. It’s a weird time, your early 20s, when you’re really individual and alone but not ready to have your own family.”
Don’t sob just yet. Reese has attended her share of cool Hollywood premieres and even celebrated her last birthday with 300 industry types, friends and family members at Hollywood’s hip Opium Den nightclub. She did not divulge details about her romantic life, but sources have linked her with actor Ryan Phillippe (whose latest movie, I Know What You Did Last Summer, comes out in October).
Although Reese won’t return to Stanford this fall, she vows to finish college eventually. “Just because I’m working now doesn’t mean I’ll be working in two years,” she reasons. “One day I’m just going to have to say, ‘I’m going to be gone [at school]. Put me on hiatus for a year.'”
She knows that there are other things in life besides acting. “You learn from people who’ve been in this business a long time that talent isn’t the end-all, be-all of who you are,” Reese explains. “I think a lot of young people in Hollywood lose sight of that. For a while, talent gets you into cool parties, and it gets you hot model dates, but it doesn’t make you a good person.”