Witherspoon's 'Sweet Home'
Reese Witherspoon digs into her purse and proudly produces a crumpled brochure. “I’m very into this for the grandmas this year for Christmas,” she says, pointing to the leaflet, which shows oversized handbags adorned with kids’ photos. “Taking a picture and turning it into a bag. I saw a girl carrying one the other day, and I thought, ‘That’s perfect.’ It ain’t cheap. I think it’s like $200. But you know they’ll carry it forever.”
Even though the 26-year-old is now in Hollywood’s upper stratosphere — raking in $15 million for next year’s Legally Blonde 2— the conversation at the famous Hotel Bel-Air is filled with such mommy moments.
With Sweet Home Alabama, her romantic comedy opening Sept. 27, Witherspoon seems poised to overtake America’s sweetheart crown from Julia Roberts. She can easily slide into that role and her Alabama co-star Josh Lucas knows why. “Reese has amazing comedic instincts. She’s very much an actor’s actor, and that’s really rare for a movie star.”
Witherspoon is also one of the rare actresses who can open a movie, though she’s more likely to be seen at her daughter’s preschool than at Hollywood parties or clubs. She prefers evenings at home with husband Ryan Phillippe, whom she met while filming Cruel Intentions, and their 3-year-old, Ava.
She appears more petite and youthful in person than on screen, dressed in a stylish pale-yellow blouse and faded jeans. Her hair hangs straight, and her peaches-and-cream complexion shows no trace of makeup. Of course, she’s fresh-faced and beautiful, but her manner is so unprepossessing that she can go out and not get hounded for autographs.
“Nobody’s ever recognized me at the grocery store,” she says. “Well, maybe they do, and they don’t say anything.”
Grocery shopping and family time is what this down-home gal is about. When she and Ava recently were reading The Giving Tree, “I started to cry,” she says, while intoning a mock sob. “And the tree was happy.” (Sniffle, muffled sob.) “The end.” (She claps an imaginary book shut.) “Mommy’s OK. She’s just got her allergies.”
Well, maybe a few melodramatic moments are liberally tossed around.
Ava just started preschool, and again, “Lots of tears. Not on her part. She was like, ‘Buh-Bye, Mom. Leave.’ And then I go to Toys “R” Us, wander around and cry. It’s pathetic. Or I go over to my girlfriend’s house, where she has a 2-year-old, and I just hug on him.”
Those Southern turns of phrases crop up occasionally. Born in New Orleans but raised in Tennessee, she’ll say “y’all” and admits to demanding a “sit-to” when she’s upset. She has fond recollections of her childhood. “There was always a sense of humor in our family. My mom and dad were doctors. My mom was a very positive woman who was also very funny and silly, a Southern eccentric.”
Alabama definitely struck a chord. “I remember being embarrassed to tell people I was from Tennessee,” Witherspoon recalls. “Everybody would just make terrible fun of me: ‘What, do y’all walk around barefoot, and are you married to your cousin?’ In this movie, I liked exploring the idea that you have to reject your family, or your upbringing or the town you’re from, in order to ultimately accept it as part of you.”
She plays a small-town girl who moves to New York, re-invents herself and becomes a famous designer. “She wasn’t your typical romantic-comedy heroine. She goes into a bar and has too much to drink and tells everybody off because she thinks she’s better. I like the idea of playing a flawed human being.”
But a character should have some redeeming qualities, shouldn’t it?
“When I read Legally Blonde,” she says, “I was like, ‘She’s from Beverly Hills, she’s rich, she’s in a sorority. She has a great boyfriend. Oh yeah, she gets dumped. Who cares? I still hate her.’ So we had to make sure she was the kind of person you just can’t hate.”
Witherspoon lives near Beverly Hills herself, is rich and has a great husband, but we could never hate her. She’s too darn likable.
“She’s just so completely adorable and smart and honest and talented,” says Alexander Payne, who directed her in the quirky 1999 comedy Election. “She’s got that quality that men find attractive, while women would like to be her friend. But that’s just the foundation. Nobody else is as funny or brings such charm to things. She can do anything.”
Her mother used to call her “Little Type A,” so Witherspoon named her production company Type A. It’s as if she was so well brought up that she doesn’t hear the siren calls that seduce many actors her age. She credits geography for some of her success.
“My Southern upbringing has been real beneficial to me in this industry: being conscientious about people’s feelings, being polite, being responsible and never taking for granted what you have in your life.”
Grateful she is, but she’s aware of her shortcomings.
“I was never a 6-5 supermodel babe; I’m a 5-2 little thing. I identify more with the Holly Hunters and the Sally Fields than, say, Michelle Pfeiffer. Those people always represented a real dedication to their work, an incredible work ethic and a lack of vanity. Not that those women aren’t beautiful, but it’s not what their self-worth is based on. I don’t know them personally, but that’s the impression I get watching their work. Those were the women that I was trying to be like.”
By all accounts, Witherspoon has her feet firmly on the ground.
“She’s certainly wise beyond my years when I was 26,” says Alabama director Andy Tennant. “I’m 47, and I couldn’t have handled what she handles.”
She doesn’t think of herself as wise, and, in fact, has a regret: “That I stopped going to Stanford. I went for a year, but then my career started going in a really good direction. But whenever I’m around knowledgeable people who are really learned, I feel sort of ignorant.”
And, unlike many glammed-up actresses, she doesn’t fret about her look. Anyone who saw her at the Oscars this year, though, can attest to her elegant sense of style. “I love beautiful clothes; I just wouldn’t have the patience to go shopping for them.” (Stylists/designers usually do the shopping for big events.)
Witherspoon realizes she sounds dangerously like a pampered star and interrupts herself, saying in a sarcastic tone: “Whatever. My fashion woes. Who cares? Oh, life is so hard.”
Her personality seems to encompass the best aspects of enthusiastic youth and measured adulthood. Juxtaposed with self-deprecating humor is a touch of being star-struck. She gushes about Dolly Parton. “I love her. If I ever got to meet her, I’d probably keel over and have a convulsion.”
It’s suggested that given her celebrity, she could throw her weight around and ask for an introduction. She shudders and quips, “What weight?”
Witherspoon, however, can use her stardom to get projects off the ground.
After the Blonde sequel, she’ll star in Vanity Fair, based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic 1848 novel, to be directed by Mira Nair. Witherspoon will play “a baddie who uses her sexuality and feminine wiles to gain social stature.”
It will be her second period piece. Earlier this year, Witherspoon co-starred with Judi Dench and Rupert Everett in The Importance of Being Earnest.
She made her film debut at 14 as a love-struck tomboy in The Man in the Moon and has made 14 movies since But if her star went into free-fall, she’d adjust and perhaps finish college.
“I don’t know if people believe me, but the money’s just icing for me,” Witherspoon says. “It’s really nice to be in this place. But if it all went away tomorrow, would I still be happy? I have to say yes. I’m thrilled with my family. I love my husband. I have a great daughter. Literally, this is just a job.”