Reese Witherspoon’s Southern Charm
The Nashville native opens up to Julia Reed about family, her favorite hometown foods, and the Southern women who have inspired her every step of the way
Reese Witherspoon has been very, very busy. Not only did she star in one of the most buzzed about TV shows of 2017, HBO’s Big Little Lies, but her production company, Pacific Standard, brought the project to fruition. In May, Draper James, the phenomenally successful clothing and accessories line Witherspoon launched in 2015, announced a collaboration with designer website Net-a-Porter—as well as a partnership with Nordstrom, which will carry exclusive pieces from the line. A new Draper James boutique in Lexington, Kentucky, recently joined a stable that already included locations in Nashville (Witherspoon’s hometown) and Dallas, and another brick-and-mortar store is set to open in Atlanta this fall. She even designed this dress exclusively for Southern Living. You can get it at Draper James for $195; draperjames.com
On top of all that, she and agent husband Jim Toth preside over a brood that includes three dogs and three kids: Ava, who’ll turn 18 this month, and Deacon, 14, (her children with actor Ryan Phillippe) and Tennessee (their son together), who’ll turn 5 this month. Though they have a house in Los Angeles, Witherspoon is also renovating a home in Nashville with the help of L.A. decorator Mark D. Sikes (he designed the Draper James stores) and Nashville-based architect Catherine Tracy Sloan. “She’s great, and I love Mark’s style because it’s fresh and young,” she says.
Witherspoon is clearly comfortable wearing a lot of different hats. When I walk into Farmshop in Santa Monica, California’s Brentwood Country Mart, where we meet for breakfast, she’s deep in conversation with Steve Kloves, whom she happened to run into. The Austin, Texas-born Kloves adapted Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys for the big screen and wrote all but one of the Harry Potter screenplays. “I’m working on another project, and I want him to do it,” the actress explains.
When we meet, it’s just after Mother’s Day, and Witherspoon’s mom, Betty, is visiting from Nashville. That afternoon, she’ll take Betty with her for an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. But first we get down to business over an herb omelet with a side of bacon. (“Oh, my—this bacon’s good!” she exclaims.) Witherspoon talks about her mission to bring complex women’s roles to film, the impetus behind Draper James, keeping her Southern accent, friendship and moms, and why she loves her hometown (food plays a big part).
What did you do for Mother’s Day?
We had lots of people over for lunch, including Laura Dern [Witherspoon’s close friend and costar in Wild and Big Little Lies] and her mom, [actress] Diane Ladd, who has become friends with my mom. It’s pretty cute—they really love each other and talk all the time. They’re even planning on taking a road trip together!
In my family, we say, “It doesn’t have to be true to be told.” At lunch, my mom was telling a story about when I moved out here and how she found my apartment and paid for it. I said, “Mom, you know none of that’s true, right?” I found my own apartment, and she did not do any of it! But most of the time, I don’t even bother to interrupt…I think there’s nothing better than a Southern person as they age. The stories get better and better and less and less true.
You often visit Nashville, where you’ve said you’re “so much more relaxed.” But Nashville is not nearly as relaxed—or sleepy— as it was when you were growing up there. How has it changed?
Lately, Nashville has experienced a lot more commerce, a lot of growth, and a lot of new ideas, which is awesome. And you can’t throw a rock without hitting some new culinary surprise. I like Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. Edley’s Bar-B-Que has great fried okra, one of my favorite foods. City House and Rolf and Daughters are really good, and Josephine is great for brunch. Five Daughters Bakery has the best doughnuts, and if we want a meat ’n’ three, we go to Swett’s Restaurant.
When you created Hello Sunshine in 2012, the mission was to bring “complex and interesting” female characters to film and television. You said you were frustrated by how few major studios were developing projects that featured female leads over 30. Since then, you’ve produced Gone Girl and Wild [for which Witherspoon received an Oscar nomination]. And now you’re amassing a virtual library full of literary properties along the lines of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which we all hope may see another season. How’s the ride been so far?
Reading a book in galleys and then getting it all the way to the finished product is not for the faint of heart, but it makes it that much more rewarding. With Big Little Lies, especially, it was great to work with all those wonderful women (including Dern, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley). We learned more about each other at night over wine. We didn’t rehearse; we’d just go to dinner! I think people saw themselves [in the show]. I think men discovered how women really feel about marriage and relationships and each other. I mean, when was the last time you got to see women really talk about complex issues?
It’s not like you didn’t already have a ton of stuff on your plate. What in the world possessed you to not only start a lifestyle brand but to also be so hands-on about it?
That’s a great question. I don’t really know. Other than sometimes I get a wild hair and an idea that won’t leave me alone, and this is one of them. I love it. It’s also good for my brain to do something other than be in a movie. I’m 41 years old, I’ve been making movies since I was 14, and I needed something else. I love what I do, but sometimes you need to meet different kinds of people. It also brought me back to my roots—I get to travel all over the South.
Also, don’t you get tired of everything fashion related being based in New York and Los Angeles? There are people all over the country who are interesting and interested in fashion, and I thought, “Why not create great designs that mirror and value those kinds of lives?” I like telling these American stories.
I know your paternal grandmother (whose maiden name was Draper) was a huge inspiration to you and the Draper James brand. Tell me about her.
I spent so many afternoons after school at her house. She taught me just about everything. My grandmother taught me how to cook and how to read. She would read all the different voices of each character in each book. I think she kinda taught me how to be an actress. And then she’d take me to downtown Nashville for shopping trips all the time. She loved buying shoes. She didn’t own a pair of pants and wore pearls every single day.
My grandmother was from Cookeville, Tennessee, and my grandfather was from Midlothian, Texas. They met in Nashville while attending Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, where they both got master’s degrees in education in 1942. The confusing thing was that my grandmother got this master’s degree—she was very smart, book smart, you know—but there wasn’t anything for her to do with it afterward. She couldn’t really get a job as anything other than a preschool teacher. She taught preschool and first grade for four or five years, and then she had kids, and back then you stayed home with your kids. So I think, in a way, I’m living the life that she didn’t get a chance to live. She wanted me to do great things and to travel and be accomplished. I was 22 when she died, so she’d seen my work and was proud of me. She even recorded all my movies on her Betamax. She talked about me to the ladies at the hair salon. I feel like a lot of storytelling came to me from going with her to the salon, Mr. Ray’s, every Tuesday. I remember the women sitting around for hours just talking. It was slow, and they would do the wash and the set and sit under the dryer. She had a standing appointment, and she’d drive there in her white Cadillac, wearing gloves.
Reese Witherspoon’s Southern Roots
“My grandmother taught me a lot about being a Southern woman. She always had herself composed and put together, but she also had a great sense of humor. She knew all the rules, but it was just so she could throw them all away.”
Reese Witherspoon is a Southerner through-and-through. We love her for her sass, spunk, and style. This belle comes by her Southern charm naturally, with her roots in New Orleans, but most of what she knows comes from the women before her – her mother and her grandmother.
“I’ve learned a lot about hard work from my mother,” Reese told us in an interview for her September 2017 cover shoot. “She was a nurse for 35 years and a teacher. And, you know, just loving what you do makes a job not feel like a job. She taught me to have a passion for my interests and to work into those interests.”
Reese also pulls inspiration from her grandmother – who also happens to be the namesake for Reese’s Southern clothing line, Draper James. “She was always having big dinner parties at her house and inviting people on the front porch. She was very friendly that way.”
I can’t wait for your lifestyle book, which is set to come out next year. Your publisher, Touchstone, says it will “celebrate the American South’s signature style, grace, and charm.” We do, indeed, have those in spades. But do you agree that our native region seems hotter now than ever?
I think so. There’s so much curiosity about the South right now. And it’s not the same South that you and I grew up in. It’s more inclusive. I think our region has transformed into much more of a place filled with new cultural ideas and attitudes. But Southerners still come together and take care of each other; there is such a great sense of community. I think the South is also a quintessentially very funny place—people don’t take themselves too seriously. The ability to laugh at yourself is a real survival instinct.
Tell me about your family life, which seems pretty rollicking.
We have three dogs: a German shepherd called Nashville; a chocolate Lab called Hank Williams, who swims all day in the pool; and a little French bulldog—Ava’s dog—called Pepper.
The kids all have funny and unique relationships with each other. Ava is like another parent to Tennessee, like his other mother. I think sometimes he even gets confused—he told Ava “Happy Mother’s Day!” And Tennessee is just sort of like Deacon’s protégé. He follows his older brother around the house all day.
Of course, I noticed that one of your dogs and one of your kids are named for your hometown. What’s that about?
You think I want to go home? You think I miss it? [She asks, laughing.] Also, Tennessee Williams is one of my favorite playwrights. My own Tennessee is trying to learn how to spell his name right now. We were over at the preschool, and the teachers were saying that sometimes he just quits and writes “Toth” instead.
Did you always want to be an actress?
The role of June Carter [for which she received an Oscar in Walk the Line] was a real gift to me because I had always dreamed of being a country music singer. When I was growing up, I wanted to be Tammy Wynette. I wanted to be Dolly Parton. Dolly was my first idol. I remember being 5 years old, and my PE teacher at Harding Academy asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said, “I want to be Dolly Parton.” I was dead serious. No laughing. I remember watching Sissy Spacek play Loretta Lynn. That was a big moment for me. Watching other women who talked like me on film was really formative for my acting career. When Holly Hunter spoke like a woman from Georgia in Broadcast News, she didn’t change her voice or her accent for the role. I was like, “Oh, you can do this in your own voice.” Because when I first got out here, I was told to flatten my accent completely. People said, “You’re never going to get work like that. You’ll always be typecast.” I mean, at times I had to learn to change it—Elle Woods [her character in Legally Blonde], for example, doesn’t talk like me because she’s from California. I’ve also taken on some English roles. Right now, I notice my Southern accent is [stronger] because my mom’s in town. I should make like her and boss that writer: “Listen here—I’m gonna make you write a show for me if it’s the last thing I do!”
That sounds like something your heroine Ms. Parton might say!
There’s a reason the Draper James line includes a tote that’s emblazoned with “What would Dolly do?”!