Once condemned to rom-com hell, Reese Witherspoon is now one of the most important women in movie-making, revolutionising the way women are treated in Hollywood. She talks about love, loss and the turning point in her career that changed everything.
why she is Hollywood’s most important woman right now
Even though she’s long been one of Hollywood’s most beloved and well-respected stars, Reese Witherspoon has struggled to overcome her image as an effervescent southern belle. Best known as a rom-com queen, she felt frustrated and despondent with her career when – despite winning an Oscar for the Johnny Cash biopic
Walk the Line in 2006 – she couldn’t convince the studios to allow her to play the serious parts she craved.
“For a few years, I was a little bit lost as an artist, not being able to find what I wanted to do and making choices that I wasn’t ultimately very happy with,” says Reese. “I wanted to play dynamic women and be part of stories that would allow me to explore all the doubts and anxieties I was facing in my own life and that most women go through.”
Films like the biographical survival drama Wild (2014) and coming-of-age drama Mud (2012) took her in that direction and intensified her ambitions. That led her to produce and star in
Big Little Lies, the acclaimed sevenpart series based on the best-seller by Australian novelist Liane Moriarty now streaming on Sky’s Neon channel. Centred around a trio of mothers in an affluent seaside town along the coast of California, the series offers poignant and often humorous insights into issues that affect women and which are vitally important to Reese, now 41. She was excited to be producing a show with such strong female leads.
“It’s a unique pleasure to be able to come to other women with a piece of material I feel deeply proud of,” she says. “These are the kinds of things that shift consciousness... We need to create more series and movies that treat women in a realistic way and enable female audiences in particular to see themselves and identify with modern, complex female characters.
“What was great about reading the novel for the first time is that I saw myself in different stages of motherhood. I was a mom at 22, I’ve been divorced, I’ve been remarried... They showed every spectrum and colour of a woman’s life. I thought it was incredible to have so many parts for women in one piece of material.”
Reese, who previously produced Gone Girl, the hit 2014 film that starred Ben Affleck and Rosamund
Pike, approached Big Little Lies as the kind of prestige series that deserved the same degree of care and planning that came with getting a feature film made.
First, she brought on board good friend Nicole Kidman to co-produce the series and also play one of the three pivotal female roles. She also asked for Nicole’s help in securing the rights to Liane Moriarty’s book. “I had coffee with Liane and said,
‘Let us option your book, please, and I promise we’ll get it made,’”recalls Nicole. “She said, ‘Only if you and Reese play Celeste and Madeline,’ and I said, ‘Deal.’”
Then Reese persuaded her Wild director, Jean-Marc Vallée (also known for Dallas Buyers Club) to helm the first season of episodes while signing up David E. Kelley (Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal) to write the scripts. She then went about hiring top actors to complete the casting: Shailene Woodley, Alexander Skarsgård, James Tupper, Laura Dern and Zoë Kravitz.
Knowing the frustration that comes with a dearth of intelligent roles for women in Hollywood, Reese saw Big Little Lies as a golden opportunity to launch a unique, female-centric series that she hopes will spawn similar TV projects “down the road”.
“I’ve had so many conversations over the years with very talented actress friends [and] I feel like I constantly see women of incredible talent playing wives and girlfriends in thankless parts. I just had enough... You can’t imagine the level of exasperation that comes with having to compete for terrible parts in terrible movies.
“For 25 years, I’ve been the only woman on set. They call it the Smurfette Syndrome. There’s 100 (male) smurfs around and only one woman. Together with Nicole and Laura [Dern], we nurtured each other’s performances. It’s really a collective performance for all of us.”
Big Little Lies sees Reese play Madeline, whose upbeat, chatty personality is not far from that of the actress herself. Adam Scott plays her husband Ed, and together they look after Madeline’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage, and their precocious five-year-old. On the surface, Madeline projects the confidence of a wealthy, ambitious woman on the cusp of middle age, but deep down she suffers from some of the fears and insecurities of her time as a single mum after her first husband abandoned her.
“Madeline’s struggling with a lot of things, and she’s very open about her struggles. She’s constantly searching for happiness and as the series goes on you’ll find out she’s wrestling with some real ethical dilemmas and things that she wishes she hadn’t done.
“I fixated on this idea that there’s always someone within a group of women who is ‘perfect’. She seems to have everything organised and together, and then you realise, ‘Oh! She’s actually the most cracked of everyone.’ I’m always wary of that person who is afraid to show vulnerability. Madeline only shows it to her friends, and then later you see how truly conflicted she is.”
The series is very much the product of Reese’s sense of drive and ambition. Growing up in an affluent family in Nashville, Tennessee (her father was a top ear, nose and throat surgeon, her mother, a surgical nurse and later nursing teacher),
Reese was impressed by her parents’ accomplished lives as well as their work ethic.
Her mother would come to nickname her “Type A” due to her occasionally obsessive behaviour. “I think I was born with it because my mom would keep telling me how serious and organised I was even as a kid. My mom was my inspiration because she was very hard-working and disciplined. That’s why I never take my career for granted and I am very aware how fortunate I am.”
Before her career took off with Legally Blonde, Reese had already fallen in love with and married actor Ryan Phillippe. She was only 22 when she gave birth to their first child, Ava, followed by son Deacon four years later. She admits to having “underestimated” how hard it
would be for her to juggle motherhood and acting – and, in particular, her desire to break out of her bubbly, goodgirl screen persona. Highs and lows
Feeling condemned to rom-com hell, Reese finally earned a measure of respect with her performance as June Carter, Johnny Cash’s hard-suffering wife in Walk the Line.
It was also at that point her world began falling apart. First, her marriage to Ryan came to an abrupt end in 2009 – reportedly over his chronic infidelity, albeit never directly confirmed by Reese – and then she found herself in a creative limbo that paralleled several years of personal reassessment and self-questioning.
“It was a hard time for me,” says Reese. “It was like I had reached a turning point where you need to take stock of your life and where you’re headed. But those kinds of times are important and they really do make you feel stronger and give you a better sense of who you are.”
After a brief relationship with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese eventually found happiness with Hollywood talent agent Jim Toth, whom she married in March 2011. Their son, Tennessee, was born in 2013.
“It happened out of the blue,” Reese says of meeting Jim for the first time in a bar. They began dating but it took Jim almost a year to convince Reese – still feeling the scars from the collapse of her marriage to Ryan – to marry him.
“Jim said, ‘I’m gonna show you every day what a good partner is, what a good person is. I’m going to take care of you. I’m gonna do this so much that you’re gonna get used to it.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I’ve never had anybody like that in my life.”
Jim has also supported Reese’s efforts to redefine herself as a dramatic actress. She credits him with helping her regain her acting mojo. “He said: ‘You should produce movies. You read more books than anybody I know. You should just buy some of them and turn them into films.’”
Gone Girl was the first project she undertook, buying the rights to the phenomenally successful Gillian Flynn novel before it was published. She went on to produce and star inWild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling 2012 book about her extraordinary 1800km trek along the Pacific Crest Trail on the American west coast.
It would prove to be the most challenging role of Reese’s career, involving nudity, rough sex, and the physical strain of shooting out in the wilderness and carrying around a 30kg backpack for much of the film.
She threw everything she had into the role, ultimately earning an Oscar nomination. It was, she believes now, the kind of test she was looking for and was the culmination of many years involved in “shedding fears” and breaking down a lot of psychological barriers, including the sex and nudity the part required.
“It was tough for me… I nearly backed out of the film when I started thinking more and more about how
I was going to do those scenes. I’ve never done sex scenes like that before and I was feeling a lot of anxiety the closer we came to starting production. I even called my lawyer and told him that he had to get me out of the film because I didn’t feel I could do it. It was so much more sexually explicit than I’ve been in any movie!”
But her husband and others she is close to at her Pacific Standard production company were able to allay her anxieties and director Jean-Marc Vallée said, “She took on everything that she had to do and never backed down once.”
Reese believes that the sexual aspects of the role were essential to defining the character’s evolving sense of personal liberation.
“Wild made a point that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with having sex with a lot of different guys. There’s something liberating about being able to say that and women shouldn’t feel ashamed or be made to feel ashamed about having an active sex life. Women should learn to own their sexuality as well as their aspirations in life.”
Her experience on Wild gave her an added sense of mission when it came to creating similar kinds of projects that would give more opportunities for female actors. She currently has more than 25 film projects and five TV series in various stages of development and she is determined to help advance the cause of women fighting to become a greater force in Hollywood.
“We should be telling a lot more stories about women like this and that’s why I love writers like Lena Dunham and what she’s done on Girls. She’s done a lot to change our way of thinking about women’s attitudes towards sex and being very open and realistic about female sexuality...
“I want to create shows like this to show how important women are in our world.That’s what I tried to focus on with Big Little Lies. I feel like it was such a unique opportunity to have women at every age, every colour talking about motherhood. That is the common denominator. Motherhood is the great equaliser. Parenthood is a great equaliser.”
TOP: Reese with her children, Ava, Deacon and Tennessee, and husband Jim Toth. ABOVE: With first husband Ryan Phillippe (father of Ava and Deacon). RIGHT: Reese and Ava – the actress was only 22 when her daughter was born. OPPOSITE: Reese and Jim.