Reese Wither­spoon:

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.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - AWW

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.

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