Reese Witherspoon’s Big Little Life
The film and TV roles Reese Witherspoon has created for women challenge stereotypes. And viewers are responding to these more complex, nuanced roles with a resounding thumbs-up!
‘What did you want to be when you were five years old?’
That was one of the questions put to Reese Witherspoon during The Hollywood Reporter’s (THR) Drama Actress Roundtable discussion about sexism in Hollywood. And for anyone following Reese’s trajectory, her answer was unsurprising: ‘The first female president of the United States of America!’ Some cheeky little boys in her kindergarten class laughed when she said that, but fortunately her female teacher was quick to come in with a positive retort: ‘I’ll be the first one to vote for you.’ With credits for directing, producing and acting to her name, Reese is one of the most powerful women in Hollywood today, and is a strong advocate for changing the perception of women in society.
‘Women make up 50 percent of the population, and we should be playing 50 percent of the roles on screen,’ she says. ‘We need more female surgeons, supreme-court justices and soldiers – but on screen. Not just as the girlfriends to famous men.’ At the same THR roundtable session, Reese noted that great strides have been made in this respect: ‘The thing I particularly enjoy about the evolution of television is that we have the opportunity to show the entire spectrum of human emotion that women have. We aren’t just the wives and the girlfriends. We’re actually living, breathing people who have insecurities.’ It’s fair to credit Reese with contributing a great deal to this progress. Not content to simply talk the talk, she started her own production company, Pacific Standard, in 2012, with the stated aim of ‘seeing different, dynamic women on film’. And with the huge successes of Gone Girl, Wild and, of course, the TV series Big Little Lies, Reese has certainly achieved that.
Big Little Lies was initially conceived as a one-off show, but after the overwhelmingly positive response it received, it was green-lit for a second season – with no less than Meryl Streep joining the cast! Review site Rotten Tomatoes gave the show a rare approval rating of an incredible 92%, describing it as ‘bitingly funny, highly addictive; a twisty, thrilling, enlightening ride led by a first-rate cast’.
What’s more, Big Little Lies has collected a serious
number of shiny statuettes: it swept the Emmy’s last year with eight awards, winning for ‘Outstanding Just-About-Everything’, with acting, writing, directing, cinematography all getting a nod or win. And the show made an equally impressive showing at the Golden Globes this year.
Both Reese and Nicole Kidman were up for the lead actress Emmy as well as the best actress Golden Globe – Nicole took home both awards. Clearly the world was ready for a series that showcased the ‘complexity of the female experience’, as Reese puts it.
Laura Dern, one of her besties and a co-star on the show, explains that their recent projects have inspired them to ‘step forward’.
‘Reese has been such a champion in that way and continues to inspire me,’ she said. ‘I think we care deeply about how we can inspire other women to support each other and create art for fellow women.’
But Reese’s drive to contribute to positive change doesn’t end there. She serves on the board of the Children’s Defence Fund, a child advocacy and research group. She is a supporter of Save the Children, which helps provide children around the world with education, healthcare and emergency aid. She’s a global ambassador for Avon and the honorary chair of the Avon Foundation, which supports women and focuses on breast cancer research and the prevention of domestic violence. It’s evident she’s dead serious about putting her time and star status to work to support those who make it their business to fix the world.
For someone who hasn’t been out of the public eye since her star turn in the 1991 drama The
Man in the Moon at the age of 15, Reese is remarkably grounded. She attributes this to her ‘definitive Southern upbringing’, which, she says, gave her a sense of family and tradition. As a child, she had two big loves: reading and acting. She was ‘a big dork who read loads of books’, and had her first taste of acting at the age of seven, when she was a model for a florist’s television advertisement and signed up for acting lessons.
‘I don’t see any of it as remarkable,’ she says. ‘Maybe that’s the attitude I choose to have to keep me sane and keep my feet on the ground. I grew up
‘I certainly think the longer you can keep your values and your morality intact, and keep your head on your shoulders about what’s important at the end of the day, you can get the most out of this business and really emerge with something wonderful.’
in an environment where women accomplished a lot.’
Reese is a wife and a mom to three children; she works hard at her acting and philanthropic work and in her production company – and that’s the way it is.
The Man on the Moon was an unexpected breakthrough for Reese. She went to an open casting to audition as a bit player and instead landed the lead role of Dani Trant, a 14-year-old girl who falls in love for the first time. The movie received rave reviews, with Reese’s performance being described as ‘memorably touching’ and earning her a Young Artist Award nomination for Best Young Actress.
On the back of this success, the offers came thick and fast. Among others, Reese cemented her reputation in the highly acclaimed Diane Keaton-directed
Wildflower, in which she played one of a pair of teenage siblings who become friends with an epileptic girl named Alice (played by Patricia Arquette), who’s been locked up in the barn behind her father’s house as he believes her seizures to be the work of the devil. With the help of the two teens, the girl is able to become part of everyday society.
After graduating from high school, Reese decided to take some time out and won a place at Stanford University to read English literature. But the movie industry was having none of it, and she was lured away again to play opposite Mark Wahlberg in Fear and opposite Kiefer Sutherland in Freeway. Her breakthrough role was Elle Woods in 2001’s blockbuster Legally Blonde, which was an outand-out box-office hit, grossing US$96 million. Movie critic the late Robert Ebert sang her praises at the time, saying: ‘Witherspoon effortlessly animated this material with sunshine and wit.’ Her follow-up hit, Sweet Home
Alabama, did even better. Then came her Oscar-winning role: June Carter Cash, the second wife of country singer and songwriter Johnny Cash, in Walk
the Line. She took singing lessons for six months to prepare for the role, which also won her the Screen Actors Guild Award, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. Reese’s brilliance in this film was perhaps in part a function of her passion for it: she describes June as a woman ahead of her time, and the movie as portraying ‘… a real marriage, a real relationship where there are forbidden thoughts and fallibility. And it’s about compassion in the long haul, not just the short, easy solutions to problems’.
Those values are reflected in her life. ‘The battles we face in this business aren’t financial, but moral,’ she says. ‘And I certainly think the longer you can keep your values and your morality intact, and keep your head on your shoulders about what’s important at the end of the day, you can get the most out of this business and really emerge with something wonderful.’
Reese has a great role model in her own mother, who was both a teacher and a nurse.
‘There are some sacrifices you make and it hurts your heart sometimes, but my kids tell me they’re proud of what I’ve accomplished, and that just means everything.’
One rule that’s stayed with her since childhood is family dinner every night.
‘That’s a big thing I learnt from my grandmother – to spend time with your kids and listen to their dreams.’
Reese is big on family, and big on symbolic connections. Her real name is Laura; Reese is her mother’s family name. Her daughter with ex-husband Ryan Phillippe is named Ava, after his grandmother; their son, Deacon, is named after footballer Deacon Phillippe, a relative of Ryan. She has a third child, Tennessee, with her second husband, Jim Toth.
In 2015, she launched a Southern-inspired lifestyle brand called Draper James, which was inspired by her grandparents, Dorothea Draper and William James Witherspoon. ‘I hope my grandparents know how much I look up to them,’ she says. ‘I truly believe that they look down on me and guide me in this life.’
They would certainly be proud of what she’s accomplished. But for Reese, it’s not about earning anyone’s approval. It’s illuminating and inspiring to hear what drives her:
‘Hollywood is one of those endless competitions, but it’s like running a race toward nothing. There’s no winning… I just want to be the best version of myself that I can be.’
Reese Witherspoon with her second husband, Jim Toth.