Rediscover Reese We talk to the petite powerhouse
Reese Witherspoon makes movies, tells stories and, crucially, supports other women by giving them opportunities – and now she has her own production company! Actress Jennifer Siebel Newsom talks to the petite powerhouse.
Afew years ago, while pitching a movie to seven studio heads, Reese Witherspoon requested an extra 30 minutes with each executive to ask: what do you have in the works for women? “Only one studio was developing something with a female lead,” she recalls. “They said, ‘We’re happy if you bring us something, but it’s not a part of our development.” Stunned, she started obsessing over the deficit – raising the subject at meetings, to a chorus of women saying, “We know!”
So in 2012, Reese, 40, co-founded Pacific Standard, a production company, with producer Bruna Papandrea. The duo began buying up books and scripts with female protagonists to turn into films and TV series.
By 2015, she saw just how winning her company’s by-andabout-women formula could be. Wild and Gone Girl, its first two films, featured leading ladies with unique personal journeys. Stars Rosamund Pike, Laura Dern and Reese herself were nominated for Oscars, and the films made over R6 482 million, and Reese made Forbes’ list of highest-paid actresses and Time’s 100 Most Influential People list.
Now she’s breaking into a full-on sprint towards equality: Pacific Standard has 32 projects in the works with women front and centre. “With Hot Pursuit, Reese gave me the opportunity to produce and play a main character,” says the film’s star Sofìa Vergara. “She’s so tiny, but she’s so strong – she knows what she wants, and she gets what she wants.”
With her producing business booming, Reese took on a new challenge: she launched Draper James, a clothing and home line, with a flagship store in Nashville, Tennessee. Lest you think she’s superhuman, she hasn’t taken an acting gig in two years so she could spend time with her husband, Jim Toth, and three kids, Ava, 16, Deacon, 12, and Tennessee, three.
Of course, none of this is a surprise. Reese has always been an incredible supporter of women and their work. And as Bruna, her company’s co-founder, says: “The two features you want in a friend are interested and interesting. Reese is both.”
Reese Witherspoon I’d always ask my grandma why she didn’t work, and she’d say her parents didn’t approve of her working after she had children. She didn’t feel that she had choices. Growing up in the South, it was very patriarchal. When I applied to Stanford, I was told by a [male] university counsellor, “You’ll never get in, don’t bother. They don’t want you.” I replied, “I’m going to try.” And I got in! But I wouldn’t be the woman I am if I hadn’t had that conflict to overcome. It’s given me an underdog feeling all my life. Who’s your biggest advocate? My mom, Betty. She’s always been my best audience. She made me feel [like I was] funny even if I wasn’t that funny. She gave me a real sense of joy about life. Back to those studio meetings: how did it feel that only one studio had a project with a female lead? I have this drive from my upbringing to be a doer, not just a complainer. I have achieved a certain success, and I felt a responsibility to my daughter, Ava, and women in this world to create more opportunities for women. Women of different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Who taught you to be a doer? My mother, 100%. She’d always say, “If you want something done, do it yourself.” She must have said that 100 times to me – as a child, as a young woman, yesterday on the phone. What a great role model! Tell us, how did you first get things started with Pacific Standard? I kept complaining and complaining to my husband. He said, “You read more books than anyone I know. Why don’t you start turning them into movies?” So that’s what I did. What do your projects’ characters have in common? They can be flawed, haunted and dynamic, reflective of the women I see every day in my life. Like Amy Dunne [of Gone Girl]. Exploring female rage on film doesn’t frighten me:
“I have this drive from my upbringing to be a doer, not just a complainer.”
“I have achieved a certain success, and I felt a responsibility to my daughter, Ava, and women in this world to create more opportunities for women.”
I know a lot about it, from personal and friends’ experiences. Women want to see the truth, not some perfect girl. Did you start your company to star in these roles yourself, or to develop roles for fellow actresses? I can’t be in all of them! [Laughs.] We have 25 movies and seven TV shows in development. And I’m so happy to have other women take these parts and make the most of them. Women wrote most of the books you’re bringing to screen. Do you hope that other film-makers will elevate the voices of female writers as you have? Definitely. More people telling stories leads to more interesting perspectives. I often think that we wouldn’t get to these political impasses if we had balance in storytelling. If more men would see a story of what it was like to be pregnant, and how it felt to be in a place where you had to make a decision about whether to keep a pregnancy, maybe they’d feel differently about women’s healthcare. So I’m encouraging these women to take the jump to writing for the screen. They’re infinitely capable of tackling the format. I really like that you use the words ‘infinitely capable’. More people need to use those words about women. Men rise through the ranks because of potential, but women have to prove themselves, while trying to have children and having no family leave. No woman’s getting hired because of her potential. I hope we can invest more in female potential. You started acting with The Man in the Moon in 1991. I was only 14 and I auditioned in an empty restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee after seeing an advert in a newspaper! What about Election in 1999? I’d finished four movies in a row. I thought I was going to go back to Stanford, and then I got Election. I loved acting. And Legally Blonde in 2001? I was debating whether to do Legally Blonde, and I saw this interview with Gloria Steinem about how important Goldie Hawn’s role in Private Benjamin was for women; by the end of the movie, the character punched her fiancé at the altar because he didn’t understand who she’d become. I said, “I feel like Gloria told me to do Legally Blonde. That’s how Elle Woods is, too!” She starts out thinking she’s gonna follow a man, but in the end she’s like, “I don’t need you.” It’s the 15th anniversary of Legally Blonde. Where do you think Elle Woods would be now? She’d probably be a Harvard Law professor or a senator. We should all dress in pink and storm into Congress on the anniversary and say, “Why aren’t there enough of us here?” Next: your Oscar-winning role in Walk the Line. I see it as one of my greatest professional accomplishments. Six months of learning to play an instrument, voice lessons, practicing with the band – it was a difficult movie! What about Wild in 2014? It’s the film I’m the most proud of as an actress. It was the first book I bought with my company; it gave me a deeper understanding of who I was as a human being. I was more vulnerable, raw and open in that than ever on film. Have you ever lost yourself in a character? Yes. Frequently. I always let Jim read the script so that he knows what’s about to happen to his wife. When I played Cheryl Strayed in Wild, I’d get really mad about certain things, I’d say really profound things and I’d curse out of nowhere. He’d say, “Are you you, or are you Cheryl?” Actresses are often scrutinised for their ventures, but actors don’t face the same criticism. Why? I’m always confused about that. Is it more unbelievable that women are entrepreneurs? A [news] magazine printed a [photo-illustration] of me in a ballgown holding a vacuum cleaner, saying that I started a company. Now the last time I checked, I’m not selling vacuums. It was very sexist: “Stay in your lane. We like what you do – don’t try be something else.” But I hope that we all have three or four chapters.
Producer, actress, mother: how do you prioritise? My family comes first. I haven’t made a film in two years. I’m focusing on my business, but I also want to spend time with Ava. It’s scary that my oldest child is about to leave. How do you raise kids working in this industry, which reduces so many women to beauty and sex objects? You do the best you can, but it’s hard. When I find things egregiously misrepresentative of women, I’ll say to my son, “Turn that off. I don’t want to see women behave that way. And I don’t want to see men treat those women that way.” You hope you’re saying the right things – but also, as a kid becomes a teenager, you feel like there’s a ticking clock for you to tell them everything that they need to know. My kids make me laugh every day. And they’re always so supportive. We know that “it takes a village”. Who is your village? My mother, my family and my husband – he’s my biggest supporter on Earth. Jim encourages me to put myself out in the world in ways that feel scary, and he’s like, “I’m always gonna catch you. I’m always gonna be there for you.” You’ve been married to Jim for five years. How have each of you and your relationship evolved? I was almost 34 when we met; he was 39. Neither of us has wildly changed; I love him more and more. I just want him to be happy, and he wants me to be happy. That’s a big part of my day, thinking, ‘Is he happy?’ And for him, ‘Is she happy?’ How did you learn what you deserve in a relationship? The more respect I had for myself and took care of myself, the more I understood what I needed in a partner. What matters most in life? Family. I’ve been through really trying experiences personally, and your family is who you turn to. Behind every woman, there is… A safety net of love, compassion and encouragement. To be brave, you have to have an army holding you up.