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REESE WITHERSPOON - ONE-WOMAN POWERHOUSE

0518reesewitherspoonfeature

REESE WITHERSPOON - ONE-WOMAN POWERHOUSE

By Skye Huntington

These have been some very big years in the life of Reese Witherspoon. Her “Big Little Lies” TV mini-series will begin shooting the second season as the first season turned out to be a massive popular and critical success and earned her and series co-star Nicole Kidman Emmy nominations for best actress (and an Emmy win for Kidman). It was also a personal triumph on another level for Witherspoon— she spearheaded the development of the series via her Pacific Standard production company, hired her Wild director  to direct and brought her good friend Nicole Kidman on board as both co-star and co-executive producer. Witherspoon developed the series to create better parts for women, which she hopes will spawn similar TV projects down the road. “Things need to change. I constantly see women of incredible talent playing wives and girlfriends in thankless parts, and I just had enough,” Witherspoon says. “I’ve had conversations with so many actress friends, and you can’t imagine the level of exasperation that comes with having to compete for terrible parts in terrible movies.” She adds: “For 25 years, I’ve been the only woman on set. They call it the Smurfette Syndrome: There’s 100 (male) smurf’s around and only one woman. Here, together with Nicole and Laura Dern, we nurtured each other’s performances. It’s a collective performance for all of us.”

 

At the outset, however, Witherspoon called upon Kidman to secure the Big Little Lies book rights from Moriarty, a fellow Aussie. Recalled Kidman: “I had coffee with Liane and said, ‘Let us option your book, please, and I promise you we’ll get it made.’ She said, ‘Only if you and Reese play Celeste and Madeline,’ and I said, ‘Deal.’

Witherspoon delivered arguably the best performance of her career in the role of Madeline, who is Lies’ whirling dervish/Type A meddlesome Monterey mom and social gadfly. The series earned Reese some of the best reviews of her career and could well be said to eclipse even her Oscar-winning turn in Walk
the Line
or harrowing journey in Wild.

Chatting with Reese is always an adventure. Not only does her neon smile light up the room, but she also brings boundless energy and enthusiasm to the conversation. She has also become a one-woman powerhouse since career-breaking performances in Cruel ntentions, Legall Blonde and Walk the Line, which nabbed her an Oscar. Witherspoon now carefully plots her new projects with strategic maneuvering. The same can be said for her interview demeanor, which is shrewd and considered, but always delivered with that bubbly, cutesy Southern drawl.

The 42-year-old Witherspoon lives in Los Angeles with her Hollywood agent husband, Jim Toth, and their five-year-old boy Tennessee, and her two teenage children, 18-year-daughter Ava and soon-to-be 14-year old son Deacon, from her previous marriage to actor Ryan Philippe.

STRIPLV: Reese, this would appear to be a very fertile creative time for you.

WITHERSPOON: I’m in a good place in my life and as an artist, and I have high expectations for the future. It’s very rewarding and a lot of fun but in the end, there’s a lot of hard work involved.

STRIPLV: What is the difference between where you are today and where you were nearly a decade ago and admitted going through a crisis? (following her divorce from Ryan Philippe)

WITHERSPOON:  A while back I felt that I had lost my inspiration and my direction and today my work fits with my ambitions about what I want to accomplish and the ideas I have for new projects. My husband Jim has had a lot to do with that. He’s helped encourage me to be bolder in my outlook, and now with my production company (Pacific Standard), I’m able to create opportunities not just for myself but for other women to write and direct.

STRIPLV: Now that you’ve entered your 40s, would you say that you have attained a certain calm and confidence about how you want to move forward?

WITHERSPOON:  Yes. As you grow older, so many things become clearer. Now I focus on the positives, on what I know how to do, and on enjoying my family life and being a good mother instead of wasting time on things that are not important and distract you from what you want to do.

STRIPLV: “Big Little Lies” must give you a tremendous sense of satisfaction in being able to put together such an impressive cast of women that is not often seen on TV or film.

WITHERSPOON: I’m very proud of being able to bring together so many extraordinarily gifted women like Nicole, Shailene (Woodley), Laura (Dern), and Zoë (Kravitz) to be part of this series. I was getting tired of seeing so many talented women relegated to secondary, girlfriend kinds of roles. And getting to spend time with them has made me appreciate even more how frustrating it is for women in our business to be able to find good roles.

STRIPLV: You were obviously frustrated with the lack of opportunities out there.

WITHERSPOON: I wasn’t just frustrated with myself but for a lot of other women I know who share with me their horror stories about not being able to find good roles. What made me angry was the lack of interest that our industry had in telling stories from a women’s perspective and, even worse, seeing fantastic actresses forced to play and only wives or girlfriends’ type character. It’s important to talk about women with greater complexity.

STRIPLV: Did you share a lot of similar perspectives with your character Madeline?

WITHERSPOON: There are a lot of similarities. Madeline was for me a kind of cross-section of what so many women are facing in their 40s. She’s divorced and

remarried. She’s a mother seeing her eldest child start asserting her independence and dealing with issues all mothers face as their relationship when their partner changes or breaks down after many years or when their children start asserting themselves more when they get to be teenagers. It’s not the story of my life, but it’s not that far off from what I’ve been through and some of the experiences I’ve had and the questions I’ve had to deal with.

STRIPLV: You’re the mother of three children. Now that your production company is more active than ever, does it make it harder to manage things?

WITHERSPOON: The teenagers are much more demanding. You’re constantly having to guide them through all those big first moments in their lives: the first love of their life, getting their first car, and then thinking about college. The relationship is much more complicated as compared to when they’re young, and your main concerns are very practical, making their meals, driving them to school, getting them to bed on time. And they usually listen to you.

STRIPLV: And teenagers don’t?

WITHERSPOON:  When your kids get to be teenagers, they very rarely agree with anything you tell them. And when it comes to an 18-year-old girl, you begin to realize that you don’t know anything about her anymore. I find myself calling my mom and asking her for advice. I tell her “Am I ruining their lives?” (Laughs)

STRIPLV: You grew up in Tennessee, part of the American south and its distinctive culture. Raising your children in L.A., do you still try to give them a sense of your southern upbringing and roots?

WITHERSPOON:  Southern women have a strong sense of humor, they laugh at themselves, and they don’t scream if they see a cockroach. The first thing I taught my eldest children was riding horses, getting to spend time with animals and playing outdoors. Also, when they were little, I didn’t allow them to watch TV. I didn’t want them sitting in front of the TV set all day, and I tried to get them to play and do as many creative kinds of activities as possible.

STRIPLV: Do you have any particular philosophy concerning your role as a mother?

WITHERSPOON: I try to encourage them to be active and do sports.  I also want to give them enough freedom so that they can develop their own individuality and not feel like their mother is trying to control their lives, not that they listen to you anyway! (Laughs) My parents were very thoughtful and inspiring to me, and I grew up with an independent spirit. I want my children to be able to discover their own interests and pursue their own ambitions.

STRIPLV: You seem to still have plenty ambition when it comes to your work these days.

WITHERSPOON: I do!  I’ve seen how much you can do when you work hard and don’t wait for the phone to ring. I went through that, and then I decided to stop being complacent and start creating my own projects and working with people whom I admire and who have a vision similar to my own.

STRIPLV: You’re still very youthful-looking. Does aging bother you?

WITHERSPOON: No. I don’t mind it at all. It’s amazing. When I first saw “Big Little Lies” in the rehearsal room, I immediately noticed the wrinkles on my face and I said, “I like them, I won them one by one.” I worked hard to have these wrinkles!

STRIPLV: You won an Oscar singing in Walk the Line, so how was the challenge in Sing or was it no challenge at all?

WITHERSPOON: Sing was way-way harder. (Laughs) It was in another league. Country was second nature to me; it came naturally because I’d always dreamed of being a country singer. I grew up in Nashville. But pop songs, tougher than you’d expect. Especially the songs they picked for me. I think it’s because we hear them so much that they seem easier but technically, they can be very challenging. I already knew Firework was difficult; I think anyone who’s not Katy Perry has attempted to sing it, knows it’s an uphill challenge. You’ve got the notes that are off the register. Plus, I think my kids are a little sick of it now because as I was constantly going around the house singing it. “Mom, give it a rest,” is what I used to hear. A lot! And “Shake It Off,” wow, Taylor makes it look easy. And I actually met her while I was recording and was like, “It’s a really difficult song,” and she’s like, “Welcome to my world.” You think it’s like this fun poppy anthem but the speed and the pacing, and the tone, it’s technically really difficult. So I have a seriously new-found respect for Taylor.

STRIPLV: Are you a singer at home by yourself?

WITHERSPOON: Definitely. In the shower, in the car. And it’s always where I do my best work. (Laughs)

STRIPLV: What’s your go-to song?

WITHERSPOON: “Chandelier” by Sia. That is not easy either, which is why it’s wise I sing it by myself. (Laughs)

STRIPLV: But you won an Oscar for your singing, aren’t you being a little hard on yourself?

WITHERSPOON: Not if you heard my “Chandelier.” No, I’m not a singer, I can sing OK. I can hold a tune, sometimes. But I won’t be releasing an album any time ever. Nothing will tell you that more than being around Jennifer Hudson and Tori Kelly. And Scarlett Johansson, she’s an amazing singer too. All of them would literally be in and out of the studio in 20 minutes and then when it came to my turn, I’d do my song, I’d sing “Firework” and think, “nailed it.” And then they’d say to me, “can you come back tomorrow to do that again?” Then they’d say it the next day and the next day. It would stretch to, “actually, are you free all next week. Yeah, that’d be great. We need to do a lot of work.”

STRIPLV: This is one for your kids. Has it earned brownie points?

WITHERSPOON: Plenty points. It’s the first time my youngest has seen one of my movies, and it’s glorious to watch him try and get his mind around what’s happening. Every morning he’d ask me to explain, “so your voice is coming from a pig? It’s you, but you’re a pig!” When we went to see it for the first time because they’ve all seen it like 10 times since I was fascinated by his face, it was so cute. I was staring at him in the theater, mesmerized by his expressions. 

STRIPLV: Why were you drawn to the very cool Rosita?

WITHERSPOON: This is about following your dreams, no matter what. No matter your age, no matter if you’ve got kids, no matter if your parent wants you to stay part of the family business, no matter what you’ve got going on, you can still go for it. And you should go for it. I play a mom who I think a lot of moms can relate to. She has 25 kids, (Laughs) which is a pretty average number, right? And she’s allowed her dreams to slip by the wayside because that’s what happens. She has so many children that there isn’t time for anything else. But she hears about his competition coming to town, and she wants her chance to sing, and prove to herself that she can do it. This is her big shot! I think everybody has secret dreams and wants. That never goes away. And I think moms disappear sometimes when they’re looking after the kids, they become swallowed by this routine and who they are as people, as individuals, they’re kind of eclipsed, and their dreams and own lives take second place.

STRIPLV: Could you relate to her and that?

WITHERSPOON: I think I can relate to her as most moms can. Moms aren’t just mom’s, they are actual people themselves, which I think can come as a shock to kids and it’s important to see them as individuals who don’t just cook dinner and clean your clothes and drive you to school. And that’s a nice message for kids in this movie, to appreciate their moms. There are so many great messages about family togetherness, but I think this was my favorite. I like mom’s being championed. They don’t get enough credit. And another great one is, it becomes for all the singers, not just Rosita. It’s not about the money, it’s about the performance and love of it, and I love that message too. And then there’s believing in yourself. God, there are so many.

STRIPLV: Reese, is “Big Little Lies” your way of making a statement to Hollywood?

WITHERSPOON: We need to create more series and movies that treat women in a realistic way and enable female audiences, in particular, to be able to see themselves and identify with modern, complex female characters. It’s a unique pleasure to be able to come to other women with (this series). These are the kinds of (projects) that shift consciousness. I want to be able to express myself, create shows like this to show how important women are in our world.

STRIPLV: Did you feel a personal connection to the stories of these three women and mothers?

WITHERSPOON: What was great about reading the novel for the first time is that I saw myself in different stages of motherhood all through my life. I was a mom at 22; I’ve been divorced, I’ve been re-married. They showed every spectrum and color of a woman’s life. I thought it was incredible to have so many parts for women in one piece of material. I feel like it was such a unique opportunity to have women at every age, every color, talking about motherhood. That is the common denominator. Motherhood is the great equalizer. Parenthood is a great equalizer.

STRIPLV: How did you see your character Madeline in “Big Little Lies?”

WITHERSPOON: Madeline’s struggling with a lot of things, and she’s very open about her struggles. She’s just an open book. 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 are “perfect.” She seems to have everything organized and together, and then you realize, “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.

STRIPLV: What does the series say about the state of marriage and relationships between men and women?

WITHERSPOON: It was important to not just explore the perspective that women have on their lives but also show these women connect to the men in their lives. I 

was fascinated by the family dynamics at work and particularly about the journey that my character and James’s (Tupper) go on and how divorces can be very messy and complicated.

STRIPLV: Did you see this series as addressing the need for more projects that give women a more central place?

WITHERSPOON: 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.

STRIPLV: A few years ago you starred in Wild, which you and your production company Pacific Standard also produced. Was that also an important statement regarding its openness about female sexuality?

WITHERSPOON: A lot of women grow up with the impression that casual sex is something to be ashamed about, or that you can’t be as free about sex as men are allowed to be. Society still attaches a lot of stigma when it comes to women who are very free about sex or having many relationships. 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.

STRIPLV: You have often expressed your pride and admiration for how your mother inspired you to achieve great things in your life. Could you talk about her influence on you?

WITHERSPOON: My mom was my inspiration because she was very hard-working and disciplined and I get my work ethic from her. My mother worked very hard at her job (as a surgical and later teaching nurse), and she also earned a doctorate in pediatric nursing while raising my sister and me. She’s a very dynamic and strong-willed woman who was always very present for us and her dedication as a working mother is something I’ve always respected and wanted to emulate in my own life.

STRIPLV: Do you also try to be a role model for your children and your daughter Ava in particular?

WITHERSPOON: I hope my children are feel encouraged to work hard in life because I’ve tried to accomplish a lot in my career which hasn’t always been easy for me. I also think it’s important as a woman to show what you can accomplish. I had to work very hard to get people in the business to take me seriously and even after I had had some success I still couldn’t find the serious roles I was looking for. But following the example of my own mother, I kept pursuing things with a lot of passion and determination, and I would like my kids to feel the same way about their mother.

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