Reese Witherspoon admits that she’s struggled to find meaningful roles of late. In recent years, she’s preferred to devote herself to family life, following the birth of her son, Tennessee, now 2, her first child with second husband Jim Toth. But things changed when she came across “Wild”, the best-selling 2012 memoir by Cheryl Strayed about her soul-searching, epic eleven-hundred mile journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. Witherspoon saw in the novel a triumphant tale of female empowerment that made her determined to bring the story to the big screen. Wild has already earned the 38-year-old actress rave reviews, and namely, plenty of buzz as a likely Oscar nominee.
“This was such a powerful and beautiful story of a woman who saved herself,” Witherspoon says. “It’s an important movie about female sexuality… So many times we as women are told to be ashamed that you kissed that guy, or you had sex with that dude in college. And I feel like this movie just says ‘It’s gonna be okay’. It’s just such a liberation I think, particularly for young women, to know that it’s really okay to have these explorations.”
Directed by French-Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), Wild sees Witherspoon pushed beyond her “comfort zone,” appearing in sexually-explicit nude scenes for the first time in her career. But that’s precisely the kind of challenge the ambitious Southern belle set for herself in the making of this film.
Witherspoon grew up as a part of an affluent family in Nashville, Tennessee. Her father was a distinguished surgeon and her mother was a top surgical nurse and later teaching nurse.
She was famously married to actor Ryan Philippe for nine years, until their bitter 2008 divorce, following allegations of his chronic infidelity. Witherspoon would later recover from that breakup and marry Hollywood agent, Jim Toth, in March 2011. She has two children from her former marriage to Ryan Philippe: Ava, 15, and Deacon, 10.
In addition to Wild, Witherspoon also starred in The Good Lie this year, the film about four orphaned children from the second Sudanese Civil War in 1983 that eventually make their way to the U.S. Witherspoon plays the U.S. aid worker who helps settle the orphans in America.
STRIPLV: Reese, what made you want to take on a very gritty role like that of Cheryl Strayed in Wild?
WITHERSPOON: I was looking for a project that had a strong female character. I wasn’t very happy with a lot of the scripts I had been reading and the kinds of projects I was being offered, so I decided to find something on my own. I was sent Cheryl’s novel before it even came out, and as soon as I finished it, I knew that this was something I had to do, even if it scared me. The next morning I called my agent and said: “I need to speak to this woman right away. Her book is extraordinary.”
STRIPLV: How did that first conversation with author, Cheryl Strayed, go?
WITHERSPOON: We had a great chat. I told her that her story was so moving and meant so much to me. I felt that I had gotten to know her and that I wanted to turn her story into a movie and that I would do it in a way that would honor her journey and her struggle. What I also loved about it was that this was a story about a woman going alone into the wild and living by her wits, rather than a man, which we’ve seen before. It’s not that often that you see a woman talk about her life in such a raw way, and who is so honest and unafraid to admit to her mistakes and how she was able to find herself in the end.
STRIPLV: How did you feel about the sex and nudity in the film?
WITHERSPOON: It was tough for me. At first I was thinking how ‘Finally, I get to do these very tough scenes,’ which I’ve never really done before. Then when it came closer to the shoot, I started having a breakdown and I was thinking that I ‘just couldn’t do it; it’s too emotionally and sexually explicit for me.’ But fortunately, I had good people around me, who calmed me down and reassured me, and then I just went for it.
STRIPLV: Why did you want to develop this project on your own?
WITHERSPOON: I wanted to develop it with my producing partner because I knew that if I took it to a studio first and had them finance it, they wouldn’t want me in the role. They would say that audiences wouldn’t want to see me play that kind of role or that they would want to tone down the material and make it a lot less raw, which was precisely why I wanted to make the film. But I’m very proud of this film and the way Jean-Marc (Vallée) kept pushing me and didn’t let me lighten the backpack or let me wear pants when it was freezing. (Laughs) I needed a strong director like that. I even remember calling my husband one night, complaining that it was too cold, and I was never going to make it through this film.
STRIPLV: Did you feel like you were experiencing a lot of the physical ordeal that Strayed herself went through?
WITHERSPOON: I don’t want to compare anything I had to deal with to what Cheryl lived through. But, for me, it was by far the hardest movie I’ve ever made. We were shooting very wild and remote locations and the crew was slogging lots of heavy equipment, just as I had to carry a backpack. Jean-Marc actually made me put on a heavier, 65-lb backpack, as opposed to the 45-lb one I had on at first. He told me, “Hey, that doesn’t look heavy enough.” And then I would have to go hike up a hill with that backpack and keep on doing that until we got the right take and could move on. But what keeps you going is that you know that you’re telling a real story about someone who actually lived through all that and endured much worse conditions. You don’t start feeling sorry for yourself with that in mind.
STRIPLV: You’re also playing in another interesting film, The Good Lie. You took your children along to Kenya while you were working on the film, didn’t you?
WITHERSPOON: I wanted to have my family close by when I was shooting over there. When you tell this kind of a story, it makes you truly grateful for all the advantages you have in life. The people in this region went through indescribable suffering, and I’m so thankful that I have a wonderful and supportive husband and wonderful women in my life that help me. Also, everyone (in Kenya) was just so sweet to my baby.
STRIPLV: What made you want to tell this story?
WITHERSPOON: I think it gives you a different perspective on the privileges and opportunities we overlook every single day. We’re so lucky to have jobs and education – and even for grown-ups, I think it’s important for us to remember these things. Hopefully the film will bring this to light for a lot of people, what this experience is like.
STRIPLV: Are these two new films a sign that you’re changing your approach to your career and the kinds of stories you want to be a part of?
WITHERSPOON: My frustration had been building up over a period of time, and even though I didn’t know exactly what types of projects I wanted to make, I knew I wanted to find and develop movies with strong and dynamic female characters. When you look at what Lena Dunham has been doing with her series (Girls) and the kind of book that Cheryl Strayed wrote, you can see that there are so many interesting and powerful female-driven stories out there waiting to be told. I give a lot of credit to those female writers who are willing to discuss female sexuality in a very honest and open way. They don’t hide anything about what women are thinking about and our feelings related to sex and guilt and a lot of issues around that. It’s important that we tell these stories, so women will be able to relate to these feelings.
STRIPLV: You’ve often credited your mother as a major force in you wanting to achieve great things in your life…
WITHERSPOON: My mom was my inspiration because she was very hardworking and disciplined, and I get my work ethic from her. That’s why I never take my career for granted and I am very aware of how fortunate I am to enjoy this kind of life. I’m grateful for my success, but I’m even prouder to be able to have a wonderful home and family around me. That means the world to me!