September 2003 By Philip Berk
Thirteen years ago who would have thought an awkward teenager with the ungainly name of Reese Witherspoon could one day become the screen’s most bankable female star?
But that’s just what happened following the surprise success of her two Legally Blonde movies and Sweet Home Alabama, for which she was paid $15 million!
Ever since Man in the Moon, she’s been carving out her own career.
Plucked from a casting call fourteen years ago to play Albert Finney’s daughter in that film, she followed it with a string of unremarkable performances in minor movies which keyed her decision to return to school choosing no less than prestigious Stanford University to do her undergraduate work. (Her major there was English literature.)
Fortuitously she dropped out when director Robert Benton offered her a small role in Paul Newman’s Twilight.
What followed was another unremarkable performances in Fear.
But then in 1999 she hit the jackpot, first playing an oversexed teenager in Pleasantville, then a scheming over-achiever in Election (for which she won the Best Actress award from the National Society of Film Critics,) and finally a sweet innocent seduced by a lecher, played by Ryan Phillippe, in Cruel Intentions.
During the making of that film she fell in love with him, and they were married three months before their daughter Ava was born.
Then Legally Blonde happened.
The movie catapulted her to fame, power, and money.
But in New York for the junket of her latest, Vanity Fair, it’s obvious that she’s not in the least bit interested in those things.
What she wants is career, not money.
And in fact for both Vanity Fair and her currently shooting I Walk the Line, she was paid a fraction of her current salary!
When she walks into the press conference, she’s unrecognizable.
Gone are her blonde tresses, suddenly she’s brunette.
Is it for I Walk the Line? I ask her.
“For June Carter, yeah. She had brown hair.”
What does her family think of it?
“They’re getting used to it, but my daughter doesn’t like it. She says,’You don’t look like my mommy any more. It makes me sad.’ I said, ‘Well, mommy will be blonde soon.”
Do people recognize her?
“They actually do, not as frequently, but even in the airport, everybody pretty much knew it was me. I don’t know how. I thought I had everybody fooled, but they figured it out. Somebody told me it was my smile. I always say, ‘How did you know? How did you know it was me? I’m hiding. You’re not supposed to figure this out.’ One lady said it was my eyes. I don’t know how people figure it out. I guess they’re savvy.”
In person she’s tiny, a little bow legged, not what you would call drop dead beautiful. But on screen, she’s magical.
The camera loves her the way it doted on Marilyn Monroe.
She may not be Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, but she’s able to make the novel’s manipulative character sympathetic, and you have to love her for undertaking the role while (noticeably) pregnant.
After winning the hearts of a wide demographic — from preteens to little old ladies — wasn’t she reluctant to play a morally ambivalent character?
“Actually I was thrilled. When Mira first talked to me about this project, I thought, Oh, this is great. I get to play Becky Sharp. And she is sort of ruthless and narcissistic and only interested in her own plans and manipulations. But that’s what so beautiful, this woman isn’t just one thing. She has all these negative attributes, she’s self-driven, greedy and ambitious. But she’s also a product of her upbringing, and a woman of a certain time. It’s hard to stretch your mind sometimes and think, ‘What would it be like to be a woman of that time who grew up with no money and no class and no status, surrounded by people who had everything? If you were smart and you had the will and brains to do it, wouldn’t you also try to manipulate your way to the top. I loved that, and when I saw the film, I was really impressed that Mira had figured out a way to make characters who come across as very arch in the book very multi-dimensional in the film.”
So she had no problem going from Elle Woods to Becky Sharp?
“No, I was excited. I do films like Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama, and I love those performances. I love that people feel happy about those films. But at the same time I’m trying to challenge myself and do roles that aren’t about making a lot of money or feeding a big commercial audience. And I was actually pleased and surprised when the character came off so sympathetic.”
How risky is it for her to make two movies in a row in which she makes little or no money? What does her agent say?
“I happen to have a wonderful team of people that I work with who, honestly, more often than not push me to make artistic choices. And we sort of collaborate like that. I’ve been blessed with people who see the big picture and the longevity rather than the short-term cash-out, where you become the flavor of the month and then no-one can remember who you are in five years. So, really that’s what I do, I try to do both.”
I Walk the Line is the Johnny Cash story. She’s the classiest thing about it, I tell her. How important is her role, and how did she get involved?
“Actually I met the director James Mangold at an engagement party, and he said he was doing a movie about Johnny Cash. We were just having chit chat, and I assumed he was doing a film about the latter part of his life. And I said, ‘Oh, that’s so exciting. I played June Carter Cash in the fourth grade play, because I grew up in Nashville’. And he said, ‘You did?’ And I told him I know all about the Carter family and country music history. And then two years later my phone rang, and it was Jim Mangold and he said, ‘I want you to be in my Johnny Cash movie.’ And I said, ‘They’re in their 70s. I can’t play June Carter Cash,’ and he said, ‘No, no, I’m doing a story of their courtship, starting in the 50s when they were in their 20s.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s so great.’ So, I said, ‘Whatever you do, I want to do this film, but I don’t want to sing in it.’ And so he was like, ‘O.K. Well, here’s the thing, you’re going to have to sing.’ And I said, ‘Well, no, I’m not.’ and he said, ‘Well you have to try. At least try.’ So I got stuck with it. I got into the studio and I took a bunch of voice lessons and had to learn to play all these instruments, and finally they somehow finagled us into doing an album, And then they told me that Joaquin Phoenix was playing Johnny Cash, and I just thought he was perfect, enigmatic, very artistic, kind of dark. That’s sort of his image to me. I thought it was a real good marriage of the two artists. And he and Johnny actually knew each other. So that was really nice. I’m so thrilled to be part of it. It’s been the hardest movie I’ve ever had to make, ever, because of all the rehearsals and the recording of the albums and the drug use that’s in it. It’s been really hard, but it’s been wonderful.”
She’s married to actor Ryan Phillippe. They met during the making of Cruel Intentions.
Are they planning to make another movie together?
“I would certainly consider it. I mean, nothing’s coming up, but we talk a lot about working together in different capacities. We both write, and we talk about maybe doing a movie together, whether he directs it or I direct it or something. I think that would be fun.”
The tabloids claim their marriage is in trouble, but Reese dismisses it without a thought.
“My marriage is really important to me,” she explains, “and I married somebody before I had any fame or success — not that I wasn’t a working actress, but my career was nowhere near the fame and success that came out of doing three commercial movies. So, really, Ryan is a big grounding influence on my life. I’m the same person that I was with him before that I am afterwards. He really helps me realize that movies are just movies and that our family comes first. And my parents instilled in me very strong family values and taught me that the most important thing is building a strong family that will care for you, whether you’re famous or not.”
Just as they were about to start shooting, she found out she was pregnant.
What was Mira’s reaction?
“When I called her up to tell her I think she thought I was going to say I wasn’t going to do the film. But I said I was ready to start tomorrow and I hope we can do this quick before I get too big, and surprisingly everyone was up to the challenge.”
How tough was it?
“Actually it was both thrilling and challenging, but also really hard. I mean, I was tired a lot. But the great part was I was working with a female producer and a female director, and so I had this wonderful support system of people who had been through it themselves. They were both mothers and completely supported me in every way; they made sure that I got my nap in the middle of the day and that I got out early; so that was great.
Then jokingly she adds, “Of course, towards the end I got very grumpy, and everybody had to just deal with it. But it was wonderful. And it’s exciting for me to think of my son in my stomach at the time, and that he was with me during the whole experience. So it’ll always be a really special film in my memory for that reason alone.”
And now that he’s out of her belly?
“Yeah, he’s wonderful. I mean, it’s completely overwhelming having two children. It’s like twice as much work and twice as much worrying about where are they? but I’m assimilating it. I think I’m getting more used to it. He’s almost a year now and he’s great. And he is his father’s child, they’re like best friends. It’s really nice for a father to have a buddy.”
How difficult was the love scene where James Purefoy’s was half naked and she was wearing a negligee?
“Yeah, that was odd, but James Purefoy made that a lot easier because he was really understanding and helpful. I was so worried about meeting James, because I was like, ‘Oh, he’s just going to dread having to work with a pregnant actress. This is not going to be any fun.’ But he was really respectful and understanding because he has a kid of his own. Yeah, it was hard to manipulate that scene where we were sort of turning around, and I had aches in my sides. But I think, ultimately that’s my favorite scene in the movie when she tells him she’s pregnant. There’s something really beautiful and sensual about that, and it felt very real to me at that moment, because it was something that had also happened to me.”
Has she thought about why her marriage works so well?
Laughingly she replies, “Well, my mom and dad have been married for 35 years, and Ryan’s parents have been married for 30 years. So I think we have similar attitudes, which helps. We share a lot of values. But it’s not easy. Marriage isn’t easy. It’s about being willing to stay with somebody through the good and through the bad. Life is just a big roller coaster, you can get off and try something else or whatever, but for me the consistency of someone sharing a life experience is what’s really beautiful and builds a beautiful relationship. That’s why I’m having so much fun on I Walk the Line.The relationship that Johnny Cash and June Carter had together was very tumultuous, and they weathered a lot of difficult times together, but ultimately they just knew they were meant to be together, and they shared a beautiful love story.”
How is (five-year-old) Ava adapting to having a little brother?
“Well, Ava loves being a big sister. She tells me she’s the mother, and she gets to do everything. One days she came in while I was changing Deacon’s diaper, and she said, ‘Mother!’ And she burst into tears. And I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ She goes, ‘I’m the one that wanted to have this baby. And you don’t let me do any of it.’I said, ‘Fine, you do whatever you want to do. Do you want to do the bottle?’ ‘Yes, I want to do the bottles. And I want to do his diapers. And I want to take him on a walk.’ And I said,‘Okay, you can do everything. That’s fine with me.”
With a big smile she adds, “So she’s very involved. She loves her baby brother. Except, yesterday, actually it was the first day he discovered her toys. And now she’s not happy about it, not happy about it at all. She’s like, ‘I was here first! And he took my toy.’ So her whole attitude, it changes month to month, but overall she’s been wonderful about it.
And how is Ryan adjusting?
“Ryan is just having the time of his life. He has a son, they watch every sport. I mean, from the day we brought the baby home from the hospital, Ryan propped him up on the couch, and they watched football. And I’m not kidding, not exaggerating, that child has been sitting on the couch every Sunday watching a sporting event with his father. It’s really nice, actually. I think it’s been great, because my daughter is like my best friend. And now he has his son.”
Is he walking yet?
“He’s only nine-and-a-half months, but any minute now he’ll be pulling himself up.”
In the Vanity Fair interview she says “I have stretch marks, I have cellulite, my breasts sag.”
“I know, I can’t believe I said that. I was really horrified when I read it.”
But it was courageous of her?
“It was hard because the’re moments when you’re pregnant that you don’t feel attractive, particularly to men. You certainly don’t feel like a sex object. So while making the movie, a lot of that was Mira encouraging me to be more aware of my sensuality, and that was really helpful. But yeah, it gets awkward.”
Then jokingly she adds, “And I am vain. I have my vanity.”
In what way?
“Probably in the fact that I’m thinking about my cellulite and my stretch marks. That I even worry about it to the point that I spoke about it to the press, tells you it’s on my mind. But the important thing is to have a perspective. You can think about those things, and they can worry you, but you just have to get on with your life.”
One thing for sure, she’s not known as a diva. How come no entourage?
“I just have an entourage of children and toys. They travel all across the world with me. My daughter has so many bags. She’s the diva. She travels with three bags everywhere she goes. She has a purse and a backpack. Personally I don’t need anything really. I just need my family. You get overwhelmed by things. I just like to keep my life pretty simple. Yet as simple as my life is, it’s not simple, you know.”
Did she ever read Vanity Fair?
“Yes. A couple of times.”
When was the first time?
“When Mira offered me the project.”
Never in high school?
“No, I didn’t read it in school, but I’ve always been a voracious reader. I read a lot on set. I go through four, five books, depending on how long the movie is.”
What is she reading now?
“Right now, I’m reading The Other Boleyn Girl, about Anne Boleyn.”
Is she still hounded by the paparazzi?
“I’ve given up on them. I figure, if this is the worst problem I have, then I’m doing Okay.
Is she bothered by them?
“Verbally, I am. I don’t think this comes as a shocker to you, but they don’t have nice manners, Occasionally, they say a few f-words to you. I heard the b-word a few times. But you know, it’s fine, it’s fine. The thing that bothers me is when they say it to other parents whose kids are in the shot with my daughter. Like, get your f-ing kid out of the shot! Move out of the f-ing way, we’re trying to get the picture.’ That’s just mean. At a nursery school where there are three-year-olds! But that’s the business. That’s what we do. They’re doing their job, we do ours.”
And she doesn’t say anything?
“I don’t have anything to say. I don’t negotiate with people.”
I tell her that Joaquin Phoenix described her as f–ing awesome?
“Oh yes, he knows the f-word, too,” she muses.
Does that type of language offend her?
“Oh no, I have a big brother.”
So she’s no a prude?
“No, no, no. And specially after doing this movie. It’s not how I carry on in my everyday life. It’s not really how I was raised. And if my grandmother heard me saying that, she’d smack me upside the head. But, you know, I have a big brother, so I can hang with the boys. They don’t scare me.”
Was she a fan of Johnny Cash growing up?
“Yeah, well, I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, which is sort of the country music capital of the United States. So I grew up listening to a lot of country music, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Waylon Jennings, so it was a real thrill for me to get this job.”
Can she remember the first performance she watched that made her want to be an actress?
“Um, let me think. Oh, I know, Splendor in the Grass with Natalie Wood. After that I always wanted to be Natalie Wood. And I love the scene where she is in the bathtub and she says, ‘I’m a good little, good little, good little girl. I loved it.”
Despite her genteel upbringing she was six months pregnant when she married Ryan.
Last year she told me, “When I found out I was pregnant for the first time, I was just 22 years old, not married and living in Los Angeles, trying to be an actress. That was a real struggle in my life, but it gave me confidence that I could tackle anything, and once you give birth you know you can.”
In Vanity Fair again she plays a classic British character. The last was Gwendolyn in Importance of Being Earnest.
“I joke that Kate Winslet is in America doing an American accent and I’m in England doing an English accent. Can’t we just trade jobs? It would be so much easier. It is difficult, and I have to win over the British people, but it’s great to have this opportunity, otherwise you can play Americans all your life. There’s a whole other world out there.”
Ava is enamored of everything English.
“When we arrived in England to make Vanity Fair, she ran home one day very excited, ‘Mom, Mom, Queen Victoria died, and she left all her things in the gift shop so we could buy them. I really want a Queen Victoria key chain.’ She’s really great at adapting to cultures and lifestyles.”
Where did she get the idea that Queen Victoria had died?
“She saw a statue in the park. She also told me she wanted to have lunch with the Queen. She was sure I’d be able to arrange that.”
Did it bother her when Ryan handed her the envelope at the Oscars and said, “Okay you make more money?”
“Ryan has a great sense of humor. It was a great way to bring out in the open what people have been saying. We know we’re a team. It’s not about one or the other. I was very supportive of him when he was doing a film last summer in Wales. Ava and I were there just as tourists. We try to make sure the family dynamics are intact and strong and all that’s important is family.”
How about when he told Esquire magazine that he needed psychotherapy to save their marriage and that their sex life had suffered under the strain of parenting a daughter?
“I don’t go along with the negative stigma attached to psychotherapy, which a lot of people do. Neither of us are interested in representing the fallacy of perfection, that we have some glamorous untouchable life. We’re very much real people. I came from Tennessee. He came from Delaware. It’s not that we’ve always lived magical movie star lives. So I think the more honest you are about your life, the easier it is for you to trip on your dress and fall down at a premiere or to have a bad movie that doesn’t do well. I never want to represent an idea that I’m perfect or he’s perfect. Nobody’s perfect. So in that way I think it was very a very brave thing for him to say, but I also think it’s his nature. He’s a very honest person.”
What has been the biggest surprise of her life thus far?
“I’d have to say the love of my husband. You’re always surprised when you love someone so much, and they love you back. And having a child. I wasn’t prepared for those feelings. I had no idea how I’d feel. I was very scared for the first six months but then having my daughter smile at me or seeing her laugh for the first time, it put everything in perspective.”
Is it true she had never held a baby before she held her daughter?
“Yes it is.”