How Reese Witherspoon Transformed Her Perky Persona to Play a Girl Gone 'Wild'

From left: Cheryl Strayed, Reese Witherspoon, Nick Hornby and Jean-Marc Vallee were photographed Sept. 8 at Brassaii Restaurant and Lounge in Toronto.

The actress has two movies with Oscar buzz this season — she also produced 'Gone Girl,' but David Fincher wouldn't cast her in it — as she ditches her perky persona for darker roles, like the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir with depictions of her­oin use and drug-fueled sex: "This is one of the most important books I've ever read in my life"

This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Hoping to kill some time on a flight from Los Angeles to New York back in November 2011, Reese Witherspoon brought along a memoir penned by a relative unknown. The book's author, Cheryl Strayed, had sent an early galley of Wild to the actress, hoping that her tale of a cathartic trek along the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail in her 20s — a journey that helped bring closure to Strayed's failed marriage and ease her grief over her mother's death — could entice a female A-lister. Lost in the raw memoir, Witherspoon began sobbing uncontrollably.

"People were like, 'Reese, what's going on?' " she recalls of her public outburst. "Once every five years, every 10 years, you read something that moves you to your core. And I feel like this is one of the most important books I've ever read in my life, for so many reasons."

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Witherspoon called her agent, CAA's Maha Dakhil, who already had been strategizing a reinvention of the Oscar winner's stalled career, tossing all of the cutesy romantic-comedy scripts that came their way. Despite her Oscar-winning role as June Carter in Walk the Line and heavier if not well-received fare like Rendition, Witherspoon continued to be defined, for better or for worse, as Hollywood's wholesome, sharp-tongued heroine. With its reckless protagonist and depictions of her­oin use and drug-fueled sex, Wild hailed from a different universe than anything the now 38-year-old previously had tackled.

Witherspoon told Dakhil: "This is unbelievable. I don't know who this woman is. I have to talk to her immediately. Like, immediately."

Although not obvious, there are parallels between the two women's lives. After all, Witherspoon isn't quite the squeaky-clean overachiever anymore, that image having shifted to a less-than-perfect, albeit more relatable one in the wake of an April 2013 brush with the law that was captured on video and went viral. And like Strayed, she divorced her first husband, actor Ryan Phillippe — a split that played out painfully in the public eye in 2007 (they have two children together, 15-year-old daughter Ava and 11-year-old son Deacon). "I've had very similar experiences," explains Witherspoon. "I've had to say goodbye to people in my life."

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As she reflected on her own losses, gone was the chipper lilt I encountered just weeks earlier when we first met during the Toronto Film Festival the morning of the film's well-received debut. With an uncharacteristic heaviness, the actress recounted how her maternal grandmother, for whom she was named, died of a brain aneurysm at age 50 when Witherspoon's mother was 20. It was an experience that permeated the relationship between the actress and her mother, who recently saw Wild for the first time at a screening on the Fox lot. "Whenever anyone talks about my grandmother, she bursts into tears," says Witherspoon. "I don't even think I realized it until we'd finished the movie and I saw it fully formed and linked it [to my own experience in] this way."

Thanks to Wild, which Fox Searchlight opens Dec. 5, Witherspoon finally is able to shed a two-decade-old persona steeped in perk. In the process, she is garnering the type of praise she last received for Walk the Line. Marking director Jean-Marc Vallee's follow-up to his Oscar best picture nominee Dallas Buyers Club, Wild was made for less than $20 million and, like Gravity, has become that rare Hollywood film entirely carried by a woman. The fact that it was made at all surprised no one more than Strayed.

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"It's actually a challenging concept for a film, frankly," says the author. "Oh, gee, a woman's walking alone through the wilderness. Let's make it a movie!"

The morning following that emotional plane ride, Witherspoon called Strayed, now 46, remarried and a mother of two in Portland, Ore. "I just want to hug you," she said to the shocked author, offering to option the book with her own money and bypass the studio system so that the story wouldn't be sanitized. "I feel like you're my friend. I feel like you're my sister."

The pitch was straightforward. "I will get this movie made, and I will get it made quickly," said Witherspoon. "This is a story that needs to be told, and I know how to do it. I've been doing this for years and years, and I'm ready to do it by myself now. And I have the right people on my side helping me do it."

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Strayed was sold. Although Witherspoon never had taken a book to the big screen as a producer, she nonetheless told the author to hold on tight. "You're on a rocket," she predicted.

Witherspoon was spot-on. The book was published by Knopf in March 2012 and became an Oprah's Book Club selection as well as a runaway best-seller, with 1.3 million copies sold worldwide.

Still, if Wild was a rocket, it had taken nearly two decades to launch. Strayed began her grueling hike in 1995 at age 26 but wasn't compelled to write about the experience until 2008. And even with Witherspoon on board, the project hit myriad roadblocks. For one, the actress needed to find a hands-on producing partner, one familiar with the development process and comfortable on a set. "Someone who has really done things, has gotten things made, who, from soup to nuts, knows how to make a movie," says Witherspoon, whose previous production entity Type A Films, now defunct, largely was seen as a vanity shingle.

Enter Bruna Papandrea, a literary-minded former executive at Groundswell Productions, whose book-to-film producing credits included two movies: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Warm Bodies. Two months after the pair optioned Wild for their newly minted Pacific Standard production company, independent producer Leslie Dixon sent them a galley of Gillian Flynn's yet-to-be-published Gone Girl, another story centered on a meaty female character that screams, "Bye-bye, good girl."

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"What we both really wanted to do was make movies with female protagonists, either for [Reese] or other people," says the Australia-born Papandrea, 43. "I have a lot of friends, my actress friends, who have tried to find material like this. There's nothing. You know, it's really tough out there."

Suddenly, as producers, Witherspoon and Papandrea were sitting on the two hottest book properties of 2012, with David Fincher — the first director approached — interested in helming Gone Girl. The question became whether Witherspoon would commit to starring in Wild or Gone Girl. Fincher answered that question.

"He and I sat down and talked about it and what he wanted the character to be like," recalls Witherspoon. "He was very candid. He's like, 'It's just not you.' And I was like, 'I totally understand.' And just the idea of one of my first movies [as a producer] being directed by one of the greatest American filmmakers of our time was enough." Adds Papandrea: "He had a very particular vision in his mind for who [the character] was. He just didn't see her in the role [of Amy]. That's the truth. But the goal for the company was to develop things for great actors, period. It wasn't just about doing it for Reese."

Fincher's rejection allowed Witherspoon to focus on Wild, which now had development financing from Bill Pohlad's River Road Entertainment, the company behind Into the Wild and 12 Years a Slave. She and Papandrea set their sights on author-screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity), who already had proved adept at cracking a woman's memoir (he earned an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Lynn Barber's An Education). What they didn't know was that Hornby, based in North London, was friends with Strayed on Facebook and already had been making overtures.

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"I was really gripped by it," says Hornby, who picked up a copy of Strayed's book after reading a glowing review in The New York Times. "I was moved by it. I thought it was funny. I just thought, 'Well, I just want to adapt this. I can really see it as a movie.' "

Hornby could relate to the book's sense of grief and eventual solace. He, too, has been divorced and now is remarried. His oldest son has severe autism. On a whim, he sent Strayed a direct Facebook message praising her achievement.

"It was the world's nicest email that you would ever hope to get from a colleague whom you admire," remembers Strayed. "I was thrilled and touched and dancing around the room like, 'Oh my god, Nick Hornby loves my book!' "

 

When Witherspoon and Papandrea asked Hornby to sign on, he first wanted to secure Strayed's blessing. The author willingly surrendered to the prospect of a man adapting her story.

"Obviously I'm a feminist, and I'm incredibly aware of the huge, huge problems [with gender disparity] in Hollywood," she says. "I mean, it's like, are we a century behind there in that world? But I think Nick and Jean-Marc have feminist sensi­bilities. They're men, but they are comfortable really both helping and allowing women to tell their stories."

By fall 2012, Hornby was on board and looking at a tight deadline. Witherspoon and her husband, CAA agent Jim Toth, had just welcomed their first child, Tennessee, on Sept. 27, and the actress was aiming to be in production on Wild one year later, mostly in the Oregon wilderness (the weather-dependent shoot needed to take place in the fall because by winter, conditions would be too treacherous).

"This whole thing has gone like an express train," says Hornby. "Everything I've been involved in has taken five or six years. But this was exactly what I have been looking for — an A‑list star saying, 'I am determined to make this movie. I'm determined to make it next year. That means you have to deliver.' "

The final piece of the puzzle was Vallee. Toth, who reps Dallas Buyers Club star Matthew McConaughey, played a key role in putting the director on Witherspoon's radar. In August 2013, she saw a rough cut of Dallas Buyers Club and sent Vallee the script and the book. Like Strayed, Vallee had lost his mother to a fast-moving cancer.

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"Of course that connects me to the material, and this project allowed me to really mourn my mom," says the 51-year-old Quebec-based Vallee, himself twice-divorced with two adult sons. "But I was also attracted to the underdog story. We follow this woman who has nothing in life except her backpack. At the end, all she does and all she has is only herself. She has no place to call her home, no boyfriend, no husband, and yet it's beautiful, touching, emotional, happy, and so at once I was attracted to the character."

But Witherspoon still was nervous about Vallee's schedule. He wasn't quite finished with Dallas Buyers Club and would need to be in production in less than two months. Papandrea hopped on a plane to Montreal and got Vallee — whose career was about to explode in the aftermath of Buyers Club — to commit on the spot. Vallee flew to Portland to meet with Strayed and begin scouting locations.

"We went to lunch and had a very long, wonderful conversation about the book and his vision for this film and then also our moms," says Strayed. "He told me that the spirit of his mother is there alongside the spirit of my mother in the film."

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At Vallee's behest, Witherspoon did little in the way of physical training. (Strayed made the trek, which is intended for expert hikers, with no preparation — along the way, she nearly died of thirst and lost toenails due to calloused feet; among the dangers she encountered were wild animals and a lecherous armed hunter.) The director didn't want Witherspoon touching the 65-pound backpack or the tent before the 35-day shoot began because he wanted to capture the struggle on film.

Instead, she prepared by flying to Portland and spending time with Strayed and her family. The author still has her backpack and all the clothes she wore during the 94-day hike. Dusted off and out of storage, Strayed's journals provided the actress with a window into the author's psyche. "I was absorbing her as a character and sort of getting lost in her," says Witherspoon.

But once on set, Witherspoon was utterly overwhelmed. Never mind a climate-controlled trailer, she just wanted a blanket. The first three days of shooting found her in the Oregon wilderness, which was doubling as California's Mojave Desert. Wearing just a thin T-shirt and shorts and drenched in fake sweat, she was nearly ready to quit.

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"I call my husband crying. I said, 'I ain't taking this. It's so cold.' I mean, it's really just freezing cold and windy," recalls Witherspoon. "He said, 'When you optioned this book and decided to make a movie called Wild, what did you think it was going to be like?' I was like, 'F— you!' " And though Wild marks the most physically demanding movie of Witherspoon's career, it also presented the broadest range of emotional challenges. "Like one day [on set] I was getting divorced, and the next day my mother died," she says. "And the next day I was having sex with a stranger and shooting heroin."

In fact, it was the sex scenes — graphic, raw and devoid of the soft lighting that characterizes most Hollywood nudity — that proved the most daunting. "I just don't want to do it," she recalls thinking. "But I had to make a choice as an artist. And Cheryl was brave enough to tell all the parts of her story in her book — the parts that probably made her feel incredibly uncomfortable and would be hard to tell her children and would be difficult to relive. I couldn't honor and do justice to her story by just picking the parts that I was comfortable with."

After all, filming Strayed's story could never rival the danger and discomfort the author herself had withstood. "I couldn't complain about going up in the snow," says Witherspoon. "It's like Cheryl slept in the snow for 10 days. Like, literally slept in it. So, like, what the f—? I came through a day."

Thirty-five days to be exact. But in the process, she became more of a human. Gone is Type A Reese. In her place is an actress unafraid to admit she wasn't a director's choice but who, as a producer, has shepherded Gone Girl to a $323 million worldwide gross so far — and is determined to bring more great books to the screen: Pacific Standard is developing Pennyroyal's Princess Boot Camp by M.A. Larson and Liane Moriarty's best-seller Big Little Lies, with Nicole Kidman attached to star. (And the upcoming original comedy Don't Mess With Texas is a project she and Papandrea developed from scratch, casting Sofia Vergara opposite Witherspoon.) Yes, it's part of Witherspoon's mission to tell women's stories — but she also is drawn to what makes them universal. "I think Wild has a really important message for a lot of women, and men, too — that you can do things in your life and you don't need to feel ashamed about them," she says. "And that frees so many people of the shame that we put on people about the sexual experiences — and experiences in general — that they've had. The revolutionary message of the book and the movie is to forgive yourself."

Email: Tatiana.Siegel@THR.com
Twitter: @TatianaSiegel27

 

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