"I won the Oscar and I felt really confused about what to do next," Reese Witherspoon confesses, in reference to her 2006 best actress victory for playing June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, as we sit down at the Formosa Recording Studio in Santa Monica to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "I had paralysis — Oscar-induced paralysis," she adds, along with her trademark giggle. "You don't know what to do!" For Witherspoon, who had been on Hollywood's A-list since 2001's Legally Blonde, it marked the beginning of several years of personal and professional frustration, during which some began to write her off. "Someone in The New Yorker said that I was 'a has-been' or my career was over, and I remember thinking — how old was I in 2012, like 36? — I was like, 'Wow, that's brutal!' That really bugged me." But what no one, including Witherspoon, could have known — or even imagined — at that time was that her best days still were ahead of her, and that by 2017, she not only would have re-established herself as one of the most popular and respected actresses in the business (picking up an Oscar nom for 2014's Wild and an Emmy nom for 2017's Big Little Lies), but also as an Oscar- and Emmy-nominated producer (for those same two projects) wielding influence in the literary community not unlike that of Oprah Winfrey.
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Witherspoon was born in New Orleans to a father who served in the Air Force and a mother who was a delivery nurse. The family moved around, but ultimately settled in Nashville, where their precocious young "type A" daughter soon began taking acting lessons and appearing in advertisements and commercials, landing a local agent at the age of 12. At 14, during the summer before starting high school, she found her first starring role in a movie, Robert Mulligan’s 1991 film The Man in the Moon. Even before the film's release, her screen test went viral, and she quickly became in-demand. Throughout high school, she would work during the summers. She then starred in 1996's Freeway, turning in a performance that "got a lot of attention," during a gap-year before enrolling at Stanford; but she then spent just seven months at Stanford before irresistible film offers led her to move to Los Angeles and focus full-time on her career.
As a young-adult actress, Witherspoon gave memorable performances in strong films like Gary Ross’ Pleasantville (1998), as a nineties girl who finds herself in the fifties, and Alexander Payne’s Election (1999), as an ambitious and calculating high school student who "became a political archetype." Then, in 2001, she played Elle Woods, a material girl who pursues her ex all the way to Harvard Law School, in Robert Luketic’s Legally Blonde. The $11 million movie had a $20 million opening weekend and made her, at just 23, and already a mother of a 1-year-old, a huge star. "I loved that character" and "underdog story," she reflects, while also remembering the baggage that came with its success. "That's when paparazzi started for me," she says. "That's when I started getting chased by 10 or 15 people."
For the next few years, Witherspoon was among the highest-paid movie stars and biggest box-office draws in the world. She churned out additional hits such as 2002’s Sweet Home Alabama and 2003’s Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, while also wading into prestige fare, such as 2004’s Vanity Fair and James Mangold’s Walk the Line in 2005, for which she overcame her greatest inhibition — singing — by training with vocal coaches for five days a week over six months, in addition to learning to play the guitar and harp. When awards for her performance began pouring in, though, she was befuddled. "I grew up being kind of underestimated — I felt like I was always the underdog," she says. "And I thrive off of feeling misunderstood. So the idea that all of my peers would get together collectively and decide that I was worthy and give me this incredible award made me feel like, 'I don't know what to do with that. That's not a feeling that puts fire in me.'"
That sense of discombobulation in the aftermath of the Oscars was followed a year later by a divorce from Ryan Phillippe, and then the next year a writers' strike that sparked a downward spiral for movies with mid-range budgets ("where women live"). That all combined to throw Witherspoon into a rut that lasted for the next several years. Ultimately, though, she decided to fight back. "What really motivated me and lit the fire underneath me was I got sent this script," she says. "It had two female leads, and it was the worst piece of crap I had ever read." When she complained to her agents, they told her that every big actress in town wanted to make it, which appalled her. Around the same time, her second husband, agent Jim Toth, observed that she reads more than almost anyone he knows ("I probably read three or four books a week," she says) and urged her to start buying some of them to make into movies herself as a producer. When, shortly thereafter, author Cheryl Strayed asked Witherspoon to play her in a big screen adaptation of her best-selling memoir Wild, Witherspoon agreed to do so — on the condition that she also could produce it. She partnered with Bruna Papandrea to form the production company Pacific Standard, which oversaw Wild and also sought out and began optioning literary properties with a feminist bent for Witherspoon or others to star in. (One of them: Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which later wound up at number one on the New York Times' fiction best-seller list at the same time that Wild topped its nonfiction list.)
Witherspoon fought to ensure that Wild was made in a way that was faithful to Strayed's vision, even if that meant it conflicted with her carefully crafted screen persona as a perky, fun, likable young woman. "Wild is 100 percent the hardest movie I've ever made in my entire life, and it's probably the one that's closest to my heart because I feel like pretty much my guts are all over that movie," she says, adding that it was "a big risk": "I wore no makeup, was naked, doing all these things that audiences hadn't seen me do, but I really believed my audience had grown up and wanted to see the next level — the next chapter — not a 38-year-old woman pretending to be 25." Her efforts were rewarded with solid reviews, box-office and Oscar noms for her and co-star Laura Dern — at the same ceremony at which Rosamund Pike was nominated for Gone Girl, which Witherspoon helped to produce from her Wild trailer. Marvels Witherspoon, "To get to the awards season and have [that] in the first year of my production company where I wanted to change the perception of women — it was an amazing moment, it was just crazy!"
The biggest hit of Witherspoon's producing career, though, has been Big Little Lies, which she, Papandrea and Papandrea's lifelong friend Nicole Kidman (with whom Witherspoon had long wanted to work) produced together after convincing Liane Moriarty, the author of the book — a soapy drama turned murder mystery centering on several mothers of young children in Monterrey — to sell them its rights. At that point, they briefly contemplated making it as a feature film, but ultimately embraced the idea of doing it as an HBO limited series ("We needed the real estate to tell those stories"), with Witherspoon playing a sassy, neurotic, wisecracking, indomitable type — in other words, the best aspects of her screen persona. "I just didn't see it," she says with a laugh, but David E. Kelley, who adapted the book for the screen, convinced her to do it.
Big Little Lies generated social media chatter of a sort that resulted in its weekly installments becoming appointment television in a way that few shows are in the Peak TV era. Witherspoon thinks part of the reason for this is that the series fearlessly defied norms and expectations. "My entire career, I've been the only woman in the cast," she says, which made it extra special "to have five women be the leads of their own storylines and have them have this incredible resolution where the power of female friendship is what resolves all of it." She continues, "I think people thought when they saw the previews, 'Oh, this is like Sex and the City, girls talking about sex and marriage.' And then it was like, 'Actually no, this is about some really sinister shit, like really subversive — domestic violence, adultery, rape, murder — and it all has this, like, froth on the top.'"
Since Big Little Lies rolled out, Witherspoon, who now is 41, parted ways with producing partner Papandrea, and Pacific Standard was absorbed into Hello Sunshine, a larger media company in which Witherspoon's partner is Peter Chernin and AT&T. "It creates an opportunity to reach women where they are," she explains, "through mobile content — digital content. I just feel like audience behavior has changed and production companies need to change, too." Witherspoon's previous gamble on change — taking control of her career by becoming her own producer — certainly paid off, so it makes sense that she would be open to other bold ideas. Down the road, she plans to act opposite Jennifer Aniston in a TV series about morning shows ("We just thought it would be really fun to do this together at this point in our lives"), and is not opposed to the idea of a Big Little Lies 2 ("It's sort of up to Liane Moriarty — she has to figure out if she sees a future for the characters — but we're definitely open to it"). Her primary focus, though, will remain the same: fighting to help female voices — hers and others' — get heard over the noise of an industry that doesn't always appreciate them.