Reese Witherspoon Calls on Women to "Embrace Your Inner Shrew and Do Something"

At The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment event on Wednesday, the actress and producer received the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, presented by Kerry Washington.

Reese Witherspoon opened up about how Hollywood underestimated her at the beginning of her career, saying she's reclaiming her identity as a vocal "shrew," during her speech at The Hollywood Reporter's Power 100 Women in Entertainment breakfast presented by Lifetime on Wednesday.

Witherspoon explained that after having her daughter in her early 20s, she was "broke" and "hustling" for a job. "I found that all the scripts that I really loved were at this one particular studio. ... The director wanted to hire me, but the studio wouldn’t hire me. ... I finally called my agent and I said, 'Why do I keep getting vetoed at the studio?' He said, 'Oh, here's the thing. That exec thinks you are Tracy Flick. He thinks you’re a shrew,'" said the Big Little Lies actress while accepting the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, which is presented to a trailblazer and philanthropic leader in Hollywood each year. 

"I’ll never forget that he used the word 'shrew' because it sounded Shakespearean and important. So, by the way, the definition of the word 'shrew' as pertains to a woman is technically 'a woman of violent temper and speech.' Which nowadays I understand to be a woman who speaks her mind and raises her voice against the system which underestimates her. So I would like to just say 'Thank you. I am a shrew.'" Witherspoon said.

She urged the crowd to be leaders: "Send the first email. Break the silence in a room. Ask the first question. Embrace your inner shrew and do something."

Witherspoon, who on Monday was nominated for a Golden Globe for The Morning Show, further spoke about barriers she faced while entering the industry, including critiques of her clothing and idols. "My agent got me a meeting with that executive who didn’t like me and he said something to the effect of, 'Don’t be too intimidating. Don't be too smart and don’t use a bunch of SAT words. Just be cool, and wear something cute like a leather skirt,'" she said. "I was annoyed but resolute, and I really wanted a job, so I went and bought a leather skirt. ... The executive asked me, he's like, 'Well, what do you want out of your career?' My 22-year-old self told him that I wanted to give funny and dramatic performances. I wanted to deliver smart dialogue and create fascinating characters like my idols Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep. He turned to me and said, 'Well, not that many women get to be the lead in movies, and also, Meryl Streep is completely over.' I’m not even kidding." 

After laughs from the crowd, Witherspoon declared, "You don’t ever get to talk about Meryl Streep like that. For those of you who are wondering, this executive left the studio shortly after, and I have not seen or heard of him since. However, earlier this year, I had the distinct privilege of working with Miss Meryl Streep. It turns out, Meryl is doing just fine."

Witherspoon decided to create her own production company, Hello Sunshine, to tell more women-centric stories, including Gone Girl, Wild and Big Little Lies. She credited Grey's Anatomy helmer Shonda Rhimes for encouraging her to be a leader in Hollywood at a Time's Up meeting. "I remember at one meeting, I was sitting next to the incomparable Shonda Rhimes. That notorious underachiever. After the meeting was over, I turned to Shonda and I said, 'These stories are awful. We have to do something. We have to change this business. Someone has to do something.' And I will never forget, Shonda turned to me and said, 'You’re gonna do it,'" Witherspoon said.

The actress acknowledged that as hard as it was for her in the industry, people of color may face other challenges. "I recognize the inherent privilege that I have simply by being a white woman in this industry, and how hard as it was for me at times, it’s incalculably harder for so many others like my African-American colleagues, my Latina colleagues, my LGBTQ colleagues and my differently abled colleagues," she said.

Kerry Washington — who worked with Witherspoon on Hulu's Little Fires Everywhere — presented the honor at Milk Studios. She said Witherspoon has had a "tremendous" impact on her life and that she lifts up others "who share her race and ethnicity and those of us who don’t."

Added Washington, "The new narrative, the Reese narrative, tells us that our power lies in our partnership. That real power comes from succeeding with people, not in succeeding off of people. That real power is born of the humility and grace of sisterhood. That’s what empowerment means. The more power you share, the more power you have. And the more power you have, the more you must share."

Past recipients of the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award include Viola Davis, Jennifer Lawrence, Shonda Rhimes, Oprah Winfrey, Barbra Streisand, Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda and Halle Berry.

The annual breakfast was attended by Women in Entertainment issue guest editor Olivia Wilde, Equity in Entertainment Award honoree Ronan Farrow and speakers Gretchen Carlson, Stacey Abrams, Charlize Theron and John Legend. Deanna Brown, president of MRC Media, which includes THR and Billboard, and publisher Lynne Segall also made remarks, as did editorial director Matt Belloni and Wilde.

Also in attendance were notable names such as Niecy Nash, Sophia Bush, Janet Mock, Bonnie Arnold, Jennifer Salke, Mindy Kaling, Gigi Gorgeous, Bob Gersh, Meg Whitman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Dawn Hudson, Maggie Rogers, Chuck Lorre, Ginnifer Goodwin, Anna Paquin, Channing Dungey, Lori Greiner, Nina Shaw, Donna Langley and Kaitlyn Dever, among others.

The Power 100 Women in Entertainment event presented by Lifetime is sponsored by Cadillac, Fiji Water, Moroccan Oil, eOne, Gersh, SAG-AFTRA and Loyola Marymount University, in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles and the Entertainment Industry Foundation.