Reese is the word

She may be America’s sweetheart but Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon isn’t resting on her laurels. The actress-producer is on a mission to reshape Hollywood and create more solid roles for women.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

She may be America’s sweetheart but Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon isn’t resting on her laurels. The actress-producer is on a mission to reshape Hollywood and create more solid roles for women.

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Even though she’s long been one of Hollywood’s most-loved women, Reese Witherspoon has struggled to overcome her image as an effervescent southern belle. Best known as a rom-com queen, the actress, who won an Oscar for Walk the Line in 2006, has always craved more serious roles, and feels there aren’t enough credible parts for women in Hollywood.

The 40-year-old star shares, “For a few years, I was a little bit lost as an artist not being able to find what I wanted to do. I wanted to play dynamic women, and be part of stories that would allow me to explore all the doubts and anxieties that I was facing in my own life and that most women go through.”

Films like Wild and Mud took her in that direction and merely intensified her ambitions. That led her to produce and star in Big Little Lies, the HBO seven-part series based on the eponymous bestseller by Australian novelist Liane Moriarty. Centred around a trio of struggling mothers in an affluent seaside town in California (see ‘Not Just Wives & Girlfriends’), the series offers poignant and often humorous insights into issues that affect women.

Reese shares, “It’s a unique pleasure to be able to come to other women with a piece of material I feel deeply proud of and excited to see their performance. We need to create more series and movies that treat women in a realistic way and enable female audiences to see themselves and identify with modern, complex female characters.

“Reading the novel for the first time – it was like I saw myself in different stages of motherhood all through my life. I was a mother at 22, I’ve been divorced, I’ve been re-married... The book and characters showed every spectrum and colour of a woman’s life.”

Reese, who previously produced Gone Girl, the David Fincher film that starred Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, brought on board good friend Nicole Kidman to co-produce the HBO series, and play one of the three pivotal female roles.

She saw Big Little Lies as a golden opportunity to launch a unique, female-centric series that she hopes will spawn similar TV projects down the road. Reese says, “I’ve had so many conversations over the years with very talented actress friends (and) I feel like I constantly see women of incredible talent in thankless parts. I just had enough. You can’t imagine the level of exasperation that comes with having to compete for terrible parts in terrible movies.”

Big Little Lies sees reese play bossy stay-home mum Madeline, who has a teenage daughter from a previous marriage and a younger child from her second marriage. Reese reveals, “Madeline’s struggling with a lot of things, and she’s very open about her struggles. She’s just an open book. She’s constantly searching for happiness, and wrestles with some real ethical dilemmas.”

Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, Reese’s father was a top ear, nose and throat surgeon, and her mother, a surgical nurse and later nursing teacher. “My mother was my inspiration – she was very hardworking and disciplined. That’s why I never take my career for granted, and I am very aware how fortunate I am.”

Before her career took off with Legally Blonde, reese had already fallen in love with and married actor Ryan Phillippe. She was only 22 when she gave birth to their first child, Ava, followed by son Deacon four years later. Her marriage to Ryan ended abruptly in 2009, and she found herself in a creative limbo state.

Shedding Fears

“It was a hard time for me,” Reese recalls. “It was like I had reached a turning point where you need to take stock of your life and where you’re headed. But those kinds of times are important, and they really do make you feel stronger and give you a better sense of who you are.”

After a brief affair with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese met Hollywood agent Jim Toth, whom she married in March 2011. Their son, Tennessee, was born in 2013. Not only has their marriage flourished, but her husband Jim has helped her push her movie career forward. “He said, ‘You should produce movies. You read more books than anybody I know. You should just buy some of them and turn them into films.”

Gone Girl was the first project she undertook, buying the rights to the Gillian Flynn novel before it was published.

‘Not Just Wives & Girlfriends’

Friends Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman came together to co-produce and star in Big Little Lies to create meatier acting opportunities for women.

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When she decided to take on australian novelist Liane Moriarty’s book, Reese Witherspoon also knew she wanted to rope in her good friend Nicole Kidman as co-producer. She also asked for Nicole’s help in securing the rights to fellow Aussie Liane’s book.

Big Little Lies is told from the perspective of three mothers: Jane (Shailene Woodley), a newcomer to the town of monterey who moved there to provide a better life for her son; Madeline (Reese), a take-charge, part-time worker, full-time mum who befriends Jane on the first day of school; and Celeste (Nicole), a devoted mother with a secret personal life. The story is shared in flashback after a local murder puts the community’s passive aggressive disputes under police scrutiny.

Nicole says, “There are great roles here (for women). It’s very, very rare.” Reese adds, “I was excited to come to women with parts that I’m excited about. All these talented women (stuck) playing wives and girlfriends, I just had enough. I love that it’s about women coming together and making something happen very quickly.”

“As much as there is conflict, this piece is about women supporting each other,” Continues Nicole. “Big Little Lies is about, on its surface, women who go to war with each other. But if you look deeper, you’ll see a meaningful bond between friends, insightful conversations about who we are and women fighting back, together.”

Reese calls her female co-stars “very, very close friends” who “talk about anything”. “A lot of the conversation has been personal, and then we’d go to work. So when you get to the scene on the day, there’s an understanding that’s much deeper than character.”

This kind of experience was unique to Reese for more than just the friendships she forged. “For 25 years, I’ve been the only woman on set,” Says Reese. “They call it the Smurfette Syndrome: There’s 100 (male) smurfs around and only one woman. Here, I’d call Nicole and Laura (Dern), and we nurtured each other’s performances. It’s really a collective performance for all of us.”

She also produced Wild, based on the 2012 book by Cheryl Strayed about her extraordinary 1,100-mile trek along the pacific Crest Trail on the american west coast.

“The first day of shooting I was freezing,” Reese recalls. “I went back to my hotel and called my husband and complained, ‘I’m not going to be able to handle this. This is too cold.’ He said, ‘When you sign on to do a movie called Wild – a movie about a woman hiking over 1,000 miles – did you think it was going to be fun?”

That lit a fire in reese’s belly and she threw everything she had into the role, ultimately earning an Oscar nomination. She believes the role was the culmination of many years involved in “shedding fears”.

Now, she’s determined to help advance the cause of women fighting to be a greater force in Hollywood. “We should be telling a lot more stories about women, to show how important they are in our world. I feel it was such a unique opportunity to have women at every age, every colour, talking about motherhood. This is the common denominator. Motherhood is the great equaliser.”

Reese has been a long-time activist and philanthropist. She’s the honorary chairperson of the avon Foundation, which supports breast cancer research and domestic violence prevention, and she’s been growing more and more active as a producer in an effort to create better roles for women.

“I’m passionate because things have to change,” Reese shares. “We have to see women as they really are, because we as human beings learn from art.”