Reese Witherspoon is having a moment. She won her Oscar for “Walk the Line” back in 2006, but 2014 is arguably shaping up to be her defining year, career-wise, thanks to her impassioned performance in “Wild” (out in theaters now), and the success of her new production company Pacific Standard (co-founded by producer Bruna Papandrea), which burst out of the gate this year with “Gone Girl” and the aforementioned drama.
In “Wild,” directed by “Dallas Buyers Club” director Jean-Marc Vallee, Witherspoon stars as Cheryl Strayed, the author of the memoir on which the film is based. The role of a woman who embarks on a grueling 1,100-mile trek of the Pacific Crest Trail to cope with the sudden death of her mother (Laura Dern) required Witherspoon to dig deeper than she’s been asked to in a long while — really since “Walk the Line,” in which she played June Carter to Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny.
Many have pegged this as a comeback year for you with all the attention you’re getting for your performance in “Wild.” What do you make of that?
It’s funny, every career has hills and valleys, and I think you go through times you just don’t feel particularly inspired. I think about two or three years ago, I just got really inspired and started this production company, started reading voraciously, calling everybody, and material — all of this is born out of a time of great artistic curiosity for me. So I think it’s weird it’s happening all at one time, but I’m glad people see that; it’s definitely a conscious effort on my part to redirect my career.
Can you elaborate on that period during which you felt uninspired?
I think I was reading material that was coming to me and being offered to me. Not that there was any lack of offers, it’s just the level of the material — I didn’t see it getting better, I actually saw it declining. The kind of films people were making, the parts that 5-6 women were all vying for that were just, sort of, mediocre. I thought, “Wow, we’ve got a real white space here in the marketplace. I know there’s an interest in women’s films. I know there’s a market for it. There’s definitely an audience.” But I didn’t see any company specifically targeting interesting women in lead roles. I partnered up with this amazing film producer Bruna Papandrea, I funded the whole company myself — purposely, because I didn’t want to be under anyone else’s mandate. I just started reading and reading and reading.
Following your Oscar win for “Walk the Line,” the lack of great offers must have shocked you. What was it like to be faced with that tough reality?
You know, I’ve talked about it with many women who have that experience — the women I know. It’s not like things wildly change. They win an Oscar, the parts just don’t magically appear. They’re not being developed. I had a moment about three years ago where I was taking out a comedy, and I was pitching it all over town, so I sat with each studio head, and I asked them what they were developing. And with the exception of one studio, no one was developing anything with a female lead. So they said, “Well, Reese, bring us anything you want! We would love to make things that you’re actually interested in making. But it’s not what we’re interested in doing, we just don’t want to develop that material.” For whatever reason. But, it’s actually created a great open space for me to come in and create these opportunities for women that are my friends! Who I love and admire. It’s been really fun to work with people like Laura Dern and Rosamund Pike who I’ve loved forever — and I’ve known forever! To give them opportunities they haven’t had before is really thrilling for me.
You launched your career acting in edgy, dark fare like “Freeway,” “Fear,” and “Cruel Intentions,” then made a big studio comedy push following the success of “Legally Blonde.” Do you feel like the romantic comedies that followed limited your career at that time?
I don’t know, I think every woman — every actress — has many facets to her life. I think no one is one thing or another. It’s real. It’s our job as artists to continually push ourselves to try new things and try things that are scary and feel overwhelming and daunting…and just do it anyway! I think part of thriving and reinventing yourself is just about jumping two feet into a cold pool. And not knowing! I mean, the response to “Wild” could have been disastrous, you know? But I’ve been so thrilled that people are willing to see me in a different way and are so receptive to it. I think audiences have changed — my audience, for sure, has grown with me. The women who were 20 years old watching “Legally Blonde” are not 20 years old anymore! They’re 35 and they have kids. They’ve suffered through many life experiences and had many triumphs, so I think it only makes sense that the women that they watch onscreen should evolve as well.
How gratifying is it to you as a producer to see both “Gone Girl” and “Wild” received so warmly?
I know, isn’t it thrilling? It’s so great. But when you have somebody like David Fincher who just knows exactly when to push forward, how much to hold back — it was such a learning experience for me to get to work with him. And see even the way he is so strategic with the marketing. I just thought it was amazing.
Any interest in working with him as an actress in the future?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve known David a very long time, I’ve been a huge fan of his work — as he knows, because I’ve written him many letters through the years about how much I love his movies. And we know each other through mutual friends. He’s just an American master. In our life, there’s only a few, and I truly believe he is one.
Back when you first optioned “Gone Girl,” did you do so with the intention to make it into a star vehicle for yourself?
We built the company based on the model of Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B; George Clooney’s company, Smokehouse, and even Drew Barrymore’s company, Flower Films. We’re not necessarily developing just for me, it’s actually strong, dynamic, complex, women in leading roles is really our directive. So whether that’s me, whether’s that’s Laura Dern, or Naomi Watts, or Nicole Kidman; any one of the many, many talented actresses — we’re just interested in continuing the conversation about women in film.
You couldn’t have asked for a better launch for Pacific Standard with both “Gone Girl” and “Wild” opening back-to-back during the heat of awards season.
I mean, we don’t control these things. Obviously studios have their own release plans; it’s just been really fortuitous. We feel like pinching ourselves, Bruna and I. And to work with a studio that just completely gets behind our film…I just get to see the best part of filmmaking. Because you work so hard, and for each movie I’m standing in front of, or Rosamund’s standing in front of, or Ben Affleck’s standing in front of, there’s hundreds of people behind us working their asses off. We’re just so thrilled that they’re getting the recognition they deserve as well.