When she was a senior in college, Cheryl Strayed’s mother, with whom she was extremely close, suddenly died of cancer at the young age of 45. Strayed then fell into a deep depression which led to a downward spiral of heroin use and casual sex, resulting in the end of her marriage. To put her life back together, Strayed set out on a 1,100 mile trek up the west coast; an experience which serves as the premise of her memoir “Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.”
Now, Strayed is on a different kind of journey, one which she didn’t initially imagine. Oscar-winning actor Reese Witherspoon got a hold of her manuscript and fell in love with it. Witherspoon had found herself disappointed that so many studios weren’t developing any films with women as the central character. Along with Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” she used the two novels as the basis for films that would be the start of her own production company, Pacific Standard. In “Wild,” directed by “Dallas Buyers Club” helmer Jean-Marc Vallée, Witherspoon plays Strayed, with Laura Dern playing Strayed’s influential mother. The resulting film is a visually stunning and powerfully emotional journey; one that Strayed was willing to go on again if it meant helping her new pals Reese and Laura pull women into the forefront of a film. In the midst of a whirlwind press tour, Strayed generously agreed to hop on the phone with this huge fan of her work to discuss the unabashed honesty of her writing, her adoring fans and the fact that even the trailer for “Wild” passes the Bechdel test.
I’m a huge fan of your writing. It’s so inspiring, and it’s great to see you now move into this different era of making a movie about your story.
It’s crazy! [laughs]
So how did Reese Witherspoon get a hold of your manuscript?
Before the book was published, there was a long lead time. The book was ready to go, but it wasn’t going to be published until March 2012, so in November 2011 I thought, “I wonder if anyone in Hollywood would be interested in this.” This would be a great role for an actress I thought, so my film agent, who I got literally the day we sent Reese the book, said Reese Witherspoon is looking for strong roles for woman and she’s found this production company for strong female roles. Of course Reese is among the actresses I’ve always admired the most, so I just thought it was a good fit. We sent it to Reese and she read it immediately, and a few days later we called her agent and we ended up talking. We had a long conversation about why she would be the one to play me in the movie, and to bring it to the screen. She impressed me from that very first conversation as someone who is both intelligent and honest and funny and trustworthy, and as somebody who could really capture the range of emotions that you see in “Wild.”
As you were writing the book, did you see the cinematic potential in it?
No. When I’m writing a book, it’s all about what I can do to write the book. You spend so much time focusing on the art form you’re creating. It never occurred to me to think about it as a screenplay or a movie until it was done and I was just waiting to hand it to the world before it was published. I didn’t know. When I first sent it to Reese, I didn’t know if the response would be good or bad. I thought I would just send it out to the people who make movies and they would decide whether or not it would make the translation well.
Tell me more about your first conversation with her. What did you talk about?
The first thing she ever said to me was, “I just want to hug you.” And that’s a reaction that so many readers have, where they feel like they’ve come to know me as a friend. Then we talked about what parts of the story resonated with her, and so much of it did. We’ve had such different lives, but most of us deal with loss and struggle and having to move forward beyond something that was difficult. She shared with me some of her own experiences. We also talked about the books and movies we loved. We talked about what artists had been important to us over time, and what I had hoped for with the book. This was before the book was published, and I didn’t want it to read as chick lit or marginalized as a woman’s book in the way so many women writers’ works are marginalized. Reese really connected with that. Actresses are marginalized in that same way; there are so few good roles for women in Hollywood, so she was also a part of wanting to change that. We just connected. We’re both moms. On all these levels we connected.
You mentioned that so many of your readers have said that they just want to hug you, or feel like they know you. How do you respond to people you’ve never met feeling so close to you?
Anytime someone comes up to me and wants a hug I say, “Yes!” I’ve never said “no” to anyone. Two things are true. One is that I’m extremely grateful for how my books have been so warmly received. Two is how people connect so personally with “Wild,” it’s incredibly powerful and moving to me. Sometimes we have to politely set boundaries – I can’t have coffee with everyone who emails me, for instance — but understand the feeling of feeling like you know an author just from reading their books. A lot of people always say, “You’re my best friend, you just don’t know it yet,” which always makes me laugh because I know that exact feeling. I always have to remind myself how to set boundaries between my public and private left.
Sort of related to that, did the anonymity of writing “Dear Sugar” help you get more comfortable sharing such personal stories?
I started doing “Dear Sugar” after I had finished “Wild” but before it had been published. While I was doing the final edits on “Wild,” I was doing the column. So the anonymity of “Sugar” did not contribute at all to how candid I was on the page about my life. As we see in “Wild,” I’m about as open as I am in “Dear Sugar.” Also, there were essays that came before that. I didn’t write “Sugar” as if I was anonymous. I know people read it as if I was anonymous because I was anonymous to them, but I always knew I would reveal my identity, so every column was like as if I had my name at the top of it. If I couldn’t write something and couldn’t bare to have my name attached to it, than I wouldn’t write it. That didn’t contribute to my openness at all, that’s just how I write.
For the film were you involved at all in the casting process? Did you ever envision who you wanted to play who?
Bruna [Papandrea] and Reese always talked to me about casting and their ideas, but I didn’t have any official say in it. They cared that I especially liked the actress who would play my mom, and the moment Laura Dern was mentioned we were all excited by the idea because she’s just so fantastic. And not just fantastic as an actress, but also fantastic as a person as I came to find out. She became a friend. She’s so filled with light and grace and generosity and kindness. It’s perfect that she played by mom because she had so many of the same traits. She absolutely embodied my mother in that way.
Does Reese then have any of the same qualities that you have?
I think so! Reese and I have an awful lot in common. For one thing, Reese has been an actress since she was a kid. We’ve both had this really strong drive to essentially make art in the world – me through words and her through acting. So our trajectories were different, and we’ve had different experiences along the way, but I think there’s something kindred about me and Reese. Reese is a very intuitive actress, it wasn’t like she sat there the whole time picking my brain about what I thought at every step of the way. That happened sometimes, but she also just brought herself to the role, and I knew she’d have to do that in order to succeed. The best art is made when it’s a true expression of our own humanity. When we do that, what we’re doing is building the bridge between the humanity of others.
Was there anything about the filmmaking process that surprised you?
My husband is a documentary filmmaker, and he’s been a first AD on some sets, so I knew about filmmaking and had been behind-the-scenes a lot. What ended up being surprising was just how much I was involved on set. I never planned it that way, but it sort of just came about organically. With each member of the team, we just liked each other and connected. It ended up being a great creative collaboration in so many ways.
Were you there for the entirety of shooting or did you opt out of certain scenes?
I was there as much as I could be. Production came on fast and I was still busy with the book. I had a book tour in England and I had to leave for short periods of time, so I missed some things. I wasn’t there the days the scenes were shot where my mother dies. I figured it was probably for the best. I did get a phone call that day from Jean-Marc. He wanted to make sure it wasn’t ice packs over my mother’s eyes and that it was surgical gloves crammed with ice. Jean-Marc always cared about being as specific in detail as he could possibly be.
There’s a great line in the book that’s used in the film where Reese states she’s a feminist. Was that important for you to get that declaration into the book and into the film?
It was fantastic! [laughs]. I can’t tell you what a thrill that was for me. I told Jean-Marc that after I had seen a cut and thanked him so much for it. When the trailer came out, I was flooded with posts and texts and emails from fans and friends alike saying how the trailer passes the Bechtel test, where two women are talking to one another about something other than men. I love that. I love that it has a real feminist value. One of the things that makes me really happy is that the final frontier of feminism, and what feminism really is, is art that recognizes that woman are as fully-fledged as men are. It’s incredibly important to see women’s stories as human stories, and I think the book has done that and early word is that the movie is too. It’s really gratifying.
The script is fantastic. Why did you choose to step back and let someone else [Nick Hornby] handle the screenwriting for this?
Well I wasn’t offered the job! And I think I agree why. Reese and Bruna both felt that with a memoir the writer isn’t the best person to make that adaptation because he or she is too close to the material and to that life. Plus, I was so busy with the whirlwind that was “Wild” the book at the time that I had no real space to work on “Wild” the movie. When Nick got the offer, he emailed me and told me he wouldn’t accept without my blessing. Nick’s someone I’ve admired for years so I had no problems with him coming on board, and he brought so much to it. I’m thrilled he was the one to adapt the screenplay.
Now that you’ve been through the process, would you consider writing a screenplay?
Yes! I would love to. I think it would be a fun adventure, and I definitely plan to take it.