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With Three Shows in Emmy Contention, Reese Witherspoon Has Honed Her Creative Voice

With HBO's "Big Little Lies," the Apple TV+ series "The Morning Show," and Hulu's "Little Fires Everywhere," Witherspoon is on a roll.

The Morning Show

Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon are cohosts on “The Morning Show.”

Courtesy of Apple

The secret to Reese Witherspoon’s success as a movie star: she’s willing to play women who are flawed, even unlikeable. You tend to remember them: ambitious high schooler Tracy Flick in “Election”; ditzy Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde”; withholding singer June Carter in “Walk the Line” (which won Witherspoon the Best Actress Oscar), and wandering loner Cheryl Strayed in “Wild,” which earned her a second nomination. Witherspoon lets you inside her conflicted characters, gets you to like them, and makes you root for them even when they misbehave.

Over the years, she has built up a sizable fanbase, and knows how to make them happy. That’s because Witherspoon started her own production company in 2012 in order to develop roles worth playing. And as the film industry in Hollywood has largely abandoned dramas, she’s made her mark in television. She produced with Nicole Kidman the HBO ensemble series “Big Little Lies,” playing entitled perfectionist Madeline Martha Mackenzie, which won eight Emmys in 2017. After skipping the 2018 and 2019 Emmys, the series is back in the Emmy fray with its second season starring Meryl Streep.

And Witherspoon has two more hit Emmy contenders: “The Morning Show,” which launched with Apple TV+ on November 1, and Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” based on Celeste Ng’s bestselling page-turner. Not only does multitasker Witherspoon juggle many projects, but she and her producing partner Lauren Neustadter somehow turn them into top-of-the line successes, too. By controlling the process from acquisition to what appears on screen, Witherspoon and her team have honed her creative voice to perfection.

“The Morning Show” came about when executive producer Michael Ellenberg approached Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston about turning CNN anchor Brian Stelter’s 2013 book “Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV” into a series for Apple TV+, which was willing to support a starry ensemble at a reported $150 million per season. The final result feels smarter and more expensive than a network series, but more mainstream than premium cable.

At the start, “it was all about describing the behind-the-scenes politics of morning shows,” said Witherspoon on the phone, “the ways women are treated financially and analyzed by focus groups, and the way men are politicking and firing women and keeping themselves in power for a long time.” But #MeToo brought a complete script overhaul. “We had to refocus the show to include what was happening at several different networks across CBS and NBC. There was corporate corruption happening at different media, cover-ups of sexual harassment, suits were filed.”

That demanded a major writing effort and six-month production delay as Aniston and Witherspoon worked closely with showrunner Ellenberg and Kerry Ehrin to create a more resonant, contemporary “The Morning Show.”

Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston on “The Morning Show.”

Apple TV+

“If we are going to talk about something of the moment, it had to be addressing what was happening in real time,” Witherspoon said. “Kerry managed to get a lot of that in there.” Both stars worked closely with Ehrin to create nuanced specificity for their characters. Aniston stars as veteran anchorwoman Alex Levy, who is angry and unmoored when she loses her longtime co-star Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) after he is charged with sexual assault; amid all this, she comes to finds her professional authority. Witherspoon is outspoken red-state local reporter Bradley Jackson, who pursues wrongdoing at the network as Levy’s improbable upstart partner — no matter the collateral damage.

“Jen and I wanted to expose what’s been happening,” Witherspoon said. “Steve got in there and in the end played a character complicated, and, at first glance, not very appealing. That helped us too. [Mitch Kessler] brings with him an audience that has loved him for years and years. How could someone you love so much do something so horrible, or treat people that badly? We are all trying to reckon with that in our mind: What we perceive people as, and how they really are.”

On “Big Little Lies,” Witherspoon developed a working method that has served her well. “We value collaboration and always being on the same page,” said Neustadter, “making sure we are always communicating openly and constructively.”

During filming, Witherspoon and Neustadter learned how to speak with one voice through frequent Season 2 conversations with the actresses about what was going on with their characters. “We would read every [David E. Kelley] script and get on the phone and talk as a group,” Neustadter said. “We’d watch a cut and talk about it as a group. We learned to trust each other’s better judgment. After years of experience, it’s learning how to work as a team and not have disparate voices. You’re dealing with really talented people; no one is the most talented. Everyone brings their skill set to the table. Very rarely do we not agree on things — it happens.”

The final arbiter in the “Big Little Lies” editing room, however, was executive producer Jean-Marc Vallee, who controversially was brought on to rework the footage shot by  Season 2 director Andrea Arnold. “It’s not the same as film,” said Witherspoon. “The director doesn’t have final cut. There was some misunderstanding of how our business works.”

Big Little Lies Season 2 Episode 6 Laura Dern Reese Witherspoon

Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon in “Big Little Lies”

Jennifer Clasen/HBO

From the start on “The Morning Show,” Ellenberg was on the phone with Aniston and Witherspoon’s teams and launching an email chain so they were all sharing thoughts. “It’s all constructive,” said Neustadter, “and it goes back to the person writing for us, Kerry Ehrin.”

On “Little Fires Everywhere,” after Neustadter found the Ng book and Witherspoon grabbed the rights, she brought in “Scandal” star Kerry Washington as her creative partner. “I had been trying to find something to do with Kerry,” said Witherspoon, “and working as coproducers and costars was the ideal situation. She’s a force. She and I carrying something together was appealing to me.”

They developed the script with showrunner Liz Tigelaar (“Nashville”), adding new layers to the 1997 story that weren’t in the book. The story unravels the mystery of who sets a fire to the Richardson home in suburban Shaker Heights, Ohio. The main suspect is the struggling artist who works as a maid for the Richardsons, and in the book Mia Warren was not identified as a person of color.

Witherspoon’s Elena Richardson is wealthy, controlling, and entitled, while Washington’s Warren is poor, frustrated, and trying to keep control over her own life and daughter (Lexi Underwood). They are both, in many ways, selfish mothers. The trick over the eight episodes was balancing the two powerful actresses, who go toe-toe in many scenes. They both agreed to create a safe place for conversation in order to serve the book and the series. “I had to check my ego at the gate,” said Witherspoon. “I need you to help me know what I don’t know so this show resonates,” she told Washington. “It’s about white privilege unchecked.”

In one key scene, Elena condescendingly tells Mia she’s a bad mother. “You didn’t make good choices,” Mia snaps back. “You had good choices, options that being rich and entitled and white give you.”

Playing Elena “was one of the hardest roles I’ve done,” Witherspoon said. “People see themselves in Elena, a lot at the beginning, when she’s a relatable Middle American everywoman. It devolves by the end, when she realizes the ridiculous nature of privilege, which destroys her family.”

Kerry Washington, Reese Witherspoon, "Little Fires Everywhere"

Kerry Washington, Reese Witherspoon, “Little Fires Everywhere”

Erin Simkin/Hulu

Tigelaar set up a writer’s room, supervising eight writers with varying points of view on the book to fashion one episode each. “Some were white, gay, or a parent of an adopted child,” Neustadter said. “What are the points of emotional connectivity to these characters and stories?”

They added a flashback story for Elena which was missing in the book, in consultation with Ng (who cameos in Elena’s book group). The series tackles charged social issues as we learn more about the women’s lives and what brought them into conflict. “When the subject matter is white privilege or racism in America or homophobia — so many issues in the show — we try to keep it entertaining,” Witherspoon said. “It’s important to keep the narrative moving forward while touching on complicated issues and what’s really going with the characters.”

One director who worked on both “The Morning Show” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” Lynn Shelton, died suddenly this spring. “When she came on to direct ‘The Morning Show’ she would elevate the set,” said Witherspoon, “directing eight principal actors, 50 extras, six cameras running. She was calm and cool as cucumber, in her element in that creative space.”

After they gave Shelton the book “Little Fires Everywhere,” said Witherspoon, “she pitched us some visual ideas of what she wanted to do, and told a moving story about herself, how she found her own identity through being a mother. In the finale, in the fight scene with the kids, she was pushing them to get real, honest performances, making them feel safe and comfortable, hugging them every time they did something great.”

Next up: The producers still have to finish “The Morning Show” Season 2, which was interrupted in mid-March after a few weeks of filming. “As soon as we get a production greenlight we’re going back to shoot again,” Witherspoon said. “I really don’t know what’s accurate.” “We’re constantly having conversations and sharing information across the industry,” Neustadter said. “Multiple shows were meant to have started during quarantine. We were supposed to go in July.”

And they were also scheduled to start an Amazon show with showrunner Will Graham, “Daisy Jones & the Six,” based on Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel, starring Riley Keough and Sam Claflin; as well as a Netflix series with Zoe Saldana they had hoped to start shooting over the summer, “From Scratch,” from writers Attica and Tembi Locke. “We’re finding a way forward under challenging circumstances,” Witherspoon said. “Because we can’t wear masks when we are working, it’s going to be tough to be in close proximity to other actors and crew members. It’s also based on vulnerabilities, which are deeply private. So I don’t have any idea. I don’t have a crystal ball.”

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