Let’s imagine for a moment what it would be like to be friends with Reese Witherspoon; an incredible multitasker who seems to live in a world where the days consist of 30 hours instead of 24. Firstly, she will look you straight in the eye, then you’ll get that grin, the one that should be an addendum to Maria von Trapp’s My Favorite Things, so great is its power to radiate warmth. You’ll chat over coffee (strong) and you’ll mention the novel you’re reading, leading to an inner-fire-starting discussion about female identity and culminating with Witherspoon ordering the book from Amazon (she’s a very good customer). Then there will be the invitation to the baby shower she’s throwing for a mutual friend, her supportive shout-out on social media when your project gets off the ground, and the late-night text checking your son’s hospital appointment went OK. And, somehow, instead of making you feel less than, you won’t resent her in the slightest because she’s not perfect and nor does she want to be: she’s just as likely as you to be late for the school pick-up, or order margaritas at 5pm after a trying day. She’s on your side and that makes you want to be on hers.
It’s a personality recipe – insight, ambition, diligence, charm – that has made Witherspoon, 41, one of Hollywood’s most successful stars. And, so far, 2017 has been a great year, even by her standards. She’s just wrapped filming on Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, directed by the ever-impressive Ava DuVernay; is celebrating her fashion line Draper James going global via its launch on NET-A-PORTER; and then there’s Big Little Lies, the TV phenomenon that actually merited the phrase ‘everyone’s talking about it’ earlier this year.
“[After 40] you know who you are, who your FRIENDS are and what you don’t care about. It’s LIBERATING not having to worry so much about what OTHER people think of you”
“What I liked about Madeline is that she’s over 40 and she does not give a f**k what people think,” says Witherspoon of her married-with-secrets character. “She has no filter, she doesn’t suffer fools, she’s not interested in hearing people’s silly conversations. [After 40] you know who you are, who your friends are, what you want to accomplish and what you don’t care about. It’s liberating not having to worry so much about what other people think of you. I mean, look, I’m still an actor…” There comes the grin.
It was Witherspoon, her then producing partner Bruna Papandrea and their friend Nicole Kidman (“My God, can somebody just give this woman an Emmy? I mean, please,” says Witherspoon of her co-star’s performance as abused wife Celeste) who hit upon Liane Moriarty’s novel and convinced the author to let them bring it to the screen. And, for once, the issue was not finding a studio prepared to take a gamble on a female-led project; it was choosing which one of the many offers to take up. “What was interesting about that show was [the audience] skewed 50/50 male and female, because it was an exploration of grown-ups in romantic relationships where the curtains were pulled back on things you don’t even tell your friends,” says the actress. “There’s a deep need to see women in a more complex way; I’m tired of seeing them as the wives and mothers and girlfriends. Women are not good or bad, they’re every color of the human experience.”
Big Little Lies gave Witherspoon a lot to relate to. “When I read it, I felt a little like Renata because I was a working mom. I felt a little like Madeline because I’d been divorced, married and had other kids. I didn’t feel the Celeste experience as much, but I’ve known many, many women in domestic-violence situations. I felt like I had been Jane, because I was the youngest mom at school and the other [mothers] rallied around me and got me everything from a pediatrician to registered at schools. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them.”
“There’s a deep need to see WOMEN in a more complex way. Women are not GOOD or bad, they’re every color of the HUMAN experience”
One-dimensional female representation is not a frustration that the actress has come to lately – it’s been a driving force in her career since her twenties. “I remember doing Legally Blonde and thinking, this is my first film that isn’t about a romantic entanglement; it’s about a woman finding her own destiny. There certainly were romantic aspects to it, but it wasn’t the driving part of her story.”
But despite its huge commercial success, the movie didn’t signal the start of a significant boost in female-focused filmmaking. “It’s hard to be a female director, or a female writer, or an actress over 25. I think the dawn of streaming and the way that people are watching content now has been a great benefit because maybe women are too busy to go all the way to the theater, but they still want to see a diverse array of women on screen. I’ve been hearing for 27 years that women don’t show up to see women in movies, and I know empirically that is not true.”
To create the female roles she felt were missing, Witherspoon formed a production company, Pacific Standard. “Women are voracious readers. Women want story, character, nuance, emotion, heart, and a lot of that is in books, but they weren’t being bought by studios unless they were mega blockbusters. When we bought Gone Girl, it was in the galleys. Every studio passed except for one. Honestly? I don’t think they even read it.” It’s hard to imagine anyone saying no to Witherspoon. “If I know it’s a good idea, I’m like a bulldog about it,” she admits. “Other people will go, ‘Oh, that’s not good’, and I’m like, ‘Yes, it is, and I’m going to tell you why and you’re going to believe me.’”
“Legally Blonde was my first film that wasn’t a ROMANCE; it was about a woman finding her DESTINY. There were romantic aspects to it, but it wasn’t DRIVING her story”
Even powerhouses need to get their inspiration from somewhere, though: Witherspoon’s trailblazer was Goldie Hawn. “She went to studios and pitched Private Benjamin, Wildcats, Bird on a Wire, The First Wives Club. She pushed hard to create characters that were independent, and all of them are underestimated. She showed that being pretty with a high voice and a bubbly personality doesn’t mean you’re stupid.”
Witherspoon herself has done plenty to subvert that stereotype. Alongside acting and producing, since 2015 she has run Draper James – named after her grandparents, Dorothea Draper and William James Witherspoon – selling fashion and homeware influenced by her Southern upbringing. She describes the brand’s unapologetically feminine aesthetic as “grace, charm, humor, hospitality and originality”. How do you get hospitality into a dress? “There’s an ease and a friendliness about it,” she demonstrates.
That warmth and openness was a key reason for launching the line. “I don’t know why New York and LA have become the places that dictate how everyone else is supposed to live. There’s this whole world in-between of people who love style and have incredible taste,” says the actress. “And it was an opportunity for me to tell the stories about my grandmother, my biggest influence. She taught me to love books and how to dress, but she taught me about feminism, too. She got a master’s degree in 1942, but there were no jobs. I’ve always felt like carrying on her legacy because she put all that into me.”
“My GOAL is that we’ll get to a place where, when people call our daughters AMBITIOUS, they’ll say, ‘Yes. So what?’ I hope that the women of the world DEMAND respect and get it”
You could ask why, when life was already full-to-bursting, she felt the need to add to her résumé. “I really reject the idea that women have to stay in one life,” she reasons. “People have said, ‘You can’t start a company; just stay being an actress.’ Why are women supposed to be one thing? Nobody thinks Robert De Niro is stepping outside [his boundaries by] owning hotels and restaurants. Life has many chapters. You have to think, what am I going to do next?”
“I really REJECT the idea that women have to stay in ONE life. Why are women supposed to be one thing? You have to think, what am I going to do NEXT?”
In 2016, she teamed up with designer Tory Burch on #EmbraceAmbition, an initiative highlighting the gender disparity around the word ‘ambition’ – for men, it’s a badge of honor, a testament to their get-up-and-go; for women, it’s often a thinly veiled criticism. “My mother was very ambitious; she worked lots of different jobs,” says Witherspoon. “My goal [is that] we’ll get to a place where, when [people call our daughters] ambitious, they’ll say, ‘Yes. So what?’ I really hope that the women of the world know how strong they are and will demand respect and get it.”
Witherspoon’s daughter Ava, 17, and sons Deacon, 13 (with ex-husband Ryan Phillippe) and Tennessee, four (with her husband of six years, Jim Toth), witness first-hand her impressive work ethic. But the actress has been careful not to make them feel that the bar has been set too high. “I always tell my kids: you can’t be anybody else. Someone’s always going to be thinner, or richer, or better at their job,” she says. “You can only be the best version of yourself, so that’s what you should strive for – the best version of you.” It’s hard to imagine a better version of Reese Witherspoon.
Season 2 of Big Little Lies premieres June 9 on HBO