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Reese Witherspoon Finds New Life In Making Wild

Updated: May 7, 2023

Reese Witherspoon at the "Wild" promotion at Apple Store, SoHo, New York.  Photo copyright 2014 Brad Balfour.

Reese Witherspoon at the “Wild” promotion at Apple Store, SoHo, New York. Photo copyright 2014 Brad Balfour.

Reese Witherspoon

Finds New Life In Making Wild

by Brad Balfour

Along with Wild‘s author Cheryl Strayed, co-star Laura Dern, and producing partner Bruna Papandrea, Reese Witherspoon made appearances throughout New York when the film version of Wild was first released in December. The 38-year-old actress came to Fox Searchlight’s Christmas reception for media and friends, and this quartet appeared at the Soho Apple Store to discuss the film, one of the most challenging roles she’s handled since decided her career has been revitalized.

Part of that personal revival included forming her own production company – Pacific Standard Films. This company isn’t merely a vanity vehicle for her, or a way to enjoy a larger share of a film’s financing. Witherspoon decided to take the challenge on to actually develop projects that she believes will connect with audiences, and women in particular. So Pacific Standard has produced both Wild and David Fincher’s Gone Girl and also been involved with her film from earlier in the year, The Good Lie.

During the Apple Store talk, Strayed and Papandrea offered their insights, but it was Witherspoon’s words which really hit home with the audience. Through the characters she’s played, she has resonated not only with moviegoers who have become her fans, but with her peers – especially since both Wild and Gone Girl have gathered awards and nominations. Not only did Gone Girl get an Oscar nomination for its star Rosamund Pike, but Wild snared Actress noms for both Witherspoon and Dern.

Before Witherspoon had acquired Strayed’s bestseller the author already had a solid audience for her inspirational memoir, which documents her physical and spiritual journey of self-destruction and redemption.

Strayed had destroyed her marriage, hitting rock bottom after years of sexual and physical excess, as well as heroin addiction. Devastated by her mother Bobbi’s death from cancer, Strayed rashly decided to hike solo the thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. For three months, she endured blisters, dirt, attempted assaults, a lack of shaving, makeup, cold and heat. Eventually, she found love and her personal salvation.

To do the cinematic version, Witherspoon and team brought in novelist-turned-Academy Award nominated screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy, An Education) to make Strayed’s extraordinary adventure work on the screen. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, himself an Oscar nominee (for Dallas Buyer’s Club in 2013), came in to manage Wild, a film that powerfully reveals Strayed’s terrors and pleasures – as she forged ahead on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

Besides Witherspoon, Wild stars Dern (as her mother), and Thomas Sadoski (of The Newsroom) as her husband. The cast also includes Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin, W. Earl Brown, Mo McRae, and Keene McRae.

In addition to Wild, in recent months Witherspoon has appeared in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and Philippe Falardeau’s The Good Lie.

This Nashville native’s performance as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line earned her 2006’s Best Actress Oscar as well as awards from BAFTA, the Golden Globe® Award, Screen Actors Guild™, New York Film Critics, Broadcast Film Critics, People’s Choice, along with eleven other awards.

Where her career goes from here is uncertain, as her trajectory has changed. In Wild she played a character that clearly took her out of her comfort zone. When she looks sweaty and dirty it was believable because she probably was – at least a lot more than when she did far more glamorous films such as Legally Blonde, Legally Blonde 2: Red White & Blonde, and Sweet Home Alabama. Along with some of Witherspoon’s other credits – Mud, Water for Elephants, Election, Vanity Fair, Pleasantville and The Man in the Moon, her more recent accomplishments have built a bridge between her first 20 years acting to an admirable link to her future.

The following Q&A is based on her conversation at the NYC SoHo Apple Store this winter.

The book came to you to option at a point in your career when you were really looking to find female characters to speak to audiences in a new way, right?

It was a few years ago. I was getting frustrated by the roles I was being offered. I wasn’t seeing any interesting, dynamic female leads. The scripts just weren’t there. I was toying with the idea of starting a production company. Then Cheryl sent me her manuscript, about three months before it came out. I was blown away! It was one of the most beautiful books I’d ever read. It was really the impetus for me to then call Bruna [Papandrea] and say, “Do you want to start this company with me?”

Parts of it are about how to find your best self. Is that how you saw it?

I think Cheryl says it so beautifully: getting back to the woman that her mother wanted her to be. So many wander in life, and lose their path. There are so many things that every single person in this room have experienced, and can set you on one path or another, and you have no idea how they’re going to happen. But I do think there’s something beautiful [in that]…. At the end of the film, it’s not a relationship that saves this woman. It’s not money. It’s not her parents. It’s not that something has happened. It’s that she literally had to save herself. We all do. At some point, everybody in this world has to figure that out.

This particular film says, “This is a woman dealing with urgent moments.” It doesn’t matter whatever it is, it’s a woman of today. Is that a fair assumption, that she’s very much a contemporary person?

She’s a person. It’s not just a woman’s journey, it’s a human journey. I think there are so many men who come and see this film, and think, “That’s my story,” because we all struggle. I was really so moved when I read the book. Cheryl did it by herself. She did it, alone. For 94 days, completely alone. That always occurs to me, that she was alone. I think a lot of people travel and do things, but not very many people do it by themselves.

There’s a terrific moment where you have to put on a giant backpack that you nickname “Monster.” You told a story in Toronto about how you were thinking, “We’ll fill it with styrofoam or something, and it won’t be heavy,” but Jean-Marc [Vallee] had a different plan.

I’ve made tons of movies. Whenever you have a heavy bag, they just stuff it with newspaper. Well, on the first day of shooting, I put on the backpack. They stuffed it full of newspaper. And I was, “La ta da.” Cheryl was on set that day. I saw her and Jean-Marc talking. He said, “Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut!” He said, “what’s in the backpack?” I said, “Nothing.” And he said, “Oh, no no no… Papandrea, we need all the things in the backpack!” I was thinking, “Are you kidding me? You’ve got to be joking me.”

It was probably the first day. I was walking, walking, walking into some vista, and then walking back. They stuffed it full of all of the equipment. There I was, with 65 pounds on my back. So later, this is what Cheryl told me, “I was the one who told him to make the backpack heavier.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” She said, “I thought I was actually doing you a favor, that way you didn’t have to act like it was heavy. That’s when I saved your ass, man.”

There’s no voice-over. It’s told in present time. So much of the performance is what’s going on in your face and eyes. What kind of a challenge was that for you, to do that as a performer?

Oh my gosh, it was so hard! If you haven’t noticed, I talk a lot in movies.

You can be very verbal.

I talk a lot. I talk fast. I do accents. I do funny voices. This was like nothing. That was hard! The first couple of days, I was like, “Whoa!”

It was like finding another language?

It was almost like being in a documentary, where some guys were just wandering around and filming me. That’s what it felt like, honestly! I didn’t have any make-up on. I had not-cute costumes. It was a different kind of challenge. It was physically grueling! I know I didn’t walk a thousand miles, but I walked back and forth a thousand times.

In the book you journey back, in flashbacks, during your hikes. Did you shoot the flashback scenes first, or did you do the hiking scenes first, or did you do them all together?

We had a weather limitation. We started in October, in Portland, and we had a finite amount of time before it started to snow. Then the government shut down, and every single one of our locations was a National Park. So that was really fun. Bruna was sweating. But we figured it all out. We managed to shoot some stuff around, until they re-opened the parks. We shot all of the trail for five weeks, and then the last two weeks, we shot flashbacks.

How did making this story change you? What did you learn about yourself? it sounds like you learned you could carry a 65-pound backpack.

I learned how to put up a tent – really put up a tent. Now, I can. Give me a tent!

What made you decide to be an actor in the beginning?

I grew up in Nashville, with parents who were a doctor and a nurse, but they didn’t know what I was doing. I was always a really good liar, and really enjoy telling a story, the bigger the better, still, to this day. “And then it happened like this. And then this happened…” My husband is like, “That’s not how it happened,” and I’m like, “Shut up, you’re ruining the story!” I don’t know why, I always wanted to be an actor, ever since I was six years old. I said to my mom, “I want to be an actor,” so she took me to acting classes. I did them every Saturday, for four hours a day.

Does it mean something different to you, to be an actor now, than when you started?

The reasons why I do what I do now are totally different than when I began. I came from a place of wanting attention, wanting to be seen, and wanting to be understood. That lasts for a while. Then, as you get older, you start to work through your stuff. You go to years of therapy, you realize the reason you want to be a storyteller have changed. That’s why, a few years ago, I had a moment where I was making movies for other people. I didn’t feel connected to any of them. I was really losing my passion. I was thinking, “If I’m not seeing what I like, and it’s not coming to me, why am I not out there, pro-actively creating it, or seeking it out, or reading everything there is to read?”

Is this something where you look at it and say, “You know what, I’m not going to wait for something; I’m grabbing this now!”

I’m not developing material just for myself, but for all these great actresses that I know. That’s what got me excited! Now I feel like I have a whole new directive. It’s really re-ignited my passion for what I do.

Having seen the other recent film you acted in, The Good Lie, and having seen you producing films such as Gone Girl, what you have learned, or are learning, with these films?

It’s been interesting to take the years of cumulative experience, with Laura, and Bruna. We’ve all been in the business for a long time. We all know what development is, and yet taking it on is intimidating. It’s Sisyphean; it feels like you’re pushing a giant rock uphill, and it’s going to just roll back over you. The only thing, to me, at this point, with the way Hollywood is structured now – the only way to get that purity of vision, really get Cheryl’s true vision, of her own story, straight to the screen, is by streamlining that process.

So that’s what Bruna and I did: developing the story outside the studio system, and then presenting it to them whole. I’ve had all these frustrating conversations with studios for 20-plus years, where they’re like, “Well, we don’t want you to curse in the movie. And we really don’t want you to have sex in the movie, because that would be really unlikable.” Those aren’t real characters! People are messy. Women are dynamic, interesting and complex. They’re not all nice, and they’re not all bad. They’re just as dynamic as any male characters that we see. We just don’t have as many opportunities to get them out there.

Just taking control of that process has been really exciting. Getting Gone Girl [made…] we produced Gone Girl this year as well – it’s been interesting to make characters that are creating a conversation that is changing the way we see women on film.

You were so young when you made Election. Do you have a nice memory of making that movie?

We made this movie in Omaha, Nebraska. One of the reasons why I did Election was because I saw this amazing movie called Citizen Ruth, starring Laura Dern, directed by Alexander Payne. Maybe it’s due to Citizen Ruth. It’s one of the movies that made me want to be an actress, and strive to be as wonderful as Laura, comedically. It’s a brilliant movie. I saw this movie, and Alexander had this script for Election. I went and auditioned. It was filmed in a real high school. There were all these kids milling around – half the kids in the movie are real high school kids, like, “Excuse me, I have to get to class!” It was a great experience. That high school stuff, it really sticks with you, doesn’t it?

Is there anything about you that builds from the movies that you’ve done in the past?

It’s an evolution, yeah. I started making movies when I was 14 years old. I changed a lot. I think audiences have grown up with me a little bit. We all have those horrible moments where young pop stars will come up to me and go, “I watched your Oscar speech in my pajamas!” And I’m like, “Great.” I feel really thrilled. But it’s important. As I get older, and I have these life experiences, I want to share them. Cheryl says this beautiful thing about artists connecting to audiences, and how important it is, that connection. That thing you say about the bridge!

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: January 28, 2015.

Photos 1-4 © 2014 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Photos 5-10 © 2014 Anne Marie Fox. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.


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