Reese Is The Word:
Witherspoon Tackles 19th Century Bootstrap Heroine

by Tony Phillips

Five foot two inch powerhouse Reese Witherspoon sweeps into a Park Avenue conference room at New York’s Regency Hotel and is greeted by a collective inhalation of breath otherwise known as “the gay gasp.” Why are the journalists assembled all but gagging? The answer is simple. The star of the Legally Blonde franchise shows up for her Vanity Fair press conference this morning illegally brunette. But don’t fret, America’s favorite blonde isn’t going all Esther crazy on us. She’s currently filming the part of Mrs. Cash opposite Joaquin Phoenix’ Johnny in James Mangold’s Walk the Line. The 28-year-old Witherspoon, who grew up in Nashville, even has to be gently steered back once or twice to Becky Sharp, one of the greatest female characters of English literature. Sharp is one of those delicious English heroines who surmounts the class she is born into by sheer force of will. But why would an actress who pulled down 15 million for her last two pictures would want to talk about class struggle? Witherspoon wants to talk Cash. The only surprise here, really, is the Cash in question is country music royalty June Carter.

Still, the other cash has long been an issue for Witherspoon, well before she dyed her hair. Ryan Philppe, her husband and delicious co-star from 1999’s Dangerous Liaisons update Cruel Intentions, publicly joshed her about making more money than him on the 2002 Oscar telecast. And the couple has a hard and fast rule about only one of them being on location at a time so as to be least disruptive to their young family. For Reese, one imagines this self-imposed limitation means choosing carefully, and she’s got her own production company, Type A Films, set up at Universal Pictures to allow her to do so. And though a young Hollywood star, with her own production company to boot, sets certain expectations for the otherwise all-Brit cast of Vanity Fair, Witherspoon, as usual, delivers the unexpected. “She comes with no Hollywood baggage whatsoever,” her handsome co-star, James Purefoy, explains, “despite the fact that she’s a one-woman movie-making industry. You could easily expect her to be a nightmare to work with, and difficult, and come with vast amounts of advisors and publicists and assistants, but she had none of that, at all. She approached it very much in the tradition of British actors. She did the scene.”

Yet scene would be quite an appropriate word to describe today’s press conference. If she’s relatively unadorned on-set, there are at least eight flacks hovering behind her while she speaks today. It’s hard not to ask who or what this phalanx is, but then one wouldn’t want to have to actually meet them. Still, Witherspoon, in a low-cut purple floral dress and very little makeup, does her best to pretend that they’re not there and forces identification with the press corps at hand. “I’m a slob,” Witherspoon smiles when one of the journalists attempts to imagine the glamorous life, “just like you guys.” Even a Bollywood dance number courtesy the film’s Indian director Mira Nair— the script’s biggest departure from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel — couldn’t trip up a then-pregnant Witherspoon. “As it read in the script,” she explains, ”it was ‘Becky and the court dance for the King.’ So Mira brought in Bollywood choreographers and twenty professionally trained dancers. She said, ‘We’re going to show you what we’re going to do’ and then it was, ‘FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT!’ and this troupe of gorgeous, slender women come out and start writhing around. I was like, ‘Okay, but what do you want me to do?’ And Mira said, ‘That’s what you’re going to do.’ So I said, ‘I don’t know. How do I do that?’ So every Saturday I was going in and trying to rehearse. We also tried to do it as early in the shoot as we could so my pregnancy didn’t show. In the end, I have to say, I’m so proud of that scene. Some of the stuff was really hard to do, but it was so fun.”

One gets the feeling that although the deck is stacked against her, fun is the prevailing M.O. of Reese Witherspoon. It’s hard not to get swept along with her joie de vivre. When she describes this visit to New York with her husband and small family in tow, it’s hard not to imagine them pushing strollers together and peering into shop windows, although it’s clear the actual situation must be something else entirely. Fifteen-million-a-picture actresses are not free to roam the streets without a security detail, but Witherspoon puts a smiley face on that reality. It’s as if she’s taken up full-time residence in the titular berg of her film Pleasantville, harnessing all the plucky optimism of unforgettable characters like Election’s Tracey Flick and Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods. It’s a hard thing to fault her for, and it’s telling that both characters were nominated for Golden Globe Awards. This honor, bestowed by the Hollywood foreign press, is jokingly referred in this circle as the “best breakfast buffet” award. It’s largely a measure of a star’s likeability and doesn’t have so much to do with technical performance, per se. And this morning, one thing is clear, Witherspoon is an immensely likeable star who’s got the press corps eating the breakfast buffet right out of her hand.

Even when the talk turns to her director Mira Nair, who conquered Hollywood with her breakout film Monsoon Wedding and is preparing to bring a musical version to Broadway, Witherspoon can only accentuate the positive. She trots out the phrases “Woman in Hollywood” and “Working against impossible odds within the studio system” to paint a portrait of Nair as a filmic Mother Theresa, even though Nair herself vigorously objects to being classified as a Hollywood director or working for the studios. Nair is first and foremost, an independent. The radiantly beautiful director was Indian born and Harvard educated. She exhibits a fire that her actors insists increases exponentially on-set and though she claims she hasn’t screamed on a film set since her Academy Award-nominated feature directorial debut Salaam Bombay! the picture quickly emerges from the Vanity Fair cast assembled of a director who is as fond of traditional Indian garb as she is of on-set tantrums. And yes, it’s all offset by helpful practices like early morning yoga, but as James Purefoy says of the 6 AM yoga call, “Please, I’m a British actor, I don’t even work out.” Still, the screaming was another thing entirely. So the question emerges, did Nair have the gumption to rely on such outbursts to extract a career-making performance from her fifteen million dollar woman?

“She never screamed,” Witherspoon states, then takes a beat before adding, with perfect comic timing, “at me.” In describing their working relationship, it’s clear Witherspoon would have done anything; even bear her pregnant belly on-screen. “She was a great sport about it,” Witherspoon remembers of that dreaded call to inform her director she was preggers, “she said she thought it would help the film and really tried to use it.“ It did light a fire under the production as certain scenes had to be shot straight-away before the pregnancy began to show, and still other scenes, where Witherspoon’s character Becky Sharp becomes pregnant in the film, had to be restructured. “The great thing about working with Mira Nair,” Witherspoon explains, “and the reason I was so attracted to her work in the first place is she has this way of putting sexuality in her films that’s a very female sexuality. It has a lot to do with color and mood and lighting. So when she asked me to show my pregnant belly, I didn’t feel nervous at all. Well, on the day we shot I felt a little nervous, but I knew she would do it in a really beautiful way and I was really happy when I saw it.”

In the end, it’s probably impossible to know whether Witherspoon showed up for her first day’s work on Vanity Fair as a spoiled American actress or one who had already internalized her character’s hard scrabble up the British class ladder. But one thing Nair is sure to stress is that in her home, her family eats with their hands, so it would be pretty difficult to show up with a silver spoon in one’s mouth in a house that lacks even the most basic eating utensils. And perhaps it doesn’t matter. As Nair puts it, in a way that one can imagine goes double for her American star, “I don’t give myself the luxury of looking back and feeling like a Virginia Slims ad. I didn’t have a plan, as such. The only plan I had was to make a feature film before I was thirty-years-old and I managed Salaam Bombay! when I was 29. When you’re a young person, you have this kind of deadline, but frankly I remember when I got my first grant from New York Council for the Humanities to make my first documentary. Two other grantees were next to me. They were saying, ‘Oh, I’m so grateful that they gave me money’ and I thought, you know, we have such a voice to speak in this world. We shouldn’t just be grateful. The other people also should be grateful for us bringing our voice to the world. So I must tell you, I don’t sit around looking over my shoulder hoping they won’t catch me. I think it’s the other way around. I have something to say, a point of view, and I’d like to open your eyes.”