As posted about a while ago, Reese is on the cover of the May issue of US Vogue. Well I am now finally able to provide you with more coverage from the issue! My fabulous friend Luciana has sent me some perfect HQ photos from the Water For Elephants themed photoshoot, and Vogue.com have also posted the interview, which you can read below.
What do you think about the new photoshoot and interview? I think the interview is great, and shows off the ‘new’ Reese. She seems really happy and contented at the moment, which is wonderful!
Reese Witherspoon: A Day at the Circus
On March 26, Reese Witherspoon was married to talent manager Jim Toth in a simple, elegant affair at her ranch in Ojai, California. Vogue’s Jonathan Van Meter spoke to the actress a few months before her wedding and discovered that, although the actress learned to ride an elephant for her role in the film, that’s nothing compared to balancing fame, love, and family.
Here she comes, waving like Miss America but looking like a blonde Audrey Hepburn. She is dressed in all black—leggings, cardigan, Wayfarers, and a kitten heel. The wave is hilariously exuberant, and even from a block away, as she strides purposefully toward me, I can see that the smile is comic: forced and way too big. And with that one winning gesture—a perfectly timed little burst of goofball—Reese Witherspoon signals that she is not only painfully aware that the sidewalk has suddenly become a runway lined with paparazzi yelling her name on an otherwise quiet Thursday afternoon in Santa Monica, but also that she is OK with it. Look at my weird life! she shouts without saying a word.
It’s a beautiful sunny day in early February, and we are meeting at the Blue Plate Oysterette, a hip little seafood joint not far from the Santa Monica Pier. Witherspoon, still at the curb, stares at the outside tables for a moment and then looks back at the photographers in the street still snapping away. She glances at the hostess, then at me, and finally says, with an ironic exclamation point, “How about inside!”
One of the things about being a polite Southern girl saddled with a cumbersome fame is that you are in constant negotiation with your surroundings. You know, more often than not, that your presence will tilt the delicate balance of the workaday world in your direction. And one thing that every good Southern girl knows is: Don’t make a scene. But that is exactly what happens everywhere Witherspoon goes. Indeed, just moments ago, people on this oceanside block were going about their noonday business: lunch, errands, sightseeing. And then—bam!—chaos.
As we take our seats, she shakes her head in weary bemusement and says, “Every dog has her fleas.” (Witherspoon’s essential Southernness frequently comes through in her language.) She takes a deep breath. “I wasn’t planning on drinking,” she says, “but now I am.”
Is that commotion an everyday occurrence? I ask.
“Lately,” she says.
All the wedding talk? (In case you haven’t heard, Witherspoon is engaged.)
“Yeah,” she says. “It usually heats up during, like, pregnancies or babies or marriage. It’s the drama of real life. . . . It’s interesting to people. Readers want to know! I was talking to an actress the other day who is pregnant right now, and she was like, ‘What is it? What’s the deal?’ She said, ‘Oh, maybe once I have the baby no one will pay any attention,’ and I was like, ‘Bwah-ha-ha-ha!!!!’ ” She exaggeratedly tosses her head back. “ ‘Oh, yeah. They will leave you alone after you have the baby. Suuure. That’s exactly how it works.’ ”
But then, perhaps not wanting to sound ungracious, she puts a different spin on it. “I get hugged a lot,” she says. “Which is fun. Mostly it’s all good, positive energy that comes to me. I like people. And at the end of the day, we’re all just people, you know? We’re all just going through it. Nobody’s life experience is all that much different than anyone else’s. We’ve all had our share of heartbreak. It’s the universal language of life.”
I can’t help looking down at the four-carat rock sitting high on her hand, a ring proffered a few months earlier by the handsome 40-year-old CAA agent Jim Toth, whom she’s been dating for a little over a year. What’s he like? I ask. “He’s wonderful,” she says, beaming. “He’s just a really great guy, and I feel really lucky. It’s so cute: Over the holidays I was at a department store in L.A. with my friends, and these three women from Oklahoma came up to me, and they said”—she lays on a thick Southern drawl—“ ‘Reese. We are so happy for yeeew. We liiike this guy for yeeew.’ And I said, ‘You do?!’ ‘Yes, ma’am. We think he is a niiice man. We think he is going to treat you well and be good to yeeew.’ I was like, ‘Really?’ So sweet! And I told them my mother likes him very much, too.”
I had been hearing from people who work with Witherspoon that she is in, as they say, “a good place.” When I mention these reports, she looks at me with one of those faces she is famous for, a look that telegraphs surprise tinged with irritation. “I mean . . . it sort of indicates that at other times I was not in a good place.” She laughs. “Which is true. I have had my share of heartbreak. But I think your friends really know when you are at your happiest. Even though I am nervous and excited and all those things people feel when they are about to get married, I think I am mostly very calm right now. Usually, I’m a little bit of a squirrel. I have a squirrelly energy.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Like, you don’t know where your next nut is gonna come from?” She stares at me with those unblinking blue eyes. “At the moment I am not buzzing around all squirrelly and nervous. I just feel really lucky to be with someone who cares so much and is so kind and loving. You know? It’s a really nice thing to finally have that.”
Witherspoon may be settling down in her personal life, but she’s taking more risks than ever in the roles she chooses. Despite having recently said, “There’s not a part for a 34-year-old woman in a robot movie” (implying she would never want or be able to carry an action flick), she will later this year star in This Means War, one of those new era–Hollywood hybrids (action-adventure/romantic comedy, anyone?). The director, McG, describes it as both “my answer to Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Ocean’s Eleven” and “my ode to Billy Wilder.” Witherspoon plays a busy working girl who is unlucky in love but suddenly finds herself with a glamorous problem: Two spies—one American, one British (played by new era–Hollywood hotties Chris Pine and Tom Hardy)—start using every weapon in their arsenals to woo her.
“It was new for her to be suspended in a rig hanging upside down in a Jeep from a building,” says McG. “But it’s just mind-scrambling to work with her in terms of her comedic timing, her sense of what matters, her inherent ability to be lit from within.” McG also hopes to show audiences a different side of her. “I think you are going to see a sexy Reese Witherspoon the likes of which you have never seen. That was a challenge that I set out for her at the beginning of the process. I said, ‘Men like you, but men don’t covet you the way that I think they can.’ ”
It’s anybody’s guess whether this film will be watchable or whether Witherspoon will work in it or not. It wasn’t that long ago when it seemed Witherspoon could do no wrong. As the nineties came to an end, she began delivering in one smart comedy after another: Cruel Intentions, Election, and the two Legally Blonde films, the Elle Woods franchise that put her newly formed production company, Type A Films, on the map and also gave her some real power in Hollywood. By the time she won the Oscar for Best Actress in Walk the Line, in 2005, she had taken on an air of invincibility. Was there anything this girl couldn’t do? Turns out the answer is yes. She has lately been miscast a few times, most egregiously as a pro softball player past her prime in James L. Brooks’s How Do You Know. (As one big Hollywood producer said to me, “What woman identifies with a person who has no interest in falling in love? Who is that supposed to be?”)
It’s far less of a stretch to imagine Witherspoon as the scrappy ingenue who will do whatever it takes to survive in the Depression-era circus world of her latest film, Water for Elephants, based on the best-selling novel and directed by Francis Lawrence. That role is the reason, a couple of days before our lunch, I find myself inside a giant circus tent pitched in a dusty lot near the train tracks in Riverside, California. Witherspoon appears in front of me and asks, “Wanna see something?” She leads me over to one of her costars, Tai, the 42-year-old elephant she spent six months with last summer, and coos, “Hiiii, laaaady,” and then runs a hand down her trunk. “I love that her trunk is both her nose and her hand,” says Witherspoon as the 9,000-pound creature begins sniffing around to see what sort of treat is in the offing. “She has this incredible dexterity; she can pick up a log, but she can also pick up something this tiny.” Witherspoon holds up one blue peanut M&M and then flattens out her palm, and Tai gently plucks it from her hand and puts it in her mouth.
Set in the early thirties, the story follows a young Ivy League veterinary student played by Robert Pattinson, who, left with nothing after his parents die in a car accident, joins the circus, where he falls in love with Witherspoon’s character, Marlena. Marlena is not only the star of the circus, whose act with four horses and then an elephant is the show’s big attraction; she is also married to the charismatic, controlling ringmaster, played with sinister menace by Christoph Waltz.
Witherspoon has made more than a few films where she has had to train for months to learn an entirely new skill set before a single frame was shot: most famously learning to sing like June Carter Cash in Walk the Line. Now the circus. “About three months before the movie started, I went to circus school,” she says, “doing trapeze and acrobatics with Cirque du Soleil performers. A lot of it is flexibility and learning to bend your body backward. I had been a gymnast when I was little, so getting that flexibility back was really fun.” Then she went to a ranch to train with Tai; she was slightly nervous the first day. “She could crush you with her jaw, but she knows the exact right amount of pressure with which to pick you up but not hurt you. It’s really incredible. I trust her more than any other animal I have ever been around.”
Interestingly, the elephant in the room turned out to be the least of anyone’s troubles. (As Pattinson puts it, “She was the most consistently professional creature I have ever worked with.”) It was the horses—two white Andalusians and two black Friesians—that turned out to be high-strung and unpredictable. “Reese grew up around horses,” says Lawrence, “and she owns a couple that she rides now, and even she was scared of them.” Says Witherspoon: “I’ve always been a little bit of a tomboy that way, so I just always enjoy the thrill of doing something dangerous.”
She got more than she wished for. Not only did she get thrown from a horse one day, Pattinson tells a story about shooting a scene in which one of the horses is lying down in a train car with Witherspoon curled up on the ground next to it when suddenly the horse jumped to its feet and stepped on her leg. “I could see in Reese’s face that it must have hurt more than anything, and she played it off like it was absolutely nothing,” says Pattinson. “And then the next day she had this enormous bruise. It could have quite easily broken her leg, but she didn’t mention it to anybody. She is just incredibly brave that way.”
Witherspoon’s toughness was one of the main reasons Lawrence cast her in the film. “What I liked is that there’s that determination, but there’s also a sense of humor and a sense of vulnerability. It must come from her family and upbringing. You sort of feel like if she sets her mind to something, it’s going to happen—nothing is going to get in her way. And that’s part of what keeps her interesting—and oddly a little dangerous.”
Pattinson, too, thinks there’s more to Witherspoon than meets the eye. “In terms of public perception, she’s thought of as America’s Sweetheart. And she kind of is in a lot of ways. But I think that she’s a lot bawdier than that, a lot more raucous. It did actually shock me to see that. She’s tough. You wouldn’t want to get into an argument with her at all.” He laughs.
“You can always tell that she will be incredibly nice to anyone who’s not an idiot, but it’s always very clear that there’s a line you really shouldn’t cross.” (When I tell Witherspoon that Pattinson said this, her response is classic Reese: “Oh, yeah. I’m a little junkyard dog.”)
If only she had brought some of that edgy danger to her performance. Although her scenes in the ring with the horses and the elephant are breathtaking, not least of all because you know that she is doing all of the stunts herself, and she looks fantastic in 1930s cut-on-the-bias evening gowns (and even committed to dyeing her hair platinum for the movie), it unfortunately feels like she’s holding back in some way. Perhaps it was hard to compete with the director’s overheated take on an already melodramatic story, in which terrible things happen to everyone, animals and humans alike. A feel-good movie this is not.
But whatever the critical response will be, Witherspoon seems grateful for the experience: “I spent six months of my life last year with an elephant. Every day! Are you kidding me? And in leotards with sparkles all over them. I mean, come on! That’s like a little girl’s fantasy.”
Two weeks after our lunch in Santa Monica, the day after the Oscars, Witherspoon calls me on the phone. She has just picked up her kids—Ava, eleven, and Deacon, seven—from some after-school activity, and she sounds a bit harried.
“What is that?” she says to her dog, annoyed. “Don’t eat that.”
Now that the Oscars are over, she has a couple months off—or “in town,” as she puts it. “You know, it can be a crazy life. Sometimes you feel like you are on a speeding train and you just don’t know where it’s going. You can start to lose your identity and what it is that you are really working for.” Like a lot of working women, she’s constantly looking for the right balance. “I don’t wake up to make movies. I wake up to have a wonderful family and to cultivate the best life for all of us, and it’s great to now have a partner in that. We have a lot of family meetings. ‘Mom’s going to be away and coming home on the weekends. How does everybody feel about that?’ It’s always military operations around here. Lots of different moving parts. I have my moments when I feel like I’m just going to collapse and I can’t do it anymore and I’m failing at everything. Like, you’re kind of good at a bunch of stuff but not really good at anything.”
Witherspoon, who turned 35 in March, seems acutely aware that she is on the cusp of an entirely new stage in her life. “I am really going through that right now. I’ve had some really kind of sad moments lately. You don’t go backward! And I think 35 for a woman is a big thing. I remember when I was a little girl looking up at my mother at 35 doing her hair in the mirror, and I thought, my mother has never been more beautiful. She had years of wisdom you can’t erase. And now I feel the same way when I look in the mirror. You can’t pretend you are an ingenue. You can’t pretend you are wide-eyed and innocent. It’s on your face! It’s in your body. It’s in your voice. It’s in your reactions to things when people say, ‘I just did the most morally corrupt thing I’ve done in my life’ and you literally don’t blink.” She laughs. “You’ve either done it yourself or you know someone who has.”
Having a preteen daughter has also made her see herself in a new light. “There’s a shift in your womanhood. That’s the little girl, and I am the woman. There’s a big difference. She’s on the precipice of having her love affairs and her life.” I ask her what Ava is like. “She is curious and artistic and very smart,” she says. “She really surprises me. I know it’s corny, but being a parent to me is such a great privilege; that I get to chaperone these beautiful little souls through life. They astound me with their knowledge and their humor. Parenthood is not at all what I expected it to be. I thought you make little people in your image. But they are just nothing like me or their father [her ex-husband, Ryan Phillippe]. They are their own individuals.”
Because I first met Witherspoon eight years ago, when I interviewed her for this magazine, I ask her, What does 34 know that 26 didn’t? “I definitely know now that I know nothing,” she says. “When I was 26 I would have told you a lot of things that I thought I knew really, really well,” she says. “I was a little more shut down in my 20s. I was really scared of a lot of things and a lot of people. I have gone through so many changes since then. Obviously, being divorced and having a couple of relationships. I’m much more open than I was. I think with life experience you go: I have no idea what’s next. The unexpected doesn’t surprise me anymore. It really shocked me then.”
Would you say you were blindsided by things?
“Yeah,” she says. “Really blindsided. I was always shocked about finding out things or behavior or people’s attitudes toward things. You just realize that you don’t know anything about love or relationships.”
It is different interviewing Witherspoon now. For one thing, we are comfortably hanging out for a couple of hours in a restaurant shooting the breeze and drinking wine; eight years ago we sat in facing chairs with a coffee table between us at her production-company office, and she was all business—I felt as if I were in a job interview. Today she is sweet, relaxed, and full of thoughtful questions; but she is also a very sharp and funny lunch companion, and some of her retorts have real teeth. For example, if you don’t talk as rat-a-tat fast as she does, she has a habit of finishing your sentences for you, but with her own particular take on things. At one point we were talking about fashion, and I said, “People who love fashion often . . .”
“ . . . Lack perspective?” she said with a comically judgmental look on her face.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is that she is as private as ever. Indeed, she seems almost constitutionally unsuited for the level of fame she has to live with. At one point, I ask her what is the worst thing about being Reese Witherspoon, and she pauses for a very long time. Finally she says, “I mean, I feel like an ingrate for even thinking anything isn’t good. I’m very, very, very lucky. But . . . umm . . . probably that I parted with my privacy a long time ago. We went different ways. And sometimes I mourn it. Sometimes I will sit in the car and cry. Because I can’t get out. That’s the only thing: I mourn the loss of my privacy.”
More than most people in her position during this era of constant self-revelation, Witherspoon has nonetheless managed to maintain a modicum of privacy. “I have to say, I have been through a few life experiences that have just made me feel really good about my friends because the truth never came out about certain things. And that made me feel like I have confidantes in them. I mean, look: I don’t have that many friends. I have a few really amazing friends whom I consider family. But it means a lot to me that I have that, because so much of my life belongs to other people. Everyone always laughs about it and goes, ‘Boy, they got that wrong!’ It makes me feel like, Wow, maybe there’s something that’s still my own.”
This is one of the strange conundrums of being Reese, the polite Southern girl with the cumbersome fame. She did not know she was parting with her privacy until the train had already left the station. “I just think you never think you are ever going to get to any level where it’s going to happen to you. I mean, that would be extreme hubris.”
Do you ever regret becoming an actor?
“Noooo!” she says, as if I had just asked her if she wishes she had married her high school sweetheart and stayed in Nashville. “With whatever I’ve lost, I’ve gained tenfold in life experience. I have an interesting life.”
At our lunch a few weeks earlier, Witherspoon mentions that she and Nora Ephron are developing a film together about the singer Peggy Lee. (This explains why Witherspoon was humming standards under her breath to Tai at the photo shoot.) Lee, who grew up in North Dakota and who’s best known for her inimitable cover of the Little Willie John hit “Fever,” was one of the most influential jazz vocalists of all time, with a career that lasted six decades (she died in 2002). Ephron is writing and directing; Witherspoon will star. When I ask her how she feels about making another biopic about another American singer-songwriter from the heartland, she says, “When Nora and I began talking about Peggy Lee, it was really exciting because Nora has this unbridled enthusiasm for that era and that music. She knows every lyric to every song. So yeah, I am excited to revisit that.” Has she herself ever considered singing as a career? “I am not going to cut an album,” she says. “I’m not going to suddenly have a pop record on the charts.” She laughs. “But if I was going to do it, it would be country, because I like country music a lot.”
I tell her that Ephron once sat me down when I was going through a difficult time and gave me some very frank advice that I have been following ever since. “I had a moment like that with Nora, too,” she says. “She really helped me through a hard time. It was like having the best girlfriend ever. She makes you laugh and she makes you think. I feel very lucky for her friendship.”
When I call Ephron to talk about Witherspoon she says, “She’s a really smart, really charming, dear, dear person. Everyone loves her. And lovely on the set, and she basically kills herself. I mean, you know, she took softball lessons for a year!” She laughs. “And she went through that divorce in a kind of . . . you would call it a textbook way, if anyone had written a textbook about how to do it. I have never seen anybody handle a breakup as brilliantly as she did. She didn’t pretend to the people who knew her that it was anything but difficult and painful, but she was completely private. She made herself the winner of a situation that had been very difficult without suddenly appearing with a completely new look or dating someone wildly inappropriate in order to prove that she was fine. She lived her life in some dignified way, and it worked! I am just an enormous admirer of the way she handled that experience.”
What made you think of her for Peggy Lee? “Just for fun, just to make myself feel really bad, I watched Walk the Line again, and it’s such an amazing movie. And she is so brilliant in it. She just disappeared inside that character without losing her Reese-iness, which we love. But she is June Carter Cash forevermore. It’s an astonishing performance. So that’s one of the things that I’m excited about; she is going to do the same thing with Peggy Lee. What I really believe about her is that her great gift is for character acting. She can really transform herself. That performance in Election is just spectacular.”
Tracy Flick, the character from Election who will stop at nothing to win, is one of the great gifts of modern cinema. Indeed, it is now a noun, a type of person, like saying “She is an Eve Harrington.” When I ask Witherspoon about it, she says, “I think what’s flattering about it is that I created a character that never existed within the Zeitgeist before. She became a point of reference to people that seems very individual and very singular. It’s like one of those characters, like Chauncy Gardiner, whom you don’t know how to describe any other way. They are just very . . . Tracy Flick! I don’t think people think I am Tracy Flick. Not at all.”
Hmm. Not so fast. Tracy Flick is nothing if not a determined little junkyard dog, a squirrelly Type A trying to figure out where her next nut is going to come from. As our phone call winds down, I ask Witherspoon about her own politics. “Well, I don’t really get into that stuff,” she says. “Everybody has their own choice, their political opinions. I don’t think it’s my place when talking to Vogue about movies that I’m making to use that opportunity to promote my political ideas. Not my cup of tea. It’s sort of private. I was raised Southern, you know? It wasn’t like you were told to talk about religion and politics at a dinner party. And don’t get me wrong: I definitely have a lot of opinions. I am not opinion-free. But there’s a time and a place for everything. But maybe I will change my mind! Look, if I wanted to run for office, I would. If I want to espouse my political opinions, I will run for office.” She laughs. “And that’s a possibility!”