Last year was arguably the most memorable in a long and successful career for Reese Witherspoon. Not only did her Big Little Lies TV miniseries become one of the most critically and commercially revered dramas in recent times, it also offered a period of personal triumph for the bubbly star. She spearheaded development of the series via her Pacific Standard production company, hired her Wild director Jean-Marc Vallée to direct, and brought good friend Nicole Kidman on board as both co-star and co-executive producer. In other words, without Witherspoon we wouldn’t have had what was the television phenomenon of the year on our screens at all.
As well playing an integral part in bringing the series to life, Witherspoon wowed in the role of Madeline, the gossipy but kind-hearted Monterey mom and social gadfly, earning her Best Actress nominations (Golden Globes and Primetime Emmys) and rave reviews, which suggested her performance even eclipsed her Oscar-winning turn in Walk the Line, or harrowing journey in Wild. Naturally, the down-to-earth actresses who simply oozes Southern charm doesn’t let such accolades go to her head, and when asked how she feels about garnering such high praise, replies simply: “I’m in a good place in my life and as an artist and I have high expectations for the future. It’s very rewarding and fun, but in the end there’s a lot of hard work involved.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, the 42-year-old Louisiana native has spent the last year fastidiously building on her success with the second season of Big Little Lies, along with numerous other projects, which all further advance Witherspoon’s passionate agenda to promote and empower women. It’s a mission that has come about after years of frustration battling against the stereotype of playing the sweet but insipid girl next door character. “I wasn’t just frustrated for myself but for a lot of other women I know who share with me their horror stories about not being able to find good roles,” says Witherspoon.
“What made me really angry was the lack of interest that our industry had in telling stories from a woman’s perspective and, even worse, seeing fantastic actresses forced to play only wife-or girlfriend-type characters. It’s important to talk about women with greater complexity.”
With her adorable dimples, bright smile and seemingly indefatigable aura of resilient optimism, it’s hard to blame casting directors for wanting to cast Witherspoon as the girl every guy wants to be seen with; and yet, even early on in her career, she was still playing the types of women who kicked back at the status quo: Annette in Cruel Intentions, for example, who boldly resisted the vacuous pull of moneyed glamour; or Elle from Legally Blonde, the ultimate bimbo gone good.
In fact, many predicted Witherspoon would become the Hollywood powerhouse she is today back in 2006 when she bagged an Academy Award for her devastatingly candid portrayal of real-life country music heroine June Carter Cash in Walk the Line. But life had other ideas and following the demise of her seven-year-marriage to actor Ryan Phillippe —father of her eldest two children Ava, 18, and Deacon, 14—the star appeared to flounder, taking on roles which never quite matched her impressive talent as it became ever clear that here was a woman who, having been in the spotlight since her youth and in a high-profile relationship since her early twenties, needed to step back, reassess and rediscover herself.
It would be easy to label her as a ‘girl’s girl’, but actually what endears many to Witherspoon is her resilience and determination to bounce back from adversity. She happily admits to not being perfect, to struggling in the ways many women do with confidence and body insecurity, and also is open about the fact that it was her current husband, talent agent Jim Toth—with whom shares her five-year- old son Tennessee—who gave her the courage and faith to take a more active and creative hand in her own career.
“For a few years, I was a little bit lost as an artist not being able to find what I wanted to do, and making choices that I wasn’t ultimately very happy with. I wanted to play dynamic women and be part of stories that would allow me to explore all the doubts and anxieties that I was facing in my own life and that most women go through,” she explains.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get that deeply involved in the production side, but my husband gave me so much encouragement. He said, ‘you should produce movies, you read more books than anybody I know—you should just buy some of them and turn them into films’. And after working on Gone Girl, I wanted to keep finding similar kinds of projects.”
Following the enormous success of both Wild and Big Little Lies, Witherspoon has cemented her status as an intuitive producer with a keen eye for developing stories that are dying to be told. But she isn’t just using her influence in cinema; there is also Hello Sunshine, the media brand Witherspoon founded. “It is anchored in storytelling, creating and discovering content that celebrates women and puts them at the centre of the story,” and operates across television, audio and digital platforms.
It houses the recently launched Hello Sunshine channel, plus Reese’s Book Club, whereby the actress-turned-entrepreneur selects and promotes one book per month, and another subscription channel on AT&T’s DirecTV and U-verse platforms. Here you can watch Shine On With Reese, a nine-part series in which the longtime interviewee becomes interviewer as she quizzes female trailblazers and influencers about their lives and experiences in the media—the first episode featured Dolly Parton, Selma director Ava DuVernay and the musician P!nk.
With so many enterprising endeavours, it’s tempting to cast Witherspoon as the new Oprah Winfrey, whom the actress starred with in the Disney epic A Wrinkle in Time, and cites as a huge influence, saying: “I’ve looked up to Oprah ever since I started watching her show. She’s inspired me not just with her own accomplishments but also through her book club, in the way she’s conducted herself and spoken out on behalf of women over the years. Oprah encourages you to be the best version of yourself.”
But while the chat show mogul famously promotes her collection of self-help books, Witherspoon’s literary debut is set to have a much more homely and comforting feel. Titled Whiskey in A Teacup, the tantalizing tome (released September 18) reveals the star’s secrets to entertaining, cooking, decorating and more, all inspired by her southern upbringing.
Considering Witherspoon’s strong con- nection to her heritage—in 2015 she launched Draper James, a retail brand with a focus on fashion, accessories and home décor inspired by the American South, including tote bags adorned with ‘Hello, Sugar’ and glasses that read ‘Cheers, Y’all’—it is no surprise that despite raising her children predominantly in Los Angeles, she has sought to instill in them those hardy Southern values.
“Southern women have a strong sense of humour, they laugh at themselves, and they don’t scream if they see a cockroach,” she declares proudly. “The first thing I taught my eldest children was riding horses, getting to spend time with animals and playing outdoors. Also, when they were little, I didn’t allow them to watch TV. I didn’t want them sitting in front of the television set all day and I tried to get them to play and do as many creative kinds of activities as possible.”
Similarly, the star balks at the notion of nepotism, believing that no success tastes sweeter than that which you’ve labored over. “I hope my children feel encouraged to work hard in life because I’ve tried to accomplish a lot in my career, which hasn’t always been easy for me. I also think it’s important as a woman to show what you can accomplish,” she says.
In her early forties Witherspoon still possesses that iridescent glow of youth, and yet it the wisdom gathered over the years as a starlet, wife, mother, divorcee, and, now, lifestyle mogul that really makes her so engaging as both performer and a person. And as someone who is actively pushing against the narrative that only the young and beautiful deserve to have their stories told, it is understandable that she is em- bracing her age.
“I think the forties are the best years for women,” she states. “When you hit 40 you have a much clearer idea of who you are, and you know exactly what you want. So you surround yourself with the best people, you have a better idea of relationships, and you’re much bolder and less afraid. It’s a time of great personal growth where you have much greater self-awareness, and I’m thrilled to be embracing that.”