America's sweetheart just got a little grittier -- and she may walk away with more awards for the effort.
There's no question that Reese Witherspoon has serious acting chops: Early in her career she claimed a Golden Globe for her mesmerizing turn as Election's Tracey Flick, and in 2005 she won an Oscar for her performance as June Carter Cash in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. However, the actress' bread-and-butter roles are set firmly in the crowd-pleasing, if not necessarily artistically challenging, realm of romantic comedy, and she admits she found herself growing disengaged from her career track.
It was time for Witherspoon to launch a "McConassaisance" of her own, flipping the script in the same way Matthew McConaughey recently did. The two stars paired for her first new foray into grittiness, the 2013 coming-of-age thriller Mud, and for her latest effort Wild, Witherspoon turned to Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallee.
Adapted from the bestselling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Wild stars Witherspoon as a young woman who hikes the Pacific Coast Trail while trying to reconnect with the stronger parts of herself as she tries to come to grips with a life gone greatly awry: straying from her marriage for meaningless flings, overindulging in sex and drugs and staying in the shadow of intense grief over the loss of her beloved, supportive mother (Laura Dern).
It's a transformative performance audiences may have largely forgotten Witherspoon was capable of delivering, and the actress admits she tackled it wholeheartedly – even building in guarantees that she wouldn't chicken out about depicting the seamier elements full on, as she and Vallee revealed in a recent roundtable conversation with journalists.
On what she did to prepare for the physically demanding role:
Reese Witherspoon: Nothing. Jean-Marc wanted me to be like the book. Like, sure. I'll not have any experience. No rehearsal. I wasn't allowed to look at the props before. We do this scene where we're packing all the props. They just laid out all the props, and they said, "You know, just go ahead and pack the bag." And then he filmed it for hours. You must have hours of footage of me packing a bag, which I can't imagine.
Witherspoon: Forty minutes of setting up.
Jean-Marc Vallee: I remember the first time you ever put up the tent, and the first time you started the fire, that was all on screen as well. You had never done any of that in rehearsal.
Witherspoon: No. So when you see me screaming for joy, I'm really screaming for joy! I'm like, "Yes!"
On what they responded to in the memoir:
Witherspoon: It was one of the most beautiful books I'd ever read, and it was one of those things that talked about big life issues, grieving the loss of a parent, death, drug use, sex – name it, it's in that book. And I think it's the way that she synthesizes human emotion and puts it into words. It's so beautiful – so many of the big ideas I thought for so much of my life, but I didn't know how to articulate it … It's the greatest gift of my life that Cheryl let me make the story of her life. I honestly don't even know how to begin to tell her thank you. I love the idea that – we all come to this conclusion at one time or another – but that you have to save yourself. No one's coming to save the day. No one's going to rescue you on a white horse. And that we are responsible for ourselves and our own happiness.
On whether they’ve set off on some kind of journey of self-exploration:
Vallee: Not in that fashion. I'm not a nature man. I'm not into hiking at all, and although I really related to the book and what Cheryl went through and how she describes her story and the words and her prose. But yes, I got into a divorce at one point in my life where I had to stop and have some sort of introspective journey: "What have I done? Why? Where am I going?" And I think after losing someone, I think after the loss of someone, one of the most difficult things in life is to get a divorce and break a family, in way.
Witherspoon: Certainly. I've been through things publicly, I've been through things privately that really informed my character. It really made me who I am. And I think Cheryl really does a beautiful job of finding the life truth about it. I wouldn't say, like, the "life lesson," but it is a journey to a truth. And once you figure out what it meant, like why did you go through that? And if you don't do some self-examination, I don't think you're as aware of how – I don't know. You know people who go through life and don't ever look at themselves. They just blame other people. You. You – you're responsible. And that's just not healthy. I think there's something beautiful about her reflection on her own behavior, and her willingness to show you everything. Even the parts of her that really make her very ... What's the best word?
Witherspoon: Yeah, see her self-destruction, to see her the way that she hurt her ex-husband by sleeping around. To see her hurting herself by using heroin. To see her being so rage-filled. And those qualities make her sort of repellent. You kind of don't want to see that. You don't want to see her doing those things. I sat with my mom watching the movie, and she goes, "Oh, that poor girl!" Every time, during that whole sequence where she's doing the sex and the drugs and sleeping around, my mom's like, "Oh, that poor girl!"
On critical notice of Witherspoon's McConaughey-esque career reinvention:
Witherspoon: Look, I think it's great that people are noticing that I'm very engaged with my work. I think there was a period of time where I was not as engaged or as artistically turned on or creative. And about three years ago, I was determined to be more involved and take more ownership of the choices I made. And it's very important to me that the films I put in the world are an expression, an extension of who I am. These are ideas that Jean-Marc and I completely collaborated on, we connected on as human beings before we ever shot a frame of the film. There are stories and ideas that I think are important for people to discuss with their loved ones and their family.
On what drew her to produce the acclaimed Gone Girl:
Witherspoon: I think it's an interesting dynamic woman on film. I think I've grown a little weary of seeing thin, poorly written female characters on screen. And I've read so many of them and seen so many great actresses sort of shunted to the side because the part doesn't really merit their participation. And it's really that women are complex. I think they're interested in seeing complex portrayals on screen, whether you like her or don't like her, Amy Dunne is a conversation-starter.
On making the decision to appear naked on screen:
Witherspoon: The only person I had a conversation with about was Jean-Marc. Nobody. I called, just before we shot the thing, and I said, "You put something in [my contract]" because whenever you do nudity, you have to sign a contract about it. I said, "Just put it in the contract that I'm doing it." And he was like, "What?" I said, "I'm doing it." But part of the decision was inspired by the conversations that Jean-Marc and I had. And when I saw Dallas Buyers Club …
Vallee: The scene with Matthew [McConaughey] and the trailers and the girls.
Witherspoon: Yeah, and it wasn't about being salacious or titillating. It was actually to convey a deeper sadness. She just doesn't care about herself. And you see then – I think another sort of beautiful thing you did in the film was that when she does have the relationship with Jonathan, it's not as explicit. There's not as much nudity or graphic sex.
On the nature of Witherspoon’s on-screen transformation:
Vallee: Well, look at her and how beautiful she is, and how she's used to be in the kind of film where we pay meticulous attention to how we look and the lights and the hair and the makeup. And she chose this project for her. So it wasn't like a physical weight loss or something that drastic, but she chose this project to try something, I think, different, new, and something that she was going to be proud of, to be at the service of and going to go out there, naked, literally or not, because I think she feels and looked naked when she's dressed by the way she acts and what she did. It was for her getting out of her comfort zone and just accepting the fact that we were going to serve the thing – it's not show-off. Let's not put some marks there to pull focus and this and tracks and lights and makeups. Let's do it the real way. And if we're outside on the trail, and you have the sun in your face, well, it will be like this. And your face is going to be funny, maybe. And we're not going to do this voluntarily to have the sun at your back and have a nice backlight. So often on the trail, she's hard, it's harsh. But look how beautiful there, yet – how beautiful, how naked, how simple. You feel the humanity. And she wanted to do this. She picked this project to just embrace Cheryl's humanity.
On potential concerns Wild might be labeled a “chick flick” or a feminist film:
Witherspoon: I think that's a little reductive, to be totally honest. Because I think if this was all about a man, you wouldn't talk about it being a man's film. And we've seen these kind of films with men at the center, and we don't call them "dude movies." All Is Lost isn't like a "dude movie." It's a movie about humanity, and I think every one of us experiences grief and loss and heartbreak.
On why Witherspoon chose Valee to direct:
Witherspoon: I was blown away by Dallas Buyers Club, and I basically begged Jean-Marc to do this [laughs]. I sent him the script, and I think it's worth remarking that he put aside another film in order to make this film because we were on a very narrow timeline. It was going to start to snow on the PCT, and we had to start shooting last October. And he was so passionate. He called me, and he spoke so honestly about his own experiences, and I think that's what's beautiful about Cheryl. I had to make a choice, and Jean-Marc had to make a choice to make a very raw, gritty, honest film, because Cheryl was brave enough to tell the whole truth. The parts of herself that were palatable, the parts of herself that were likable. The parts of herself that you go, "I don't even want to know that person. That's so gross and disgusting." But she tells you the whole truth, so that you understand. That I think he and I had to make a choice to be just as brave, to be just as honest as she was in her memoir.
On engaging creatively:
Witherspoon: I mean, you always work. Your work is important, and I feel really lucky to be a storyteller. It's just when I got more engaged as a producer and started being more in control of my own material and seeking out what I think is sort of a white space in the market of creating great leading women characters in film, I felt much more inspired.
Wild is playing now in select theaters.