One of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, commanding 15-20 million dollars per movie, Reese Witherspoon’s entry into the film business was a fortuitous coincidence. At the age of 14, the southern girl and some friends auditioned to be extras in the Hollywood production The Man in The Moon, which was being shot in her town Nashville, Tennessee, and instead she was selected to play a major role in the movie.
I met Witherspoon at Santa Monica beach’s Fairmont Miramar Hotel, the venue she stayed in when she first arrived in Los Angeles, 20 years ago.
“I don’t know how I got into this movie business,” the daughter of a professor and an army surgeon wonders, bringing her hand to her mouth. “I don’t know if it picked me. After the audition for The Man in The Moon, they called me up and said ‘Would you like to fly to Los Angeles and do a screen-test?’ and I said ‘Sure!’ and they put me in this hotel. I had never seen the Pacific Ocean, so I walked across and I was Omigosh, I’m in Hollywood and I felt really lucky.”
Luck continued to shine on the young actress, who won critical acclaim for her comedic role in 1996’s indie cult hit Election and huge commercial success for her lead role in Legally Blonde in 2001. But her biggest triumph was in playing the serious dramatic role of June Carter Cash in Walk the Line in 2004, which garnered her numerous accolades including an Oscar.
Sweet, cheerful and playful, Witherspoon is here to talk about her new movie Water for Elephants, an adaption of Sara Gruen’s novel about a Cornell veterinary medical student, Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattison), who is left with nothing when his parents are killed in a car accident and ends up joining a travelling circus, where he meets and falls in love with the star performer and the boss’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).
Witherspoon, who endured a failed marriage in the past with actor Ryan Phillipe and recently found a new loving relationship with talent agent Jim Toth, felt a connection to and understanding of Marlena’s predicament.
“I think a lot of women relate to the book in that it is a story of a woman who’s in a very difficult, challenging relationship and I don’t think she sees any way out. It’s an opportunity for a second chance at love and a better life; a life where she still gets to fulfil her dreams, but she is loved and cared for,” Witherspoon says.
Married to the circus’s brutal manager (Christoph Waltz), who is jealously protective of her, Marlena’s decision to leave with her new lover is fraught with peril. She has to summon a lot of courage and conquer her fear in order the leap into the promising new merry life of romance.
“Fear can really crush you,” Witherspoon says, clutching her delicate hands. “I certainly have had trepidation about getting in relationships and getting married again. I never wanted fear to be the reason that I didn’t find happiness in my life.”
With little experience in circuses, Witherspoon had to spend 3 months at a circus school doing trapeze and getting used to performing high above ground, followed by 2 months of perfecting routines while riding horses and an elephant.
“One morning at 3 o’clock I fell off the back of the horse and I hurt my pride more than anything else,” she laughs. “It helps that I grew up with horses and riding horses when I was little. But the first day of shooting I was so scared I launched over the top of the elephant’s head. I somehow grabbed the side of her and I was hanging by one arm.”
Other than the physical preparations, the Oscar-winner invests a lot of time and effort in understanding and inhabiting her character.
“My job is to take a character from a screenplay and bring to it the utmost empathy, I want to give them respect and treat them with the dignity that I would want someone to treat me if they were playing me in a film and I know the characters in this book were very beloved.”
But in spite of fastidious preparations, the experienced actress shakes with anxiety and nervousness for 5 days before a shoot begins. In fact, there have been occasions, when she panicked less than a week before the commencement of the shooting and backed down.
“Maybe it’s just foolishness,” she laughs, her hands fluttering in the air. “I don’t know. I think as I get older I am much more nervous.”
I was wondering whether her nervousness stemmed from the nervous people around her. While we were taking photos with her co-star elephant Kai, a member of her team noticed a flapping edge of the hem of her dress. Within seconds her make-up team sprung in with their equipment, attending to the wounded garment, while a big guy stood in front of them obscuring the action with his body, his eyes nervously darting around surveying his surroundings.
The superstar told me earlier that she felt very lucky to have the greatest security team in the world, headed by Ray, who she had had forever. So I figured the big guy must’ve been Ray, though I still think that Ray overreacted in the fixing-the-dress situation, because we were in a sterile environment.
Security aside, the source of the 34-year-old’s happiness is her two young children, 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son – and her new husband, Jim Toth.
“Everything is great. The kids get along with my husband and I wouldn’t have married him if they didn’t,” she laughs. “I am very lucky. I have healthy kids and I couldn’t be happier.”
However, family life hasn’t dampened Witherspoon’s desire for more work or taking more jobs. She has recently wrapped the shooting of a Will Smith-produced romantic comedy This Means War.
“It’s a wonderful time in my life. I feel really lucky to be doing work that I feel very proud of.”