AS PRODUCER and star of Wild, the true story of one woman’s redemptive solo 1,000 mile trek, Reese Witherspoon found a little absolution of her own – both personally and professionally, writes Claire Black
Reese Witherspoon is petite even in high black stilettos. Wearing a black shift dress with a sheer panel across the chest and another just above the hem-line, she is conservatively stylish. Her blonde hair in a pony-tail, her make-up subtle, she looks serious, business-like and perhaps just a little nervous. She doesn’t really look like a woman who could lug a massive backpack for more than a thousand miles along a hiking trail which is what she has to convince us of in her new movie, Wild. She doesn’t really look like a woman who’d want to.
But looks can be deceiving. And no-one knows that better than Witherspoon.
Heart-shaped face, big eyes, a smile that could melt glaciers, Witherspoon has been a movie star for more than three decades even though she’s just 38. It’s 10 years since she bagged an Oscar for her role as June Carter in the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, but her talent was obvious long before that.
It’s just that her post-Oscar projects haven’t always been up to much. They certainly haven’t lived up to the range shown by an actor who could play the over-zealous, utterly ruthless Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne’s glorious Election or the smart but ditzy Elle Woods, the perpetually pink law student in Legally Blonde. These roles became few and far between as cute, or even cutesy, was what the Hollywood cookie cutter seemed to be set to whenever it came to Witherspoon. And so the bloodless romance flicks wilderness years beckoned.
A decade on from the arrival of that little gold statuette into her life, Witherspoon, it seems, is ready for a new chapter and if the buzz is to be believed, another Oscar might just find its way into her hands.
Based on Cheryl Strayed’s New York Times best-selling memoir of the same name and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) Wild is the story of how Strayed, at 26, having been floored by grief following her mother’s death and the collapse of her marriage, found herself walking the Pacific Crest Trail, an iconic hiking route that runs from Mexico’s Mojave desert to Canada.
Strayed had never hiked before but walking for more than three months alone across an ever-changing landscape became a way to walk herself back into her own life.
The book she wrote more than 10 years after her epic journey is about resilience and forgiveness, about how life can be monumentally hard and yet, with compassion for ourselves, we can survive. It became a phenomenon, selling by the truck-load and being picked by Oprah for her book club. It resonated with people, it certainly struck a chord with Witherspoon. “So much,” she says. “It’s so interesting as people are seeing the film that they are taking different things from it. For me, it was just the idea of this woman being on a journey to find herself but doing it completely alone. That’s what I kept thinking about even as we were shooting it – could I do this? Yeah, I could probably hike. But could I do it all alone for 94 days? That’s what I found just so remarkable.”
Witherspoon is right to choose that word to describe Strayed. Ten years on from her trek, it still fits. Sitting in a London hotel suite, Strayed is everything that you could hope for: smart, funny, quick-witted and warm. She’s generous in her praise of all of her collaborators and evidently utterly delighted that this film has been made. “It’s glorious and it’s as surreal as you can possibly imagine,” she says, beaming. “It still feels unreal to me even though I’ve been deeply involved in the making of the movie since before the book was even published.”
Under their company banner, Pacific Standard, Witherspoon and her producing partner, Bruna Papandrea, optioned Wild before it had even made its way into bookshops. Strayed and her agent sent the memoir to Witherspoon, the first person in Hollywood they’d approached, in the hope that she might just take a look. “We sent it to her on a Friday, she read it over the weekend, on Monday morning I got a call and I was talking to her within a day or two,” Strayed says.
She knows that this is not usually how book to film adaptations go. Far from it. Nick Hornby, who adapted the script, told Strayed from the very beginning that although ‘all this’ was very exciting the movie was probably never going to happen. “He said it to me all along the way,” she says, smiling. “He was telling me the truth. So I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that it happened. When I watch the movie it’s so bizarre – there’s Reese and she’s just like me and she’s made to look like me and she says she’s me.”
When Strayed started her hike she had never backpacked. Ever. Director, Jean-Marc Vallée wanted Witherspoon to be similarly unprepared. It made things pretty tough on set. “Jean-Marc wanted me to have no experience at all with the props so when you see me putting the tent together, that really is me putting the tent together,” says Witherspoon. “For two hours. I literally could not figure out the f***ing tent. And when I kicked the stove it was because I couldn’t make the f***ing stove work.”
Strayed nicknamed her backpack “monster” because it was so huge. “I’ve been an actor for so many years I was like they’re going to stuff it full of newspapers,” says Witherspoon. “We got there on the day and I put it on and it was, as I had thought, full of newspapers.” But then Vallée, prompted by Strayed, had a change of mind. “I watched Reese walking with the newspaper pack and I could tell it wasn’t heavy,” says Strayed. “I thought she should be weighed down.” And so she was. “I ended up carrying it the whole time,” says Witherspoon. “I’ve never been as strong as I was after that movie.”
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For Strayed, it was vital that Witherspoon was not only willing to lug a 30kg backpack around for authenticity, but also that she understood the spirit of the book. “I think people have this idea that I was just a lowly writer and this big movie star wanted my book and could just swoop in and take it,” she says. “Really, I am a writer who has worked hard for many years and I wasn’t going to just give it away to the first star who came along – they had to have good intentions. I also had to feel that there was intelligence and passion behind their desire.”
One of the first topics that Strayed and Witherspoon discussed was their cultural influences – the books they loved, the writers, the movies and directors. It was, for Strayed, a process of discovering whether they had a compatible vision. There had to be a more personal fit too. “Right away Reese shared with me the experiences she’d had in her life that made her really identify with me in my 20s,” Strayed says. “We all had our 20s and you make mistakes. She shared that with me.”
From the outside what is interesting about this in terms of Witherspoon is that when she was in her 20s, she was already famous. She was married to Ryan Philippe – they had starred together in Cruel Intentions and got hitched when Witherspoon was just 23. The couple had a daughter, Ava, who is now 15 and a son, Deacon, who is 11. After they divorced in 2007, Witherspoon remarried and has a son, Tennessee, two, with her husband Jim Toth.
In Hollywood terms, though, Witherspoon was a southern belle, the sweetest of sweethearts. That image, of course, was a fabrication but somehow it stuck. Those were the roles she was offered, that’s what people believed her to be in real life. So convincing was it, that it was shocking, to some at least, when the illusion was shattered. Take, for example, when Witherspoon was arrested for disorderly conduct in 2013. A video emerged of Witherspoon shouting at the police officer who was arresting her husband for allegedly driving while drunk. It took a wrecking ball to Witherspoon’s previously untarnished image.
Witherspoon, now, is philosophical about what happened. “I had that experience,” she says with the tiniest of shrugs. “I certainly learned from it and I felt terrible about it. But I think it was also a moment when people realised that I wasn’t exactly what they thought I was. If it showed that I have a complexity that people didn’t think I have then…” her words run out but if I can fill in the blanks, then so be it is probably about the size of it. “I made a mistake. We all make mistakes. The best you can do is say sorry, learn from it and move on.”
There’s a tone to what Witherspoon says that suggests she’s taken more from Wild than just an opportunity for her best movie role in a decade. After all, the last line of the book states: “What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently that I had done?”
Strayed faced her demons on that walk between Mexico and Oregon (where she left the trail) and there were plenty to face. She had experienced domestic violence as a child when her father beat her mother, Bobbi, before she left taking Cheryl and her brother with her. She then lost her mother to cancer after a ferociously short illness. She imploded. She slid into using heroin and repeatedly cheating on her husband. Part of the reason people love Wild is for its openness and searing honesty, but seeing her life played out on screen required a different kind of bravery from Strayed. “Writing is about revelation, about opening and telling the truth, I’ve been exercising that muscle for years as a writer,” she says. “I’ve taken a lot of risks and done a lot of scary things as a writer. But I am in control of it – they are my words, I decide what stays in and what comes out. When I said yes to Reese, I had to trust her to both tell my story and honour it while also making it her own. I was a bit terrified.”
Witherspoon felt it too. “It’s definitely the hardest movie I’ve ever done for many different reasons. The physicality was really difficult but after that, what I was dreading most was the emotional part of it – the grief, the divorce. The sex scenes were the hardest thing for me to do.” She shakes her head and smiles. “Honestly, I remember speaking to Cheryl the night before one scene and I was like ‘I’m supposed to have sex with two strangers tomorrow. You know, shake their hands and then have sex with them in an alley. I’ve never had to do anything like that in my entire life’. So Cheryl came to set that day. If she was brave and open enough as an artist to talk about those things I couldn’t just do the parts of it that I was comfortable with. I had to do all of it, the parts that made me uncomfortable too because it is about emotional honesty.
“It’s a very personal film in a lot of ways and I think I didn’t really discover just how personal it was until I was already half way there. There are aspects of it that everybody knows I’ve gone through – divorce, struggles with all kinds of things – but there are other things that people don’t know about me and it became very personal. For me a lot of it is about finding yourself one step at a time, completely alone. Everyone who has made it through this far in life knows that there is a day that you wake up and realise I’m all alone. No-one is riding in on a white horse to save me. What I found so extraordinary about the book and we hoped for the movie – I said to Bruna if we can pull this off it might be the first time in history, the first time a woman in a movie has ended it with no man, no money, no parents, no job, no opportunities and it’s a happy ending.”
It’s clear that with her role as producer as well as star, Witherspoon is devoted to this film. It was the first project that she and Papandrea guided to the screen, even though they also produced Gone Girl which came out last year, and it feels like a clear marker of intention as to where Witherspoon would like her career to go.
“It’s a great responsibility to have a platform where you bring movies to an audience globally,” she says. “I think you have to be mindful of what you want to say. Certainly there’s a place for popcorn movies, I love them and I have a great time doing them. But a film like this, in a way it’s bigger in a movie.” Witherspoon is not boasting, she doesn’t need to; she has seen this project through from unsolicited and unpublished manuscript to a movie in which she appears in practically every scene. This is personal as well as professional. “I saw it the other day with my mother and Laura Dern [who plays Strayed’s mother, Bobbi] and her mother. Our mothers held hands as they watched, it was really beautiful. The conversation that I had with my mother and with Laura and her mother was probably one of the most important of my life. It was about realising what it means to be a mother or a daughter, knowing that our mothers are seen and understood. It was profound. Those aren’t the conversations you have around the Thanksgiving table or at Christmas because you’re busy or the kids are running around.”
Wild is not a simple tale of redemption. It’s a complex, multi-faceted, startling truthful portrayal of the messiness of life. That it has retained all of that complexity as it has been moved from page to screen is testament to Witherspoon not only for her performance, which for Strayed is “brave and bold and amazing”, but also for her clout as a producer, sticking to her vision of what the film could be. “Reese often says she is more naked, dirty and vulnerable in this role than in any other,” says Strayed. “I think she means that in literal and metaphorical terms. I know this was a really important role for Reese.
“I trusted Reese and Bruna. We had many conversations about what they hoped for the film and how important it was for them to retain creative control. Reese used very strong language, she said ‘I pledge to you, I pledge to you that I will honour this book and your life’.”
She’s kept her word.
• Wild (15) is released on Friday
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