Ask Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, Zoe Kazan or Ellen Page – the word ‘perky’ can become a curse. Many a young actress rockets to the top of public attention because of an approachable smile, elfin features, a delightfully squeaky voice or an endearing giggle.
Few actresses working in Hollywood have a voice, face and demeanor as distinctive as Reese Witherspoon. Films like Sweet Home Alabama and Legally Blonde made her the rom-com equivalent of Schwarzenegger during the 80s, when he simply was action.
But Witherspoon also seeks out material that doesn’t play to her innate charm, and in films like Election, Walk the Line, Mud and the forthcoming Inherent Vice she’s often struggling against her own characteristic sprightliness.
But she does so – and succeeds – nowhere more than in Wild. Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Witherspoon produced and stars in the film. She depicts a woman lost in grief, substance abuse and soulless sex who does something completely out of character when she decides to walk the thousand-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Her and co-producer Bruna Papandrea hand-picked director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), and the result is a stark but beautiful movie that moves like poetry and looks like a study in light.
Just like her on-screen actions, it seems similarly out of character for Witherspoon herself to be involved with something so low-fi and gritty, but as the 38-year-old told SSN, that’s just what gives her the power to surprise us.
What was it about Wild that struck you as being a good project to act in and produce?
I just thought it was such an important story. It was one of the most profound books that I had ever read about dealing with loss and grief and that idea that no one’s coming to save you in your life, you have to save yourself.
If she hadn’t gone on this journey and reconstituted herself from tiny shreds of the person she was before, she probably would’ve been lost in an abyss of grief and drugs and sex. And many people go down that rabbit hole but she decided to pull herself out. I think that’s beautiful.
It’s seen as a bit of a departure for you. Do you feel you’ve been kind of underestimated a little bit before this?
I kind of thrive on feeling underestimated, it’s where I always came from. It’s a real comfortable feeling for me. I didn’t know if I was capable of this. I was terrified of this movie before I started and tried everything to get out of it. But Jean-Marc and Bruna wouldn’t let me, they told me I had to. I was definitely scared.
Do you think there’s something implicit in the story that we all have this ability to rise up in us or does Cheryl have something special that no one else does?
I think it’s a universal story. She has no money, she has no opportunity, no mother and no father. I love the part where she says, ‘I have two nickels to my name and I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. I don’t know how I’m going to re-enter the world’. But she’s going to try. I love that she ends up in the movie with nothing – you don’t need money or a man or a car or a job or a mother or a father, anyone to go home to, she’s still happy. You feel happy at the end because you know she’s going to be okay and maybe okay is enough.
She has herself and also had an extraordinary mother. We have so many reserves of love and support inside us, and even if we just have one person in this world that cares for us you can just remember that and move on. I think anyone is capable of saving themselves.
What were the most challenging scenes to shoot?
The very beginning sequence was really hard. We were very high up and you had to take two ski lifts and hike for about 20 minutes. They took all the camera equipment literally held in their hands, out to this precipice of crumbling rock. We all had to walk in this single file line and be harnessed in, the camera people extended on ropes off the side of a mountain. It was crazy. We were all very tense that day.
[Director] Jean-Marc Vallée did some of the really hard stuff for you before you did it. How did that help?
I’ve never seen a director get up there, put the props on and act the whole thing out to show us the physicality because I was really scared that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. But every rock I climbed, he climbed it first. Every river I crossed, he crossed it first.
It means everything. I saw Dallas Buyers Club and I was blown away by the way he captured humanity without being saccharine or maudlin about any of it. He was really unapologetic about who Ron Woodruff was. He doesn’t suddenly become this wonderful person, he’s still the rodeo guy from Texas out to make money.
I just felt really fortunate to have him, and when I saw Wild cut together that’s when I was really blown away because he’s such an incredible editor. There were things I didn’t even know he was shooting that are really extraordinary.
You support many female authors as a producer. Why is that?
I don’t know. Someone asked me that earlier and I was like ‘why does Martin Scorsese make so many movies about New York?’ I respond to strong female protagonists.
Are you interested in different stuff as a producer than you are as an actor?
No, not really. It’s always been material first, great writing, a great story.