“Honestly, I’ve done some movies that were really challenging, and I’ve done some movies that aren’t challenging at all,” confesses Reese Witherspoon, who dug in deep for a suite of provocative fall projects. In addition to a starring role in the Lost Boys of Sudan drama The Good Lie, Witherspoon produced David Fincher’s highly anticipated missing-wife thriller Gone Girl and pops up in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. She also took on her meatiest role in years with Wild (out December 5), which is based on the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed and casts Witherspoon as a soul-searching woman embarking on a thousand-mile hike. “It’s rare to have the kind of opportunities I had making this film,” says Witherspoon, “and I treasured it.”
In Wild, you play a character who’s addicted to heroin and sleeping around. We don’t often see you in projects like these.
You have to understand, for someone who’s been doing this for as long as I’ve been doing it, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, finally!” Finally, it’s so exciting to be honest about things. I developed it with my own money and an incredible producing partner, and then we went to the studios afterwards, because I did not want to hear, “We don’t want to see Reese doing that” or “We don’t want to include the sexual scenes.” Not that studios are bad—it’s just that sometimes when things go through too many filters and too many notes, they become distilled into something they weren’t from the beginning.
Because studio executives fear the notion that a female lead might be considered “unsympathetic”?
The ideas of what a woman can and can’t do on film have really changed, and I think that’s in great part thanks to wonderful female writers like Lena Dunham, who tell very honest stories and explore female sexuality without shame. Just recently, I saw Jenny Slate in Obvious Child—so great—and I love characters like that who are that unapologetic and realistic. Even Bridesmaids changed the landscape of what we can see a female lead doing in a film. I’m just excited to be a part of it. I’ve never seen a film like Wild where the woman ends up with no man, no money, no family, no opportunity, but she still has a happy ending.
Was Wild an arduous shoot?
By far, this is the hardest movie I’ve ever made in my life. I didn’t hike a thousand miles, of course, but it was a different kind of physical rigor. I’d run up a hill with a 45-pound backpack on, and they’d say, “Wait, that backpack doesn’t look heavy enough. Put this 65-pound backpack on and run up the hill nine or ten times.” We literally didn’t stop shooting in those remote locations—we wouldn’t break for lunch, we’d just eat snacks. No bathroom breaks. It was crazy, but it was so wonderful. It was complete immersion, and I’ve never felt closer to a crew. We literally pulled each other up the mountains and carried each others’ equipment.
Cheryl had never been backpacking before she set off on this hike, and yet she did it anyway. As an actress, have you had similar moments where you felt like you were in over your own head, signing on to do something incredibly daunting and barely able to believe that you could make it work?
Oh yeah, a lot. Half the time on set, I feel like I’m hanging on by the seat of my pants and I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. I basically have a new job every three months where I’m like, "Uh, am I qualified to do this?" And I find out during the process whether I am or I’m not. This film was really a gift, and it’s exciting to not know if you’re gonna make it, or if you’re gonna break down in the right place. Really interesting creative things come out of that process.
What made you decide to take a role in Wild, but not in Gone Girl, where the female lead went to Rosamund Pike?
Well, when I optioned Gone Girl, I just thought Gillian Flynn was an incredible writer. I’d been attached to another piece of material that she was doing, and I thought she had such unique female characters—not necessarily likable, a little rough around the edges, and with these inner mysteries tugging at them. When I optioned the book, I didn’t know what we were going to do with it, and then when David Fincher became involved, it was a dream come true. He is truly an American master, and he said to me, “I want a certain type of woman for the lead,” and it was very clear from the beginning that I did not fit his vision for who she was gonna be. [Laughs.] But that said, I can’t wait for people to see it. Again, it’s creating a woman on film that has never been seen before, and I’m so excited for Rosamund.
You’ve also got a small role opposite Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice. I know that at one point, Paul Thomas Anderson had talked to you about possibly starring in The Master … is that how this came about?
Yeah, I’ve known Paul for a while—and again, talk about incredible directors! I’ve been a fan of his for so long. We talked for a while about a couple of other projects, and then he called me and said, “Do you want to do a little part in this movie?” I was like, “Uh, yes. That sounds great.” [Laughs.] Getting to work with Joaquin again was awesome—it’s been about eight years since we did Walk the Line together. It’s like we have a shorthand with each other, to the point where Paul was like, “Uh, can you guys stop chatting? You’re supposed to be working here.”
When you look back at the smaller movies you’ve made over the past few years, what does that period of time feel like to you as an artist?
For a couple of years, it was hard for me. I think I was a little lost—I didn’t know what I wanted to do or say, and I can see from the work that I was searching. But about three years ago, when my producing partner and I started our company, we had a purpose: We wanted to bring forward more female characters in film and have more interesting, dynamic parts for women. There’s a clarity to our work, which is great. It’s nice to feel back on track.
For a while, you were one of Hollywood’s most dependable romantic-comedy actresses, but that genre has seen a downturn lately. What happened?
I think people are more self-aware now. (500) Days of Summer was a fantastic romantic comedy, although some people might not consider it a romantic comedy. For me, that was a new way to tell a love story. That’s the most important part: We need those great scripts, we need those great new writers. But I think it’ll come back. I don’t think it’s a dead genre.
Can you tell I have teenage kids? It’s a great way to communicate with people, and I’m actually having fun with it. For an actor who doesn’t ever get to see my audience, it’s a great way to correspond and talk to my fans. But look, sometimes I read the comments and I’m like, “Oh my God, are these people crazy?” [Laughs.] I think they’re just all competing to be on “Mean Tweets” for Jimmy Kimmel. Thanks, Jimmy Kimmel! You’ve created an entire phenomenon where people are nasty to celebrities.