interview by Douglas Eby
In 1991 Reese Witherspoon made her dramatic acting debuts in a television project (WILDFLOWER, directed by Diane Keaton) and a feature film: THE MAN IN THE MOON, in which she starred opposite Sam Waterston, and earned critical acclaim as a 1950s tomboy who falls in love for the first time.
Following her performance in the NBC Movie, DESPERATE CHOICES
(1992), she starred in the Walt Disney film A FAR OFF PLACE (1993), in
which her character embarks on a voyage of self discovery, journeying
across Africa's Kalahari Desert.
To prepare for the role, she had to perfect the Bushman language by studying with a Matabele tribe. As a 12-year-old 70's hippy, she starred opposite Danny DeVito and Gary Sinise in JACK THE BEAR (1993).
Witherspoon has been doing commercials since age seven, and
attended an all-girls high school, which she says was a positive
experience: "Those are such formative years, and it's really hard to
know who you are if you're too caught up with what your makeup looks
like or your hairdo. And also I've found you make closer friends,
because to this day I still know everybody and where they went - over
"It's a great basis of strength in my life that I have all these close friends from high school. And we didn't have the interruptions, and we didn't need to be vicious and backbiting, because there was nothing to fight for."
She likes certain scifi or horror films: "I'm really into the ALIEN series; I'm so excited about the new one. And I like THE X-FILES a lot: I think it's really well-written and interesting - and based on true stories; I think that's kind of cool."
Her recent film FEAR (now released on video) was appealing to
her for the kind of story it is: "I think a lot of girls are dealing
with these kind of abusive, violent, scary relationships, and I thought
it was a really timely piece, addressing an issue that's not really
popular in American cinema."
She notes there isn't that much in mainstream media about people her age: "There's a lot of it that's not reality-based, I mean there's a whole bunch of crap that has nothing to do with my generation - and I speak of my generation as the 18 to 24 range - and it's different than the so-called Gen-X generation that people have been describing. One of the really good examples of teenage reality was MY SO-CALLED LIFE.
"But you see so much of this crap on MTV, and people see all
this stuff, including people from foreign countries, and they must
think kids in America are like sub-human. And it's not true; there are
so many more interesting things going on.
"I go to Stanford, and kids are really interested in lots of things: art, music, classical music - just all sorts of things people wouldn't think my generation is into. My major is English literature, and I write a lot. Nothing published yet."
One of her latest films is FREEWAY, an Oliver Stone-produced
film she did with Kiefer Sutherland: "It's sort of a tongue-in-cheek
horror movie, a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story, but in
modern day times. I'm Little Red.
"It's a black comedy in the sense that it's sort of mocking how horrible childhood has become for American children. In this instance, her mother is a prostitute and her father is a drug addict, and they both go to jail, and she has to go find her grandmother, because that's her only relative.
"So she gets on the road and all these terrible things happen to her. She meets up with the 'big bad wolf', which is Kiefer Sutherland, and he ends up trying to molest her. She shoots him 17 times in the head, but he doesn't die. Because it's a movie. He's just horribly disfigured. It's very violent and very Technicolor and bright, evil and cool."
Her strong and enthusiastic performance in the film inspired San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle to exclaim "Reese Witherspoon, who made a nice little impression in 'Fear,' the Mark Wahlberg stalker movie, is an on-fire revelation in 'Freeway.' She plays Vanessa, an illiterate 15-year-old who comes home from school one day to find her mother (Amanda Plummer) turning tricks outside the trailer where they live. Witherspoon, who does a shrill Texas accent, is dazzling, utterly believable in one extreme situation after the other."
When asked about her concerns with the depiction in films of young women using violence, she notes there is a distinct contrast between her two recent films: "In FEAR I was playing someone who was being abused by someone, and it was more of a reality-based situation - like how somebody really has to deal with things. And it's not easy; it's hard - and you do make mistakes. People do get involved in these relationships you can't get out of.
"But FREEWAY was a good thing for me to do right after FEAR,
because it was like, for the first 20 minutes of the movie you think
this girl's going to be a victim, and then all of a sudden she starts
kicking everybody's ass, and I thought that was a great sort of
statement for young women. It's like 'Don't take it!' you know; don't
be the victim anymore.
"It really showed you how this character - she's tiny and everyone thinks 'Oh, what a cute little girl' - and she's just like a cat - like, underneath, she's going to scratch your eyeballs out. It was really cool that she just wasn't going to be the victim, and I think that's a great statement to put out there and let kids see: you don't have to take all this shit, you can just sort of throw it back at people."
far as women playing characters who use weapons, and how
that may be serving as a role model for real life, she says "I think
there is a bit of a difference. Obviously it is a role and not reality,
and I think women enjoy playing those roles because I believe,
personally, that it's not intrinsic in a woman's nature to be violent
using weaponry, and I think it's really interesting for an actress to
pick up a gun and say 'I'm the kind of woman that would do this' - even
though there's so few women like that.
"I feel it's more of a masculine trait, and there's something interesting about taking on that role. But I don't think it has as much appeal to women in reality; if you asked any of those actresses if they own a gun and go shoot at the range every week, I bet they'd say No."
She appreciates the way acting gives her an opportunity to
explore different personalities: "The joy we get as actors is out of
transforming ourselves into something that's not necessarily anything
true to ourselves. If somebody has a naturally violent tendency, I
think more than anything, it's not about who we are, it's about the
characters we like to play in the sense of being not yourself.
a power - not being yourself, and being in the role; it's just like
Speaking of prop, she recalls the trouble she had using one in FEAR: "Yeah, I staked him through the heart in the very end. It was horrible, because I'm not a violent person, and I kept on messing up, and didn't get the stake in the right place; by the end of the day he had these little pock marks where I was constantly stabbing him."
FEAR was her first horror thriller: "I usually don't do movies like this. I don't necessarily want to do another film like it, but I like the whole trend of women in scifi, like Sigourney Weaver in the ALIEN movies, and Winona Ryder, and I thought THE CRAFT was cool. I think there's something really interesting there, and it plays on the general perception that women as a whole are sort of mysterious and have magical qualities, and there's something really appealing about playing on that."
For her future as an actor, Witherspoon has a good understanding of what it takes: "In order to have longevity in this business and also to build the kind of career you want to have, to do the kinds of movies you want to do, you have to be very strategic about it, and right now I'm working on doing one independent film a year, that's more character-based, and one studio film that's more commercial, to build a larger audience.
"And I'm also trying to get into films with more adult-based audiences, because I do a lot of films that are directed toward young audiences, and I'm trying to widen my range. S.F.W. was a young adult movie, and FEAR was, although it's very timely for parents because it has a lot to with how to raise your adolescent child."
She enjoyed the play-acting quality of her CBS mini-series RETURN TO LONESOME DOVE (1993) in which she starred as the "salty" Ferris Dunnegan with Jon Voight and Barbara Hershey: "It was nice; we sort of dressed up and rode around on horses for a while. It's really rigorous shooting television, though, and I've stopped doing it because it's a really hard schedule to keep up with. It's a lot tougher than being on a movie; you don't have a lot of time to get into your character or prepare, or feel like you're doing a good job."
grow and advance as an actor, she feels, is a matter of
"taking risks, doing things that you would never have contemplated the
year before, or five years ago, and it's really about constantly
reinventing yourself for everyone and to see that you are somebody new
"And it's hard, once you reach a certain level, I think - people expect you to be the same, and to keep on going. Even though you might defy your public, your fans, you have to keep pushing yourself as an actor. That's really important.
"And as a person, I constantly study and go to school. Even when I'm not in school at Stanford I still take classes, like foreign language, or a painting class, because I feel it's important for me as a human. Further in life I want to be a mother and a wife, and I think it's important to have a little broader perspective of life than the movie industry."
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[ highly edited version of this interview was published in Femme Fatales, Feb.97 ]
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related Talent Development Resources pages:
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more interviews | resumé of Douglas Eby
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