Nothing important escapes the attention of a certain type of Southern girl, that smart and steely magnolia draped in cascades of velvety grace.
She knows what she wants when she sees it and goes right for the object of her desire. Even an unplanned pregnancy has not derailed Reese Witherspoon. Although she has embraced motherhood as her most important career, she's not about to give up on the movies--for her, having it all is not too much to ask.
You can see the Southern debutante in Witherspoon--picture her at the cotillion (she went to two) as the petite, angelic blond in the pastel gown, now chatting with her girlfriends, then flashing that teasing smile to the boys.
"I had a very definitive Southern upbringing so it's hard to talk about my life without talking about growing up in Tennessee," says Witherspoon, 23, gingerly picking over pizza and salad at a trendy Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills. That genteel upbringing took place in Nashville and meant the solidity of social structure and the right private schools. "It bred in me such a sense of family and tradition. . . . It helped me establish a sense of normalcy in life that I hope will stay with me for the long haul."
Indeed, transitions and tragedies abound in Los Angeles, her current home. Starlets rise and starlets fall, with hardly a videotape to their names. But Witherspoon--with three feature films this year--is just hitting her stride.
She has played heroine and villain and sometimes both at the same time. Last year in "Pleasantville," she was a spoiled-rotten teen (villain) who becomes humbled (turned heroine) by a passage into a repressive '50s suburbialand. In the recent "Cruel Intentions" she plays a believable goody-goody (heroine) who plans to guard her virginity until true love comes her way (way au courant heroine). In "Election," due in theaters April 23, Alexander Payne's biting satire about the public and personal politics at play in a high school election, Witherspoon plays the ruthless Tracy Flick (villain).
Tracy is an indomitable Little Ms. Overachiever, and now she's determined to win the presidency of the student body--and she will lie, cheat or steal, but never, as God is her witness, will she stand to lose. It is a plum role, full of dramatic crescendos a juvenile Bette Davis would have coveted. And it is a natural for Witherspoon, who has so often played self-confident, spunky girls with a tendency to act out.
What is surprising, though, is that the actress actually considered another part in the movie--that of Tammy, a budding young lesbian who's furious at the whole ludicrousness of high school. Tammy also decides to run for student council president--to spite her spaced-out brother Paul, who's running and who has inadvertently stolen her girlfriend.
In one hilarious scene the three deliver campaign speeches to the student body. Tracy gives a polished speech full of lofty sentiment, followed by Paul's rambling aw-shucks presentation. Then it's Tammy's turn to stand in front of the mike and ask pointedly, "Who cares about this stupid election?" It is a land mine--a stunning blast of reality to the make-believe democracy of student elections.
"That speech alone made me want to play Tammy!" Witherspoon says. "So I was terribly conflicted--I didn't know if I wanted to play Tammy or Tracy!" The little rebel girl in Witherspoon breaks into a smile, for behind that cute upturned nose, the neatly arched brows and the sky-blue eyes, there's a fierce intelligence. There's also an outsider's view with a taste for edginess--after all, the role of the wild-in-the-streets Vanessa in "Freeway" (1996) marked her turning point.
Witherspoon played the violently independent, gun-toting anti-heroine with manic relish. In a courtroom scene, when she turns around to face the villain-turned-victim (Kiefer Sutherland), hideously disfigured by her attack, she launches a barrage of colorful invectives with "Who hit you with the ugly stick?"
Witherspoon's two favorite films of the past year--"OK, don't laugh," she warns--were "Velvet Goldmine," the film about the glitter-rock era, and "He Got Game," the Spike Lee movie. The films she herself has been in in the last two years--"Pleasantville," "Cruel Intentions," "Election," and the upcoming film noir "Best Laid Plans" and indie thriller "American Psycho"--are not avant-garde, but they have kick and bite, and are not just formulaic teen anthems.
When the modest box-office success of "Cruel Intentions" is mentioned, she breathes, "Thank God, that's about the first film I've made that's made money!"
Eight years ago, Witherspoon, at the tender age of 14, landed a remarkable role in Robert Mulligan's "Man in the Moon," a nostalgic Southern melodrama about two sisters who fall for the same boy. She played Dani, the younger, rambunctious sister, with such unexpected naturalness that she was widely praised.
She fell into it all by accident. A notice in the local paper caught her eye--a movie production company was holding a casting call in Nashville. "It sounded like fun," Witherspoon recalls, "so I went down there to be an extra." After some readings, photo shoots and two screen tests--one in Louisiana, where the film was to be shot, and one in Los Angeles--the phone rang in the Witherspoon household one day.
"I walked in from softball practice," Witherspoon says, "and my mother said, 'You'll never believe what happened. You got the movie!' " Not only did she get into the movie, she got a starring role. "It was this amazing experience, we were jumping around so excited, then we stopped and thought, oh no, we don't know these people! And we don't know if this is a good movie or a bad movie!"
After graduating from junior high school, Reese, accompanied by her mother, went down to Louisiana for the shoot. "I was a little intimated by Mr. Mulligan [who had made "To Kill a Mockingbird"], such a legendary director, and I didn't know any of the other actors," she says. "I came in with such innocence, not seeing this as a debut performance but a wonderful summer job!"
Each night she would studiously memorize her lines. "I was so worried I was gonna get fired! It's like, I'd better learn my lines and I'd better wake up early and be there early for the car to pick me up. I took it very seriously, but I also had a really good time."
By autumn, Witherspoon was back home to start high school--the exclusive all-girls school to which old Nashville families send their distaff adolescents, Harpeth Hall. "It's tradition," she notes simply. "My dad attended the all-boys school in town, as did my brother. It was tradition in Nashville [society] to go to two schools, boys go to one, girls go to the other."
Again in the summers she would make films--a fun summer job that also earned money for college. Witherspoon had always planned to go to college and become a doctor, following in the medical path of her parents. Thus she made a couple of TV movies, plus features such as "Fear," "Overnight Delivery," "S.F.W.," "A Far Off Place." In retrospect, some of these she would not do if she had it to do over.
"Everyone has the stinkers that they can't believe people at the video store check out," she admits. "You just want to steal it so nobody can ever see it again!"
Then she adds quickly, "You know what? It's fine. I've learned so much more from having the experience of slowly climbing up the ladder and having those failures behind me."
Four years ago, Witherspoon was at a crossroads, about to enter college, about to quit the movie business. And then along came "Freeway."
"I knew it was a risky movie, I knew it could have been awful," she says, "but at that point I was ready to take that kind of chance with this career. I was ready to say, you know, if this doesn't work out, this is it." The film opened at the Sundance festival to critical praise.
"That was an amazing part," says a source close to Witherspoon, "very different from the things she had been doing up until then. It was very dark and edgy, and it allowed her to stretch and flex and realize her potential as an actress."
Suddenly, directors wanted to meet her, people from different walks of life came up to her to talk about the film. "It was really a turning point in my life," says Witherspoon, "and really changed how I felt about working in this business." She dropped out of Stanford University after a year and moved to Los Angeles. The hobby had become a career.
Director-writer Payne ("Citizen Ruth") pegged Witherspoon for the part of Tracy Flick from having seen "Man in the Moon" (yes, eight years ago) and a snippet of "Freeway." He is pleased with his choice, feeling that she gave him just what he envisioned. "She's approached her role without vanity, unlike many young American actors who get so concerned with how they look," he notes. "It's not about being pretty."
In "Election" the only person standing between Tracy and her quest for high school domination is student advisor Jim McAllister, played by Matthew Broderick. He tries to thwart her, and some of the best scenes are their confrontations.
"She was wonderful in the role," says Broderick, talking by phone from New York, where he is currently starring in the Broadway revival of "Night Must Fall." "From the first she knew exactly what she wanted--a very aggressive person in a small and cute package," he says. "She comes out very funny and very scary at the same time."
It's hard for Witherspoon to describe the process she goes through to prepare for a role, except "to start early and be that person before you get to the set." For "Election" she placed a strident pattern of speech over a Midwest accent, tightened her face and clipped her walk. "That was just Tracy, it so escapes me how it came out!" she says. "I just imagined how uptight people carry themselves, and they grind their teeth at night and they clench their jaw because everything has to be just perfect."
Witherspoon begins to do the voice, the Tracy voice, spitting out every syllable with determination. "By the end of the shoot, Alexander would say to me, 'You don't have the Tracy face on!' "
Questions about her personal life--parents, boyfriend, pregnancy--make her hesitate as she calculates whether to respond. Only a question about her charity work ignites a flare--she does some, but likes to remain anonymous about it. "I don't like to talk about that, it's personal."
Two years ago she was introduced to actor Ryan Phillippe, her co-star in "Cruel Intentions," by a mutual friend. They've been together since. Witherspoon admits that the baby was unplanned but is now a joy--the child will be due in four months, and she and Phillippe are planning to get married sometime before then. "Ryan and I have gotten even closer over this," she says. "He's getting so into this, and if it's possible, we love each other more and more each day."
Her pregnancy is just becoming noticeable. There's a slight swelling around the midriff, beneath her white T-shirt and green sweater. "Being pregnant is incredible, all your priorities shift, and suddenly you feel a very clear purpose in life," she observes. "I really feel that this was what I was meant to do. Up to now, I've been fairly . . . career-minded, but now I know this baby will be the most important thing in my life."
Witherspoon has been off for half a year and will probably lie low for another year. "My real career starts in a couple months," she says with a small smile, referring to motherhood.
But she's not giving up the movie biz. No way.
"She inhabited that role [Tracy Flick] fully, but she can do all these other roles," says Payne, who envisions her as an actress as diverse as Holly Hunter, equally capable of doing "Raising Arizona" or "The Piano." "You see a woman in her, not a girl. She's going to be interesting for a long time." He, for one, says he would love to do another film with her.
"It's a wonderful business in that it affords you the opportunities that you want," Witherspoon says, "and if you work hard enough, you can pick and choose the roles you feel good about." She adds, "You don't have to compromise if you don't want to."