Setting aside the perky, cute-girl persona that serves her so well on screen, Reese Witherspoon brings a gritty, stripped bare (literally and figuratively) performance to her role as Cheryl Strayed in the film “Wild.” An adaptation of Strayed’s bestselling 2012 memoir of her 1,100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, the film interweaves her struggles in the wilderness with her recollections of the painful and often reckless life she’s leaving behind. Laced through it all are poignant memories of her mother, Bobbi, played by Laura Dern. We spoke to Witherspoon and Dern at a recent Envelope Screening Series event. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Reese, you bought this story after reading it before it was published with your own money. What was it that motivated you to do that?
Witherspoon: She sent it to me and I read it in two days, and I was just in awe of her writing. I thought her gritty, emotional truth and the way that she spoke so openly about her past was such a healing thing. I got to the end and I was like, “I don’t know who this woman is, but I just want to hug her.” I feel like I went on that journey with her. And I called her the next day and said I would love to turn it into a movie. And she asked me a lot of questions, and we talked about it. And then she called me a couple days later and said, “I’m going to give you the option.”
What did she ask you? What’d she want to know?
Witherspoon: She had a lot of things that she didn’t want it to be.
Witherspoon: Well, it’s interesting because I said, “Why did you send it to me?” and she said, “Because I know you’re from somewhere. I know you’re from Tennessee.” And it was really important that it wasn’t about, like, white-girl problems, you know? I told her that so many people in this world have nothing, and that’s what I really responded to, that you get to the end of this movie and this woman has nothing. She has no man and no money and no parents and no job, and it’s a happy ending. And that’s extraordinary in this life because so many people don’t know where to turn or what resources are going to lift them up out of their grief or their despair, and she did this for herself with nothing. And I felt like it could be inspirational to other people.
Laura, there’s a scene where Cheryl says something like it must be hard for you that I’m so much more sophisticated than you. It’s one of those conversations, I think, anybody who’s been a parent or a kid probably feels some empathy toward. How much of your own experience as a mother and as a daughter did you bring into the role?
Dern: Oh, you know, everything and so much more. I mean, everything I’ve experienced and certainly my own love and good fortune in my relationship with my mother and all that I’m trying to figure out as a mother. And, you know, something Cheryl said that impacted me so much. In one of these Q&As recently, she talked about that scene specifically and the gift of writing the book at this point in her life because she said, “I lost my mother before I was the age where you look back and apologize for the kid you were, that didn’t know how lucky you were. So, in a way, my book was my opportunity to heal that and say that.”
Reese, the opening scene where you throw the boot is such a beautiful shot and such a dramatic sequence. Can you tell me where you guys were and how you shot that?
Witherspoon: It was actually the hardest sequence to shoot in the film. We were on top of Mt. Hood in Oregon, and we had to — we’re already staying at an elevated hotel, and then we had to take two ski lifts and then hike for about 30 minutes with all the equipment, including the portable toilet that absolutely nobody used. It was ridiculous. But then we had to rope ourselves in and walk single file on this tiny precipice. It was really scary.
Laura, you had a kind of unusual experience in that the little girl who played young Cheryl is actually Cheryl Strayed’s daughter whose name is Bobbi. What was that like?
Dern: It was incredible. First of all, she’s an amazing person. We were all particularly moved because when Cheryl first saw Bobbi and I work together, and the first shot was Jean-Marc wanting her to run into my arms in the hallway of the school, Cheryl was standing at the monitor and I think she was stunned by a realization. Later she said, “You know, when my mother died, one of my thoughts was she’ll never know her grandchildren if I have children one day. And here I am with this experience watching my daughter meet the grandmother I thought she’d never know, through this storytelling.” So, it was incredible that every time we were doing a flashback with her, we all couldn’t help but consider that for Cheryl.
When we walked in, Reese, we passed the giant backpack, a sort of display of it, and you said almost affectionately, “Oh, Monster.” Do you actually feel affection for that pack?
Witherspoon: I know it sounds bizarre, but I do. I miss Monster, I do. The first couple weeks were horrible and I hated Monster, and I’d kick it every time, and I would take it off my back every single time after he’d say cut. And then after five weeks I just got so used to it. It was like an appendage. And you know what’s funny is Cheryl still has Monster in her basement. The reason Monster is an exact replica of her actual backpack is because she still has it. And she still has all of her camping gear and all of her cooking equipment and all of the outfits she wore.
Is there a point at which you will attempt to re-create any part of this trek on your own?
Witherspoon: It’s so funny. I got home from the movie and it was about to be my birthday, and I said to my husband, I was like, “Jim, you know what we should do is get the kids and then we’re just going to go out there to the trails and we’re just going to do this, you know, just for seven days, us and the kids.” And he’s like, “That sounds like the worst idea I’ve ever heard. Next time right before your birthday can you do a movie in the South of France.”