Hollywood likes Reese Witherspoon. The problem for Reese Witherspoon is that it likes her sweet, wholesome and, well, Reese Witherspoon-y. Which drives her nuts: "I’ve had so many frustrating conversations with the studios." She laughs. "They say: 'We don’t want to see you curse in a movie or do drugs. We don’t want to see you have sex.'"
In her new film Wild the 38-year-old does all three: sex, drugs and swearing. The film is based on a memoir by the writer Cheryl Strayed who backpacked 1,100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail in too-tight boots to "save herself" age 26 in 1995. Four years earlier her mom died of cancer, spinning Strayed into a cycle of one-night-stands and heroin use. Which makes Wild sound a bit "Eat, Pray, Hike." It’s not. It’s tougher.
I meet Witherspoon and Strayed (who gave herself that hardcore surname after a divorce in her mid-twenties) in a Soho hotel drinking tea. The two women might be sisters—matching blonds who finish each other’s sentences. Witherspoon produced Wild with the company she set up to make films with complex female leads, snapping up the book three months before it was published. "My literary agent sent it to me, and I read it in 24 hours. I was on a plane from New York to L.A. and literally could not put it down. The next morning I called Cheryl."
Getting a call out of the blue from Reese Witherspoon first thing on a Monday morning was an event in her house, says Strayed: "I was in my bedroom. It was so shocking." Her voice rises to squeak. "I put her on speakerphone so my husband could listen." Now 46 and happily married with two kids, Strayed gives off a go-with-the-flow earth-mother vibe.
After that mutual job interview, Witherspoon got to work, hiring Nick Hornby to write the script and Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) to direct. Nervous of studios trying to push her around, she developed the script independently with her producing partner: "When we did take them the script, we said: 'We’re literally not changing a word.'" It’s hard to imagine anyone telling Reese Witherspoon what to do. She’s super-friendly and polite by upbringing (in southern Tennessee). But after spending 30 minutes in a room with her you know not to mess with this woman.
Witherspoon says the film drained her physically and emotionally. "Without any hyperbole, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire working life." It might sound shallow, but one thing you really notice watching Wild is that she wears not one scrap of make-up for most of it. Not no-make-up-make-up. Simply no make-up. "That was not my decision! Jean-Marc Vallée was like"—she puts on a French accent—"'I want you to wear no make-up.'" Witherspoon pulls a yeah-right face: "I was like: a little bit of mascara…?" Vallée also covered the mirrors on set: "He was like: well, Cheryl didn’t see herself for 94 days."
After two years making Wild, Witherspoon and Strayed are coming to the end of the road. Strayed says she would like to work with Witherspoon again. "Maybe just being her maid." That cracks Witherspoon up. "Could you be my therapist?" A therapist? Hardly. These two could set the world to rights.
Wild is in theaters now.