LOS ANGELES - Rarely has an actress in recent times demonstrated such an accomplished gift for gentle satire as Reese Witherspoon in LEGALLY BLONDE (2001). Shot on a relatively meagre (by Hollywood standards) budget of $18 million, the film has earned nearly $100 million in North America alone, making it one of the smash hits of the year. And most of the credit must go to Witherspoon, whose earnest comic sensibility endows this otherwise flimsy comedy with a compelling mix of of wit and charm. She earned $1 million for LEGALLY BLONDE (2001), and insider sources report that her asking price has jumped to $5 million on the strength of its success.
A film that targets the dumb blonde stereotype as well as California's cultural blandness, LEGALLY BLONDE (2001) stars Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods, a perky college sorority queen whose world of carefully manicured illusion falls apart when her Harvard Law School-bound boyfriend informs her that she's neither cool nor smart enough for him. He needs a girlfriend who is classy in the Jackie Kennedy mold, and poor Elle is all about Gucci loafers, Prada purses, and much too blonde and California kitsch. Determined to win the egotist back, Elle studies hard for her law school entrance exams and gets accepted into Harvard where she struggles to win acceptance while still maintaining her furious fashion pace and girlish ways. Not since Goldie Hawn's take on the dumb blonde in films like Shampoo (1975) and Private Benjamin (1980) has any actress managed to be so endearingly ditzy as Witherspoon.
I play the quintessential California sorority girl who's far more concerned with hair, grooming, and the latest fashion trends," says Witherspoon. "In L. A. , blondes are supposed to register somewhere between dumb and superficial. I have a further strike against me. I'm from the South, so I'm a blonde southern belle. That's not supposed to be a good combination if you're an actress trying to be taken seriously.
Witherspoon, best known for her work in recent films like ELECTION (1999), CRUEL INTENTIONS (1999), and PLEASANTVILLE (1998), grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, the daughter of a surgeon father and a mother who was a pediatric nurse as well as a professor of nursing. Reese studied at an elite private school, began taking acting classes at the age of 7, and was also active as a Girl Scout and high school cheerleader. A top student, she was accepted into California's prestigious Stanford University where her parents expected her to go on and study medicine. Reese had already been bitten by the acting bug, however, and she dropped out of Stanford after one year to work on TWILIGHT (1998), a thriller directed by Robert Benton.
Witherspoon, now 25, has never looked back. Four years ago, she fell in love with actor Ryan Philippe and were married three months before the birth of their daughter Ava, who turns two on Sept. 9th. I spoke to Reese Witherspoon at the Le Petit Four restaurant in L. A. recently where the definitely very bright, candid, and strong-willed actress opened up about blondes, Hollywood competition, and being a rare example of a young working mother on the verge of stardom. In keeping with her fashion-conscious role in LEGALLY BLONDE (2001), Reese was wearing a stylish Versace print dress and a pair of Ferragamo shoes.
Reese, you've had one of the more interesting careers as an actress in films like ELECTION (1999) and PLEASANTVILLE (1998), both of which made many critics' top 10 lists. Why do a fluffy comedy about a dumb blonde?
I thought the premise was terrific. It reminded of classic comedies like Private Benjamin (1980) and Working Girl (1988), which shows how blonde women who are perceived to be unintelligent and uninteresting can transform themselves and their situation.
I also wanted to make a film that had a chance of having broader box-office appeal because a lot of the moves I've made in the past have been kind of art house or simply didn't catch on at theatres.
It's important to be able to reach a larger audience because that's the only way you're going to be able to have the kind of recognition that enables you to win a lot more of the roles that you go up for. There's a lot of competition in this business, and if you don't have any bankability, it's hard for directors to cast you if the studio tells them that you're not box-office material.
Were you ever victimized in your own career by blonde stereotypes?
Oh, I've heard it all. I've been told that I'm not sexy enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, and even that I'm not tall enough (Witherspoon is 5'3") to get a specific role.
And yes, I've been told that I was too blonde which essentially means all of those things rolled into one. So making LEGALLY BLONDE (2001) was my own private campaign against a lot of prejudices and stereotypes.
Even though it's a comedy, were you concerned that Legally Blonde (2001) had some substance to it?
Yes. I wanted there to be some kind of positive message for women. Too much of our focus in society is devoted to superficial impressions about people. Appearances come first, and we don't often go beyond that in judging people which is a terrible thing.
Look at Elle. At the beginning, she works hard to get into Harvard Law School so she can impress her boyfriend and win him back. Then she becomes much more conscious of her own identity and begins asserting herself under very competitive conditions with her fellow law students. She fights for the respect of her peers and her teachers. At the beginning of the film, she has no goals other than to get married and lead a pampered, privileged life. But she evolves into a determined young woman eager to pursue her ambitions. She overcomes the stereotypes associated with being an attractive blonde.
I think that's a pretty good message that the film sends out. That you can be the way you are, look the way you want, and still achieve your goals if you work at them.
You're a natural blonde. What are the advantages and disadvantages to blondeness?
You get noticed more often, maybe. It can help you get a cab faster. (Laughs) But you also get treated like someone without much of a brain, especially when in my case, you're blonde, you're from the South, and you're fairly attractive. A lot of casting agents didn't believe I could handle tougher roles simply because of my appearance. It's so unbelievably stupid.
You've avoided doing all the teen comedy and teen horror kinds of movies.
I deliberately avoided those kinds of projects because I wanted to have a long career and so I didn't want to be identified with the teen movie thing. Most of them are just exploitative and very shallow. I've always focused on looking for parts where I could show people that I was a good actress. I wanted to model my career after actresses like Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, and Frances McDormand. If you look at the work they've done, you can see that they never sold out just for an easy paycheck. I'd like to have the same kind of integrity over the couse of my career.
Did that give you second thoughts about doing Legally Blonde (2001)?
No, not really. Legally Blonde is probably the first overtly commercial movie I've ever made, but I still feel there's enough there in the role to validate that choice. There's a sly silliness to the story that you fall in love with. It's a satire.
Your character always tries to have the perfect haircut and the latest designer outfit. How conscious are you of your appearance?
I don't worry about looking like the hottest thing. I won't play that kind of Hollywood game because I feel there is way too much pressure on women to correspond to a ridiculously thin body image. I see it happening all the time and it's frightening. It's taken me a while to figure it out, but I know that I will never be the thinnest, smartest, coolest, or sexiest woman in Hollywood. I've decided to drop out of that competition permanently and I've met a lot of other actresses who also don't give a damn about this whole super thin trend or whether they're not wearing a really cool dress. That's all a load of bulls**t.
You had given birth six months prior to making the film. Did you have any thoughts of dropping out of the shoot?
I couldn't have done it without Ryan's support. I was worried that I wasn't getting enough sleep because my daughter Ava was sick quite often during the shoot and there were a lot of days when I didn't think I could pull it off.
Some nights Ava would wake up screaming because she had the flu and I would spend most of the night trying to rock her back to sleep and then have to be on the set at 7 in the morning for make-up! And then you throw in the fact that I'm supposed to be playing a very bubbly and energetic California preppy who is smiling all the time! I kept thinking, "I'm going to kill myself! I'm never going to make it!
So how DID you manage?
Ryan was there every day for me and to take care of Ava. He kept telling me that everything was going to work out fine and that I should stop freaking out. That's exactly the kind of reassurance I needed. I didn't think I could juggle being a mother and looking after a young baby.
Is it true that Ryan was much more comfortable about the idea of having a baby than you were?
Oh, absolutely. Ava wasn't planned and suddenly I was faced with the prospect of becoming a mother and I had never even held a newborn in my arms before! What was interesting about our becoming parents was that Ryan was the really cool one. His mother had once run a day-care centre and he could change a diaper in something like five seconds flat. It was amazing to see him work! I feel like I went through a crash course in motherhood.
It's fairly rare for young and fairly well-known actors to marry so young and even rarer to begin raising a child when your careers and lives are so much in flux.
The pregnancy wasn't planned, but from the first day we met, Ryan and I knew we wanted to spend our lives together. We had already been discussing marriage, so when we learned that I was pregnant it was simply a question of picking a date before I got too big!
Did you ever worry that things were moving too quickly in your relationship?
No. I've always believed that you should know who your life partner should be from the first moment you meet. That's how Ryan and I felt about each other from the beginning and so we've always been very secure in our feelings. We both know that there are a lot of strange pressures involved in being actors and dealing with the celebrity thing - but you can't live your lives in fear. We know it's a huge challenge for us because we're both young and we both still want to have good careers.
How did you and Ryan first meet?
It was at my 21st birthday party. A friend of mine had invited him and we hit it off immediately. I really wanted to be with him then but he had to go shoot a movie (I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997)) in North Carolina and so we wound up writing letters to each other.
But then I couldn't take it anymore and I booked a flight to visit him on the set. That was the best decision I ever made. When I got there, I was very nervous and worried that I was pushing things, but Ryan suggested we take a little road trip together and that was that! I felt so good about him then and I feel even more intensity towards him now. He's a wonderful man who is there for me no matter what happens. That's the glue that holds us together
Do you have a full-time nanny to help with Ava?
We did for a short time but now we just have someone come in to help us out on certain days or to babysit in the evenings once in a while. It's not so difficult, a lot of parents who work very hard are able to manage with three or four kids, so I think we can manage with one! We're not the partying kind of couple anyway. We'd rather invite friends home for dinner and be very cosy and boring.
Were there any adjustments to make when you and Ryan first began living together?
We decided that we both needed to learn how to cook. We were helpless in the kitchen and after a while it got ridiculous ordering out for food or going to restaurants every night. I wound up buying a lot of cookbooks and we studied them for weeks and weeks until we chose our own set of favourite recipes. We also talked to our moms about how to operate an oven and basic things like that. (Laughs)
How has marriage and motherhood affected your attitude towards life?
I've started to relax more and not be so competitive. I'm the classic Type A personality and I've even named by little production company Type A films because I have a strong tendency towards being compulsive and anxious. But I'm trying to be less tightly wound inside. I don't start ranting about why this actress got this part and how I didn't. Those kind of things are usually out of your control anyway so I've tried to be less aggressive in my approach to work.
That's why I started my own company because I want to develop good projects and one day direct something myself. That's one of my goals for the future.
What were you like growing up in Nashville? Were you one of the cool girls like your sorority girl Elle in Legally Blonde (2001)?
Oh no, I was the classic nerd who was reading books all the time and writing letters and notes. I got good grades which is the reason I got into Stanford, even though a lot of people assumed that I got in because I had some small success as an actress. That had nothing to do with it. I worked for it. The only time I really fit in at school was when I was a cheerleader which is a very big thing in American schools, especially in the South.
Q: Your parents are both physicians. Was it difficult for you to tell them that you were dropping out of Stanford and your pre-med studies?
It wasn't easy. But I had to make a choice between Psych 101 and starring in a film opposite Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon, and James Garner. My parents didn't quite understand my decision, but to me it was a no-brainer. Twilight (1998) led to so many other movie offers that pretty soon I was too busy having a career to go back to school. Anyway, my parents knew enough about me from the time I was 7 years old and told them I wanted to be an actress even though they were both in the medical profession. They were confused then and I guess I just wound up confusing them again! (Laughs)
What projects are in the works for you now?
I'm probably going to be doing the movie remake of the HONEY WEST TV series from the sixties. I get to play a cool female detective. There's also a film about a woman's tennis player and life on the tennis circuit. I've always been a fan of women's tennis and this could be very interesting.