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Reese Witherspoon Biography

Home > Actresses > W > Witherspoon, Reese > Biography

Birth Name: Reese Witherspoon
Born: 03/22/1976
Birth Place: New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Reese Witherspoon was born on March 22, 1976, in New Orleans, LA. Her mother was a professor with numerous degrees, including a PhD in pediatric nursing, while her father was a surgeon as well as a lieutenant in the Army Reserves. His military post led the family to relocate to Weisbaden, Germany, shortly after Witherspoon was born. She spent her infancy overseas before the family returned to the United States and settled in Nashville, TN. The youngest of two kids as well as the only daughter, Witherspoon was bookish and ambitious, simultaneously planning to go into medicine like her parents, but also telling the girls in the schoolyard at the private Harding Academy that she was going to be the next Dolly Parton. A family friend recruited the perky blonde for a local TV commercial when she was seven; thus marking the humble beginnings of the girl who would one day find herself among the highest paid actresses in Hollywood.

Inspired by her brush with local fame, Witherspoon began taking acting lessons, and when she was 11 years old, took first place in a multi-state talent competition. For the next several years, Witherspoon maintained her focus on schoolwork and cheerleading, as well as absorbing her traditional Southern upbringing, which she would later credit with her strong work ethic and sense of responsibility. Her accomplished mother and grandmother instilled self-respect and high moral standards, which probably came in handy sooner than expected when their 14- year-old daughter inadvertently landed the lead role in a Hollywood film. Witherspoon and some friends attended a casting call for "The Man in the Moon" in 1990 when they heard the film that was being shot locally. The best they hoped for was to have some fun as extras, but casting agents immediately zeroed in on Witherspoon, who was selected to fly to Los Angeles for further auditions. The inexperienced actress gave a shining performance on her first time out, playing with heartbreaking poignancy, a 14-year-old girl in love with her sister's boyfriend-next-door. It was immediately apparent from her performance that she could handle three-dimensional, passionate characters with both manners and moxie.

The girl whose parents had nicknamed her "Little Miss Type A" for her driven and multi-tasking personality followed up with the Diane Keaton-directed cable movie "Wildflower" (Lifetime, 1991), playing a girl who discovers an epileptic teenager (Patricia Arquette) held captive by her father. She held down a fairly regular school schedule at the private girls' school Harpeth Hall, while racking up television credits as a critically ill young woman in "Desperate Choices: To Save My Child" (NBC, 1992) and as a young wife with a wandering eye in the miniseries "Return to Lonesome Dove" (CBS, 1993). That same year, she evaded murderous poachers as the star of "A Far Off Place," a teen-aimed Disney adventure filmed in the Kalahari Desert. Witherspoon graduated from high school in 1994 and entered the prestigious Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, with her sights set on a degree in English Literature. But after only a year, acting tugged her down to Los Angeles where directors were lining up to cast the little firecracker.

Witherspoon delivered a breakthrough turn as a sensitive and sassy hostage in the controversial Gen-X satire "S.F.W." (1995) which signaled her move toward more risky, complex roles. She was stalked by a pre-"Boogie Nights" Mark Wahlberg in James Foley's "Fear" (1996), and kissed her nice girl image good-bye in "Freeway" (1996), where she played a gun-toting, trash-mouthed juvenile delinquent, snarling and pouting her way through a modern-day "Little Red Riding Hood." Developing a varied and rewarding career seemed to come naturally to the young actress, who held the lessons taught by her mother and grandmother to heart, avoiding roles that catered to dumbed down female teen stereotypes. After she portrayed the wayward daughter of Susan Sarandon and Gene Hackman in "Twilight" (1998), her all-American fresh-scrubbed look and pert demeanor found its way into Gary Ross' "Pleasantville" (1998), where she and Tobey Maguire starred as 1990s teens who travel back in time to introduce a bold new life force to a 1950s black-and-white world. By the time those films hit theaters, Witherspoon had a bold new force in her own life, having met up-and-coming actor Ryan Phillippe at her 21st birthday party in the spring of 1997. The couple was an instant item and became engaged in late 1998.

In 1999, Witherspoon upheld her high standards with turns in the stylish neo-noir about lovers plotting to escape their desolate town "Best Laid Plans," and playing the plucky but virginal Annette in the better-than-average teen thriller "Cruel Intentions," which co-starred fiancé Phillippe. "Cruel Intentions" drew huge audiences and showcased Witherspoon's versatility, but by far most critics' favorite Witherspoon performance of the year was in "Election." With her inspired portrayal of a fiercely ambitious and perpetually perky high school student running for class president, Witherspoon really set herself apart from other actors of her generation and more than held her own opposite seasoned stage vet Matthew Broderick, who played an annoyed school teacher set on keeping the overachiever from another victory. Funny and frankly terrifying at times, Witherspoon's performance took Alexander Payne's black comedy to its highest level, earning the actress a Best Actress Award from the National Society of Film Critics, and Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award nominations. Hot on the heels of her biggest screen success, she and Phillippe were married in June of 1999 and Witherspoon gave birth to look-a-like daughter Ava in September.

In 2000, the new mom kept busy with her young family, but did take on a guest role as Rachel's younger sister on the sitcom "Friends" (NBC, 1994-2004), which raised her profile even further. She returned to the big screen in 2001 and single-handedly led the charming comedy "Legally Blonde" to the number one box office spot. This cute tale of a spirited fashion major from Malibu-cum-Harvard Law student became a surprise hit, due in no small part to Witherspoon's irresistible, playful and confident performance that raised the material well above what it might have been in lesser hands. Her talent was recognized with a second Golden Globe nomination, but the actress' follow-up - a remake of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" (2000) - was surprisingly lackluster, given Witherspoon's track record. But the driven actress recovered quickly and moved into the realm of producing, forming her own Type-A Productions, with a wink to her parent's assessment of her personality type.

Witherspoon's biggest box office success came with a film she held close to her heart, the romantic comedy "Sweet Home Alabama" (2002), where she starred as a southern girl who, after transforming herself into a successful New York socialite, has second thoughts about her true self during a trip back to the site of her Southern upbringing. The film made over $125 million in ticket sales but left critics bewildered by the popularity of the flat, predictable, storyline. The following year, Witherspoon both starred and executive-produced the sequel "Legally Blonde: Red, White and Blonde" (2003), a lesser version of the original that took the beloved character Elle Woods to Washington D.C to do battle in court. The panned film was endurable solely thanks to Witherspoon's charms, but audiences came in droves and their $90 million dollar approval meant a $15 million payday for Witherspoon, making her one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. The woman from Nashville who seemed to have it all added one more element to her life - a son Deacon, born in October of that year.

The actress wisely took a hiatus from formulaic comedies; instead opting for the role of aspiring elitist Becky Sharp in director Mira Nair's stylish adaptation of Thackeray's classic novel "Vanity Fair" (2004), playing a character that uses all of her charm, wit, guile and sensuality to climb the ranks of British society. The actress' innate likeability and relatively sympathetic portrayal of Sharp resulted in a more determined, less calculating interpretation than other big and small screen versions of the character. Witherspoon's potent on-screen charisma helped fuel the more conventional "Just Like Heaven" (2005), a romantic comedy with a "Ghost"-like plot in which she played a workaholic doctor who finds herself in an ethereal state, occupying her home after it has been leased to a depressed widower (Mark Ruffalo). Though falling somewhat short on laughs and originality, the film benefited from its appealing leads, scene-stealing supporting players like Jon Heder, and its eventually involving love story.

Ready for a greater acting challenge, Witherspoon signed on to play country singer June Carter Cash opposite Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny in director James Mangold's biopic "Walk the Line" (2005). Witherspoon hit yet another career high point and was at her best in the role, which was set within the singer's tortured road to romance with the troubled "Man in Black." Beyond just mastering bringing a real person to life, the role also demanded she convincingly sing Carter's music, play the autoharp and deliver the wisecracks that were signature to Cash's concert appearances. The task proved to be well within the focus of the "type A" talent. Witherspoon's tough, touching, and mesmerizing performance earned both a Golden Globe and an Oscar award for Best Actress. Onscreen, the actress had weathered the ups and downs of a show business marriage but off-screen, her own pairing with Ryan Phillippe showed signs of strain. In a rare moment of candor, the couple revealed that they were in marriage counseling. Her personal life was further fodder for entertainment when she found herself at the center of issues involving paparazzi after several incidents led her to file charges against aggressive shutterbugs - particularly an altercation with the photographers while she and her children were at Disneyland.

Amidst rumors of his alleged cheating with "Stop Loss" (2008) co-star and Witherspoon doppelganger, Abbie Cornish, the couple announced their split at the end of 2006 and went through amicable divorce proceedings around the time she began filming the political thriller "Rendition" (2007). The film hit the big screen in 2007 and found Witherspoon co-starring alongside dramatic heavy-hitters Meryl Streep and Alan Arkin, starring as the pregnant wife of an Egyptian-born man who is detained in Morocco after being suspected of having terrorist ties. The film, like so many Eastern set films that year, failed to find an audience and many critics were disappointed that Witherspoon's performance lacked the spark of her finer works. However a romance with co-star Jake Gyllenhaal was sparked, which the pair kept very low profile. In 2008, Witherspoon's producing effort "Penelope," a modern-day fairy tale starring Christina Ricci as a young woman cursed with a pig's nose, finally hit theaters after several years of unexplained delays. The fantasy failed to capture much of an audience, despite marketing efforts that suggested Witherspoon was the film's co-star when her's was actually a very small role. The actress was slated to return to full-fledged comedy for the 2008 holiday season release "Four Christmases" (2008), in which starred opposite Vince Vaughn as a couple obligated to spend their holiday with a total of four sets of parents.

After voicing Susan Murphy, the 49-foot monster in the 3-D animated feature, "Monsters vs. Aliens" (2009), Witherspoon was in the tabloid news again when People magazine reported that she and Gyllenhaal had split at the end of November 2009. Though vehemently denied by both camps, Witherspoon was soon spotted with CAA talent agent, Jim Toth, in early 2010. Toward the end of the year, Witherspoon and Toth were a confirmed couple, complete with numerous photos ops with her children, while Gyllenhaal had reportedly moved on to actress Rachel Bilson. Back on the big screen, Witherspoon starred as a professional softball player torn between a corporate executive (Paul Rudd) and a Major League Baseball pitcher (Owen Wilson) in James L. Brooks' love triangle comedy, "How Do You Know" (2010). She followed up the underwhelming movie with the period literary adaptation "Water for Elephants" (2011), which had a lukewarm reception despite her buzzed-about costars Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz, and her next project, the action comedy "This Means War" (2012), performed poorly all around. Shifting to more understated and nuanced fare, Witherspoon signed on for a supporting role in the Southern indie drama "Mud" (2013) by esteemed director Jeff Nichols. Mere days before the film's American debut, she and Toth were arrested when he was pulled over in Georgia on suspicion of drunken driving. Acknowledging that she had unfairly berated the arresting officer, she swiftly issued an apology.