It's been two years since Reese Witherspoon, who won a Best Actress Oscar in 2006 for Walk the Line, has graced a movie, unless you count her voicing a nearly 50-foot-tall animated woman in Monsters vs. Aliens. But while moviegoers may feel like she's been away for a while, Witherspoon has shot three movies that will hit theaters over the next year. In How Do You Know (rated PG-13, opening Dec. 17), she's an Olympic-caliber softball player whose career has hit a wall and who finds herself caught romantically between a rakish star pitcher (Owen Wilson) and a broke businessman (Paul Rudd). It's a role that calls on both her dramatic skills and comedy chops, says writer-director James L. Brooks: "The fact that she's a world-class actress with that kind of comedic talent—she's for real." Next year Witherspoon will star in the period romance Water for Elephants and the action comedy This Means War. Meanwhile, off screen, the 34-year-old actress, who split from actor Ryan Phillippe in 2006 after seven years of marriage, has been raising their two kids—Ava, 11, and Deacon, 7—and, recently, dating agent Jim Toth, a relationship that has sparked breathless engagement rumors. So, yeah, there's a lot to talk about.
Entertainment Weekly: How did you first hook up with Jim Brooks to discuss this movie?
Reese Witherspoon: After Walk the Line came out and after the Oscars, I got a call from Jim's producing partner, and she said he wanted to make a movie with me. I was blown away. Broadcast News is one of my favorite movies. I love Holly Hunter's performance. As a Southern girl wanting to be an actor, that was sort of the ultimate strong Southern woman part. Not to mention As Good as It Gets and Terms of Endearment. So I had lunch with Jim and he said, "I think I'm going to write this movie about a professional athlete. Would you wan to do it?" I was like, "Of course! What kind of athlete?" He said, "A softball player. Can you play softball?" I was like, "Sure!" [Laughs] And no, I cannot play softball.
EW: Your character is at a crossroads, struggling to figure out what she wants, professionally and romantically. Could you relate?
Witherspoon: I think it's a pretty universal feeling in your late 20s, early 30s. It's a real pivotal time of change, of deciding what path you want your life to take. I think we all kind of question: Am I with the right person? What am I doing? How do I make these decisions? What if I make the wrong decision? I've certainly been through it myself: being on the precipice of a different stage, chapter 2.
EW: I hear you and Paul Rudd got a private tour of the White House while you were filming the movie.
Witherspoon: We were shooting in Washington, D.C., and we were like, "Do you think we could get into the White House?" So we called somebody and got in. And while we were getting a tour, we got a message from the Oval Office that Obama wanted to say hi to us. We went to the Oval Office, and there was Hillary Clinton having a meeting with Joe Biden. It was insane. Then Obama came out and he turned to Paul and said, "I loved you in I Love You, Man." I grabbed Paul and I was like [whispering], "Are you freaking out right now?" He's like, "I'm freaking out!" We were so tongue-tied it was ridiculous. Obama was like, "What are you guys doing in town?" I started talking about the movie and I was like, "We're doing a movie and…uh, I'm playing a character, who, uh…I'm working with Owen, uh…Owen…" I could not remember Owen's last name. And Paul goes, "Wilson!" Like it was a party game. [Laughs]
EW: You must read pretty much every romantic-comedy script in town.
EW: And I'm sure a fairly large percentage of them are bad.
Witherspoon: [Smiles wryly] Bad scripts? I've never read one.
EW: Even though you've had huge success doing romantic comedies, you've managed to avoid becoming trapped in that one genre.
Witherspoon: I've been lucky. When I started out, I was only doing dramas. Then I segued into comedy sort of accidentally. I did this movie when I was 18 or so called Freeway. I thought I was being so sincere, playing this juvenile delinquent, and everyone was laughing at the premiere. People were like, "You're so funny in this movie!" And I was like, "Funny? I thought I was playing this serious character!" And I realized, what's funny is just committing. That's what sent me into comedy, and it's been the greatest thing that's ever happened.
EW: It's been two years since audiences have seen you on screen. Did you plan to take a break?
Witherspoon: [Shrugs] I don't know what happened. I just didn't read anything I liked. And I think if you don't work for a while, you get a little, like, stuck. It was particularly hard around the writers' strike. But it feels different now, too. The movies that are being made feel different. There are a lot of really, really, really big movies about robots and things—and there's not a part for a 34-year-old woman in a robot movie. I've never done the giant robot movie. Never done the superhero movie. That doesn't interest me too much. But you know, I also have kids, so when I'm not working, it's not like I'm sitting around doing nothing. I'm taking care of two kids who are rapidly growing up in some bizarre time warp. I mean, somehow I now have an 11-year-old. [Laughs]
EW: I imagine that as your kids have gotten older, their perspective on what you do for a living has changed.
Witherspoon: Their ideas are very sophisticated. They know the difference between being an actor and being a celebrity. There's just so much information that's readily available now—and so much more criticism. Ava said to me the other day, "Why are people always tearing celebrities down?" I thought that was a really interesting question—and I don't have an answer. I don't know what it is about our culture that we want to devour celebrities. We've had to stop watching some of the morning shows because there's so much gossipy stuff on them. So now we're watching SportsCenter in the morning—and that's gotten so bad. We tear those poor athletes apart!
EW: You came up in the business when all of this was a lot less intense. There weren't countless gossip blogs and 24/7 paparazzi yet. Looking back, do you feel grateful for that?
Witherspoon: God, I wish I would have known—I would have done more bad s---! [Laughs]
EW: Instead, you got married young and started having kids.
Witherspoon: I know. [Pauses] I was followed all day today. It kind of reminds me of that cartoon— remember the cartoon with the sheepdog and the wolf, and at the end of each day they clocked out? "See you tomorrow, Ralph." "All right, Sam." [After taking pictures] they'll say, "Thanks," and I'll say, "Be safe. Don't kill anyone with your car today." It's like Stockholm syndrome.
EW: Amid all that public scrutiny, you had to go through something that was intensely personal.
Witherspoon: Which thing are you referring to? There've been so many. [Laughs]
EW: It's spelled D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
Witherspoon: [Sings with a Tammy Wynette twang] "D-I-V-O-R-C-E."
EW: When you're going through something wrenching and traumatic like that in your personal life and it's all over the tabloids and TV entertainment shows and gossip blogs, is it hard to filter that out?
Witherspoon: It definitely sometimes feels like a suit that I wish I could zip off. But I don't feel bad about any of the things I've gone through, whether it's divorce or breakups or anything like that, because that's all part of the life journey, and I have those experiences just like anyone else. And I think it deepens what you tap into creatively. [Pauses] My favorite quote is from Martha Stewart: "I have a short memory for painful things." And I do. I have one of those incredible memories where I just erase painful things. Maybe that's really unhealthy, and I probably need to see a therapist. But I don't dwell. You just keep going forward. Also, I have kids. What are you going to do? Are you going to teach them to be one of those people who keep looking in the rearview mirror, or are you going to teach them to be one of those people who go, "Tomorrow's another day"?
EW: In a weird way, is all the public attention helpful when you're going through a hard time because it sort of forces you to keep it together?
Witherspoon: No, no, I didn't keep it together. I don't know what you're talking about. [Laughs] I mean, I didn't fall down on a public street and have a meltdown—I did it in my own house! But I wouldn't say I kept it together. [Pauses] When I think about it from a different perspective, though, I'd say 99 percent of the people who come up to me, the energy is totally positive. Not that people don't come up and go, "I hated your last movie. It sucked"—and I go, "I know, I'm sorry. Do you want your money back?" [Laughs] But I'm very lucky. I don't know why, but I have in the past and will hopefully in the future elicit positive feelings from people. You can't ever feel bad about a life lived like that, where so many people are giving you love and hopefully you're creating a little bright spot in what can be a really difficult life for someone.
EW: Do you Google yourself?
Witherspoon: Oh, only in very, very dark moments—moments of pure self-loathing—do I type my name into Google. [Laughs] And I know what I'm in for. You never read anything positive—you always go straight to where you know they're going to say something nasty about you.
EW: But you were just saying how everyone seems to wish you well.
Witherspoon: Well, the caveat to that is: but not on the Internet. There it's: You're fat, you're ugly, you're tired, you're worthless, you don't have a career anymore, you're a bad actor. It's just an affirmation of every horrible feeling you have about yourself. And I just go into a spiral of self-hate. Fortunately, most of the time I'm busy enough that I don't have time to type my name into Google.
EW: Since we're talking about relationships, some people might see another parallel between you and your character in How Do You Know: Before meeting Paul Rudd's character, she has only ever been romantically involved with other athletes—and until now, you've only been involved with other actors.
Witherspoon: Gosh, I guess that's true. Now that you say it, that feels superobvious. I can't believe I didn't see it. I feel like kind of an idiot! [Laughs]
EW: Are there challenges to being in a relationship with another actor, or does it somehow draw you closer?
Witherspoon: Who's to say? I truly believe you never lose in a relationship. You've always gained something. I'm finding that currently it's been very easy to be with somebody who doesn't do the same thing but understands what I do on a day-to-day level. But there are always differences. Even if they're doing the same thing as you, they're doing it in a different capacity or on a different set.
EW: Do you have a clear sense of how Hollywood sees you these days from the types of roles you get offered?
Witherspoon: I have no idea how people perceive me. I'm chronically unaware of that. I'm self-conscious about other things. Like I can't even watch playback of myself on a movie. [Director] McG was showing me some footage of This Means War, and I just went apoplectic. I couldn't talk. I started to cry. I don't watch any movie I'm in. What's enjoyable about that? It's horrifying! I'll see it in a dark room one time with my managers, who I've been with for 18 years, and we'll talk about it for 10 minutes afterward—and that's it. [Laughs] I probably shouldn't say this. I'm getting myself into quicksand. But it's not for me to enjoy—it's for other people. I'll just focus on something stupid, like, "I hate my laugh. Why did I smile?" Sometimes I look at myself and think, "Dude, I have the biggest, goofiest smile on earth." [Shakes her head] Ugh—it's just horrifying.
EW: You've said before that you don't like being between projects. You haven't locked in your next movie yet—so how long will you be okay with that?
Witherspoon: Mmmm, a good three days. [Laughs] I'll be happily unemployed maybe through the holidays. Then I'm ready to go back to work.
Also in this week's Entertainment Weekly:
-TV's Craziest Hour -How Kathie Lee Gifford, Hoda Kotb, and a sizable wine cellar turned the fourth hour of Today into morning's guiltiest pleasure.
-Darren Aronofsky: The Swan King
-Kevin Bacon on Playing His Own Biggest Fan
-Flashback! EW's Entertainers of the Year Since 1990
Check out all this and more at EW.com or pick up a copy of the new Entertainment Weekly - on newsstands everywhere!
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