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The Book of Reese
In recent years, Reese Witherspoon has turned her literary obsession into an empire. Her latest brilliant book adaptation: Little Fires Everywhere, which debuts March 18 on Hulu.
By Ann Patchett
I first met Reese Witherspoon three years ago at Parnassus Books, the store I co-own in Nashville. She’d come to interview me for Hello Sunshine, her media company, and when the interview was finished, our events manager asked Witherspoon if she’d be willing to have her picture taken with one of our shop dogs, Mary Todd Lincoln, a dappled, silky dachshund who’d been photographed with any number of celebrities in the past.
It’s Nashville, after all; it’s the kind of thing we do here. Witherspoon took the little dog and tucked her into an open space in the bookshelf behind her, then proceeded to run the gamut of human emotion: joy, surprise, eagerness, love, suffering, hope—spinning out a master class of acting in less than a minute. The amazing part was not how good Witherspoon was at this—she’s a very good actor—the amazing part was how she managed to shine the enormous light of her talent onto a nine-pound dog. In frame after frame, the viewer’s eye skips the movie star and goes straight to the dachshund, which first appears coy, then knowing, then resplendent. If Oscars were given to pups, everyone would have agreed that this was Mary Todd Lincoln’s year.
Which is pretty much the point I want to make about Reese Witherspoon.
Boiled down to a series of brightly colored squares on a board game, Witherspoon’s career would look something like this: success as a teenager, including a starring role in The Man in the Moon at 15, then at 23 an indelible performance as the irritatingly determined Tracy Flick in Election, then full-blown stardom at 25 for the even more indelible Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, then an Oscar at 29 for playing June Carter Cash in Walk the Line.
And after that? Well, after that things fizzled. Maybe success wasn’t a good fit with her scrappy, driven nature, or maybe by looking for more roles as rich and complex as June Carter Cash she was essentially looking for polar bears in Los Angeles. They simply weren’t there. The years that followed yielded nothing particularly memorable, and in 2012, The New Yorker flung her on the ash heap of has-beens, in a cutting sentence, deep in a profile of another actor, laundry listing stars who were no longer stars. Reese Witherspoon was officially washed up at the age of 36.
Thirty-six is ancient for a gymnast, late for a model, midlife for an opera singer, nascent for a surgeon, and fuzzy for a female actor. Many talented women have been chewed up and spit out by 36, while a lucky few keep going. At this point in the story of Witherspoon’s career, there was no guarantee of professional longevity.
Here she gives a great deal of the credit to her husband, Jim Toth, for helping her reimagine her job. She and Toth, her second husband, have a seven-year-old son named Tennessee. Toth had been a very successful talent agent at CAA and was recently named head of talent and acquisitions for Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mobile video start-up. (I throw this in to highlight the fact that the marriage of Witherspoon and Toth includes two people who stay ahead of the curve.) He told her that if she wasn’t finding the roles she wanted, she needed to develop them herself.
If she felt like betting, she should bet on herself. If she felt like fighting, she was the one she should fight for. Toth also pointed out what should have been comically obvious to his wife: that she reads more than anyone he had ever known.
Reading is one of Witherspoon’s superpowers. She is fascinated by stories, whether in books, in film, in dinner party conversation. She wants to tell stories, and she wants to encourage other people to tell them. “I always knew from the time I was seven that I wanted to be a storyteller or an actor or a singer,” she says. “Or a writer. I always wanted to be a writer. I think that’s why I’m in awe of writers because I’ve tried to sit down and do it. I have ideas for stories all the time. I could never figure out how things ended. I always have ideas about how things begin but I never know how they end.”
Sometimes, a strong beginning is all it takes. When Witherspoon decided to start a production company with her own money, she turned to her constant companions: books. She optioned the rights to two novels that had yet to be published. The first, Gone Girl, she produced, and the second, Wild, she produced and starred in. (Wild yielded Academy Award nominations for both Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who played her mother.) Then she optioned a novel by Liane Moriarty called Big Little Lies. After that, no one was questioning Witherspoon’s ability to spin paper into gold.
In the middle of this new period of success, she also started a book club, becoming something of a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket for a number of books. “It’s nice to highlight authors who don’t have a track record of selling a lot of books. To watch what happens to them is extraordinary, and really emotional for us.” But finding those authors and just the right book requires a boatload of reading month after month. Where does an actor who is—once again, or still—heading the A-list, who has a thriving media company, a lifestyle brand (Draper James’s Nashville outpost is a mecca for Tennessee tourism), an enormous social media presence, and three children find the time? She makes it, as making time seems to be another superpower.
She told me she’d been able to spend four hours just reading the day before. “And nobody interrupted me! To me, that’s a vacation.”
Seeing as how books were the key to so many parts of the story, it made perfect sense for us to meet back at Parnassus Books for this interview. It was late December and Reese had come home to Nashville for Christmas. It’s where she grew up, where her parents live, where her brother and sister-in-law and two nieces live. She agreed to come to the bookstore early so that we could talk before the shoppers arrived.
At eight o’clock in the morning, Reese Witherspoon looks less like a movie star and more like a pretty girl with really good hair. I use the word girl with intention, both because we’re in Nashville and because in her jeans and sneakers she doesn’t look old enough to rent a car. After she accepts a cup of coffee from the appalling coffee machine and says good morning to all the booksellers, we begin making slow loops around the tables and past the shelves, playing the parlor game devoted readers can never get enough of: Have You Read This?
Witherspoon opens with Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, the January pick for her book club. “It does such a good job exploring work dynamics, race, class.”
I counter with Greek to Me by Mary Norris, which she hasn’t read. I have it in my head that this book would make a terrific movie and the next thing I know I’m pitching her. “A copy editor at The New Yorker decides to learn ancient Greek!” I say. “It’s like Wild but for the mind.”
She shakes her head. “Too interior.”
We stop at the new releases table to profess our mutual admiration for Colson Whitehead, then Attica Locke. Witherspoon leans over to pet the cover of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. “Love,” she sighs, as if it were a picture of Marcello Mastroianni.
Witherspoon likes to read nonfiction in the morning (The Moment of Lift, Sapiens, Three Women) and fiction at night (she hugs a copy of The Secret History to her chest and declares it one of her all-time favorite books. She had just bought a copy for her daughter, Ava, who is 20.)
hen we break into a mutual rhapsody over Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations. In addition to being an opinion writer for the New York Times and the author of one of the best books of the year, Renkl had once been Reese’s favorite high school English teacher here in Nashville and remains a friend. Since we are speaking of local authors, I try to give her a copy of Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Herebut she says no, she’s brought her credit card, she’ll buy it herself, thank you very much. When I offer her the store discount she turns that down as well.
“Why are there all these writers in Nashville now?” she asks. “Does Lorrie Moore really teach here?”
Lorrie’s my neighbor. She teaches at Vanderbilt.
Witherspoon gapes in disbelief that I know Lorrie Moore, much less live close to her. Then she asks if she could take the class.
Had Witherspoon been a smart, entrepreneurial actor who figured out how to get meaningful parts at 36 by optioning books and producing films herself, that would have been a good story, but that’s not the story at all. What Witherspoon did was create a whole new playing field in Hollywood. In making parts for herself, she found that she wanted to make parts for other women as well, women her age but also women who were older and younger. She wanted to make parts for women of color, because if she was having a tough time finding good roles, she could see that what they were facing was considerably harder.
And what about getting more women behind the camera? “I can remember being in pictures in which I was the only woman on the set and there would be 150 men,” she says. “Maybe there would be a couple of women in wardrobe. I remember when I was a kid I would find them and cling to them.”
Why weren’t there more women directors and screenwriters? Why weren’t there women working cameras and doing sound and editing? If she were the one making the movie then she could hire them. She could prove that it was possible to fill a movie with all sorts of women: women of different races and ages, women from the LGBTQ+ community, women who are differently abled. It’s the kind of thing the people in Hollywood say.
The difference is that Witherspoon is actually doing it, and her projects make money. Lots of money. She went out to find water, then called her friends so that together they could dig a well, lay a pipeline, and change the landscape. That included demanding equal pay for equal work, an agreement she won from HBO.
“An actress came up to me at a party and said, ‘Do you know what you’ve done?’ I had no idea what she was talking about. The day after the HBO equal pay thing went through, they called her agent to rewrite her contract. She was then paid twice as much as she had been.”
Witherspoon is happy to talk about money and contracts. She believes in the power of information, because if other women don’t know how much you’re being paid, the only person who stands to benefit is the person who’s writing the checks. She has a group of friends she talks to regularly in order to share information, a list that includes and is in no way limited to America Ferrera, Shonda Rhimes, Tracee Ellis Ross, Ava DuVernay, Nancy Meyers, and Laura Dern.
“You know, you meet people, you’re friends with people, but I say about a few women in my life, they are my sisters. I don’t have a sister and I found my sister in Laura. No one makes me laugh like Laura. She’s magical.”
“Reese is a miracle,” Dern says. “She is the gold standard of what it means to be a champion. She has always been a champion of art, and other artists, as well as friends and family. But discovering how she will never stop until other women are honored for their voices and their skills with not only a seat at the table, but paid and paid well for it, is a rare marvel. Because of her, so many other women in positions of power have followed suit. As an only child, finding family has always been very important to me. And that I get her in both areas of my life—personal and professional—is an outrageous blessing.”
Witherspoon has a way of using every question as a means of highlighting someone else, and in her case it feels less like deflection and more like a genuine sense of wonder for everything and everyone who moves her. I tell her the thing I find so remarkable about her story is that she was pregnant when Election came out, that she had a baby at 23. I can’t think of anyone else who had success as a young actor, had a baby at the same time, and didn’t get derailed.
“Kate Winslet,” she says, without acknowledging my astonishment. “She was 25. She had a baby after Titanic. We talked all the time.”
When I tell her I watched her acceptance speech for the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, the first thing she wants to know is if I watched Kerry Washington’s introduction. Well, she asked me that after taking several minutes to praise Sherry Lansing’s leadership. Washington and Witherspoon are making a limited series out of Celeste Ng’s smash novel Little Fires Everywhere, about privilege, class, race, motherhood, and ownership, with Witherspoon in the role of Mrs. Richardson, a paragon of oblivious entitlement. “Creating that character was a new challenge for me,” Witherspoon says. “Despite her intelligence and social grooming, she has a deeply embedded lack of awareness of her privilege. She’s constructed a life that’s impervious to the world she lives in. She’s so comfortable in her social standing and her wealth that she feels entitled to analyze anyone outside her sphere but never takes a hard look at her own shortcomings.”
Or to put it another way, this character is about as far from the actor as she could get.
“Watch Kerry,” she tells me. “What she says about power is so important.”
And she’s right. Washington’s speech is a perfect encapsulation of Witherspoon’s journey and the change in Hollywood. “The new narrative,” Washington says, shimmering from the lectern, “the Reese narrative, tells us that our power lies in our partnership. That real power comes from succeeding with people, not succeeding off of people. That real power is borne of the humility and grace of sisterhood. That’s what empowerment means. The more power you share, the more power you have, and the more power you have, the more you must share. This is the lesson that you must learn when you are in Reese’s orbit. This is the lesson so many of us are learning from her.”
The HBO series Big Little Lies began its addictive spin in February 2017 and quickly became as much the story of five women living with privilege and abuse in scenic Monterey as it did about the five actors who were finally getting a chance to work together. When Witherspoon found out that Nicole Kidman’s production company was also interested in the Moriarty novel, she moved to partner instead of outbid. Witherspoon and Kidman joined forces, taking joint executive producer credits and equal starring roles. Read an interview with Dern and she’ll talk about how much she loved getting to work with Witherspoon, then Witherspoon is quoted praising season-two addition Meryl Streep, who has nice things to say about Kidman. They all loved the younger women, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz, who in turn learned so much from their elders.
If all of them are acting their way through these interviews, well, they’re extremely convincing. Those reliable tropes about bitchery and catfights, about women undercutting other women, are suddenly rendered useless. All reports point to the genuine shared affection and respect among the cast. And those other tropes about men not being interested in watching shows about women, and shows about women not being profitable? Big Little Lies blew those up as well.
So while the show wasn’t responsible for the #MeToo movement, the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, or any of the other dominoes that fell behind him, the actions feel inextricably linked. Quell false rumors about women’s inability to support one another, have the year’s most successful show produced by women, and then watch women who had nothing to do with the show stand up and say they have been harassed, raped, and silenced, because maybe they’ve seen what’s possible—a world in which women have each other’s backs, a world in which women, at least on HBO, can be in charge of a hit, a world in which the women to whom you tell your stories will believe you.
Into that world of #MeToo and Time’s Up, a legal defense fund for women fighting for equality and the end of sexual harassment in the workplace, Witherspoon arrives with The Morning Show, a series with Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell that is the launchpad for Apple’s entrance into the world of streaming services. Apple TV+ is pretty much staking its success on Witherspoon’s ability to deliver the kind of audience she brought to Big Little Lies. Again, we get the backstory of female friendship and collaboration. Witherspoon and Aniston have been friends since 2000, when Witherspoon guest starred as Aniston’s sister on Friends. The Morning Show provides a vehicle with two strong (very strong) female leads.
All good, but the thing that makes this show worth watching is the 10-hour dissection of what it means to be caught up in a #MeToo moment. Because while we can read accusations and denials in the paper, watch a perp walk on the news, and listen to no end of discussion on what has happened and what needs to happen, it’s something else entirely to see it play out as art. If our understanding of the Great Depression is forever linked to John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and then John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda’s creation of Tom Joad, our understanding of #MeToo may well be shaped by Witherspoon and The Morning Show. As the morning anchor who is hired to replace Carell’s fallen character (in a turn that can’t help but call Matt Lauer to mind), Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson must pick her way through the aftermath of sexual misconduct. Layer after layer of bad behavior, mediocre behavior, friendship, power, consequences, and culpability are examined from the point of view of every player until absolutely nothing seems clear—except that working in morning television appears to be a really undesirable job, and sleeping with one’s colleagues is a universally bad idea.
Again, Witherspoon is quick to give credit where credit is due, in this case to the showrunner and director, Kerry Ehrin. “She’s an incredibly empathetic woman. She just kept peeling back the layers. This behavior that men have carried on for hundreds of years, thousands of years, suddenly isn’t okay. The world changed in about six months and everyone is just scrambling to keep up.”
Speaking of scrambling to keep up, I have a question that has long stumped me: How is it that so many women discussing their own experience with harassment in articles are photographed draped backward over a sofa with no top on under their jacket? Is it fair to say that sends a mixed signal?
Witherspoon thinks about this for a minute. “I can tell you what my daughter would say.” It is clear she means to be patient and kind, to actually explain it to me. “Why should a woman have to sublimate her own sexuality, because that’s not her responsibility, the way she’s viewed, right? Her sexuality shouldn’t be diminished because she’s having a conversation about consent. You should be able to be sexual, to display your sexuality, because consent is consent, no matter what.”
She can see that I’m still struggling a little.
“I know,” she says, “it’s complex. It’s not how I grew up. I grew up thinking you dress the way you want to be treated. But things are changing.”
I point out that there aren’t pictures of her wearing a jacket with no shirt.
She nods. “I always had a thing about exploiting sexuality. When I came up in the business, there were all these men’s magazines we were told to cater to. I was never in Maxim. I was never picked as a GQgirl, and I’m okay with that because that’s not how I wanted to be viewed. That’s not how I see myself. I always say, ‘Funny doesn’t sag.’ I always just wanted to be funny, you know? And you can’t be rendered obsolete if you just keep being funny. Guess what gets rendered obsolete? Your boobs go south, your face goes south, your ass goes south, but you can always be funny. And those are my idols, my heroes—Goldie, Holly Hunter, Diane Keaton, Nancy Meyers—smart and funny.”
This is the moment in which I lose any semblance of journalistic integrity because I’m already envisioning a line of T-shirts for the bookstore that say “Funny doesn’t sag.”
We have stayed too long at the fair. Parnassus is now packed with holiday shoppers, and while none of them seem to be paying any attention to the movie star, it’s time to go someplace quieter. Witherspoon wants to show me the house she bought two years ago and has just finished renovating. Behind the wheel of her husband’s car she’s a canny local, taking a series of back roads to avoid the crush of holiday traffic. She talks about her parents, her friends, her brother, John. “We have that inexplicable bond of childhood. Two people forged in the same fire. It’s interesting because we’re very different, but we manage to love and care for each other with a ferocity that defies words. I call him Brother. He calls me Sister. Very Southern sibling stuff.”
We talk about Harpeth Hall, the all-girls school she attended here. I ask if she liked going to a girls school, if she thought it was helpful.
“Yes,” she says, “very much so. It definitely encouraged whatever tiny little feminist pilot light I had.” Though she makes it clear there was also a lot of fun in those days. “I was very opinionated, a little devious. I had a master plan. I might have tried to put beer in the Coke machine.”
I had asked Margaret Renkl, her high school English teacher turned author and friend, about her memories of that time. “When you’re a high school teacher and you teach bright kids, there’s always going to be one kid who’s waiting for you to prove that you’re smart enough to be her teacher,” Renkl said. “Reese was always that one. She was a little bit skeptical, a little unsure, but it wasn’t long before she became the student whose eyes never leave your face because you are saying what they need to hear. Somehow, through some miracle, you’re teaching exactly what they need to know at exactly that moment in their development. It was like talking about literature was food and she was hungry.”
Did Renkl think, all those years ago, that Reese Witherspoon would turn out to be this person? Not just an actor but a force for change in the world?
Renkl smiles. “She was often stamping her foot mad about something. She was outraged by injustice in any form she encountered it. But she was also funny and fierce. She was like any other teenage girl in an all-girls school—she never wore makeup or combed her hair unless it was a dance or picture day.”
Witherspoon shakes her head at the memory of her British lit survey and Margaret Renkl, who left Harpeth Hall at the end of Witherspoon’s junior year. “I cried when she left.”
Witherspoon pulls up in front of a beautiful house that is no more and no less than its beautiful neighbors. But when we step inside I have to say it stops my heart for an instant, the flooding light in the foyer, the sweeping staircase, the openness in every direction, the wallpaper. There is different, complementary wallpaper in room after room, including a wallpapered ceiling that looks like the tiled floor of a French bistro. I have no idea what the neighbors’ houses look like on the inside, but my guess would be nothing like this. The house is welcoming and warm in a way that feels almost like a memory, but better than a memory as it is both traditional and explosively joyful. While I am exclaiming, she looks around herself, maybe seeing it again.
“Growing up, all my friends at Harpeth Hall lived in houses like this. I always wanted to live in a house like this, and now I do. It’s some sort of childhood fulfillment.”
And that’s exactly it, because I grew up in Nashville too and went to a different girls school. This was the house of childhood dreams, or a better version of it. This is the place a person spends her whole life looking for.
We go and sit in the big bright kitchen to talk some more. I ask her if she thinks it’s a dangerous thing to be a child actor.
“Oh, you mean the hope that it could happen?”
No, I mean, is it dangerous to be a child working in an adult world?
“Ah,” she says, “yes. Bad things happened to me. I was assaulted, harassed. It wasn’t isolated. I recently had a journalist ask me about it. She said, Well, why didn’t you speak up sooner? And I thought, that’s so interesting to talk to someone who experienced those things and then judge them for the way they decide to speak about them. You tell your story in your own time when you’re ready. But the shame that she tried to put on me was unreal, and then she wrote about how selfish I was for not bringing it up sooner. There wasn’t a public reckoning 25 years ago when this stuff happened to me. There wasn’t a forum to speak about it either. Social media has created a new way for people to express themselves that I didn’t have. That’s the great strength in power and numbers. I think we have a lot of judgment and that’s unfortunate because we’re all tenderfooted in these new times. We’re trying to find our identity. That’s what I really like about The Morning Show.”
From the Archive: Reese Witherspoon’s First V.F. Cover Story
There is a knock at the back door and Witherspoon’s sister-in-law, Jennie, arrives with her two daughters. Then Witherspoon’s 16-year-old son, Deacon, appears from wherever he’s been in the house. Suddenly there’s a coffee cake and talk of diving practice and where everyone should go to lunch. Witherspoon has plans to meet her mother, and Jennie’s taking Deacon and the girls to lunch downtown at Robert’s Western World.
“Seriously?” I ask. “You can eat lunch there?” I had always thought it was a giant bar but am told they have fried bologna sandwiches.
“You know Reese and I were in the same class at Harpeth Hall,” Jennie Witherspoon tells me. “We were both in Ms. Renkl’s class.”
I wonder if Jennie felt the same way the first time she walked into this house. I wonder if she too thought that it was the kind of place the other girls lived.
Jennie Witherspoon starts talking about The Morning Show. She and John had watched the final episode of the season the night before. “We were so into it!” Jennie says. “We kept forgetting it was you.”
After the cake has been eaten and the lunch plans have been made, Deacon slips off to play the piano for two minutes (and I can say, based on those two minutes, he is very, very good) while Jennie and the girls pull on their coats. Everyone says goodbye. Witherspoon asks me if I want to use the powder room before I go, and I tell her no, I’m fine.
“Use the powder room,” she says.
Under the front staircase is a tiny door to the tiniest bathroom I have ever seen. It is the Alice in Wonderland of bathrooms, with swallows painted in the miniature sink. I’m speechless.
“Right?” she says.
Witherspoon offers to drive me back to the bookstore, where I’ve left my car. I tell her the traffic will be awful, but she waves me off. She may have a home in Nashville but she and her family still live in Los Angeles. She has a completely different notion of what constitutes traffic. And anyway, there’s a book she wants to pick up for her mother.
When we go back into the bookstore we can barely cut a path through the last-minute holiday shoppers. No one notices us in their rush, but Witherspoon sees a painting of a small dachshund reading a book that’s hanging on the back wall.
“Is that Mary Todd Lincoln?” she asks me, and then, derailed by a sudden, awful thought, asks, “Is she…”
I assure her the dachshund is fine. We’re in the process of having all the shop dogs’ portraits painted.
“You know I had my picture taken with her the last time I was here.”
I tell her I do in fact remember, though I’m amazed that she remembers. I tell her that’s how I want to open this piece, with her shining her light on the dachshund. “I’ve done enough for myself,” Witherspoon replies, deadpan. “I need to do more for the Mary Todd Lincolns of the world.”
I have no doubt. She will come to the aid of small dachshunds everywhere, once she gets the rest of the world straightened out