Cover Story: The Importance of Being Reese

Witherspoon rules the summer season not with light sabre but with a Brit accent

May 23, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Reese Witherspoon flashes a faux Brit accent for The Importance of Being Earnest.

Reese Witherspoon made it in Hollywood this past March, at least in her eyes. When she and husband, Ryan Phillippe, walked out as awards presenters during a rehearsal for this year's Oscar telecast and saw the cardboard cut-outs of themselves in the audience, Witherspoon said right then that she felt like she made it. And she nearly started to cry.

"I can't believe I made it this far," says Witherspoon, remembering the moment on a recent rainy day in New York City. "I never dreamt it was possible. I always wanted to be an actress, but I don't think you can imagine those kinds of moments."

Her stardom — indeed, her role as a fixture in Hollywood — might be slowly sinking in to Witherspoon, but it's not news to the rest of us. She has been the capable comedienne, the sexy starlet, the brainy role model for New Hollywood and an extraordinary thespian since her film debut in 1991's little-seen The Man in the Moon.

But you haven't seen her come to the front of the class through the normal channels. There are no teen slasher films on her résumé.

No embarrassing Showgirls-like mistakes to hide from. She's built her career by not doing what we've come to expect of a cute twentysomething.

"I tend to view my career as being fairly protracted, which is good, since I had a chance to experience fame on incremental levels," Witherspoon says. "I built up to where I am now. I was never overwhelmed."

She broke through in 1996's Fear, a flawed but ambitious teen obsession movie. In 1998, she held her own within a cast of screen legends in Twilight, sparring with Gene Hackman, Paul Newman and Susan Sarandon, and then appeared in the critical darling, Pleasantville. With her rep intact as a fine young actress, she then solidified her cool quotient with Cruel Intentions, the WB generation's answer to Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

But all that led to arguably her best role to date, the ambitious high schooler, Tracey Flick, in Election. If her career choices were to this point all over the dartboard, Election was a bull's eye. Critical awards and nominations followed, and Reese Witherspoon Superstar was born.

While Election wasn't the multiplex hit that many felt it should have been — in fact, it was widely considered a flop — Witherspoon would soon quell fears about her ability to open and sustain a blockbuster with last year's Legally Blonde. The cute summer comedy that nobody expected much from generated $20 million on its opening weekend and went on to pass the magical $100 million mark reserved for mega-hits. She was admittedly surprised by its success.

"I'm always surprised when people like me in anything," she says. "You act in a bubble, you know? You act on a set with a bunch of people yawning and falling asleep. And you're just acting your heart out. So you're amazed when it comes together, when people like it."

With Legally Blonde and this summer's The Importance of Being Earnest, Witherspoon has earned the title of Alternative Girl of Summer. She's smart moviegoer's "It" girl — someone confident enough in her brief career to forego the summer action blockbuster for a little British lit flick. So how do you go from the surprise hit of 2001 to 2002's counter-programming?

"This was an amazing opportunity," she explains. "I did (Earnest) right after Legally Blonde. It was a chance to go in a totally different direction."

Shooting Earnest meant leaving husband and baby behind for a six-week shoot in England. Worse still, Witherspoon was the only American in the cast. She says she quickly dismissed the familial separation and foreigner complex when she realized with whom she'd be working. The Earnest cast includes talented and classically trained Brits Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Dame Judi Dench.

Witherspoon says the cast quickly diffused the intimidating tension, mostly by making fun of her faux British accent, one she studied and developed three hours a day for six weeks. She was so scared at first, she didn't want to open her mouth on the set. In the end, however, Earnest director Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband) says Witherspoon won everyone over with her accent and her professionalism.

"It's really a brilliant accent," he says. "It's an incredibly character-driven accent. It wasn't just British; it was countryside, slightly-educated British. She brings a lot of complexity to her work. I adore her."

Parker says, through her tireless work ethic and busybody nature, he could quickly see why Witherspoon's parents dubbed their daughter "Little Type A," a moniker she used to name her new production company. All she'll say about the nickname is that she's "not the kind of person who sits on her hands very well."

Taking a page from the Drew Barrymore career model, Wither-spoon created Type A Films last year in an attempt to produce more movies she can throw her creative energy into. To hear her tell it, the number of scripts she sees that strike any kind of emotional chord is few to none. Rather than bemoaning Hollywood's slow acceptance of women-driven films, Witherspoon plans to do something about it.

"It was just about creating the kind of opportunities for myself that I always wanted," she says.

Still in its infancy, Witherspoon says Type A Films is developing a movie about women's professional tennis, a female buddy comedy and some stories excerpted from the popular book The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing.

When asked whether it's difficult balancing her personal life with her skyrocketing career, Witherspoon pauses and thinks. It's the first time during the interview that she doesn't answer a question right away. Her quick wit, it seems, can't bail her out here. She answers slowly.

"We seem to all be running to get to some successful place that seems so out of reach," Witherspoon says. "And then you get there. It's nice for me to have a wonderful family to share it with. It makes it that much more fulfilling to know that my husband is excited for me, that my daughter is happy. I feel very blessed. I constantly remember that I'm just a little girl from Tennessee."

Reese Witherspoon just remembered: She's made it in Hollywood.