Reese Witherspoon: Blonde ambition

Reese Witherspoon won a Golden Globe for her role in a Johnny Cash biopic. Elaine Lipworth meets a determined actress
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The Independent Culture

Reese Witherspoon is only 29, but she seems older, perhaps because she has already spent 15 years in front of the cameras. She is unfailingly polite, charming and always friendly, but you wouldn't describe her as warm. She gives the impression of being an intelligent woman who has learned from experience how to conduct interviews without giving too much away. She has an aura of cool detachment. She named her production company Type A Films: she likes to be in control.

But the actress says her usual composure disintegrated when she agreed to play the part of June Carter Cash, the singer and wife of the country music legend Johnny Cash in the new bio-pic, Walk The Line. As a Southern girl, she grew up immersed in country music and says the mere thought of playing her role-model reduced her to tears.

But after the thrill of landing the coveted role, Witherspoon was convinced that she wouldn't make the grade. "I actually called my lawyers crying and screaming and said, 'I'm not going to do it, can't you get me out of it?' It was terrifying, it scared me to death. First of all I had never played a real person before. So there was a lot of responsibility to represent her correctly and then the possibility of failure made me very insecure."

She had no idea that the film's director, James Mangold, expected her to sing - until she had signed on the dotted line. "I just assumed we were using their music and then he said, 'Oh no, you're going to be learning to sing.'

You should've heard me in the beginning - it was really bad. I was like, 'I can't do this.' It was the biggest professional challenge I have ever had and I said to him, 'Can't you just hire someone who sounds good? I'm not going to do it.' It was really overwhelming. Singing in front of thousands of people made me as nervous as thinking about childbirth. And learning to play the autoharp was even harder."

Mangold had faith that his star could do the job. Watching her perform in the movie, belting out "Jackson" and "Long-Legged Guitar Pickin' Man", it is evident that the director's intuition was sound. She trained diligently with the film's music producer, T-Bone Burnett. "Well, I got better and ultimately the experience boosts you out of your complacency," she says. "It's the kind of stuff that keeps you alive and keeps you thriving."

Her career was in good shape before Walk The Line. Thanks to the Legally Blonde films, she is enormously popular and her paycheques amount to $15m a film. The only actresses who earn more are Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman, and there are not many who have as much choice in the roles they're offered. But before Walk The Line she had failed to convince critics that she was cut out to be a serious dramatic actress.

Now there have been comparisons to Meryl Streep, she won a Golden Globe award earlier this month, and she is the favourite to win the Best Actress Oscar. But if the star is excited about the prospect, you wouldn't know it - she doesn't betray any emotion. "I am honestly not thinking about it," she says, narrowing her blue eyes with a rather exasperated sigh, as she delivers the obligatory movie-star response on the subject. "The most important thing is that I want people to see the film. I'm just lucky you know, I'm so blessed as it is and couldn't imagine wanting more than I have already."

She stars opposite Joaquin Phoenix, who is equally convincing as Johnny Cash. Carter was a divorced mother and celebrated country music singer in her own right when she met Cash. He was already married, but pursued her relentlessly for years. Carter famously stood up to the American music legend, but also supported him through years of his addiction and depression. Witherspoon never met Carter, who died in 2003, four months after the death of her husband. But she had already given the actress her blessing.

"It was a wonderful role, because it was a very interesting time to be a woman in the Fifties and Sixties," says Witherspoon. "June Carter was still rooted in a time where it wasn't socially acceptable to have two different husbands, to get divorced, to be in love with the man you were working with, to have two children and be on the road with a load of men. She didn't try to comply with social convention and I think that made her a very modern women. I also think there was something appealing to the opposite sex, about her no-nonsense attitude. Apparently a lot of men on the tour had it pretty bad for June, including Elvis Presley, which drove Johnny crazy," laughs the actress.

Witherspoon brings a vibrant energy to her portrayal of the bubbly performer. There is also a physical transformation: she dyed her hair dark brown.

Only 5ft 2in, Witherspoon talks in a soft, lilting Southern drawl. "I think I understand the history of country music because I grew up in Nashville. I related to June because she was a Southerner like me, you know; we're nice people. I send a lot of thank-you gifts and write a lot of cards. The South is a spiritual place," says Witherspoon, who is a regular churchgoer. "It's about the ritual of family togetherness and singing and storytelling. It's a community that takes care of people and they have a lot of respect and compassion."

"I think there are similarities between us. June was a woman trying to have a career and have children, like me. I have a lot of adult responsibilities, I'm not frivolous or carefree, I haven't been a young girl for a long time," she says. "And we both started working at a very young age." Witherspoon enrolled in drama classes when she was seven. She was soon modelling and appearing in TV shows and commercials, but never imagined success on this scale - certainly not so young. "I don't think it is just talent, I think I'm just lucky," she says with a shrug. "I'm so blessed. I feel like I'm in such a rare position to get this far, as a woman in this business, getting challenging roles with great directors and co-stars. When I go home to see my family in Tennessee, my old friends will always say to me, 'You're a movie star, why did this happen to you?' And, you know, I have absolutely no idea why it happened to me," she smiles, tossing her blonde waves back from her face.

Witherspoon does confess that, from the start, that there was something ineluctable about her career. She had a steely determination and rigorous work ethic, unlike other young actresses she knew who were preoccupied with fashion and boyfriends. "You have to be focused and a little tough as a young woman, because people can overpower you. It takes a certain type of tenacious personality to deal with rejection. When I first came here, all I heard was: 'No, not right, not tall enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough.' But I didn't really care about their opinion because I'm stubborn."

She won great reviews for her starring role in the witty satire, Election, in 1999. Then she shot to fame internationally as the perky Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, (2001), followed by Sweet Home Alabama. She starred in Vanity Fair in 2004 and played a doctor in last year's comedy, Just Like Heaven.

The sense of control and discipline extends to her personal life. She is married to actor Ryan Phillippe, and the couple have two children, Ava, aged six, and Deacon, two. By the time we meet, at noon, the actress has already been for a run, made breakfast, conducted a business meeting, and taken the children to school. She has arrived in Beverly Hills in full hair and make-up, looking fresh and immaculate. Later, she says, she'll be cooking dinner and reading stories to her children - before reading scripts. And despite her millions, she insists that she doesn't have a nanny because she likes to be a "hands-on mother".

Witherspoon makes no apologies for being a working parent. Both parents had demanding careers: her father, John, is a doctor and her mother, Betty, was a nurse. "My mother was an inspiration - she had five jobs," says Witherspoon, " and she had six different degrees, she was always doing something. She drove blind people in her spare time.

Witherspoon makes a convincing case that life is relatively routine. "Someone asked me the other day: 'Do you have a chef?' And I said: 'Yes, her name is Reese'. You know, Ryan and I didn't grow up with money and I don't think we've changed. Money isn't terribly important to us, we give most of it away," she says though, "I do like nice dresses for the red carpet."

Inevitably, she says the hardest part about fame is the spotlight on her relationship. "I don't feel I have a Hollywood marriage, I just have a marriage, there are good days and bad days. I think any marriage is a challenge. I think our lives work as a family, because I just pretend I'm not famous half the time," she says. "I just close my eyes and I don't look at people when I'm out with my children, I don't make eye-contact because I want my children to have my full attention, not other people.

"We try to keep it as normal as possible, it's not like we have movie stars floating in and out of our house every night. I love my work, I am so passionate about what I do as an actor, but there's something about playing with your kids and calming their fears at night, when it's dark, that makes you realise what life is really all about."

With Phillippe away shooting Flags of Our Feathers, Witherspoon has been at home in LA, taking care of the children, walking the bulldogs (Frank Sinatra and Coco Chanel) and developing films. Her next project with Type A is Penelope. "It's a fairy tale about a girl who has a pig-face. I play her quirky best friend," she says. Then she'll be in The Reckoning, a political drama set in Cambodia. "I'd love to direct and I think it's only a matter of time," she says. "And I'd like to do a Broadway musical." Presumably she feels more confident in her vocals now. "When I'm with the children in the car. I sing really loud," she grins, "and I think I'm a fantastic singer."

'Walk The Line' is released on 3 February