Reese Witherspoon: A novel challenge for blonde ambition

The star of Legally Blonde is about to appear as a classic English anti-heroine. Reese Witherspoon tells Lee Marshall why
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The Independent Online

Reese Witherspoon achieved stardom by playing a blonde who was not as stupid as she looked. Now, in Mira Nair's rumbustious adaptation of Vanity Fair, she gets to play a blonde who is every bit as intelligent as she looks. This is progress in Hollywood.

It's difficult not to read Elle Woods, the prom queen turned legal ace of Legally Blonde, as a from-the-heart statement about the way blondes tend to get typecast in dithery roles. And by taking on the role of Thackeray's seductive social climber Becky Sharp, surely Witherspoon is making a tongue-in-cheek comment on the way that she is perceived in the media: blonde, aggressively ambitious, and a little hard-edged.

Waiting for the actress to show up for her interview appointment I keep thinking back to an anecdote I once read about her first major film role in the touching, but over-schmaltzy, 1950s adolescent love story The Man in the Moon. She was only 14, but the rest of the cast were so impressed by her bearing, her acting ability and her precocious confidence that she was given the on-set nickname "Little Meryl". Now, commercially, she's bigger than "big Meryl": in the current Hollywood-actress money-list she's up there with Nicole Kidman on $15m, just behind Cameron Diaz and Julia Roberts. She's the only actress under 30 in The Hollywood Reporter's 2004 top five.

When Reese eventually does show, she is neither hard-edged nor aggressive. She isn't even blonde. She's gone aubergine-tinted brunette for her role as June Carter Cash, the feisty wife of country singer Johnny Cash, in the upcoming biopic Walk The Line. Though she likes the fact that "people walk straight past me", Witherspoon admits that she is finally "getting tired of my brown hair... I feel more like a blonde". The effect is odd: undistracted by Witherspoon's trademark feature, one's attention somehow shifts onto the fragile petiteness of her features.

Still, there's nothing fragile about the way Witherspoon has constructed her career. Even her choice of name talks of a certain adolescent foresight. Reese was plain old Laura Jean Witherspoon until she replaced her Southern-belle moniker with her mother's maiden surname.

It's very easy to use hindsight to read patterns into an acting career; the least one can say of Witherspoon's is that - taking the looks as a given - it has been powered by equal amounts of solid acting talent, hard work, and blonde ambition. Having fluffed an audition for Cape Fear after a fellow passenger on the plane to New York told her, in great detail, who Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro actually were, and why she was quite right to feel terrified, Witherspoon got her head down and took on a series of small but demanding teenage parts in mid-budget movies like Wildflower and A Far Off Place.

It was Freeway that brought the now-mature actress back into critical, if not commercial, favour in 1996: this twisted road movie proved that she could stray into darker territory, and the promise ripened in her next two roles, as Tobey Maguire's randy sister in the moral-majority spoof Pleasantville, and as an ambitious, unscrupulous high school queen in Election.

But critical esteem was not enough, as Witherspoon readily admits: "When you're in movies that don't make any money, the studios don't want to hire you. I'd get into situations with directors who'd say "I really want you, but the studio won't let me, because you don't mean anything". So I had to take a little time to reconfigure my ideas about what I was going to do with my career, because if it was going to go anywhere I was going to have to start making commercial movies".

Everyone, Witherspoon included, was surprised by the huge success of Legally Blonde, her first headline role. Most Hollywood executives were convinced that it was Witherspoon's sparky and sparkling comic turn that brought the punters. Any actress who can turn a budget of $18m into box-office returns of more than $90m has got to be a good investment, and the former cheerleader from Nashville was suddenly catapulted onto the A-list. The healthy takings of Legally Blonde and Witherspoon's next rom-com, Sweet Home Alabama, gave the actress the freedom to call the shots. But she recognises that neither film is a masterpiece, coming over all defensive before I've even had a chance to attack.

"I wouldn't have been able to get the budget for Vanity Fair if it hadn't been for the commercial success of Sweet Home Alabama and Legally Blonde. It's a business, and you can't kid yourself that you can just... endlessly make artistic movies that don't make any money. Particularly if you have goals or ambitions or want to create opportunities for the rest of your career".

Witherspoon is part of the new proactive generation of Hollywood talent: actors who use their box-office muscle to raise funding for projects they are interested in. She has her own production company, Type A - a reference to her parents' affectionately teasing nickname for their goody-two-shoes daughter, "Little Miss Type A".

When she decides that she wants to work with a director, Witherspoon does something about it. By her own admission, her pursuit of Mira Nair fell little short of stalking: "I've contacted her so many times over the years, trying to get her to direct movies that I was going to do. And she finally took a meeting with me two or three years ago and we sat down and really hit it off. I really admire her visual sensibility and also her sense of character. There are no good guys or bad guys in her movies, they're all just very real portraits of human behaviour".

And so to Becky. Nair has said that there was never any doubt that Witherspoon was the one for the role: "Thackeray describes Becky as 'minx-like', and that's so much Reese. In her eyes, as in Becky Sharp's, five or six things can go on, clickety-clack, at the same time. Also, I wanted to see a girl like Reese, who is always offered cute girl parts, as a really full-blown womanly creature... I couldn't think of another actress who could play from 17 to 35 with the maturity of Reese."

This is the second time that Witherspoon has gone English, and period English at that: the first was in Oliver Parker's fizzy but insubstantial version of The Importance of Being Earnest, an experience which she admits to finding "terrifying... I felt so reverential towards Oscar Wilde's material that it was hard for me to feel free".

Getting the voice right was less difficult this time round, says Witherspoon, though she was made to feel "about two inches tall" when an unnamed colleague came up to her on the second day of shooting and asked, innocently, "Are you trying to do an English accent?" (she delivers the phrase in a perfect imitation of flat estuary English). Witherspoon was the only American in an otherwise all-British cast. Asked to comment on the differences between the American and British acting traditions, she replies, without visible irony: "It's exciting to be with so many people who know their lines."

Thackeray's beautiful, articulate and resourceful heroine is one of the great stand-alone characters in the English novel, yet, since the 1930s - when Myrna Loy and Miriam Hopkins both tried their hands at the role - no actress has been given the chance to play Becky Sharp on a grand cinematic scale. Part of the problem is how to distill Thackeray's vast narrative sweep into a two-hour screenplay. Nair and scriptwriter Julian Fellowes do so by losing many of the minor characters and sub-plots, and by casting Becky's amoral scheming as a much more Hollywood-friendly kind of determination to succeed in a world where, as Nair puts it, "she had been dealt the wrong cards". In the film she becomes what Witherspoon likes to call "an early feminist".

The problem with this approach is that what Becky gains in audience sympathy she loses in malign energy. As Stephen Holden remarked in The New York Times, "As you watch Reese Witherspoon spin her web, you long for a lot more Scarlett O'Hara and a lot less Elle Woods".

The blunting of Ms Sharp may also have had something to do with the fact that Witherspoon was pregnant with her second child during the shoot. The actress stresses the upside of her interesting state: "I was very emotional, and vulnerable... and I think that really helped me to get into the scenes". But it also seems to have made her fiercely defensive of Becky's frankly indefensible record as a mother. In Thackeray, the heroine's chilling neglect of Rawdy, her son, is held up as a constant reminder that, underneath the brilliant, glamorous, witty veneer, she is a hard-hearted bitch.

In the film, Becky is, Witherspoon will admit, "definitely cold" towards her son, and she recognises that "there are women out there who don't relate to their children", but she resists the idea that her character is a bad mother: "It's hard for me to get my head around that because a lot of the choices she makes, even though maybe they're a little misguided, she thinks she's doing them for the betterment of her children".

Witherspoon met her husband, the actor Ryan Phillippe, when he crashed her 21st birthday party. Married since 1999, the two have attracted a fair share of attention as one of Hollywood's youngest celebrity couples. Occasionally, says Witherspoon, this can border on the surreal - as when one US scandal-rag captioned photos of Reese and Ryan in a pet shop to suggest that they were having a knock-down argument. In fact, says Witherspoon, "we were trying to decide whether or not to buy a dog". But she acknowledges that "I don't get it as bad as a lot of people. I wouldn't know what it would be like to be Britney Spears, or Posh and Becks."

And unlike Becky Sharp, Witherspoon spends as much time as possible with her daughter Ava Elizabeth and baby son Deacon: "I stay very grounded within my family. As cool as you think you are, when you've two children squashing cup-cakes into your dress when you go to a premiere, you don't feel so cool".

'Vanity Fair' opens on 14 January

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