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January 11, 2008

Reese Witherspoon's New Passion

America's sweetheart has set modest goals for 2008. At the top of the list: Make the world a safer place for women.

Reese Witherspoon

Photo Credit: James White

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There's a Hollywood golden girl for every era, and this one belongs unequivocally to Reese Witherspoon. During a time when gleeful overexposure and self-promotion are the norm, the Oscar-winning star of Walk the Line and Legally Blonde has managed to become the highest-paid actress in the business — earning $15 million to $20 million a picture — without even remotely exploiting herself. The fact that she can radiate such warmth, charm, and humor — joking about her cellulite and stretch marks, claiming she'd never heard of Louis Vuitton while growing up in Tennessee, celebrating her 30th birthday with fried chicken and a game of Boggle — and yet still maintain her mystique is a rare feat.

Not that the tabloids haven't taken their shots. Tensions in Witherspoon's seven-year marriage to Ryan Phillippe, which produced daughter Ava and son Deacon, now ages 8 and 4, were tracked with relentless fervor before the couple finally called it quits in November 2006. (In one famous case, a photog conked a 5-year-old girl with his camera to clear the way for a shot of the family at an amusement park.) Recently, photos of Witherspoon nuzzling her Rendition costar Jake Gyllenhaal in Los Angeles and Rome have popped up; sightings have grown all the more valuable due to the couple's apparent decision to keep mum about the relationship.

In spite of everything, Witherspoon, 31, somehow stays focused. This month, her production company, Type A Films, is releasing a modern fable called Penelope, about the travails of a girl born with a pig snout for a nose — the result of an ancient family curse. (The ever-game Christina Ricci does the unflattering honors here.) But, while Witherspoon has a cameo in Penelope, the role that really inspires her these days is that of Avon's first-ever "global ambassador," which will give her a platform to attack head-on some of the most serious issues affecting women worldwide — from domestic violence to breast cancer. With long-range plans for foreign travel, she kicks off her new role in March with an address in honor of International Women's Day at the United Nations. During her victory speech at the Oscars in 2006, Witherspoon said, "I'm just trying to matter and live a good life and make work that means something to somebody." Mission accomplished. She talked exclusively with Marie Claire about her current passions, and what it feels like to have landed the role of a lifetime.

MC: The Avon gig is the first of its kind, so it's up to you to define your role. What inspired you to take this on?
RW: I have someone very close to me who is a breast-cancer survivor, and I know how important early detection is, along with the research that may one day lead to a cure. The Avon Foundation has been hugely active in the fight against breast cancer — and also in the areas of domestic violence and disaster relief. I went to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and it was devastating to see how underserved those communities are. I'm looking forward to helping raise money and awareness for these causes. In fact, over the years, I've been approached by many companies to support their brand or products, but I've never felt as inspired as when I met the people from Avon — I feel like they have given me an opportunity to connect to women in a very personal way.

MC: What exactly will you be doing, and what do you hope to achieve?
RW: We're just getting started with all the ways I can help. I'm excited about speaking at the Global Summit for a Better Tomorrow [presented by UNIFEM, the U.N. fund for women, in partnership with Avon]. As an actress and producer, I've always tried to make choices that promote the strength and ability I find inherent in every woman — my hope now is that the quality of women's lives can be tangibly improved.

MC: You've come a long way since you went for the role of the rebellious teen in Cape Fear — and made the charmingly wrong call of wearing a cutesy dress with a Peter Pan collar to the audition. Now you're busy running a production company, raising kids, taking on a huge philanthropic role. How do you find time for fun?
RW: I think all those things are fun!

MC: Okay, what's your guilty pleasure, then?
RW: Game shows like the new Crosswords and Deal or No Deal. And Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? is very popular in my house....

MC: What drew you most to the zany story of Penelope?
RW: The ability of this young woman to supersede social expectations of what she should look like and learn to love herself for who she is — including her pig nose. This is a film that lets people know that it's okay to be unique. It's okay to be different — it's actually better! I felt it could really speak to people, particularly young women, about self-acceptance. Penelope is original and funny and romantic, and I can't believe it's finally coming out!

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