I first fell in love with Reese Witherspoon when she strutted down the halls of Harvard Law School in 2001's Legally Blonde as Elle Woods, proving so forcefully that a woman who cares about makeup and clothes can also be brilliant. I've followed Reese's career ever since, from her Oscar-winning portrayal of June Cash in Walk the Line (2005) to her raw performance in Wild (2014), and I recently spent an entire Saturday binge-watching the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning Big Little Lies. Reese produced the latter two projects, in addition to 2014's Gone Girl, under the auspices of her relatively new production company, Hello Sunshine.
Her mom once told her that if you wanted a job done right, you'd have to do it yourself. So, realizing the alarming and persistent dearth of meaty roles for women, Reese set out to create her own opportunities, lifting up other women along the way. With 23 producing projects in the works, it's kind of a miracle she's running lifestyle brand Draper James and a killer book club on Instagram. When I heard she'd landed a role in Ava DuVernay's adaptation of one of my all-time favorite books, A Wrinkle in Time, I volunteered to interview her myself.
Anne Fulenwider: You’ve talked about how you’re proud of your ambition. Where do you get that from?
Reese Witherspoon: I get a lot of support from my husband [Jim Toth, an agent at CAA], who cares deeply about equality and always tells me,“Why wouldn’t you call the person in charge of a company and have a personal relationship with them?” He’s encouraged me to be outspoken. Oprah has encouraged me before I ever met her to be the best version of myself, through her book clubs, the people I saw on her show. [She’s been] an incredible advocate for me as a businesswoman.
RW: I read it in sixth grade, and I just loved it. I thought I was Meg Murry. I didn’t really know where I fit in in the world. I knew there were bigger ideas than the place I lived, and it gave me this idea that I could accomplish things or that I could be part of a bigger story. The book is very empowering for young children—they have the opportunity to change their world by changing their own minds and knowing that even if you are surrounded by darkness, you are able to summon the light.
AF: I love that lesson, which gets me to something that is all over the news: sexual harassment. There’s no industry that hasn’t been touched by it. Brave people have raised their voices, and now we’re witnessing a sea change and growing momentum in this movement. Have you been surprised by the fact that stories of sexual harassment have come out about so many more industries than Hollywood?
RW: Sadly, I don’t find any of this shocking. Women have been sharing stories in each other’s living rooms and workplaces for as long as I’ve been a working woman. It’s just incredible that the media and the world started believing us all and listening. I was particularly moved by the women at Ford Motor Company who came forward and told their stories of harassment and abuse, and by the women in my own industry who told their stories so bravely when they had nothing to gain.
AF: Why do you think so many people stayed silent for so long about sexual harassment?
RW: The majority of women—if they came forward—were stigmatized for reporting and in some cases lost their jobs. There was simply no reason to share your story if the results would be so punitive. That’s why I’ve been working very hard on an initiative called Time’s Up with more than 400 women in my industry to raise money for women to have better resources for on-the-job-harassment lawsuits in their own industries. We are trying to level the playing field for all women and men who have suffered from discrimination, harassment, and abuse.
AF: Do you think we will really see change now?
RW: I feel a shift, completely, a reckoning of people who have been silent for so long finally coming forward and speaking out even if their voice shakes, as I know mine did when I told my story. [At a fall event in L.A., Witherspoon spoke about her experiences of harassment and sexual assault, including by a director when she was 16.] The female leaders within every industry have to stand up for those who are voiceless and silent, and we have to do better to create more balanced cultures with female leadership and leadership with people of color. It’s just profoundly overdue. [Women and the public] think, Well, I don’t know how I can really effect change. You can effect change by where you spend your money. We all need to be more aware of the companies we work at and the companies that we do business with, because the consumer is very powerful in this world of social media. Some companies are doing incredibly well with inclusion and diversity—those industries thrive, and abuse goes down when you have more balance at the top.
Featured video music: "Drastic" (ft. The Ready Set and Gabrielle Current) by Lost Art
Here, a few highlights from her March cover interview, on newsstands February 20:
On supporting women-lead films:
“…It shouldn’t just be about financial success. We should have as many opportunities to fail as we do succeed. Because artistry is not about succeeding always. It’s about having the courage to try and put out into the world new ideas.”
On combatting fear:
“I see [fear] as this little creature that lives in my life all the time, and I can either pay it attention and not get anything done or I can march ahead and ignore it. Sometimes that’s not a good thing, and sometimes it is, but sometimes I just have to jump two feet into a cold pool and go, OK, I believe in myself enough. I know I work hard. I know I can always bet on myself."
On upcoming projects with Jennifer Aniston and Zendaya:
“I’m excited about the project with Jen Aniston [one of the first television shows out of Apple]. It’s a show about women in media–the morning news in particular. Zendaya and I are producing a movie on a book I brought to her called The Gilded Years. It’s about the first African-American woman who graduated from Vassar. It’s important to go back in time so that my daughter’s generation and Zendaya’s generation realize that these were hard-fought wins for humankind and that the brave people at the center of them were women and people of color.”
Read the full interview and see more photographs in the March issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands February 20.