REESE Witherspoon’s latest film, Wild, tells the true story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who lost her way after her mother’s death and numbed the pain with promiscuity and drugs, until she found her path again by walking 1,100 miles of America’s West Coast on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Witherspoon, the larger-than-life petite blonde who came to prominence as Hollywood’s southern belle, starring in films like Election, Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama, says her fans won’t be shocked by scenes of her having sex or taking drugs.
“I think my audience has grown up, too, and the women who saw me in Election or Legally Blonde aren’t 20 years old any more, they’re 35.
They have kids and real-life experiences,” says the 38-year-old, who was born in New Orleans and raised in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I’ve evolved as a human being, and also as an actor. You take chances, and you never know whether audiences are going to accept you or laugh in your face. I’ve been really touched that people have been so receptive to me doing something different.”
She was nominated for a Golden Globe for the role (though she lost to Julianne Moore at the weekend) as well as for a Bafta. But Witherspoon, who won an Oscar in 2006 for her performance as June Carter in Walk The Line, the film based on the life of country music legend, Johnny Cash, says she spoke with her 15-year-old daughter, Ava, about the more controversial scenes.
“I had to explain it to her, because people are starting to talk,” says Witherspoon, who also has a son Deacon, 11, from her previous marriage, to actor Ryan Phillippe, and two-year-old Tennessee with her second husband, talent agent Jim Toth.
“I said, ‘Ava, I’ve got to tell you something... I’m naked in the movie’!” says Witherspoon, laughing.
“She was like, ‘Mum that’s so weird!’ And I said, ‘I had to be brave, and couldn’t just tell the parts I was comfortable with, because Cheryl was brave enough to tell her whole story, so I had to tell the parts that I was scared to do’. But she’s very proud of me.”
Strayed turned her experience of the unforgiving three-month trek into a bestselling memoir, which was published in 2012.
Nick Hornby, who adapted the book for the screen, has said that Stayed’s whole life story, from her difficult childhood to her mother’s death, would make a compelling movie.
But it’s Strayed’s determination to turn her life around that most touched Witherspoon.
“It was one of the most profound books I’d ever read, in dealing with loss and grief, and the idea that no-one’s coming to save you in your life, you have to save yourself,” says the actress, who was arrested in 2013 for disorderly conduct, when she and Toth were pulled over by a police officer (she later admitted she’d had “one drink too many”).
As soon as she’d finished the book, Witherspoon — who’d recently launched the production company, Pacific Standard, with producer Bruna Papandrea, called Strayed with the hope of making a movie about her story.
“I found her to be every bit the spiritual and emotional person that you’d expect. She’s no-nonsense, cuts through all the ’BS’ and just tells it like it is — the same things people really responded to in her book,” Witherspoon included.
There have been times “when I laid on my kitchen floor and cried a lot”, Witherspoon says.
“And then I think you get to a certain point and go, ‘I don’t want to feel like this any more’, and you figure your own s**t out. No-one’s going to figure it out for you. Feeling weak is human, and you can’t apologise for being human. We all feel weak sometimes, and sad and distraught and lost.”
She says she didn’t embark on the project with the intention of playing the lead role — “but then Cheryl said, ‘I really want you to play me’.”
“I didn’t know if I was capable of it,” the actress says.
“I was terrified of this movie before I started. I tried everything to get out of it, but Jean-Marc Vallee, the director, who also helmed last year’s Oscarwinning Dallas Buyers Club, and Bruno Papandrea, wouldn’t let me.”
Although she considers herself ‘outdoorsy’, nothing could prepare her for the physical challenges of the shoot.
“There was climbing up the side of a mountain and balancing on river-crossings, and marching through chest-deep snow and falling into a freezing river... I had no idea it was going to be as hard as it truly was.
“But the whole point is, Cheryl didn’t know what she was doing, so Jean-Marc really didn’t want me to be prepared, or go hiking or be in good shape,” she says.
“And he never let me see the tent beforehand. I couldn’t work it out. He must’ve filmed me for two or three hours, so when you see me swearing, that was for real.”
Then there was the “monster” rucksack that Strayed, in her naivete, had set out with.
“The boots and backpack became a part of me,” Witherspoon says.
“Sometimes, the prop-master would have to say, ‘You can take it off’. But as Cheryl says in her book, there’s something amazing about realising that everything you really need in life, you can carry on your back. It is so liberating, a beautiful idea.”
Witherspoon, who will soon be seen in the crime-thriller Inherent Vice, with Joaquin Phoenix, and The Good Lie, about a woman who helps Sudanese refugees, hails Strayed as a true inspiration.
“She could have made other choices. She could have become a drug addict, gone down that rabbit hole and never returned. But she decides not to. She pulls herself out, and that is incredibly inspiring for anyone who is struggling with their life in any kind of way.
“So many people feel they are alone and have no-one to help them,” Witherspoon says.
“This story gives voice to the idea that you can save yourself, and that’s a really powerful thing.”