Witherspoon's 'Vanity' Project
Reese Witherspoon is all-smiles when she confesses her continuing love for her favourite role these days: motherhood. "Well, it's been wonderful and great," she says, while promoting her latest film Vanity Fair. "I don't work as much because I can' t, am too busy with the kids and want to spend all the time I can with them. So it's changed in that sense because I have to be very particular about what I do as I only do one movie a year which is almost actually better," the actress explains, adding that working less has helped her make good and clear decisions "in what's best for the family." Witherspoon says that motherhood has afforded her the chance to play women on screen with whom she can better identify, referring specifically to real-life June Carter Cash in the Johnny Cash biopic I Walk the Line, on which she is currently wrapping. "There I play a woman with two children who is on the road working in the entertainment industry trying to do it all and take care of two kids and maintain her southern values. It's really easy for me to relate in that sense. I mean you can play a mother if you haven't had children but I think it really deepens the role when you know what it means to love something so unconditionally," insists the 28-year old star.
The actress adds that motherhood has changed her criteria in selecting roles, but further insists "I've always had a sense of personal responsibility to myself to represent women in a way that I feel is how I would want to be represented on film. I guess that deepens a little bit when I have a little girl and think about what I would want to put out in the world as far as ideas of who women are or how they should be. I think about that sort of stuff but it doesn't dictate everything."
Witherspoon does have an interest in playing the kind of indomitable character Becky Sharp in the latest screen adaptation of Vanity Fair. Based on the classic novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, the film centres Becky, who was born into the lower class, depending only on her wit, guile, and sexuality as she makes her way up through London society in about 1820. While it might have been daunting to step into the shoes of one of literature's most classic heroines, Witherspoon has no doubts why she was eager to tackle this particular 'Vanity' project head on. "I'd just gotten through doing Legally Blonde 2 which was a lot of fun, but I always try to look for something different after every film I finish. Mira Nair and I had met two years earlier just to talk about projects. I just love her work and thought she'd be a great person to work for, plus I'm also very interested in working with female directors and women in the business. So she called me up and said this project was something she was working on and she'd really love for me to do it, I read it and was blown away by it." Then she found out she was pregnant. " Mira thought it would really help the piece and she used it as part of the development. She was a great sport about it."
In the film, Witherspoon shows off her pregnant belly and says she found that to be a liberating experience. "The reason I was so attracted to Mira's work is that she has this way of putting sexuality in her films in a way so that it's not gratuitous or overt. It's hard for me to describe, but has a lot to do with colour, mood and lighting, so I felt very comfortable with her. So when she said I really want to make sure we make the most of your body and show your pregnant belly I just didn't feel nervous at all, because I knew she would do it in a beautiful way and I was really happy when I saw the film as it's so beautiful. It's real, it's what really happened and I think it adds to the vulnerability of the character if the character has any vulnerability."
While some puritans may scoff at the casting of an American [and a southern American at that] in this most British of literary characters, Witherspoon says it was a distinct advantage, as Becky Sharp epitomizes the outsider. "I think that being an outsider and being the only American helped inform those things for me. Also it was nice being able to come to it with a fresh perspective and having somebody like Mira who also feels like an outsider of that culture. I think in a way it gives you an opportunity to feel more free within the character and I think that is how Thackeray would want it. People tend to put their ideas out there and they want them to be interpreted and brought to a modern audience from perspectives that everybody understands, and I think everybody understands being a person on the outside."
As for the dangers of doing a period film for a modern audience, Witherspoon is unconcerned. "I think the idea of being from a certain social class or social-economic place in your life and trying to reach up is a very universal idea," the actress explains. "Everybody understands what that is like, particularly in America, to reach for something bigger, better or higher, whether it's class or money or jobs or degrees. But I also think just the idea of wanting so much and once you get it is that what you really wanted is something every one can understand that. We always feel like we're running a race toward something and even if you get there - of you ever get there - a lot of people stop and think, Is this what I as running for? This is what I as working for?" Perhaps, one questions, that has parallels to stardom. " I was thinking of this quote a friend said to me because when it all first happens to you when you have a big hit movie and your life sort of changes attention wise or whatever media/publicity wise. My friend said that the best job you ever had is the one you had just before you get the job you always wanted. So I think there's something to always striving for more, and I really like that idea. As much as people think: Oh yeah you're in a good place and get lost of offers, I constantly feel like I'm striving to do better or striving to get a better job, work harder or find a bigger challenge. In this business you can always do that. It's always about the next challenge, and the opportunity is always there to push yourself."
Having now played a literary icon and a real-life music icon, one naturally wonders whether or not in 20 years, someone may decide to make a film about Reese and husband Ryan. Witherspoon laughs incredulously at the prospect. "Oh don't say that. These people I've played are so cool. I'm just a little girl from Tennessee doing the best I can."
Vanity Fair opens September 1.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.