Nothing could have prepared Reese Witherspoon for the physical chanllenges that she faced in making her latest film, Wild, she tells Susan Griffin.
In her latest film, Wild, Reese Witherspoon tells the true story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who lost her way after her mother’s death and numbed the pain through promiscuity and drugs, until she sought to find 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, 2001’s Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama, believes her fans won’t be shocked by seeing her in sex and drug-taking scenes.
“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.
“I’ve evolved as a human being, and also as an actor. ”
The role has already seen her pick up a Golden Globe nomination as well as a Bafta nod, but the actress – 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 – admits she recently had to have a conversation 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 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!’” reveals 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 tackling the unforgiving three-month trek into a bestselling memoir, which was published in 2012. Nick Hornby, who adapted the book for the screen, has since said that her whole life story, from her difficult childhood to the fallout following her mother’s death, would make a compelling movie in itself.
But it’s Strayed’s determination to turn her life around that most touched Witherspoon when she read an early manuscript.
“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,” explains the actress.
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.”
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 [Vallee, the director, who also helmed last year’s Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club] really didn’t want me to be prepared, or go hiking or be in good shape,” she adds.
Then there was the ‘monster’ rucksack that Strayed, in her naivety, had set out with.
“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.”