Arts

Reese Witherspoon takes matters into her own hands when it comes to making movies

When it comes to putting women at the forefront in TV and film, Reese Witherspoon is showing Hollywood how it's done. She tells Gemma Dunn why instead of accepting 'dreadful' scripts, she decided to fight back and create her own opportunities

Reese Witherspoon in Home Again, which is in cinemas now

WHEN Reese Witherspoon and her Big Little Lies co-stars took to the stage at this year's Emmy Awards, they were met with rapturous applause. Hand in hand, the five stars – Nicole Kidman, Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz and Shailene Woodley – seemed to be proof that the tide is turning in Hollywood, as the 69th ceremony became historic for its celebration of women in front of and behind the camera.

The HBO show – based on the book by Australian author Liane Moriarty – had cleaned up, winning eight major awards including Outstanding Limited Series.

"It's been an incredible year for women in television," declared Witherspoon (41), as she accepted the latter alongside her cast mate and co-producer Kidman. "Can I just say, bring women to the front of their own stories, and make them the hero of their own stories."

Gripping the star's hand, Kidman, who also took home best actress, added: "This is a friendship that then created opportunities. It created opportunities out of our frustration because we weren't getting offered great roles, so now more great roles for women, please."

Delivering a message that's hard to ignore, I'm not at all surprised to find Witherspoon – an Academy Award winner in her own right – still processing the night's events when we meet four days later.

"It's been amazing. It's been a really interesting time," quips the Walk the Line actress, in a London hotel. "I'd never gone to the Emmys before, so it was really fun. [There are] so many talented women: Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, Oprah...

"(We've been) getting so many well wishes," continues the Louisiana-born star. "People are really responding to how many women won."

Is she seeing a change in the scripts she's being offered, then?

"Nope," she fires back, exasperated. "That's why I'm buying books and turning them into movies, because the scripts are dreadful," she reasons, having headed up such novel-to-screen adaptations as Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, under her production banner Pacific Standard.

"Honestly, the things that come at me normally are just dreadful and it's a huge industry."

She follows: "I think when you're trying to establish yourself, you take a lot of projects that maybe aren't, you know, expressive of who you are as an artist or what you want to accomplish, but certainly as you get older you think, 'Why am I doing this?'"

Obviously, then, Witherspoon's resume has done a 180 since her breakthrough role playing blonde sorority girl Elle Woods in the 2001 classic Legally Blonde. But while her latest outing might look like it affords the same rom-com tropes – Home Again is, in fact, very different.

For starters, the movie boasts two brilliant film-makers: producer Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, It's Complicated) and her daughter, Hallie Meyers-Shyer, who will make her directorial debut. Secondly, it's a contemporary title that challenges the standard definitions of family, as in between love, friendship and family, it offers a life lesson in that starting over is not for beginners.

That teaching comes in the form of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a 40-year-old who has recently separated from her husband (Michael Sheen) and therefore decides to start over by moving back to her hometown of Los Angeles with her two young daughters. It's there she comes across three young film-makers and having agreed to a temporary living arrangement, finds her newfound life unfolding in unexpected ways.

For Witherspoon, it was refreshing to explore the truth of divorce, as opposed to a traditional love story.

"[To] have a woman separated in the very beginning of the film is a very modern concept," she says of Home Again, admitting she was keen to explore the notion that decisions you make at 25 don't necessarily suit your life further down the line.

"I loved the script. I think so many people can relate to the journey of getting divorced and not knowing what's next," she adds. "People are going through that more and more, so it's nice to see reality reflected on film."

Restating her support for 'dynamic' women steering the ship, she states: "It's great to have a female director and a female producer (too). They really see romance in a different kind of way and it's definitely through their lens that you see a romance between an older woman and a younger man..."

But she's quick to point out it goes far beyond mother-daughter bonding.

"It's been really fun to see Hallie and Nancy's dynamic and how they speak the same language," Witherspoon enthuses. "They think the same ways about comedy and character.

"It's nice for me to be around so many female film-makers," she says. "It's important that we have female voices in film and I think Hallie is going to be a great new voice."

But ultimately, she insists, it's about updating the age-old rom com: "Audiences are ready for something a little more modern."

A mother to three children, Witherspoon – who has a son and daughter with her ex-husband actor Ryan Phillippe and a son with her second husband, talent agent Tim Roth – is ever conscious of setting a fine example to her brood. In particular her lookalike daughter Ava, whom she took as her plus one to this year's Emmys.

"I look forward to the day when she gets to be the boss," Witherspoon says of the 18-year-old. "I will be like happy; I'm like 'You take the responsibility'" she adds. "It's shifted definitely to, 'Wow, look at what my mother and these other women are accomplishing and I am so proud of them'," she concludes, smiling.

"She is learning a lot from these incredible women that I get to spend time with – it's the dream."

:: Home Again is in cinemas now. Big Little Lies continues on Sky Atlantic tonight.

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