INGRID SISCHY: Time for me to get out my trusty old tape recorder. As you can see, it’s an antique, so sometimes I have to kick it or bang it on the table until the spools go around again.
REESE WITHERSPOON: [laughs] You haven’t gone digital yet?
IS: No way. Okay, so on to you. What interests me about so many of the pieces that have been written about you is that they seem fixed on an old-fashioned idea of what women get to have in life — they make a big deal about the fact that you are successful and also have a solid marriage with kids —
RW: Depends on the week [both laugh]
IS: A big deal is made that you went to Stanford, that you’re smart and together. It’s as if people are surprised, as if —
RW: That’s impossible? Well, I just don’t see any of it as that remarkable. Maybe that’s the attitude I choose to have to keep me sane and keep my feet on the ground. I grew up in an environment where women accomplished a lot. And if they weren’t able to it was because they were limited by society. I grew up with a grandma — my father’s mother — who was incredibly intelligent but was limited by the bounds of society and propriety. I think she really struggled with depression because of it. She was a voracious reader, and she encouraged me to read a lot as a child; but I always sensed this disconnect between her capabilities and her lack of fulfillment and achievement, because she could have done so much more.
IS: Was she from the South?
RW: Yeah. We’re all Southern [laughs]. My grandmother’s from Cookeville, Tennessee. My mom is from Harrian, which is near Knoxville. And my dad is originally from Georgia, but he grew up in Nashville. A lot of the family’s been rooted there for a long time or are from different parts of Tennessee, like the rural parts.
IS: Were they big storytellers?
RW: Absolutely. There’s a culture of that in our house. I grew up in that tradition, learning to be funny and silly and tell stories and exaggerate — I exaggerate a lot! It drives my husband [the actor Ryan Phillippe] crazy! I embellish, and I add years to people’s ages and add amounts to things that happened — „Forty paparazzi were there, honey. It was crazy! They were coming at me from all sides!“ It’s about pulling people in, you know?
IS: Of course.
RW: And it’s a Southern storytelling tradition that June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash [played by Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line] invoked a lot. It’s about connecting and not being aloof [laughs]. There’s nothing alienating or aloof about country music or a Southern sensibility, so I had a sort of natural in to a lot of what the movie is about.
IS: Before we go to Walk the Line, which by the way you’re incredible in, I want to stay on this thing about connecting and drawing people in. It’s been a long story for you, since you were 7, right?
RW: Well, what happened was the grandmother of my best friend in the neighborhood had a flowershop, and they made a commercial to run on the local station. I got to be in it, and I just thought that was so exciting! [laughs]
IS: What do you think it was that drew you?
RW: I have no idea. When you become an actor and you have some success, you begin to contemplate why on earth you ended up doing it! You ask yourself: What is it that drives me to need attention? Sometimes I think it’s about acknowledgment. I always felt like people didn’t understand me — what I was capable of or what I could accomplish. I was driven to make people understand that I was capable of more. It’s something I see in my own children too, so possibly it’s a defective gene [laughs]. But for me part of the experience of acting is that it is really moving — it’s almost meditative, going into a different character. You lose all self-consciousness and self-awareness for that brief moment. It’s really magical. Of course, it can also be drudgery if you can’t connect with the material or director.
IS: Has that happened to you?
RW: Oh, sure. I don’t think there’s anybody without those experiences of disconnect.
IS: Your choice to be an actor sure is interesting, especially given the fact that your parents are in medicine, a totally different field from what one associates with the narcissism of Hollywood and all that. What was their reaction?
RW: The great thing about my parents is, even if they were completely befuddled and perplexed as to why their child was interested in this — which they later told me they were — they never showed their doubts to me and took it as seriously as someone would when their child says, „I like gymnastics,“ or „I’m good at soccer.“ They never complained about paying the money, even though these things add up and become expensive; they had to drive me everywhere, but they could see my enthusiasm and encouraged me. They didn’t step on my dreams or see them as inconvenient to their lives.
IS: And what about when you felt beaten down, like when you’d go for an audition and they’d say you’re too this or not enough that?
RW: That was hard. I think those were the moments when my parents were like, „Let’s not do this.“ But I’d say, „No, I want to try again.“
IS: Were you alone a lot as a child?
RW: I was very private and quiet as a child. I was very imaginative — always making things up. I was also with my brother a lot. But no, we weren’t the kind of children that were shadowed. We didn’t have nannies. We didn’t have housekeepers [laughs]. This whole L.A. culture is so foreign to me, because when I was growing up you wouldn’t watch your children every moment. I’m always confused when people bring their children over and then want to sit with them while they play. I think part of the joy of being a child is privacy. Your fantasies and dreams are so important to you at that moment, and you need to hide behind your couch and pretend your Barbies are doing dirty things! It’s formative. I think that’s probably why I was alone a lot, but it was probably self-imposed. I really loved privacy.
IS: Yet you chose acting!
RW: I know. When I had children the lack of privacy was a really hard thing to cope with. Even when Ryan and I were first married, I liked to be alone a lot. I’m a quiet person.
IS: So, when you really began to go for it in terms of acting, did you feel separated from the other kids at school?
RW: Well, my mother was very smart—she told me never to speak about it. And I never did. [Lunch arrives — two McCarthy salads.]
RW: A little, yes, please.
IS: It’s so amazing to be able to sit outside here in L.A. It’s almost November.
RW: Yes, it’s beautiful. I love the weather here. I try and take advantage of it. I walk or run or hike almost every day. My children love to be outside, too. It’s nice.
WAITER: Can we get either of you anything else?
RW: [to waiter] No, it’s perfect, thank you.
IS: [to waiter] Thanks a lot.
RW: You know, people really rag on L.A., and I think it’s because they’re looking in the wrong places.
IS: Do you think of yourself as old Hollywood, in the sense of how you live? It looks to be very different than those people who don’t seem able to live away from the flashbulbs.
RW: We only come out for things that are workrelated. We do have a very private relationship that I don’t think anybody really knows, unless you’re someone who really knows us.
IS: There’s this amazing passage in Joan Didion’s new book [The Year of Magical Thinking, Knopf] that I wanted to read to you. The book is about her coming to terms with the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, who was also a writer. Okay, listen to this: „Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other’s voices. I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right, but we were each the person the other trusted. There was no separation between our investments or interests in any given situation. Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way „competitive,“ that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae In the popular understanding of marriage. That had been one more thing we discussed.“
RW: Yeah, that’s very interesting and very much it. I don’t know why it is that people want to pit women and men against each other, as if we can’t stand on our own in our successes or that one person’s success must mean someone else’s failure. Why is it that if I have a successful film, another actress can’t? Or why does one have to emerge on top? If someone else is having success, then I always see it as creating more opportunity for the rest of us. And that’s a perspective that I only got once I had my children. I was very competitive, but having children opened up a whole new understanding of life and people. It was a big moment for me.
IS: You seem unafraid of challenging yourself to grow as an actor and as a human being.
RW: That’s the way I stay driven to reach different goals and not sit in complacency [laughs]. I just always know I can be better.
IS: That seems to be a theme. Before we got together for this lunch I was reading some background material, and I came across an item that struck me. Your husband said in some article that you guys were in therapy, right?
IS: And that set off a bit of a media storm suggesting that the therapy was a sign of trouble in the relationship. One of the quotes that I remember reading is that you basically said, since when did trying to be better become a negative thing?
RW: Or self-improvement. I think if anybody rests on the idea that they are perfect or their life is perfect or their relationship is perfect and is so troubled about destroying the fagade as opposed to getting to what’s real, that is troublesome. Who is so arrogant and vain that they don’t want people to know they’re real or human? That they’re fallible? We are all just people. That’s part of what’s amazing about being an actor. It’s about compassion and deep feeling for other people’s pain or struggle or drive. I never feel above them. I never feel beneath them. That’s probably what led me to this profession.
IS: Clearly struggles aren’t just what happen to other people. To me it’s really a situation of „There but for the grace of God go I.“
RW: I feel that vulnerability in myself, too. It scares the living crap out of me. We are all on the edge, emotionally or psychologically.
IS: We are, and to pretend we’re not is a big, fat lie. To acknowledge it is to acknowledge our humanity and to give others the freedom to acknowledge theirs. You seem to want to acknowledge and pay attention to your struggles even though the image that’s often painted of you is of an idealized, perfect life. Even the stuff that is known about you reinforces it, like the name you gave your production company — Type A.
RW: That’s something I wish I’d never done, because people think I named it after myself.
IS: Plus, it mirrors some of the characters you’ve played, like Tracy Flick in Election .
RW: Yes. But it just isn’t who I am at all.
IS: Yet your being a type A personality is written about over and over — probably because you play these characters so brilliantly you’re being confused with them.
RW: It was actually an in-joke with my family because at 7 I understood complicated medical terms, such as the difference between type A and type B personalities. But I just wished I’d named the company Dogfood Films or Fork or something. You carry that baggage all your life.
IS: People like to slot others.
RW: We do a lot of judging. I remember being hyperaware of that as a young child in the South. The racial situation in Nashville really bothered me. I’ve heard some pretty awful things in my life. Although there’s a lot of judgment here too, you know? It’s more covert. It’s creepy!
IS: Like all the pressure to be physically perfect and eternally young. I love something you apparently said on that point: „Funny doesn’t sag.“
RW: I think I originally said that to Alexander Payne at a party. I had been talking about getting older and how no one would cast me, and he said he’d cast me, and I replied „Because funny doesn’t sag.“ [Sischy laughs] Sexy sags, you know? God, yeah.
IS: Growing up in Nashville, clearly country music was a big thing for you. Why didn’t you want to become a country star?
RW: Well, I discovered acting. But when I was really young I wanted to be Dolly Parton. And then 104 In the third grade they asked me who my boyfriend was, and I said it was Willie Nelson.
IS: What about pop music?
RW: You just didn’t hear It. There wasn’t a pop radio station in Nashville until I was like 10 or 11. Or maybe we weren’t allowed to listen to it — I can’t remember. But even when there was pop music on, kids didn’t listen to it. Kids listened to Garth Brooks — he was a big thing and was kind of pop/ country. And there was a lot of retro. People loved Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival [laughs]. My whole childhood and high school experience was about CCR. I love Creedence. I just think it’s brilliant and amazing and beautiful and fun — that’s a party to me. Creedencel [Sischy laughs]
IS: Your dad was an ear, nose, and throat surgeon, right?
RW: Yes. He cared for a lot of country-music singers and stuff, so he’d tell us things about the country stars. When I first got the job to play June, I called my dad, and he helped me out by talking to a lot of his patients who knew her — they knew I was his daughter and that I was going to be playing her, so they were really helpful. Ralph Emery was really helpful. He was this guy who had this early-morning television program, and he’d have the most amazing singers come on and sing at that hour. So he sent me all these wonderful old tapes of June, like back when she was the only girl on an all-male music circuit, singing every romantic, croony, jukeboxy song there was. I also went to school with Emmylou Harris’s child and Minnie Pearl’s granddaughter. And I went to school with Hannah Crowell, who’s Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash’s daughter, so anecdotally I knew a little bit about what the Cashes‘ growing-up years must have been like. Like in kindergarten I remember her talking about her granddaddy and how he saw God: „He died one day, and he came back.“
IS: Do you think she meant his coming back from addiction?
RW: No, I think in the ’80s or later he had a near- death experience. But June and Johnny were always like the king and queen of Nashville [laughs]. That’s who everybody wanted to know. And Barbara Mandrell — she was big, too. She lived down the street from us. Ray Stevens lived two doors down. Dolly lived down the street from me. Those people were my rock stars.
IS: Word Is that June was behind the Idea of you playing her.
RW: That’s what the producers have said. It’s wonderful. Unfortunately I never got to meet her. I went off to make Vanity Fair, and that’s when she passed away. [Johnny Cash would die a few months later.] When we got on set I called up her children and said I’d really like to meet you and say hi and look you In the eye and tell you I’m going to honor your mother, so I went down there and got to talk to them, and they said that she was really happy about it, too. I guess because she was being played by another Southern girl.
IS: Even though you’ve done plenty of noncomedy I think your performance as June Carter will really surprise people.
RW: You know, I never felt like I was in some comedy ghetto. The first comedies that I did I created for myself. Basically I went in, found a script that had some idea of what I wanted to do, and found a character I could make into what I wanted. I ended up in big mainstream comedies by default. I couldn’t get a job after Election – I had a really hard time.
IS: Really? Was Election your first big comedy?
RW: Well, I wouldn’t even consider that a big comedy. It made $15 million. It was a great experience, though, and very well reviewed. It was one of those films that people found after it came out. But afterwards I could not get a job. They wouldn’t let me audition to be the best friend in some movies — I was despondent.
RW: I think because the character I played was so extreme and sort of shrewish — people thought that was who I was, rather than me going in and creating a part. I would audition for things, and I’d always be the second choice — studios never wanted to hire me, and I wasn’t losing the parts to big box-office actresses but to ones who I guess people felt differently about. I’d get letters from the directors saying, „I loved your audition. I really wanted to cast you, but the studio wouldn’t let me.“ I have a stack of them. So I called my manager and agent and said I had to do something that was going to make these people see that I could be an asset and that I wasn’t that person people had to worry about having marketability. I was only 22, but I was like, „I need commercial viability. Let’s go get it!“ [both laugh] And they were like, „Okay, how are we going to do that?“ I said, „I don’t know — I’ll know when I see it, and I’ll know when I read it.“
IS: So what happened?
RW: Somebody sent me the script for Legally Blonde . I had read a lot of very insipid girlfriend parts, and I was always sort of against them — I just felt I was too good for that. Women are more dynamic than that. And there were people in my life who said Legally Blonde was absolutely awful, that I couldn’t do it, that I just came off Election, and the reviews had been so good. And I said, „I don’t know why, but I can do this — I have compassion for this person. I know who she is.“ The part reminded me of those amazing Goldie Hawn movies I grew up watching, like Private Benjamin  and Overboard , where everyone underestimates her, including herself, and then she has this great comeuppance and becomes a better person through that journey. I completely related. There’s no one like her. It’s impossible to capture that kind of beautiful innocence with such intelligence underneath the surface — everything going on there. When you look at her films she seems ditsy in the beginning, but she always manages to turn everything on its ear. I actually watched Goldie and Gloria Steinem talking about her performance in Private Benjamin, and that’s what made me do it. When I heard Steinem talking about how important that role was for women to see, and how it was a great movie about how women can be underestimated, I ended up doing it. We made it for $18 million and didn’t think anyone would see it.
IS: And It exploded. It was like great postmodern feminism.
RW: Which was great, because I was desperate. I can’t tell you how many people tell me their daughters want to go to Harvard because of that movie.
IS: And from that point, did everything change?
RW: Yes. I had more options.
IS: With the new film Walk the Line and Its great buzz, do you fear that the terrific word-of-mouth can set up too many expectations?
RW: I fear too much machinery. The marketplace has changed so much as I’ve come up. Part of it is globalization, part of it is the home-video market, but it seems like everything is overhyped.
IS: How was playing June challenging?
RW: Well, I was definitely fearful of the singing — that was very intimidating because I have such reverence for the Cashes‘ work. [A different waiter comes over to the table.]
IS: I didn’t see you over there. How are you?
WAITER: Excellent. And you? Where have you been?
IS: New York.
WAITER: That’s not so bad. Tea?
IS: It would be nice. Reese, do you want some?
RW: Yeah. That would be wonderful.
WAITER: Lemon verbena, for both of you?
IS: When you make a film, are the kids with you?
RW: Yes, and my husband.
IS: So you don’t make films at the same time?
RW: He’s making a film with Clint Eastwood now, about the men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima.
IS: Oh, boy, what an appropriate subject for right now. How great that you can figure out how to be all together. The kids are still at good ages for that, right?
RW: My daughter is 6. It all shifted this year because she started school, so we’ll see what the traveling situation is going to be. You know, Ryan and I went out to dinner with another couple, and I looked at him and thought, I can’t believe we’ve been together almost a decade.
IS: Do you think you are a surprising couple?
RW: What do you mean by surprising?
RW: [in a big voice] Surprise! [Sischy laughs] We’re here! We’re still here!
IS: Wasn’t it at your birthday party that you met? And didn’t you say, „You’re my birthday present“ to him?
RW: You’re killing me! [laughs] Oh, God. Yeah, I did. I was 21. That’s all I have to say about that. I’d had a lot of Midori Sours.
IS: [laughs] What’s a Midori Sour?
RW: I haven’t had one since because of that night. That’s all I have to say.
IS: I’m dying to know what’s in one.
RW: All I know is that it’s green.
IS: Green? That should have been your sign. If you want green you drink margaritas, not green drinks that you don’t know.
RW: God. Yeah.
[The sound of tea cups rattling, and the waiter returns to pour the tea.]
IS: Thanks, [to waiter] What’s in a Midori Sour? [Witherspoon laughs]
WAITER: Basically it can be made with this thing called Pucker.
IS: I like it. Like, pucker up? [Witherspoon laughs]
WAITER: That’s what it’s called. And we’ve all had a few too many at one time, [everybody laughs]
IS: Reese, there was an Interesting piece about Walk the Line In the New York Times. It’s by Sharon Waxman. I brought It with me, but let me read you this part: ‚James Mangold, a director visiting the singer that night, felt desperate. For four years he had struggled to make a movie that told the story of Mr. Cash and his wife, the singer June Carter Cash. And as he watched Mr. Cash grow thin and weak, Mr. Mangold felt it all slipping through his fingers. That night in Mr. Cash’s bedroom, as June looked on, he put it to them straight. ‚I don’t believe you never touched each other in all those years,‘ he told them, referring to their courtship. ‚I don’t believe you never kissed.‘ Mr. Mangold saw the couple — devout Christians who had fallen in love while Mr. Cash was married to another woman — exchange a look.“ This is my favorite part of this article: ‚June finally said: ‚Vegas. The Mint.’“ And they finally tell the truth about their love affair. It’s so great that she had pushed him to come out with it.
RW: Because it isn’t a movie if you have two saints doing saintly things. You’ve got to have the sour with the sweet. Life is messy, you know?
IS: Also, audiences are so smart. If they’re not getting the truth, they can smell it.
RW: Yeah. You have to spark to something you can relate to.
IS: So, what do you think you learned on this?
RW: That it’s important to scare yourself, to do things you don’t think you’re capable of doing. It was really hard for me, this movie.
RW: It was hard shaking it off at the end and walking away from all of it. There was so much preparation, so much work, so much commitment, in a way, I wanted to run screaming from it because it was so emotional, and I felt such a deep connection to her. This sounds Southern, but for like a month afterwards I really felt like she was with me, and then one day she left. You read so much about someone, and you see so much video of them and talk to so many people about them, you start thinking like them. You start to have a lot of their sensibilities, and it really becomes integrated with your own personality. It was hard for me to function in my real life. Plus, I’d just had a baby, so I was a little vulnerable and emotional. Sometimes in interviews I feel like everything is painted so pretty, and there’s a lot of truth that nobody really wants to hear. I have felt like that for years.
IS: We want to hear it.
RW: Well, if you’re reading a magazine like Interview then you’re choosing to read the truth.
IS: It strikes me that there’s a certain parallel between June and you, in that she was pigeonholed, until Johnny Cash came along, as a cute, funny performer.
RW: And it really didn’t scratch the surface of who his woman was. She was living in a world where it was completely unacceptable for her to be doing what she was doing. She lived in the shadow of everyone’s judgment. So many people looked at her thinking, That woman slept with so many men and had so many babies by different fathers. I try to think what it was like for a woman to tour around with a bunch of men back then and to have people look at you, like, I’m a good Christian—who the hell are you? How many women are out there tour- ing by themselves with five of the most famous men in country music while maintaining their dig- nity and sense of self-respect? She did have a wonderful sense of humor, and she was tough as nails. You would have to be.
IS: But what she had to confront was falling in love with someone who was deeply self-destructive. And here you are, Reese Witherspoon, who seems to have worked really hard in your life to not do self-destructive things.
RW: I’ve seen a lot of self-destruction in my life. And I’ve loved a lot of self-destruction in my life, and it wasn’t necessarily in that form. If you’re worth your weight and you come out fighting and you fight the good fight and you last long enough, people will ultimately know the truth about who you are. Part of me [understanding more about
June] was just going to her house and touching her little treasured things. I was told not to call her children, but I called them anyway because I just thought if someone were playing my mother I’d want them to look me in the eye and show me who they were. I got to see all her instruments and clothes. She had, like, six closets full of fur coats. I’ll never forget.
IS: Their love story is so strong.
RW: Someone said to me, „I don’t see what she saw in him because he was so poorly behaved.“ But it’s important to have someone acknowledge your artistic worth and to have someone say to her, „I’m here for you and I support you.“ I think they understood each other on a deep spiritual level.
IS: It feels like you and Joaquin really went through this process together and that you helped him in some big ways.
RW: Well, he helped me immensely, too. We just supported each other. It was a great journey to go on. He’s a really amazing guy. I know he talks about me supporting him, but just his performance alone and the fearlessness he had when he walked on stage inspired everybody. The hardest thing was probably having to go, „Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.“ Can you imagine how you would say that? We talked about it the first week, but by the time we got to the day he had to do it, I was just like, wow. He’s fearless [laughs]. He did it, and he did it without twitching and without winking. It was just wonderful. And it also helped to be around real musicians — it sort of lifted us up and carried us away.
IS: And what happens when a part leaves you?
RW: It’s kind of your responsibility to get back to your life and throw yourself into normalcy. I’m lucky to have two children and a husband. They ground me. Nobody else is going to change your baby’s diapers, so you just get back on the train, taking the kids to school. When you lose yourself, it takes a long time to get back. But you do.
IS: And now that this one’s over, did it change you? Do they all?
RW: Absolutely. With this film I learned a lot and challenged myself and did things I didn’t think I was capable of doing and stuck it out, and it was a good thing. And now it’s done. It’s always sad when a movie comes out.
RW: Because it’s not yours anymore — it belongs to the world. It’s like your little secret is out.
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