When she was just 14, Laura Jean Reese Witherspoon landed her first film role, in the coming-of-age tale The Man in the Moon, through an ad in the local paper. “I didn’t know I was the lead until I got the script and my character was on every page,” she recalls. After some modest successes (Pleasantville alongside Tobey Maguire; Cruel Intentions, with her now husband, Ryan Phillippe), she became the critics’ new darling with her role as the rabidly overachieving Tracy Flick in 1999’s Election. Two years later, she rocketed into a box-office phenomenon in the megahit Legally Blonde.
The Mira Nair-directed costume drama Vanity Fair in 2004 was supposed to be Witherspoon’s dramatic breakthroughher leap from playing girlish heroines with more spunk than soul. But the movie was largely panned by critics and never took off with audiences. Then her next film, last fall’s lightweight romantic comedy Just Like Heaven, died upon arrival. But Witherspoon’s recent missteps have been more than redeemed with her role as country star June Carter in the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. Not only does Witherspoon sing in the film, she also brings to the part more intensity, steeliness and maturity than anyoneeven director James Mangoldexpected.
“I had this instinct there was another side of Reese, a womanly side as a mother and a wife, that we hadn’t seen on the screen,” explains Mangold. “But it still surprised me how much power she had in the vulnerable beats. The entire movie’s engine is built on John’s movement toward June, so she had to be the sun and the moon for him.”
Her performance as the passionate and independent woman whose love eventually helps the troubled Cash find salvation received a Golden Globe nomination and is the type that Academy members live to reward. Witherspoon spent months studying Carter’s memoirs and taking autoharp lessons. Still, for all the industry accolades and talk of an Oscar nod, Witherspoon maintains a remarkably detached attitude toward the film’s reception.
“I really remove myself. It doesn’t feel very personal,” she says.
Whereas many other actors say they can’t bear to endure their own performances, Witherspoon had no problem watching herself sing solo on the big screen at the Toronto premiere. And not because she thinks she’s a fantastic vocalist.
“At that point, there’s nothing I can do to change the film,” she explains, sipping an iced tea, like any good Southern girl. “You only have control over it while you’re making it and once it’s out I pretty much relinquish any sort of torment I have about it,” she says. “And I don’t read reviews.”
It’s hard to believe that someone so driven and so famously type A (as she named her production company) is not voraciously reading what the newspapers have to say about her work, but Witherspoon is firm on the topic.