Reese Witherspoon Goes Into the 'Wild'

by Fred Topel
Contributor
Wednesday Dec 3, 2014

Reese Witherspoon has played a number of memorable fictional characters: Tracy Flick in "Election" and Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde;" but it was playing a real person - June Carter in "Walk the Line" that won her only Oscar to date. But there's a palpable buzz that she may win her second for playing another real person: Cheryl Strayed in "Wild."

In her autobiography, Strayed told the story of her own trek along 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Her choice wasn't just a recreational one: after her divorce, her mother's death and difficulties with addiction, Strayed took the drastic step of using the solitude of her journey as therapy. Her book caught Witherspoon's eye, who was inspired to pursue it as a film project.

"Just reading her book I was blown away by her emotional honesty, the grit and truth with which she told her story, the unapologetic nature of her personality," Witherspoon said. "I didn't know I was going to do it, but then Cheryl said to me, 'I really want you to play me in the film.'"


Well-read Witherspoon

She also made sure Witherspoon was well read. "That was one of the first things she asked me. She's like, 'What books do you read?' I was like woo, I had to be on point. Lori Moore is one of my favorite writers, Graham Greene. I mean, I read and I read and I read. Ann Patchett I think is a beautiful writer."

But it was another known writer whose involvement in the project elated Witherspoon.

"I love Nick Hornby's books so it was so exciting when he called us and wanted to adapt the material," she said. (Hornby's novels "About a Boy" and "High Fidelity" were adapted into popular films; he was also nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of Lynn Barber's novel "An Education").

There are many memorable scenes from the book that Witherspoon recalled, but there was one scene that immediately came to mind. "I was just thinking about the passage I like best, just one of the many things I love, but after she drops the boot and in the middle of it, she says, 'I looked around to see if anyone was laughing and no one was. And that's when I realized, the universe is never, ever kidding."


That backpack

It was being on location, though, that truly inspired Witherspoon and director Jean-Marc Vallee (who directed last year's "Dallas Buyers Club"). "I like nature," Witherspoon recalled. "I even liked the frogs. Every day, Jean-Marc and I would be like, 'My God, this is so beautiful.' I'm not that adventurous. I've never hiked more than two days in my entire life, so for me it was a learning experience."

That lack of outdoorsmanship served Witherspoon in portraying Strayed, which Vallee used to his advantage, such as in an extended scene of Witherspoon jamming her backpack full and then trying to hoist it onto her back. At first, the actress stuffed it with newspaper, but it didn't look real.

"I remember we started the film and one of the first days of shooting I had the backpack on, and [Vallee] came over and he said, 'Is this the heavy backpack?' I said, 'What do you mean the heavy backpack? It's full of newspaper.' He's like, 'No, no, you're going to wear the heavy backpack.' I was like, 'What? You mean the whole movie?' He said, 'Yes, I can see it on your shoulders, I can see the way you walk is totally different, you look totally different.' And he just walked off. I found out later Cheryl was the one who came over and said, 'I can tell she's not wearing a heavy backpack.' I had to do scenes where I was running, like running after Frank in that tractor. Oh my God, it's so painful but I was so strong at the end.


Figuring it out

"I think the whole point was she didn't know what she was doing, so Jean-Marc really didn't want me to be prepared or go hiking or be in good shape," Witherspoon continued. "I think I could do some basic stuff. That tent was hard. When you see me putting together the tent, he really wouldn't let me see the tent beforehand. He wouldn't let any of the prop people teach me how to do the tent. He must have filmed me for two or three hours trying to put together the tent. When you see me saying, 'Jesus f***ing Christ,' because I couldn't figure it out."

In a career that began when she was a teenager in "The Man in the Moon," Witherspoon has always diversified her resume. For every teen comedy, there was an edgy drama like 'Fear" or "Freeway." For every rom-com, there was a movie like "Mud" or "Vanity Fair." Witherspoon feels her fans have grown up with her.

"I think my audience has grown up and changed too," she said. "I think the women that saw me in 'Election' or 'Legally Blonde' are not 20 years old anymore. I think they're 35 and have kids and have real life experiences. They've had parents die or been in a divorce. People deal with real things. I think as I have evolved as a human being, I've also evolved as an actor. You take chances. You don't know if people are going to accept you or they're going to laugh in your face, so I've been really touched that people have been so receptive to me doing something different."


A collaborative effort

A film like "Wild" is certainly personal for Strayed, who already poured her soul into the book. It could be personal for a performer too who may have to draw on her own experiences to portray Cheryl, but Witherspoon sees her acting as a collaborative effort and wouldn't take sole credit for anything.

"I think that's the thing about making a film. It's not about one artist and what they want to accomplish. I think it's a collaborative medium. We are only as good as connected as we feel to the central idea of what we're trying to accomplish, but also what we bring to the table is our life experience. It's what enhances your work and it's what connects you to the people you're working with. I think it's really hard if you don't connect to people, which I've had that experience before and it's really hard."

Witherspoon and Strayed remain close today, long after the film was completed. "We're all like a family," Witherspoon said. "We miss each other. We write each other all the time. We know all each other's children. She's like my sister. She was standing there on set the whole time, but she's so giving I think as an artist to not be possessive of her material. She really gave us license to interpret it and turn it into a movie. It's hard if someone doesn't give you the opportunity to create cinematically something totally different."

"Wild" is in limited release; it goes into wider release on December 15. For more on the film visit the film's website.


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