You should see my hotel room this morning,” Reese Witherspoon says.
It’s early in the morning, but she’s all buzzy charm, with a light bulb smile, an easy grace and, evidently, a slightly scattered hotel room.
“It’s chaos!” She laughs. “Pancakes and milk and fruit and teenagers and just—” she pauses, waving her hands over her head, “mess.”
Nothing about her seems like a mess but then, some messiness is unavoidable, given her recent schedule. After a couple of slow years, marked only by the occasional rom-com, Witherspoon appears to be attacking her career with renewed zeal and focus.
“I think, for a few years, I was a little bit lost as an artist, not being able to find what I wanted to do, making choices I wasn’t very happy with,” she says. “What started this whole string of things was just getting back to wanting to play interesting, dynamic characters.”
She has certainly done that. Starting with a small but significant role in 2012’s Mud (a film which, notably, also kickstarted the career of Matthew McConaughey), Witherspoon is easing her way back into the sort of powerhouse films that made her an Oscar winner. She brought the house down at the Toronto International Film Festival for her searing work in Wild, which she also produced. She also has work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s highly anticipated Inherent Vice. Next up, she’ll be starring in Wish List, director Paul Feig’s first film since he changed the comedy game with Bridesmaids.
“They all just happened to come out within three months of each other,” Witherspoon laughs. “I’m having a bit of a traffic jam.”
Walk the Line
The night before this conversation, Witherspoon had attended a party for the premiere of her newest film, The Good Lie, in Nashville, Tennessee.
It sounds strange to say, but it’s true: Reese Witherspoon is just good at being a star. She’s been at it long enough to master a tricky balance. She’s elegant, but approachable. She’s humble, but skirts any sort of fake “aw, shucks” humility. She walks into the room and the guests visibly electrify. She’s short—shorter than you would think—but she positively hums with energy. It’s infectious.
Obviously, this sort of hyperactivity is par for the course any time a star appears, but there’s something different with Witherspoon. There’s an ease to the way she turns from person to person, focusing her eyes on them just so. She has neither a hungry need for approval nor the droning plasticity of bored courtesy. She asks for each person’s name and says it back to them, with just the slightest hint of a Southern drawl that all her years in Hollywood have failed to completely scrub away. She has a knack for putting everyone around her at ease and seems to be genuinely enjoying herself.
Maybe it’s the fact that it’s happening in her hometown of Nashville (that night, the governor of Tennessee called her “Nashville’s favorite daughter”). Maybe it’s the fact that her career is easing into a dynamic, hugely successful second act, replete with Oscar talk.
Or maybe it’s just that this is what Witherspoon does.
The Good Lie truly kicked off Witherspoon’s return to form. She plays a frazzled, unraveling immigration worker suddenly tasked with finding employment for three refugees fresh off the plane from South Sudan. It’s an unglamorous role for Witherspoon, refreshingly distant from the “white woman saves the less fortunate” genre it so easily could have turned into. In fact, that was part of what drew her to the film.
“I met with the director and the first thing he said to me was, ‘This movie isn’t about you. I want to be really clear about that.’ I’ve never had anybody say that to me before,” she says. “I was really happy, because I didn’t want to make a movie where it was just a white, American girl coming to save the African people. My character is just as emotionally distraught, she’s just as lost, she’s just as without family as they are.”
It’s just as well Witherspoon took to the script as quickly as she did. The film’s writer, Margaret Nagle (best known for her work on Boardwalk Empire) wrote the character with Witherspoon in mind.
“She’s got light and dark going on,” Nagle says. “She’s got a strong sense of the feminine, but she’s got this strong sense of the masculine. You look at her and there’s so much going on behind those eyes. I love that she surprises you when she goes on screen. There’s fierce intelligence in what she does, and yet, she’s every woman.”
Hard to Conceive
“There’s not a lot of media coverage,” Witherspoon says of the war currently raging in South Sudan. “So a lot of people are making a comparison with Hotel Rwanda. It’s not a situation a lot of people knew about, but then, when you see the movie, it makes you want to go home and look it up.”
The script alone made Witherspoon interested in knowing more. But she had no idea just how much a little research was going to revolutionize her outlook.
“I came from a place of not knowing, other than a random newspaper article,” Witherspoon admits. “I knew very little about the story.”
Her interest was further piqued by talking to her co-stars, Emmanuel Jal and Ger Duany, both of whom fled their villages in South Sudan and made the long, perilous journey to the refugee camps on foot.
“A lot of things I know were from talking to Emmanuel and talking to Ger. I’d say, ‘Did that really happen?’ And Ger would tell us stories about walking all that way,” Witherspoon says. “It’s hard to even conceive.
“I didn’t want to just do the part in Atlanta and be done and go home to my life,” she continues. “I really wanted to see what the experience was like.”
So, in an attempt to wrap her mind around it, Witherspoon and her 14-year-old daughter, Ava, took a trip to Kenya, where they visited the Kakuma Refugee Camp—home to some 138,000 refugees.
“Just consciousness,” she says, when asked why she wanted to bring her daughter along. “Awareness. A feeling of wanting to give back. Travel is the antidote to any kind of selfish behavior. Kids nowadays, we give them access to all these technologies and things that disconnect them. The more you can show them of the world is great.
“[Ava] is a wonderful, socially conscious girl. But even a kid who reads a million books on the situation, you don’t understand until you see it yourself. It was very emotional, seeing people displaced, and sleeping on concrete slabs. Just the sprawl. Twelve different languages being spoken. Very little health care. Very little food. It brought it all home for me.”
At first, Witherspoon notes, the plan may have worked a little too well.
“[Ava] didn’t say a word the whole day. She really didn’t talk about it till a few days later. We saw women giving birth on metal tables with their infant just sitting there with no clothes on. And kids that were sick,” she says.
“There are so many times you think you appreciate your life until you see someone else’s perspectives on our privileges and the opportunities we have, whether it’s education or health care or just food or running water.”
The danger in such trips is to see refugees as a one-dimensional mass of suffering. Witherspoon recounts a conversation she’d had with Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, whom she calls “amazing.”
“He said, ‘Sometimes we assume that if people are poor they’re not intelligent. Or they don’t have anything to offer to society,’” she says. “But these are people who were at the top of their field. They’re doctors. They’re educators. They’re community leaders. And essentially, they’ve been displaced. It’s been really amazing through this process. Even two days ago in D.C.—All these wonderful men and women from Sudan are there, and they’re doing incredible things in America. One is a war veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan. One is a community leader. It’s been so educational for me to learn about refugees and their contributions to societies.”
And, according to Witherspoon, it wasn’t just those who had made it out of the camps that changed her view on refugees. The people in the camp were far different than she expected, as well.
“A really remarkable thing about it is the joy and the determination of these people to rise above, their determination for them to have a better life for their children,” she says. “Their spirit is just incredible. They greet you with joy and laughter and hugs and dancing.”
When asked how this journey—this knowledge—affected her, Witherspoon doesn’t hesitate to answer. It’s something she’s clearly considered.
“You don’t have to be a perfect person to do something great for somebody else,” she says. “The imperfections in your life might be helped by the process of meeting and helping and creating community for people who are displaced. It’s not just for the saints of the world. We can all do something.”
Ger Duany—one of the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan” who ended up playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself—was cast in the early days of the film’s pre-production, before Witherspoon came on board. The filmmakers wanted to cast people with connections to the actual events depicted in the movie, and it doesn’t get much more connected than Duany, who continues to travel back to Africa whenever he can in an attempt to find his siblings—who remain scattered across various refugee camps in the area. His passion for the project is palpable.
“When [casting director] Mindy Marin called me and said, ‘Hey Ger! There’s a lady named Reese. She’s going to be in the movie with you.’ I said, ‘Who’s Reese?’”
He chuckles at himself now.
“She sent me a link and I was like, ‘Yes, of course! I know this lady! I’ve watched all her movies since I came to America! I learned English from watching these movies!’
“When I knew it was Reese who I’d been watching for many years, I was very excited because she can turn things into something that brought all of us together. We couldn’t find another person who could tell the story of the South Sudanese people who have been suffering for decades. But Reese was that person.”