'From Book To Script To Screen,' Reese Witherspoon Is Making Roles For Women

Nov 14, 2019
Originally published on November 15, 2019 9:47 am

Actor Reese Witherspoon became famous in her 20s after starring in films like Election and Legally Blonde, but by the time she entered her 30s, the film landscape had shifted. DVD sales had shrunk and smaller, female-centered movies were in short supply. It was nearly impossible to find good leading roles for women.

Witherspoon began asking different movie studios what projects they were developing for women. "With the exclusion of one studio, everybody said 'Nothing. Nothing with a female lead,' " she says.

So Witherspoon decided to start a production company and began adapting books with complex female characters into films and TV shows. The idea was to create better parts for women — and to help female authors get their stories sold.

Witherspoon's company spearheaded the adaptation of Gone Girl, Wild and Big Little Lies, among other titles. Looking back, Witherspoon describes her shift into producing as "betting on myself."

"I know what to do," she says. "I know every producer in Hollywood. I know how to get a movie from book to script to screen, and I know how to market it."

Now Witherspoon's current company, Hello Sunshine, is bringing a new project to screen. She's an executive producer and co-star of the Apple TV+ series, The Morning Show, which centers on a morning news show that's shaken up when its male anchor is fired after being accused of sexual misconduct.

Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston play network newscasters in The Morning Show, which they also worked to executive produce.
Apple TV+

Witherspoon acknowledges certain parallels between the misconduct portrayed in the series and the allegations against real-life TV hosts Matt Lauer, Bill O'Reilly and Charlie Rose.

"We thought it would have been remiss if we didn't address [those issues] in our show," she says. "Sometimes the world is so crazy, TV shows and movies are a great way to try and understand where we're at."


Interview highlights

On the #MeToo movement, and being shocked to learn of the extent of sexual misconduct in Hollywood

I didn't have any idea what other people's experiences were. I'd only had my own experiences, and I definitely dealt with harassment. And I had dealt with that privately and in my own way with my family when I was young, when I was really young and starting in the business. I didn't have any understanding of the widespread abuse that women were experiencing — and not just women, many, many people were experiencing.

It really took that moment in time for all of us to start talking. Because you have to remember, as an actress for hire, usually I was the only woman on a set for, I would say, the majority of my 30-year career. I've been the only woman in a cast or one of a handful of women in a crew or a cast. So when all of that started happening, women started to gather and really start talking to each other and sharing stories. And I have to say, I was blown away. I did not know the kind of experiences that people were having. And I was I was in shock. I think a lot of us were in shock. ...

I'm enormously grateful to the women who spoke up about their experiences and really opened our hearts and our minds and our eyes to what was happening with such regularity, and the journalists who worked so hard to break these stories, despite whatever corporate interference they were having. I'm just enormously grateful to Ronan [Farrow] and Jodi [Kantor] and Megan [Twohey].

On figuring out how and when she wants to share her own experiences with sexual harassment and assault

I had specific experiences and I dealt with them with a therapist. It's been ongoing, honestly. The whole thing brought up a lot of feelings for me, and it was a really emotional experience that I don't feel resolved about, and I think I will probably talk about it, but right now I don't have all the right words. - Reese Witherspoon

I haven't ever really spoken about it. I've been asked about it a lot, which really brings up a lot of questions for me about how do you decide when you want to talk about it, how you want to talk about it? ... This is just me, my personal experience. How can I use that not to garner sympathy but to actually promote change and highlight industry standards that are not good enough?

It was very powerful to me to share my story with a like-minded group of women with the Time's Up movement. We talked about ways that we could really encourage change. How could we raise money for women in other industries so that they would have legal help?

I had specific experiences and I dealt with them with a therapist. It's been ongoing, honestly. The whole thing brought up a lot of feelings for me, and it was a really emotional experience that I don't feel resolved about, and I think I will probably talk about it, but right now I don't have all the right words.

On why her mid 30s were a turning point in her career

People always say, "After you won the Oscar, did your whole career change?" There wasn't suddenly this huge influx of scripts. ... There's not a secret safe they're keeping the great scripts and they unlock you when you win awards! I was lucky to do a couple of great movies in my 30s, but not a lot. ...

Wild was a big deal for me, because first of all, I love Cheryl Strayed's writing, her memoirs, beautiful, but it's also a woman vs. nature, which I had never really seen on film. And so many women are so deeply connected to nature, yet it's not something we've explored. We've seen every iteration of a man vs. a bear, vs. the Wild West, on hiking adventures, but I haven't seen a lot of a woman alone on film as well, and what is that singular journey for a woman to find herself alone in the wilderness?

On singing for her role as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a country music singer. So I trained for probably 5, 6 years with vocal coaches. I grew up in Nashville, Tenn., so I grew up with a lot of country music singers and their kids and was just immersed ... I wanted to be just like Dolly Parton when I was little. I went to write and I wanted to sing my own songs, and I took piano lessons and I took singing lessons.

When I was about 13, I went and I started studying Broadway at camps in upstate New York and they would have all these experts come in. ... They had an acting expert, a dance expert and a singing expert, and the singing coach said, "You really should not put a lot of energy into your singing career." So I got intimidated and they said, "But your acting is great and you should really pursue that." So that's when I kind of tacked left, when I was 13, and started working on acting and concentrating.

So when this opportunity came up to play June Carter, I was terrified and I'd been told I wasn't any good. So I worked for five months with coach Roger Love and with the producer T-Bone Burnett to cut the tracks before we ever walked on set. We recorded all the music so that we could blend live tracks and recorded tracks together. But then we had to actually go and shoot the movie and I had to sing in front of audiences of hundreds of people with Joaquin Phoenix onstage with a band, and it was terrifying — terrifying, but thrilling.

On loving acting

It's my number one passion. ... I talk a lot about producing ... but every day I'm on set feels like such an enormous privilege to be a storyteller in this world. And I started as a little girl, as a storyteller, and I will be a storyteller 'till the day I die. I just love it. It's my favorite thing to do at dinner parties, too, so invite me over, Terry ... I just love spinning a story. It's really what I was born to do.

Ann Marie Baldonado and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Reese Witherspoon started acting as a child and became famous in her 20s after starring in films like "Election" and "Legally Blonde." But when she reached her mid-30s, it was hard to find good roles for women her age, so she decided to address the problem by starting her own production company with the mission of finding books with complex women characters and adapting those books into films. She adapted Gillian Flynn's bestselling crime novel "Gone Girl." She didn't act in that one, but she starred in the next film she produced, an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir "Wild." Witherspoon executive produces and stars in "Big Little Lies," adapted from Liane Moriarty's novel.

Now Witherspoon is an executive producer and star of the new series "The Morning Show," which deals with sexual harassment and assault and their aftermath in the world of news and entertainment. It's one of the first offerings on Apple's new streaming service, Apple TV Plus. The series is about a popular network morning TV show that's shaken up when its male anchor, played by Steve Carell, is fired after he's accused of sexual misconduct. His co-host Alex, played by Jennifer Aniston, still in shock about the news, learns that the network had been planning on replacing her in the hopes of boosting their sagging ratings.

To save her job, she makes a bold move at an awards ceremony. She announces that her co-anchor's replacement will be Bradley Jackson, played by Reese Witherspoon. Bradley is a local reporter from a network affiliate who became nationally known after a video went viral showing her confronting a demonstrator at a coal mine protest in West Virginia.

Alex didn't consult with or get permission from anyone at the network before announcing her new co-anchor would be Bradley. She didn't even tell Bradley, who was stunned and kind of angry. So here's the two of them after the announcement, standing in "The Morning Show's" studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MORNING SHOW")

JENNIFER ANISTON: (As Alex Levy) Want to take a seat?

REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Bradley Jackson) Is that an invitation or a command?

ANISTON: (As Alex Levy) You sound a little pissed off.

WITHERSPOON: (As Bradley Jackson) I don't like surprises.

ANISTON: (As Alex Levy) Oh, come on. That was a pretty good surprise.

WITHERSPOON: (As Bradley Jackson) No. You don't get to make this about me. You dropped a bomb, and I don't know why. Maybe you're trying to blow up your life. Maybe you're angry, which I get. But you don't have the right to [expletive] with me.

ANISTON: (As Alex Levy) How? By offering you the most coveted anchor job in the world?

WITHERSPOON: (As Bradley Jackson) I don't want your job.

ANISTON: (As Alex Levy) Oh, honey, [expletive].

WITHERSPOON: (As Bradley Jackson) You are so cocky. You just think I'm going to do this?

ANISTON: (As Alex Levy) I know you're going to do this.

WITHERSPOON: (As Bradley Jackson) I don't have a contract.

ANISTON: (As Alex Levy) Well, great. I just put you in a great spot to negotiate. This job is yours. I am welcoming you with open arms. I'm giving you the biggest news platform you could ever have. If you're a true journalist, you don't say no to this.

WITHERSPOON: (As Bradley Jackson) I'm not sure this is considered true journalism.

ANISTON: (As Alex Levy) And how many current or former presidents have you interviewed?

WITHERSPOON: (As Bradley Jackson) This job requires a certain kind of positivity. I'm not a perky person.

ANISTON: (As Alex Levy) I don't care. I don't want us to be the same. I'm not looking to groom my replacement. I want a partner.

WITHERSPOON: (As Bradley Jackson) Do you, or do you want somebody who's beholden to you, somebody who's grateful that you plucked them from obscurity? Because if that's what you're hoping for, I will give you serious buyer's remorse.

GROSS: Reese Witherspoon, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the new series. So I'll...

WITHERSPOON: Thank you so much for having me. I'm such a huge fan.

GROSS: Oh, back at you. This show, "The Morning Show," was already in the works when the Matt Lauer story broke and the Charlie Rose story broke. What was your reaction about what it would mean for the show, particularly for the Matt Lauer story's meaning for the show? 'Cause that's the story that's most closely shadowed.

WITHERSPOON: You know, I think it's interesting because I think people pull that parallel, but there - it actually is an amalgam of a lot of different characters. You have to remember we have Bill O'Reilly. There's the things that happened at CBS at a very high corporate level, also at "60 Minutes." And so, really, we were inundated with this new information. We were working based off of Brian Stelter's book "Top Of The Morning," which definitely delved into sexism and ageism in modern broadcast media.

But what emerged was all these assault allegations and hostile work environment and harassment claims, and we felt it would've been remiss if we didn't address them in our show. And so the showrunner Kerry Ehrin - to her credit, I think - decided to delve in Scene 1, Episode 1. And I think, you know, sometimes, the world is so crazy. TV shows and movies are are a great way to try and understand where we're at.

GROSS: So we talked a little bit about what it would mean for the show when the sexual assault and sexual harassment stories in broadcasting broke. What was your personal reaction to that and to Harvey Weinstein and to Ronan Farrow's book "Catch And Kill," like, from personal experience and from the experience of other women you knew? That sexual harassment and assault was not uncommon in the entertainment industry, but when all these stories started breaking...

WITHERSPOON: Can - I'm sorry. Can I interrupt you?

GROSS: Yeah.

WITHERSPOON: I didn't know assault was happening with such frequency and regularity.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

WITHERSPOON: I think that...

GROSS: Yeah, tell me.

WITHERSPOON: ...It's important to say that I don't - I didn't have any idea what other people's experiences were. I'd only had my own experiences. And I definitely dealt with harassment, and I had dealt with that privately and in my own way with my family when I was young - when I was really young and starting in the business. I didn't have any understanding of the widespread abuse that women were experiencing. And not just women - many, many people were experiencing.

And it really took that moment in time for all of us to start talking because you have to remember, as an actress for hire, I was only - usually, I was the only woman on a set. I would say the majority of my 30-year career, I've been the only woman in a cast or one of a handful of women in a crew or a cast.

So when all of that started happening, women started to gather and really start talking to each other and sharing stories. And I have to say I was blown away. I did not know the kind of experiences that people were having, and I was in shock. I think a lot of us were in shock.

GROSS: Was it helpful to know that other women had experienced what you had experienced, that it wasn't - I think so many women who are harassed or assaulted, even though they know it's not true, think, did I do something wrong? Is it about me? Could I have changed it? Could I have stopped it? Did this make you feel more like - you know, when so many other women came forward, that this was a problem that had to be addressed and it wasn't - I don't know if you had felt that it was your fault in any way, but I know that's a common feeling.

WITHERSPOON: Well, you know, I was really - I was young, very young, when it happened, and it wasn't isolated. So I would experience different kinds of things and different - the way women are spoken to. And I just - I didn't know who to talk to, and I didn't - and I - and honestly, I got older. And I was married and I had children, and a lot of it subsided as I got older. As I became more experienced and had more success, it obviously dropped off because I do think it's about a power dynamic.

And so I think it was like returning to old memories, and I have to say it opened my mind up to stuff that I had closed down a long time ago. So I was kind of reliving it a lot, which was hard. And I think as we ask people about their experiences with harassment or assault. We have to be very mindful of the fact that people have lots of different coping mechanisms. Some people want to speak about it. Some people do not.

And I'm enormously grateful to the women who spoke up about their experiences and really opened our hearts and our minds and our eyes to what was happening with such regularity and the journalists who worked so hard to break these stories despite whatever corporate interference they were having. I'm just enormously grateful to Ronan and Jodi and Megan.

GROSS: I want to honor your feelings about this and ask you if you care to share any of the experiences that you went through with sexual harassment or whether you prefer to just say it happened to you and not go any further.

WITHERSPOON: Let me think. I haven't ever really spoken about it. I've been asked about it a lot, which just, like, really brings up a lot of questions for me about, how do you decide when you want to talk about it, how you want to talk about it, in what way? It feels - this is just me, my personal experience. How can I use that not to garner sympathy or - but to actually promote change and highlight industry standards that are not good enough?

It was very powerful to me to share my story with a like-minded group of women with the Time's Up movement. We talked about ways that we could really encourage change. How could we raise money for women in other industries so that they would have legal help? And that felt right to me. And...

GROSS: I suppose that speaking specifically about your story...

WITHERSPOON: Yeah. I mean, I had specific experiences, and I dealt with them with a therapist. I've been - and it's been an ongoing, honestly. But yeah, this - the whole thing brought up a lot of feelings for me. And it was a really emotional experience that I don't feel resolved about, and I think I will probably talk about it, but right now, I don't have all the right words.

GROSS: I can understand that. But let me just ask you this, and tell me if this is going beyond your comfort level. Could you ask for protection or help or guidance from an agent or a director...

WITHERSPOON: There was no one to call. There was no one to call. Like, you know, I really appreciated what Ashley Judd said. I can't remember if she said it to Diane Sawyer or she said it to Jodi Kantor, but she said, who was I going to call, the invisible DA of Hollywood? I was told flat-out to be quiet.

And I wanted more opportunities, and all I wanted more than anything in the world was to be an actor. And I didn't want anything to stand in the way of what I wanted to accomplish and certainly not - someone else's actions weren't going to direct my career. And I was told I would be kind of identified in a way that would make me less desirable to work with, and I was told that at 16 years old, so...

GROSS: Oh, like, nobody wants to work with a whistleblower - That kind of thing?

WITHERSPOON: I was told to be quiet. Yeah.

GROSS: So I've watched the first three episodes of your series "The Morning Show," and where I leave off, your character has been assigned to interview the woman who says that she was raped by the former male anchor of the show, the person who preceded you...

WITHERSPOON: Yes.

GROSS: ...In that hosting chair. And, you know, since I'm talking to you, to the extent that you're comfortable, about incidents of sexual harassment and assault in your past, what were your thoughts as a participant in the creation of this series of, you know, how a journalist should interact with somebody who has had that experience and, in this case, is reluctant to come forward about it and speak about it on camera?

WITHERSPOON: Well, I think that's a really important thing that we bring up in the show - is how journalists speak to people who are survivors of sexual assault and harassment. It's very important that we understand that survivors are not here to be blamed and they are not guilty of anything, and they choose to tell their stories in their own time in their own way.

So I think it'll be interesting for audiences to see how the missteps that we take in this new time, where we ask questions without warning or we put survivors in a place of guilt or blame. And I think it was a really interesting part of the storyline that I play about what boundaries to push in the pursuit of the truth.

GROSS: And do you feel like you've learned about some of these things from being interviewed and being asked about it like I've been asking you?

WITHERSPOON: Yes. In certain ways, I think - yes. It has come up for me. I haven't always been told when people were going to ask me about things. Certainly, I didn't know you were going to ask questions. And I had to learn through the process of learning this character that the ways that you can ask questions or be thoughtful about it are - it's just very delicate, and we need to be mindful in our pursuit of these stories and the storytelling that we aren't triggering people and we aren't blaming them for things. Or - I think that's - it's really critical, and it was a big lesson for me to learn as this character, who is a journalist who's adamant about learning the truth, that there's fallout from that.

GROSS: I probably shouldn't ask you this, but is there anything you want to tell me about how I asked you questions that you want me to learn?

WITHERSPOON: Well, I have to be honest. I wasn't aware that you were going to ask or bring up harassment or assault, so I was a little bit surprised. I - you know, I have been asked before. But I have had experiences where journalists ask me and then really - then wrote about it in a way that was very callous.

And I'm - you know, I'm a person dealing with all the feelings as well, you know? I know I'm in a big position. And I'm - you know, we're out here talking about big issues, and I'm trying to be as thoughtful and sensitive of all sides of it. It's not just entertainment. It really is culture-shifting. And we're in a big moment of trying to discover each other and be thoughtful with each other.

So I appreciate you asking me that. And I'm so appreciative of journalists who actually think about, you know, what the - what they're doing and what it means for people to actually tell their stories and share their stories. And many people who are sharing, there's no gain out of it, right? So I'm creating art to try and synthesize a lot of these feelings. But I hope people know that there are resources out there that are there for them.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Reese Witherspoon. And she's now starring and executive producing the new TV series "The Morning Show" from Apple TV Plus. So we're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back and talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Reese Witherspoon. And she stars in and executive produces, along with Jennifer Aniston, the new Apple TV Plus series "The Morning Show," which is about morning news anchors.

So you really have managed to get a lot of power in the entertainment industry, not through anybody kind of anointing you with it, but through just, like, deciding you're going to get some power and produce things that you think should be produced with more roles for women and more women behind the scenes. And "Big Little Lies," a series that you adapted from the novel and costarred in, was such a big success.

But that's something that you willfully did. Do you know what I mean? Like, you decided this was going to be what you needed to do to make your career more interesting and to improve opportunities for women in Hollywood. What gave you the idea that that was something you wanted to do and could do? Because that's different from acting.

WITHERSPOON: Well, about 2010, about a third of our business - the revenue of our business just dropped out with the DVD business kind of going away. So when you went to the studios, they had to reduce production and development by 30%. And the first things to go are the things that have the smallest margins, which is kind of the 40 - 30 to $40 million movie, which is where women live, you know? Comedies - it's where I emerged, from "Legally Blonde" to "Sweet Home Alabama." You know, that was kind of the budget level of films that I was working on.

And all of a sudden, you just felt like - I went to every single studio. And I said, what are you developing for women? And with the exclusion of one studio, everybody said nothing, nothing with a female lead. And one person said to me (laughter) - one studio had said, well, we already have one movie starring a woman this year. We can't have two.

And I was furious. I just went home, and I was mad. And I called my mother, and I was upset. And I called my friends and my - can you believe this? They're not developing anything for women, to star women. And, you know, eventually you start complaining so much, and everybody's bored of your complaining (laughter).

And I was - well, my husband said to me, you know, you read more than anybody I know, honey. Why don't you option some books and turn them into movies? And I just didn't - I don't think I realized how much I read. I thought everybody read as much as I read. But he pointed out to me, no, you really go through material quickly. And you've been in the business long enough to know what's going to be made and what's not going to be made, which creates a great filter, you know?

So I started - I decided to self-fund a company and started in a little office that my friend let me rent from her and started with two people. And that's - our first two projects were "Gone Girl" and "Wild." And we read them both in galleys and got the rights to both of them and got them made, which was incredible. So that sort of started the ball rolling. And that made me feel like, oh, my God. And that also got some - we got Oscar nominations for Laura Dern and Rosamund Pike that year.

And I thought, well, this isn't just about me trying to create parts for myself. I want to create better parts for women. I want to have more female authors get their stories told. I know what to do. I know every producer in Hollywood. And I know how to get a movie from book to script to screen, and I know how to market it. So I'm just betting on myself, I guess, you know, taking the risk and betting on myself.

GROSS: My guest is Reese Witherspoon. After a break, we'll talk about "Big Little Lies," "Legally Blonde" and her Oscar-winning performance as June Carter in the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk The Line." We'll also hear her sing. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Reese Witherspoon. She's an executive producer and star of the new series "The Morning Show" which is on the new streaming service Apple TV Plus. When we left off, we were talking about how she created her own production company when she was in her mid-30s facing a lack of good roles for women. She started her company with the mission of optioning books with interesting female characters and providing opportunities for actresses and women behind the camera.

Movies and TV shows she's optioned and produced include "Gone Girl," "Wild" and "Big Little Lies," the HBO series starring Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz and Shailene Woodley. Meryl Streep joined the cast in the second season.

Let's hear a scene from "Big Little Lies." And I don't want to have to get too deep into the plot to - (laughter) to play a clip. So we're going to play something from the first episode of the second season. And the story of "Big Little Lies" is, basically, it's about abusive relationships, friendships between women, conflicts between those friends, marriage, parenthood and also the willingness of these women to come together to cover up an accidental murder.

So here's the scene. You play the mother of a teenage girl who's about to go to college. And the two of you have just had a meeting with a college counselor in which your daughter, Abigail, stormed out of the meeting, insisting, I don't even want to go to college. And you're appalled that your daughter doesn't want to go to college. So in this scene, after you've gotten home, you go into her bedroom to talk about what happened at that college counselor's office.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BIG LITTLE LIES")

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) So what was that all about?

KATHRYN NEWTON: (As Abigail) I just don't think college is for everyone. That's all.

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) OK. So why is it not for you?

NEWTON: (As Abigail) Well, starting with the cost. It's really expensive.

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) So I'm assuming that if you're going to abandon that plan to go to college, you have another plan.

NEWTON: (As Abigail) I do.

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) Well, what is it?

NEWTON: (As Abigail) It's to work for a startup.

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) Oh, my God.

NEWTON: (As Abigail) Specifically, one that builds for-profit housing for the homeless.

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) Excuse me?

NEWTON: (As Abigail) Yeah. And unlike, you know, the privatized shams, like banks and credit card companies, ours will make money while actually helping people.

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) This is something real?

NEWTON: (As Abigail) I've been offered a position to start in June.

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) You cannot be serious.

NEWTON: (As Abigail) I'm going to take it.

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) You cannot mortgage your future over some sort of short-term plan.

NEWTON: (As Abigail) I'm not doing that.

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) Well, what are you doing?

NEWTON: (As Abigail) There are four million homeless people in America, the average age being 9 years old. And...

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) I don't give a [expletive]. I don't care about [expletive] homeless people.

NEWTON: (As Abigail) What?

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) That is not what I meant. I do care about homeless people. I just think you can give money to some charity while you actually attend college.

NEWTON: (As Abigail) I'm not going to college.

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) Yes. You are.

NEWTON: (As Abigail) Give me one good reason why I should.

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) It's not negotiable. You are going to college because I said so, and because you're not thinking straight.

NEWTON: (As Abigail) Because you said so?

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) Yes. Because I said so.

NEWTON: (As Abigail) What do you know? You didn't go to college.

WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline) That's exactly why you're going. Exactly. Because you will have no life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS AND DOOR SHUTTING)

GROSS: You can hear so much dissatisfaction in your character's sense of her own life in that scene.

WITHERSPOON: Yeah.

GROSS: It's a great scene.

WITHERSPOON: Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WITHERSPOON: Yeah. We really talked about a lot. But I think also dealing with regret - this character, Madeline, has a lot of regret of things that she did when she was young. And she can't go back, and she can't change them. But one of them is, you know, her economic stability and her financial education, her reliance on her marriage to take care of her life. Things that, you know - have a lot of friends that are dealing with.

And, you know, they contemplate the next chapter of their lives. They think, well, should I give up my corporate career, or should I be in a different place? It was really fun to have these conversations, too, with Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern. And now we added Meryl Streep this year to the cast, which was incredible.

GROSS: Did you add her, or did she add herself? (Laughter).

WITHERSPOON: Well, the part - there was a part written for Nicole's mother-in-law, and it was written with her in mind. And it was sent to her, and she had reached out to Nicole and myself to say how much she loved Season 1 of the series. And yeah, so we just - we took a swing, and it worked. I'll never forget the day that she called Nicole and I said, OK, well, I guess I'll help you out and be in your show. (Laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter).

WITHERSPOON: And we were so happy.

GROSS: There's a scene - I think it's the first scene where you meet her, and she is really condescending to you. And you're just looking at her, like, in shock, like, how can you even say that to me? It must be so much fun to be condescended to like that...

WITHERSPOON: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...By - in a role by Meryl Streep.

WITHERSPOON: To do scene work with this incredibly intelligent, creative woman, you have to know that as it was written on the page, she - it didn't - the character wasn't like that. She was very wealthy, but there wasn't a lot of description of character. But she came in with this very particular look. And she had a cross around her neck, and she had these little flat shoes on and her scarf tied just so. And it took me aback because it was not what I expected. It was not what was on the page. And I knew from Scene 1, Day 1, that I had better be on my toes.

I remember the first scene, I - when I get nervous, I sort of start talking and sometimes I ad-lib. And she just came right back at me with these very specific ad-libs about the area that her character lived in and why she didn't want to live next to a highway. And I was like, oh, my goodness...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WITHERSPOON: ...This is a mind on fire with creativity and intelligence. It was really just a sublime experience working with her.

GROSS: You know, one of the things you talked about is how characters in the novel and people who you know in real life have had to deal with turning points in their lives, where they have to decide, I'm at the age where I should try something new. And if I try something new, what is it? You went through a version of that before you decided to become a producer and take matters into your own hands in terms of finding roles and creating roles.

And, you know, you've spoken about how, in your mid-30s, like, there were just, like, no good roles for women. What was available? In those few roles, what were you being offered, or what were you trying to fight for?

WITHERSPOON: I think it's interesting. People always say, after you won the Oscar, did your whole career change? It doesn't. You look around. They weren't suddenly - there wasn't suddenly this huge influx of scripts that are incredible. They're not - there's not a secret safe they're keeping the great scripts (laughter) in, you know, and they unlock it when you win awards.

I was lucky to do a couple of great movies in my 30s but not a lot. And "Wild" was a big deal for me because, first of all, I love Cheryl Strayed's writing. Her memoir is beautiful. But it's also a woman versus nature, which I had never really seen on film. And so many women are so deeply connected to nature, yet it's not something we've explored.

We've seen every iteration of a man versus a bear, versus the Wild West, on hiking adventures. And - but I haven't seen a lot of a woman alone on film as well. And what is that singular journey for a woman to find herself alone in the wilderness?

GROSS: And she takes that hike because - and this is based on a memoir. She takes that hike because her mother died. She's grieving, and she's been numbing herself with heroin and also by having a lot of sex with men who are not her husband. Therefore, her marriage breaks up. And I want to play a scene where your character is talking to a therapist, and the therapist is trying to help her, like, face what the real problem is, and she's resisting it. The therapist is played by Randy Schulman. And as this clip starts, your character's talking about how much she misses her mother, her late mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WILD")

WITHERSPOON: (As Cheryl) She was the love of my life. There's nothing else to say about her. I thought there'd be couches and Kleenex and [expletive].

RANDY SCHULMAN: (As Therapist) That's 50-bucks-an-hour therapy. This is 10-bucks-an-hour therapy. So why do you think you were destroyed by your mother's death?

WITHERSPOON: (As Cheryl) Is that your job - to tell the bereaved that they're grieving too much?

SCHULMAN: (As Therapist) People grieve in all sorts of different ways. I'm asking you about yours.

WITHERSPOON: (As Cheryl) Is mine so bad?

SCHULMAN: (As Therapist) You're using heroin, and you're having sex with anyone who asks. I'm not sure that these things are making you happy.

WITHERSPOON: (As Cheryl) Well, that's where you're wrong because when I'm doing them, I feel good and happy. And when I'm not, I feel like I want to die.

SCHULMAN: (As Therapist) You sleep with your husband, too?

WITHERSPOON: (As Cheryl) No. I'm sort of like a guy about sex. I just prefer to be detached.

SCHULMAN: (As Therapist) You think that's what guys are like?

WITHERSPOON: (As Cheryl) You are here? I see that poster everywhere and I hate it. Why would you ever want to teach a child they don't matter?

SCHULMAN: (As Therapist) Did you feel as though you mattered?

WITHERSPOON: (As Cheryl) I know I mattered.

SCHULMAN: (As Therapist) So who detached from you?

WITHERSPOON: (As Cheryl) Right. You know what? This is not going to work. This is not about talking.

GROSS: That's Reese Witherspoon in a scene from "Wild." You know, you said you wanted to make a movie where it was woman in nature or woman against nature, woman alone in nature, the kind of film you don't typically see with a woman as the lead. I mean, can you imagine taking a thousand-mile hike to help you get sober and get your head straight?

WITHERSPOON: No.

GROSS: You know, I can't (laughter).

WITHERSPOON: No. I hike for a couple hours and I'm exhausted.

GROSS: I take a walk around the block, I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

WITHERSPOON: But that's why Cheryl's story is so singular and so moving. It's how she went from feeling so broken and self-consumed to feeling like she was able to save her own life. And what I really love about the movie is that you get to the end, and she walks across the bridge, and she ends her hike with this beautiful monologue that she's by herself in the world. She has no partner. She has no money. She has no job. The love of her life, her mother, is gone, but she's happy. She's really happy. And I think that's so profound.

And I had such a interesting experience working on the show where I had - I'm so verbal. I talk so much in movies that I didn't have anything to say. I didn't - I couldn't rely on my old tricks in that movie, which are telling jokes and ad-libbing. I had nobody to talk to. I was just walking. It was really a challenge.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Reese Witherspoon, and she's now starring in and executive producing the new series "The Morning Show." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "BED BOBBIN'")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Reese Witherspoon. She's now executive producing and starring in, with Jennifer Aniston, the new series "The Morning Show," which is about anchors on morning television.

So you won an Oscar for playing June Carter Cash in the 2005 film "Walk The Line." She is country music royalty. She was from the Carter Family, the most famous family in country music, and she married Johnny Cash. And so you had to sing in that role. Had you sung professionally before?

WITHERSPOON: Well, when I was a little girl I wanted to be a country music singer, so I trained for probably five, six years with vocal coaches. I grew up in Nashville, Tenn., so I grew up with a lot of country music singers and their kids. And it was just immersed. Every weekend...

GROSS: Wait. So you grew up with country music not on the radio, but in real life.

WITHERSPOON: No, in real life, yeah.

GROSS: And who'd you know?

WITHERSPOON: Well, like, Minnie Pearl's daughter went to my school and...

GROSS: No. really?

WITHERSPOON: ...Emmylou Harris' kids. And...

GROSS: You're kidding.

WITHERSPOON: ...Amy Grant went to my high school, and - yeah. And I actually knew Johnny Cash's granddaughter and - when I was really little. But that was just - it was just part of, you know, Nashville. It was just normal. We all kind of were immersed in the culture of country music.

GROSS: So what did you sing?

WITHERSPOON: What did I sing when I was little? Oh, well, I wanted to be just like Dolly Parton when I was little. I wanted to write, and I wanted to sing my own songs. And I took piano lessons. I took singing lessons. And then when I was about 13, I went and I started studying Broadway at camps in New York, in upstate New York. And they would have all these experts come in, and one of the experts said - they had an acting expert, a dance expert and singing expert. And the singing coach said, you really should not put a lot of energy into your singing career.

GROSS: Oh, great.

WITHERSPOON: So I got intimidated. And they said, but - no, but your acting is great, and you should really pursue that. So that's when I kind of tacked left - when I was 13 and started just working on acting and concentrating. And so when this opportunity came up to play June Carter, I was terrified, and I'd been told I wasn't any good.

So I worked for five months with coach Roger Love and with the producer T-Bone Burnett to cut the tracks before we ever walked on set. We recorded all the music so that we could blend tracks - live tracks and recorded tracks - together. But then we had to actually go and shoot the movie, and I had to sing in front of audiences of hundreds of people with Joaquin Phoenix onstage with a band, and it was terrifying. It was terrifying, but thrilling.

GROSS: So I want to play you singing a duet with Joaquin Phoenix from...

WITHERSPOON: Oh, goodness.

GROSS: ..."Walk The Line."

WITHERSPOON: Oh, goodness, goodness, goodness.

GROSS: And this is the song "Time's A Wastin'." And just to set it up a little bit, in the story, you and your first husband have broken up, and you and Johnny Cash have been kind of drawn to each other. And he calls you out on stage when you're both performing separate - you've been performing separately. But he calls you out on stage and kind of makes you sing a duet with him.

And the duet he makes you sing is a song that you had recorded with your husband, and you do not want to sing that song with Johnny Cash. But, as we'll hear, he kind of forces you to do it, and here's what it sounds like.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALK THE LINE")

WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter) Hi, folks. How y'all doing again? I hope you all don't mind my bare feet. So what are we going to sing, Johnny? You got me out here. Is that where your plan ends?

(LAUGHTER)

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash) Well, I always liked that song of yours, "Time's A Wastin'." Let's do that one.

(APPLAUSE)

WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter) Oh, come on. I don't know about that. How about your hit song "Big River?" That's a good song.

(APPLAUSE)

PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash) Well, "Big River" ain't a duet. Let's do "Time's A Wastin'."

WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter) John, I am not going to sing that song. It's inappropriate. I recorded it with my ex-husband. I am not going to sing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME'S A WASTIN'")

PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash) There isn't a better way to put it behind you.

WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter) I am not going to do it.

PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash) June, just sing.

(Singing) I've got arms.

WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter, singing) And I've got arms.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX AND REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Johnny and June, singing) Let's get together and use those arms.

WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter, singing) Let's go.

PHOENIX AND WITHERSPOON: (As Johnny and June, singing) Time's a wastin'.

PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash, singing) I've got lips.

WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter, singing) And I've got lips.

PHOENIX AND WITHERSPOON: (As Johnny and June, singing) Let's get together and use those lips.

WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter, singing) Let's go.

PHOENIX AND WITHERSPOON: (As Johnny and June, singing) Time's a wastin'.

WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter, singing) The cake's no good if you don't mix the batter and bake it.

PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash, singing) And love's just a bubble if you don't take the trouble to make it.

PHOENIX AND WITHERSPOON: (As Johnny and June, singing) So if you're free to go with me, I'll take you quicker than a one, two, three.

WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter, singing) Let's go.

PHOENIX AND WITHERSPOON: (As Johnny and June, singing) Time's a wastin'.

GROSS: That's my guest Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix from the movie "Walk The Line" as June Carter and Johnny Cash. I think you sound great on that.

WITHERSPOON: Thanks. We worked really hard on it.

GROSS: What was it like for you when the - I guess the person at the acting and music camp told you, like, you - give up on singing. Like, you're good at acting, but give up on the singing part. It's hard to hear criticism, but when somebody says, like, don't even bother, that must really be hard to overcome. You had to be tough to do that.

WITHERSPOON: Yeah, well, actors are tough. I mean, we hear a lot - we hear more nos than yeses a lot, you know? So the early parts of my career were about weathering rejection. I would cry sometimes. I felt really bummed when I didn't get parts. But when I did, I just gave it my all and I, you know, I was so dedicated. I remember June Carter - I just watched hours and hours of videotape on her. It was really a full immersion. It was - my poor children had to hear me singing those songs over and over again.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Reese Witherspoon, and she stars in and executive produces, along with Jennifer Aniston, the new Apple TV Plus series "The Morning Show." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back and talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "BEAUTIFUL BOY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Reese Witherspoon, and she's now starring and executive producing the new Apple TV Plus series "The Morning Show," which is about people in morning television.

A movie that really changed your life was "Legally Blonde."

WITHERSPOON: Yes.

GROSS: And, you know, in "Legally Blonde," you play, you know, somebody who's very popular, ahead of her sorority in college, a 4.0 grade point average in fashion merchandising. But your boyfriend goes to Harvard Law School, and you don't want him to leave you, so you want to follow him to Harvard. So you apply to law school, and you get in.

WITHERSPOON: What - like it's hard?

GROSS: (Laughter) And then a professor...

WITHERSPOON: Of course I got in.

GROSS: Your professor who chooses some students to mentor chooses you as one of the students.

WITHERSPOON: Yes.

GROSS: And there's a court case that he's defending a client in, and your intuition comes up with something that shows that a leading witness against his client is lying. And so the lawyer calls you into his office afterwards to talk with you, and it's meant to be very encouraging, but as we can hear, it's a very, as we say nowadays, quid pro quo.

WITHERSPOON: Yeah. It's sexual harassment.

GROSS: Yep.

WITHERSPOON: Yeah.

GROSS: Here's the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEGALLY BLONDE")

WITHERSPOON: (As Elle Woods) Is everything all right?

VICTOR GARBER: (As Professor Callahan) You followed your intuition today, and you were right on target. I should have listened.

WITHERSPOON: (As Elle Woods) Thank you.

GARBER: (As Professor Callahan) About the alibi...

WITHERSPOON: (As Elle Woods) I'm sorry.

GARBER: (As Professor Callahan) I'm impressed that you took the initiative to go there and get it. That's what makes a good lawyer. And on top of that, you gained the client's trust and kept it. That's what makes a great lawyer. You're smart, Elle, smarter than most of the guys on my payroll.

WITHERSPOON: (As Elle Woods) Wow.

GARBER: (As Professor Callahan) I think it's time to discuss your career path. Have you thought about where you might be a summer associate?

WITHERSPOON: (As Elle Woods) Oh, not really. I know it's very competitive.

GARBER: (As Professor Callahan) Well, you know what competition is really about, don't you? It's about ferocity, carnage, balancing human intelligence with animal diligence, knowing exactly what you want and how far you'll go to get. How far will Elle go?

WITHERSPOON: (As Elle Woods) Are you hitting on me?

GARBER: (As Professor Callahan) You're a beautiful girl.

WITHERSPOON: (As Elle Woods) So everything you just said...

GARBER: (As Professor Callahan) I'm a man who knows what he wants.

WITHERSPOON: (As Elle Woods) And I'm a law student who just realized her professor's a pathetic [expletive].

GARBER: (As Professor Callahan) Too bad. I thought you were a law student who wanted to be a lawyer.

GROSS: That's my guest Reese Witherspoon with Victor Garber in a scene from "Legally Blonde." How does that sexual harassment scene sound now to you?

WITHERSPOON: Other than the twinkly music underneath...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yes.

WITHERSPOON: No, pretty accurate, right? A lot of young women are targeted. And I think it was important that we had that in there because it is a woman who is really judged for the way she looks, not taken seriously. It was really important to me that everywhere she turns, the world doesn't take her seriously and really doesn't believe in her.

GROSS: And neither does the audience at first because we're...

WITHERSPOON: No.

GROSS: ...Kind of set up to think that she's just this, like...

WITHERSPOON: Right.

GROSS: ...Shallow...

WITHERSPOON: It feels like confection. It really...

GROSS: Yes, exactly.

WITHERSPOON: ...Does begin as confection. And then it has this sort of substance underneath it of, you know, this great idea that everyone has that feels like, am I good enough? Does anybody believe I'm good enough? And maybe I have to believe in myself. And again, it was really important to us that we end this movie where Elle is standing on her own two feet and has created her own ascendancy.

GROSS: Do you still love acting?

WITHERSPOON: I love it. It's my No. 1 passion. Thank you for asking me that because sometimes, people - you know, I talk a lot about producing in a book club, but I - every day I'm on set feels like such an enormous privilege to be a storyteller in this world. And I started as a little girl as a storyteller, and I will be a storyteller till the day I die. I just - I love it. It's my favorite thing to do at dinner parties, too, so invite me over, Terry.

GROSS: What? You act at dinner parties?

WITHERSPOON: (Laughter) No, I love to tell stories.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

WITHERSPOON: I just tell stories. No, I'm not acting. Well, am I acting? I don't know. I just love spinning a story. That's really - it's what I was born to do. I love it.

GROSS: Great. OK. It's been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. Good luck with "The Morning Show" and with all your many projects.

WITHERSPOON: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Reese Witherspoon is an executive producer and star of the new series "The Morning Show" on Apple's new streaming service Apple TV Plus.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Judd Apatow, who's edited a new book about his friend and mentor, the late comic Garry Shandling, or with actor Willem Dafoe, who stars in the new film "The Lighthouse," or New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz, author of a new book about the far right's use of social media, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERFECT DAY")

HOKU: (Singing) Sun's up. It's a little after 12. Make breakfast for myself. Leave the work for someone else. People say - they say that it's just a phase. They tell me to act my age. Well, I am. On this perfect day, nothing's standing in my way on this perfect day, where nothing can go wrong. It's the perfect day. Tomorrow's going to come too soon. I could stay forever as I am on this perfect day. Sun's down a little after 10.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERFECT DAY")

HOKU: (Singing) Now, don't you try to rain on my perfect day. Nothing's standing in my way. On this perfect day, nothing can go wrong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.