Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 May 2019

How Reese Witherspoon is scooping up the best titles in Hollywood

The actress is shaping up to be this generation’s answer to Oprah

Reese Witherspoon in season one of 'Big Little Lies', which she co-produced. HBO via AP
Reese Witherspoon in season one of 'Big Little Lies', which she co-produced. HBO via AP

Clint Eastwood could cut a man down at 10 paces. Reese Witherspoon, 43, it appears, can spot a bestseller at 10 pages. The American actress, known for her roles in Legally Blonde and Walk the Line, has slowly been bolstering her CV, carving out a second act as one of Hollywood’s most astute producers. Her speciality? Turning chart-topping novels into box-office gold.

Gone Girl, Wild and Big Little Lies – by Gillian Flynn, Cheryl Strayed and Liane Moriarty respectively – were all helped on to the big and little screens by Witherspoon in recent years. And the actress appears to only be in the first chapter of her career reincarnation, with plenty more adaptations up her sleeve.

Her predilection for garnering inspiration from the written word has been well documented, starting long before the actress stepped foot in front of a camera.

An early interest in books

Born Laura Jeanne Reese in New Orleans, Louisiana, the proudly Southern star was a “dork who read loads of books” throughout her school years, she told the Sunday Times in 2006. The daughter of two doctors, Witherspoon spent most of her childhood in Nashville, Tennessee, and landed her big-screen break in 1991’s The Man in the Moon. The then-14-year-old attended an opening casting call for extras for Robert Mulligan’s coming-of-age film, impressing the director so much, she was offered the lead.

However, acting wasn’t always Witherspoon’s only career option; she began a degree as an English literature major at the prestigious Stanford University, before dropping out to pursue roles in crime flick, Freeway (1996) and psychological thriller, Fear (1996).

Subsequent leading parts in Pleasantville, Cruel Intentions and Election helped establish Witherspoon as a darling of the silver screen, with the ­actress soon commanding multimillion pay checks per film. But frustrated at the limited range of roles she was offered as a woman, the actress decided to take matters into her own hands. “First I got mad, really mad. And then I was like: ‘It’s nobody’s fault; if you’re not proactive about things,’” she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014.

Turning to entrepreneurship

Channelling her exasperation into entrepreneurship, the actress founded production company Type A Films in 2000. She merged with Australian producer Bruna Papandrea (whose credits include 2008’s Milk and 2010’s All Good Things) to create Pacific Standard in 2012.

It was under this banner that Witherspoon first flexed her talent for literary taste-­making, seeking out complexed, nuanced female roles from the pages on her bookshelves. Quickly snapping up the rights to Gillian Flynn’s third novel, Gone Girl in 2012, Witherspoon and Papandrea scored producing credits on the thriller. The tale focused on bar owner, Nick Dunne, who becomes the prime suspect after his wife, Amy, disappears under mysterious circumstances. Spending weeks on The New York Times’s bestseller list, the book’s success translated to film, with the adaptation – released in 2014 – topping the North American box office in its opening weekend.

Witherspoon was once touted to play Amy, though eventually the part went to Rosamund Pike, who starred alongside Ben Affleck in the David Fincher-directed film. “Mostly, I was thrilled that one of our first movies was going to be directed by one of the great American filmmakers of our time,” she told Deadline.com on the casting decision. “My job as producer was to support him and learn all I could.”

Success with novels

That year, Witherspoon instead fronted Wild, a biopic based on Strayed’s 2012 memoir of the same name – and scored a best actress Oscar nomination for her performance. Produced by Pacific Standard and with a screenplay penned by About a Boy author Nick Hornby, the actress starred in and co-produced the adventure film, which followed a recent divorcee on a gruelling, soul-searching solo hike of the US Pacific Crest Trail.

The show is based on Liane Moriarty’s best-selling 2014 novel. HBO / OSN
A scene from 'Big Little Lies'. HBO / OSN

In 2014, the actress also partnered with Nicole Kidman to option Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, turning the ­murder- ­mystery-meets-rom-com into a seven-part drama, which screened on HBO in 2017. Starring both actresses, along with Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz in leading roles, the series screened to critical acclaim, scooping multiple Golden Globes and Emmy Awards. A second season, set to premiere this June, was swiftly announced, with Oscar-winner Meryl Streep joining the cast, and Kidman and Witherspoon resuming their roles as producers.

Developing a storytelling brand

However, it’s not just on screen that Witherspoon’s talent for making or breaking a read rules supreme. The mother of three has also expanded her entrepreneurial ambitions in recent years to develop a storytelling brand, Hello Sunshine, which was forged with Otter Media after Witherspoon parted ways with Papandrea in 2016. The multi-armed media company boasts a podcast intent on showcasing women’s voices, with appearances from stars such as comedienne Hannah Gadsby, actress-writer Lena Waithe and actress-­activist Jameela Jamil.

Merchandise, a monthly 500-word essay submission competition, newsletters and a talk show fronted by Witherspoon make up some of Hello Sunshine’s offerings, though the brand’s female-centric book club is one of its most successful projects. Curated by Witherspoon herself, the monthly instalment has seen books such as Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, Maria Hummel’s Still Lives and Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game all getting the star’s literary seal of approval. And Witherspoon has shown a keen knack for turning her book-club picks into flicks, optioning titles that have garnered her Reese’s Book Club yellow sticker, such as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing and Catherine Steadman’s Something in the Water.

It is Witherspoon’s eye for promising, emerging authors that in fact spawned the launch of Hello Sunshine, after the actress was egged on by her husband, talent agent Jim Toth. “I talked to my husband around the time when the movies weren’t working for me,” she told The New York Times last year. “He said: ‘You don’t seem like the kind of person who sits around and waits for the phone to ring. You read more books than anybody I know, so why don’t you start making them into your own material?’”

Upcoming projects

Subsequently, a generous handful of titles from recent years’ bestsellers lists are set to receive the Reese Witherspoon treatment, from Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive (2015) to Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere (2017), the latter of which is being turned into a Hulu mini-series starring Kerry Washington. Heath Lee’s A League of Wives, an adaptation of Karin Tanabe’s The Gilded Years and Kathleen Barber’s Are You Sleeping have all be optioned by Witherspoon – who also penned her own lifestyle book in 2018, Whiskey in a Teacup.

Now, getting a spot on Witherspoon’s coveted book club is seen as a badge of honour among novelists. “I went hot, cold, and then burst into tears!” The Other Woman writer Sandie Jones told Entertainment Weekly in 2018 of the moment she discovered she’d made the cut.

The concept is reminiscent of media mogul Oprah Winfrey, whose eponymous book club has helped raise the profile of then-burgeoning authors such as Chris Bohjalian and Rhonda Byrne; however, Witherspoon is moving the plot along by crafting a movie empire, a visual rendering of diverse, inclusive female voices that feels necessarily relevant in a post #MeToo era.

Indeed, Witherspoon has “an extraordinary knack for being a step ahead of the zeitgeist”, according to Apple’s TV executives Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, as they announced last year they had purchased the rights to an as- yet-untitled series starring the actress and Jennifer Aniston.

The Oscar winner’s impact on pop culture is set to be further cemented, with the release of season two of Big Little Lies and Are You Sleeping this year. As a novelist’s champion, Hollywood heavyweight and shrewd producer, Witherspoon’s trifecta means she’s flipping the script on the formerly male-dominated movie business.

But at the heart of it, her love of page-turners is fuelling her professional renaissance. “I get crazy in a bookstore. It makes my heart beat hard because I want to buy ­everything,” she told Reader’s Digest in 2005. And 15 years on, she’s certainly acquired quite the shopping list of adapted screenplays.

Updated: April 27, 2019 09:26 AM

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