Reese Witherspoon on "Big Little Lies," transition to powerful Hollywood producer

Reese Witherspoon shifts gears

Actress Reese Witherspoon is one of four women, including Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley, nominated for Emmy awards for their performances in the HBO series "Big Little Lies." Witherspoon is also a producer of the critically-acclaimed show about maternal mischief and murder among a group of coastal California women. The hit show is up for 16 awards in all. 

While many know Witherspoon best for bubbly portrayals of perky characters, there's a lot more to the actress who's become one of the most powerful women in show business. CBS News contributor and Vanity Fair executive West Coast editor Krista Smith spoke with the Academy Award winner about becoming a producer, a businesswoman, and a vocal proponent for other women struggling to navigate the complicated currents of Hollywood.

"Seeing five women who are so dynamic and complex on film I think was fascinating to people," Witherspoon said of "Big Little Lies."

Witherspoon, who plays a character named Madeline in the show, said, "Well, I didn't pick Madeline; Madeline picked me. David Kelly, the writer, called me one day, he'd written a script. And I was like, 'Yeah, but I don't know who's gonna play Madeline.' And he's like, 'You're playing Madeline.' I was like, 'what are you talking about?' He's like, 'you are Madeline.'" 

Witherspoon insists she's not a busybody like her character.

"I'm just very interested in other people's lives, Krista. Is that so wrong? Just tryin' to be helpful!" Witherspoon said. "I'm southern. We're real friendly!"

Reese Witherspoon and Vanity Fair executive West Coast editor Krista Smith CBS News

She's also real powerful. Besides starring in the show, she also produces it – a role she transitioned to when she formed her production company in 2012 and started acquiring the rights to popular literature.

"I was already a voracious reader, and I just ended up buying books, like 'Gone Girl' and 'Wild' were my first two that I bought. And I had no idea – I bought 'em with my own money, I self-funded a company for five years," Witherspoon said.

She made the move after she won an Academy Award for playing June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line" and then fell into a post-Oscar slump.

"There was one moment where I read this script that came in and my agent sent it to me, and it was just awful and I called my agent, I said, 'I'm not gonna do this. Who would wanna do this?' He said, 'Every actress in Hollywood wants this part' and it was just a lightbulb moment for me that I thought I have to do better. And I have to create more and do better for other women, and create opportunities for other women," Witherspoon said.

And with that, her career changed course.

"I don't see women at the center of their own movies as much as I would like to," Witherspoon said.

Asked if she feels like she's finally being taken seriously, she said, "Yeah. I mean, I notice people return my phone calls quicker. It's great it feels like this is what I'm supposed to be doing."

But that doesn't mean the actress who created unforgettable characters like Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde" and Tracy Flick in "Election" is giving up her time in front of the camera.

She's revisiting familiar romantic comedy territory in her latest film "Home Again" and then it's time for a highly-anticipated reunion with her big sister from "Friends," Jennifer Aniston. The pair will re-team for an upcoming series about the world of morning television.

"One of the great things is that just getting to work together again, we're like, over the moon. We keep texting each other, 'This is so fun. I can't believe we're doing this; it's so good!'" Witherspoon said. "It's just great to talk about women's role in media and how women are treated on the morning news, and what that journey is like."

Witherspoon's journey has also taken her into business, as the driving force behind the women's lifestyle brand Draper James – named after her grandmother, Dorothea Draper.

"My grandma's my biggest inspiration. She was one of the first women to graduate from Peabody with a teaching degree in 1941. It was just a little bit – hard for her, I think, because there weren't a lot of jobs for women at that time, and you were expected to stay home, particularly in the South and I feel like in some ways I'm kinda getting to live the life that she didn't get to live," she said.

"And when everyone's leaning away from retail, you just leaned in?" Smith asked.

"Sometimes you just have to jump two feet into a cold pool, and then just figure out how to swim later," Witherspoon said. 

Witherspoon has definitely become a very strong swimmer, and she's showing no signs of slowing her pace. Everyone is asking about a second season for "Big Little Lies," but that depends on author Liane Moriarty to continue the stories of these remarkable women.