If you've been watching "Little Fires Everywhere" to escape the COVID-19 quarantine, or bingeing on "The Morning Show," you have Reese Witherspoon to thank. And not just because she co-stars in both programs; Witherspoon is also producer and guiding spirit behind these and many other hit productions.
"I do know what makes a good movie; I've been standing on movie sets since I was 14 years old," she said.
But even though she won a Best Actress Oscar playing June Carter Cash in the 2006 film "Walk the Line," by 2010, Witherspoon was not getting the kind of roles she wanted. That's when her husband, talent agent Jim Toth, made a suggestion: "'You read more than anybody I know; why don't you try to turn some of these into movies?' And I thought, how am I going to do that?"
"And so, the first book I read before it came out and I thought, Oh, this'd be an amazing movie, was Cheryl Strayed's memoir, 'Wild.' So I called Cheryl and I said, 'Would you ever be open to me starring in a movie about your life, but also be the producer?'"
"And she said, 'No, of course not?'" laughed correspondent Rita Braver.
"She said, 'Yeah, sure, okay.' I don't think she really knew at the time that I was a newbie producer," said Witherspoon.
"I bet she didn't care!"
"But she just really believed in me. And giving me that opportunity, I'm really grateful."
"Wild" earned Witherspoon a 2015 Academy Award nomination. She also co-produced a hit film based on the bestseller "Gone Girl."
So, Braver asked, "Did Hollywood start taking you seriously: 'Okay, she really is a producer'?"
"No!" Witherspoon laughed. "It was actually 'Big Little Lies.' It was actually the third successful production that started getting people going, 'Oh, I think she's onto something.'"
That star-studded series won a slew of Emmy Awards, and today Witherspoon is considered a major Hollywood influencer. Her production company, Hello Sunshine, was founded on one key premise, said CEO Sarah Harden: "We're an entertainment and media company that puts women at the center of every story."
"So, what's the secret sauce? How are you doing this?" asked Braver.
"We're passionate about every story we tell," said Lauren Neustadter, head of film and television. "We read it, and it ignites something inside of us."
And reading is still at the heart of everything Reese Witherspoon does. Her hugely popular book club has catapulted many authors to the bestseller list. (And no, she doesn't get kickbacks from publishers.)
"To me always, authors were my rock stars growing up," Witherspoon said. "So being able to … this is gonna make me emotional, but like, sometimes when our writers say, like, 'You changed my life financially,' or that, oh my God, we're like putting them in a position where they get read and seen when they deserve it so much, is worth everything."
Braver first spoke with Witherspoon and her colleagues just before things shut down because of the coronavirus outbreak. Now, of course, their offices are empty, and all production has halted in Hollywood.
So she checked in with the team via Zoom:
"The culture's different," said Harden. "And it's going to be different going forward. And so, I do think there's conversations across our company around, 'How do we serve a new moment when we come out of this crisis?'"
And that may include a whole new way of making programs. Braver asked, "You can't really shoot a TV show socially distancing, can you?"
"The thing that we're most confused about is love scenes," Witherspoon laughed. "We're like, hmmm, how are you gonna make out? We're just going to have to get creative."
Braver said, "All of you are moms, and you're all still trying to work full-time and have your kids around a lot. How that going?"
Neustadter replied, "I send a text to my husband saying, 'I need half an hour when Riley does not come anywhere near this room!'"
"I will say my teenagers are incredible at helping me figure out tech problems," Witherspoon laughed.
Which made Braver think of something she asked Witherspoon in their earlier interview: "Do you ever have any of those days like the rest of us have – who don't do as much as you do – and say, 'I can't do one more thing today'?"
"Oh my gosh, Rita, I'll lay on the floor and cry," Witherspoon replied. "Or I'll sit in my car and cry."
"Yeah, sometimes I'm totally overwhelmed. I'm overwhelmed."
"So, what keeps you going?"
"I really want to change things. I really want, I see younger women in our industry and I want them to have a better experience. I want to see that they have a beautiful idea of what the future could hold."
And as for her own success, it turns out Reese Witherspoon is a lot like Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde": A smart and beautiful woman who is sometimes underestimated, but never by herself.
"I will put in the hours," Witherspoon said. "And I bet on myself. I'm my own lottery ticket and I always think that. If no one else shows up, I know I will show up, and I know I will do the work."
To watch a trailer for "Little Fires Everywhere" click on the video player below:
For more info:
- Hello Sunshine
- Reese's Book Club
- Follow Reese Witherspoon on Instagram and Twitter
- "Little Fires Everywhere" (streaming now on Hulu)
Story produced by Sari Aviv. Editor: Remington Korper.