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Reese is the word

A Hollywood powerhouse in her own right, Reese Witherspoon balances a career both acting in and producing films along with a busy family life.

Reese is the word

“Beware of anything that looks perfect,” warns Reese Witherspoon, in response to the notion that she leads an idyllic life.

“I don’t think there’s a woman in the world who doesn’t struggle with either her career or her relationships, and that extends to her friendships and motherhood.”

At 38, Witherspoon is mother to daughter Ava, 15, and son Deacon, 11, from her first marriage to actor Ryan Phillippe. Her third child is son Tennessee, two, from her 2011 marriage to talent agent Jim Toth. (In between husbands, Witherspoon was ensconced in a highly publicised relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, with whom she co-starred in 2007 thriller Rendition.)

When we meet, Witherspoon is at the Toronto International Film Festival to promote Wild, a film for which she does double duty as star and producer. Based on the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the film tells the story of American author Cheryl Strayed, who hiked across more than 1600 kilometres of the famed Sierra Nevada trail – solo. The personal journey, tracking the time after Strayed’s divorce and the death of her mother, tackles big emotional issues, including looking within to change various destructive behavioural issues.

As always, Witherspoon is impeccably put together today. It’s an unusually warm evening and Witherspoon’s dressed in a black asymmetrical Yves Saint Laurent gown and Giuseppe Zanotti heels.

Although standing at 1.56-metres tall, Witherspoon is one of Hollywood’s biggest powerhouse players. She is an Academy Award-winning actor, an honour she earned for her role as June Carter in 2005’s Walk the Line. She’s a successful businesswoman who helms her own production company, Type A Films, which she founded in 2000 and which produced the Legally Blonde franchise, among other hits. (In 2012, Type A merged with another company to become Pacific Standard.)

She also has the air of someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, though is endowed with an easy Southern charm. It appears her easy-going demeanour isn’t merely for show. By coincidence, the week before the Wild premiere I sat behind Witherspoon on a flight from Miami to Los Angeles. With some assistance from her husband, she managed to placate her rambunctious yet adorable toddler, who resembles both Mum and Dad, without the help of her nanny, seated nearby.

During her son’s short-lived fussy spell, Witherspoon seemed relaxed and nonplussed as she went about offering him hugs, food and toys. As a typical third-time mum, it no doubt takes a lot to derail her.

Clearly a multi-tasker of immense proportions, Witherspoon makes it look easy. “Well, I feel like there’s never enough time to be with my kids, make movies, read all the books I want to read, see all the movies I want to see. Time is a luxury and I wish I had more of it.”

Living the dream

One of Hollywood’s highest-paid female stars, Witherspoon has commanded between US$15-20 million for films.

“I have to admit, I like to buy things for my kids, which is probably my greatest extravagance,” she confesses.

“I spoil them and it’s hard because I try to measure my desire to buy things for them and their actual need of the items. It’s fun to go to a toy store and think, ‘Oh, he would love that’. I have to temper myself in order not to be raising kids who feel entitled to everything.”

How do they deal with their celebrity mum’s status?

She pauses. “My kids have gotten to the age where they’re not thrilled with the idea of being talked about anymore. I’ve gotten the, ‘Mum, be quiet and don’t talk about [our] personal lives. All our friends’ mums read these magazines and then they know too much about us’.”

Witherspoon has led a relatively scandal-free life, however no one is without a single blemish in their personal history, especially under our times’ unrelenting magnifying glass of fame. Most notably, last year in Atlanta, Witherspoon and Toth were pulled over after their car was spotted weaving in traffic. Toth was arrested for driving under the influence, and his chatty wife was charged with disorderly conduct. She issued an apology that stated she had “clearly had one drink too many”, and was fined US$213.

Witherspoon was born in New Orleans, but spent her first four years in Germany where her father was posted as a military surgeon. The family later settled in Nashville, Tennessee. At seven she was modelling; at 10 appearing in TV commercials. She later garnered praise for playing the lead in The Man in the Moon, playing a 14-year-old.

But it wasn’t until 1999’s Election, when Witherspoon played an ambitious, infuriatingly perky high schooler, that Hollywood finally woke up to the incredibly versatile and effective blonde. It was Legally Blonde, in 2001, and its equally high-achieving sequel two years later that set her on a different kind of career trajectory.

Family life

With holiday season upon us, a time that can be vexing for many divorced couples, Witherspoon appears to have a strict “kids first” policy in place. To all intents and purposes, it seems she and Phillippe maintain a healthy co-parenting relationship. 

“Oh, I’m very good friends with a lot of my exes,” she nods. “Actually, I’m still in contact with the first boy I ever kissed; we’re friends on Facebook. It’s great to see his kids. He’s a dentist now. You never know when I might need some dental work,” she jokes.

Christmas is a time of year she looks forward to. “I love to have a party and we sing Christmas carols. I make my mother’s champagne punch which is just champagne and ginger ale. Everybody has too much to drink and sings loudly. It’s fun; it’s always fun to watch the kids rip through their presents and have the best time.”

But not all her Christmases have been joyous. She famously noted that after her separation from Phillippe in 2006, she was so depressed she would sit in her car unable to move, almost paralysed by emotional devastation. But now, three years into her second marriage, she is a world away from that dark phase.

Witherspoon and Toth reportedly began their relationship in early 2010. In a reflective moment during our interview in December of that year to promote How Do You Know (one of her rare starring vehicles that didn’t set the box office on fire), she offered, “When it comes to love, I find that your friends and family tell you whether or not you’re happy, and how you’re behaving. Isn’t it funny that you’re not always the best judge of your own happiness? So, I listen to my friends.”

Witherspoon has a strong group of friends including comedian Chelsea Handler, Jennifer Aniston, Isla Fisher and Renee Zellweger.

“I think most women have other women they rely on for life advice, whether it be mothering or dating advice. I definitely have my crew of girls I go to about everything in my life. And they’re blunt. They’ll tell me if I’m making a bad decision – from dating or if they don’t like my haircut,” she laughs. “It’s good to have people like that in your life.”

Given that priorities shift when it comes to selecting partners as we get older, what has she learned about love and relationships?

She pauses. “The most important thing is how your partner treats you. I wish I had known that when I was younger. My mother always told me it was really important to be treated nicely. And I think you have to be open in relationships. There’s a lot of compromise and everybody who’s in a relationship understands that. You learn as you get older how to balance maintaining who you are as well as living well with another person. And you learn the difference between being attracted to bad guys and nice guys. That’s a lesson learned.”

In illustrating that despite appearances, her life is not a Norman Rockwell painting, she says, “Well, I think my romantic struggles have been very public. But if you’re asking me how I am right this minute? I’m very happy and very lucky.” Her famous smile appears. “I’m in a good place.”

Good work

Along with the many hats she wears, Witherspoon is also a philanthropist. Among other organisations, she supports – and is on the board of directors for – the Children’s Defense Fund, which helps provide underprivileged children with education, health care and emergency aid around the world. She’s also the Global Ambassador for Avon and serves as an honorary chair for the Avon Foundation for Women.

“We offer breast cancer screenings and domestic violence initiatives to stop violence against women,’’ says Witherspoon. “That’s a great part of my life and I’ve been to places like Russia and Poland where Avon has established hotlines for women who were abused. It’s a great way for me to connect to people through their personal stories and to give back.”

The actor was recently honoured at a gala event in Beverly Hills for her work with the Malala Fund, the educational organisation established by 17-year-old activist Malala Yousafzai, who became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Other charities Witherspoon supports include the Afghanistan Relief Organization, The Lunchbox Fund and UNIFEM.

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