The audacity.


"This actually happened to me in real life,” Reese Witherspoon said as she addressed the nearly all-female audience at The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Women in Entertainment breakfast at Milk Studios in Hollywood, Calif. on Wednesday morning. Always the storyteller, Witherspoon then relayed an encounter with a Hollywood exec who counted Meryl Streep (among other actresses) out over 20 years ago.

“The executive asked me, 'What do you want out of your career?' And my 22-year-old self told him that I wanted to give funny and dramatic performances and I wanted to deliver smart dialogue and create fascinating characters, like my idols Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep,” Witherspoon, 43, continued.

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“He turned to me and said, 'Well not that many women get to be the lead in movies and also Meryl Streep is completely over.' [...] And I don’t remember what I said. Damn. I think I just sort of went blank and just started nodding.”

Witherspoon, who received the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award at the event, co-sponsored by FIJI Water, had just a handful of credits to her name at the time, and her breakout film, 1999's Election, had just hit theaters. She told the crowd that her role in the film as the bookish Tracey Flick prevented her from landing future roles in films at the exec’s studio because he thought her on-screen persona was actually her real-life personality.

The Oscar winner said she was told to wear a leather skirt to her meeting with the unnamed exec, and was given the instructions: "Don't be too intimidating, and don’t be too smart and don’t use a bunch of SAT words. Just be cool.”

Looking back, Witherspoon said she would’ve handled that meeting differently. “If I could go back in time and talk to my 22-year-old self, this is what I’d tell her to say. ‘First of all, sir, I am not actually Tracy Flick. That’s a character I played in a movie, so that’s how acting works.’”

“‘And also, you don’t ever get to talk about Meryl Streep like that. Ever,’” she went on. “And if you're wondering, this executive left the studio shortly after and I haven’t seen or heard of him since.”

In spite of that meeting, Witherspoon’s career flourished, but it didn’t come without its obstacles. “The rest of my early career began to unfold in a way that I am profoundly proud of, but I have to say, certain aspects of it still frustrates me,” she continued. Witherspoon started a production company at the age of 25, and it only made one movie with one studio in five years. “I walked away from that experience with a feeling of defeat, that I was trying to work inside a system that was not built for me to succeed.”

A decade later, with dozens of films under her belt, and even after “experiencing many professional ups and downs, being condescended to and literally patted on the head at times,” Witherspoon decided to bet on herself. She was ready to produce again and launched her production company Pacific Standard in 2012. (Pacific Standard is now a subsidiary of Witherspoon's latest venture, Hello Sunshine, which she founded in 2016).

“I decided to go on a meeting tour of all the studios to ask how many movies were being developed for women,” she said. “And the answers were grim. Of all the 7 major studios, the answer was one studio. One movie was being made with a female lead out of 140 movies. As I was told by a studio head at the time, ‘well we already have one movie starring a woman this year. We can’t make two.' Can you guess what year this was? It was 2011. Not 1911. 2011.’”

At the time, Witherspoon was told to save for retirement because successful acting careers for women after 40 years old weren’t the norm. Instead, she went in the opposite direction. “I decided to invest in myself by self-funding my production company. I recognize I was privileged enough to have made enough money as a working actress to support this crazy venture, but I was also brave and perhaps naïve enough to believe that I could actually pull it off. So, I got to work.”

Witherspoon read books, prayed it would work out, and kept investing her savings into her company. ”Now I’m in my 40’s and I’m working more than I ever have,” she said.

Witherspoon’s eldest children, Ava, 20, and Deacon, 16, were on hand at the event, beaming as their mom spoke, and sitting at their table with Witherspoon’s husband, Jim Toth, and Kerry Washington, who introduced her.

“I’m making more money than I ever have. And that’s not to brag. That is just to illuminate how much of this [industry] has really changed," she continued. "And it’s changed because women like my fellow Sherry Lansing leadership award honorees: Viola Davis, Tina Fey, Shonda Rhimes, Jane Fonda, Oprah Winfrey, and the magnificent Meryl Streep.”