Reese Witherspoon on How to Get What You Want
"Women, in particular, are very thoughtful about things and never say, 'Oh, me first.' But we have to start thinking that way a little bit more."
For our June cover, InStyle editor-in-chief Laura Brown sat down with the five stars of Big Little Lies to hear what they had to say about their hit series, their lives, and their relationships with each other. Each interview, like the show itself, touches on love, friendship, struggle, and ambition — which these women have in spades.
LAURA BROWN: You’ve talked a lot about ambition, and I love how you speak about it. Everyone has distinct ideas of it. What’s yours?
REESE WITHERSPOON: Well, I think “ambition” is a fabulous word. In my mind it has a lot to do with leadership. Right now a lot of our systems are broken, and I wish some key people were more ambitious. We need a new kind of leadership in the world. It’s time for people to step into these positions without being asked and cajoled. Women, in particular, are very thoughtful about things and never say, “Oh, me first.” But we have to start thinking that way a little bit more; otherwise, nothing will change — systems, politics, finance, education. Female leadership is often less about ego and more about resolving conflicts.
LB: It’s more empathetic.
RW: Yeah. It’s more about doing for the greater good and seeing what the big picture is. You think about what women accomplish every day in their families, communities, and workplaces. Those are leadership skills a lot of people don’t even recognize.
LB: Right. It’s basically about getting things done every day. How has your ambition evolved in the past couple years?
RW: I never knew I could run a company [the media firm Hello Sunshine]. I had to have people tell me I could do it. I had no idea I had this skill until about eight years ago.
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LB: When did you realize you could do it?
RW: My husband [Quibi executive Jim Toth] told me I could, and my agent echoed what he said. Then, when I was at a conference speaking about the importance of women in media, an executive from a major media platform came up to me. He goes, “Why aren’t you running your own media company? Why are you working for someone else? Why don’t you just do it yourself?” I thought, “Jeez, if the CEO of this company thinks I can do it, maybe I can.”
LB: How rapidly did your confidence grow after that?
RW: When you start to realize that nobody knows what they’re doing, you go, “Oh!” Nobody knows what they’re talking about in meetings. It’s literally the Wild, Wild West. The movie business is not what it used to be; streaming platforms are taking over. You have to flow with things and be awake, aware, and clued in to the change.
LB: When was the first time you really asked for what you wanted, or — a more technical term — owned your shit?
RW: I had a conversation last week that I never would have had seven years ago. It was about compensation: what a woman would make on a project versus what a guy in a similar position would make. I went to the mat for that woman. She’ll never know I made that call or had that conversation with the head of a studio. But I said to him, “This is the comp. This white guy over here is making this amount of money, and she’s done this, that, and the other with such success — and you’re asking for her to have a third of that. That’s not OK with me.”
LB: In situations like that I feel like even if those people don’t personally care, maybe they don’t want to get called out.
RW: I like to give people the benefit of the doubt that they just didn’t ever think about it. For a lot of people it’s not on their minds. And Laura, Nicole, Shailene, Zoë, and I are here to point it out to people who aren’t aware that women, or women of color, or LGBTQIA+ people who are doing a similar job are not being compensated that much. I’m really allergic to apathy.
LB: When I asked Nicole to describe you, she said, “Reese is power.” As a unit, have all of you felt a growing sense of power this season?
RW: I think with the success of the show, we feel the audience behind us. That’s what really matters: the people who took the show to heart and care deeply about these five very different women, their parenting styles, the way they think about relationships, and how they deal with trauma, violence, and sexuality. I think it emboldened us to push those story lines even further and push the edges of what female friendship really is. Is it group hugs, or is it conflict that’s very honest? We have some great fight scenes this season. We get mad at each other in the way you do with your friends.
LB: It’s good to portray that. Women have the right to be assholes — we’re not on the fainting couch all day.
RW: What’s extraordinary is that because it’s a multigenerational show, we get to hear feminism from different waves and perspectives. So there’s some second-wave feminism and some fourth-wave feminism in there. The perspective on sexuality and the idea of women’s roles in the world is vastly different between the generations.
LB: How gratifying is it to be able to show women as powerful, complex creatures?
RW: What’s most gratifying is that the world wanted that so badly. We didn’t even recognize how siloed off we’d all been until we started making the show and heard each other’s stories. It was like, “Wow, that happened to you early in your career? That happened to me early in my career.”
LB: What have you learned from working with each of your friends on the show?
RW: I marvel at Laura’s use of words. She’s a beautiful wordsmith, and the way she speaks and summarizes things is really eloquent. Nic is very poised. I’ve never seen an actress perform like her. She’s a chameleon — it’s like Nicole disappears and someone else reappears.
LB: She’s very rigorous in everything she does.
RW: Yes, she’s always committed and focused. Shai is the person who is the most open to change. She’s infinitely curious and generous, and she’s the least judgmental person I know. Zoë is an observer, and she’s always the coolest character in the room. She also gives very good advice; she has the wisdom of the world inside her!
LB: I’ve heard that you basically do a stand-up routine when you’re shooting late and everyone is tired. What does everybody else do?
RW: I like to make people laugh. Zoë tells jokes too. Nicole carries around a bag of snacks with rock-hard old-lady candies, giving out peppermints and butterscotches. Shai is just chill. And Laura gets delirious and starts making up musicals.
LB: Obviously you all spend a lot of time together off set.
RW: It’s truly one of the greatest experiences of my career. I feel like a door opened, and I’ll never go back the other way. When I watch the episodes, I’m always texting them saying, “You blew me away.” I’m in awe of their talent and our collective ability to express on such a deep level, have joy on such a high level, and celebrate each other. It’s the most fulfilling expression of the female experience I’ve ever had on film — particularly when Meryl Streep shows up. That’s when you’re like, “Oh, we are doing something right.”
LB: How has the success of the show informed your own ambition?
RW: It’s definitely made me even more determined to work with female writers and directors and women who haven’t been given the opportunities they deserve. It’s reinforced the idea that whatever concept lights this burning desire inside me is worth pursuing.
LB: In your personal life, what are you ambitious for?
RW: I’m kind of in an interesting spot. My kids are going to college — one is already in college, and one is approaching it — and my mothering personality is nothing like my work personality. I melt around my kids. I’m much more squishy, soft, and lovey with a caramel center. I also encourage their deepest dreams and want them to be more expansive in their idea of what they want to become or explore. As a teenager, you only know what you know in the world. You don’t know what it’s like to work in a foreign country or to be in medicine or science. I have friends in a lot of different fields, so I try to surround my kids with people who have incredible experiences in other industries. We can get really isolated here in Hollywood.
LB: It’s important to be hungry for experience. But that hunger can lead to disappointment sometimes. How do you bounce back when that happens?
RW: After I cry?
RW: I did this movie once [How Do You Know] where I played an Olympic-caliber softball player, and I had this coach who said to me, “Look, there are seven innings in a day. You can be sad for one of them, but you can’t be sad all seven.” It was great life advice. Suck it up, sister.
LB: No crying in softball. But you’re not really a dweller.
RW: I used to be a ruminator in my 20s, and it got me nowhere. I worried all the time, and it was pointless. I just read a great Maya Angelou quote where she said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
LB: You’re doing that, of course, with Time’s Up. You’ve all achieved so much in a relatively short time.
RW: An enormous amount has been accomplished. The thing I’m most proud of is the legal defense fund. To be able to raise that amount of money and help people in other industries, I think that is truly the most profound impact an organization can have. Trying to create a safe workplace is really tough. But they’re doing it.
LB: How exciting is that sense of female power, from Time’s Up to Big Little Lies to what you’ve been producing?
RW: What I see is partnership with women and how much more powerful we are when we’re together. Whether it’s Hello Sunshine, Time’s Up, Big Little Lies, or The Morning Show [a comedy she’s working on opposite Jennifer Aniston with Apple TV+], we create a bigger impact together. I’m very privileged to be in the spot I’m in, and I’m determined to use it to raise up other women who don’t have the opportunities I do.
LB: What are you most and least secure about?
RW: I’m probably most secure in my comedic acting and least secure in my ability to play basketball professionally.
LB: What? Oh, this is sad. We had you pinned. Like you were going out for the Lakers.
RW: I know. I’m a free agent, but I just don’t think it’s going anywhere.
LB: You sure? There are so many who need you. Especially for your colossal height.
RW: Right? I am known for my height.
Photographed by: Pamela Hanson. Styling: Julia Von Boehm. Hair: Lona Vigi for Starworks Artists. Makeup: Kelsey Deenihan for The Wall Group. Manicure: Thuy Nguyen.
For more stories like this, pick up the June issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download May 17.