How Reese Witherspoon overcame the 'Best Actress curse' to build the $900 million empire behind 'Big Little Lies' and 'The Morning Show'

Collage of Reese Witherspoon performances/appearance (from left): "Legally Blonde","Big Little Lies", the 2018 Golden globes, "Little Fires Everywhere" and "Hot Pursuit", and Witherspoon on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon."
Courtesy of MGM Studios; NBC/Getty Images; Eric Simkin/Hulu; Sam Emerson/Warner Brothers; Alyssa Powell/Insider
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  • Five years ago, "Big Little Lies" premiered, cementing Reese Witherspoon as both star and producer.

  • It was a remarkable turnaround from the mid-2010s, when she starred in forgettable comedies.

  • A love of literature and a focus on women have been key to Witherspoon's remaking as a mogul.

Five years ago this weekend, "Big Little Lies," the HBO drama starring and produced by Reese Witherspoon, premiered. A ratings smash that took home eight Emmys, the miniseries helped usher in a new phase of her career: superpowerful producer.

These days, Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine imprimatur is everywhere: on projects starring her, like Apple TV+'s "The Morning Show" and Hulu's "Little Fires Everywhere," and on shows featuring other stars, like Apple's "Truth Be Told" with Octavia Spencer. Meanwhile, Reese's Book Club has become a publishing-industry powerhouse rivaling Oprah, as its 2.2 million Instagram followers drive titles like Delia Owens' "Where the Crawdads Sing" and Glennon Doyle's "Untamed" to the top of the bestseller list.

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Reese Witherspoon in "Big Little Lies."HBO

Last year, Witherspoon became Hollywood's richest actress, according to Forbes, with an estimated net worth of $400 million. Much of that derives from her sale last summer of a majority stake in Hello Sunshine, reportedly valued at $900 million.

But less than a decade ago, Witherspoon was considered a victim of the so-called best-actress curse. She'd followed her 2006 Oscar win with years of roles in middling comedies like "Four Christmases," "This Means War," "How Do You Know," and "Hot Pursuit." A 2012 New Yorker article declared her a faded star, placing her alongside the likes of Demi Moore and John Travolta.

How was she able to turn things around so spectacularly?

'I was so used to being underestimated'

Before "Big Little Lies," Witherspoon was known for her iconic roles in "Legally Blonde" and "Election" and her Oscar-winning turn as June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line." But in the decade-plus between her Oscar win and her hit adaptation of Liane Moriarty's novel, her career floundered.

"I was so used to being underestimated that when I was somehow accepted, I didn't know how to look at material," Witherspoon told The Hollywood Reporter of this time in her life. "I didn't know how to make decisions and I didn't know what I wanted to say." (Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine declined a request for comment for this piece.)

Her off-screen behavior didn't help. In 2013, she was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after her husband, Jim Toth, was pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence. The incident was caught on tape, with Witherspoon asking the officer "Do you know my name?" and promising that he'd "be on national news" for arresting her. (She ultimately pleaded no contest and apologized, saying she was "deeply embarrassed" by her behavior.)

reese witherspoon hot pursuit
2015's "Hot Pursuit," starring Witherspoon and Sofía Vergara, flopped at the box office and earned an 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.Warner Bros. Pictures

But Toth was also key to Witherspoon's efforts to remake herself. A successful talent agent, he gave her the push to self-fund her production company, then called Pacific Standard, with the goal of making the complex, women-fronted projects she couldn't find in her own career.

"He said, 'You should produce movies,'" Witherspoon told Harper's Bazaar in 2016. "'You read more books than anybody I know. You should just buy some of them and turn them into films.'"

Witherspoon did just that, optioning two of the biggest titles of the early 2010s: Gillian Flynn's suspense novel "Gone Girl," which topped the New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks, and Cheryl Strayed's hiking memoir, "Wild," which also hit No. 1 on the list and was the first title in Oprah's rebooted book club.

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"Wild" earned Witherspoon her second Oscar nomination for acting.Fox Searchlight Pictures

Both film adaptations were released in 2014; "Gone Girl" was a box-office smash, while ''Wild" was a modest hit and earned Witherspoon her second Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Strayed.

But Witherspoon was still waiting for the project that would put her over the top both in front of and behind the camera — and it turned out to be on television.

Elevating 'chick lit' brought Witherspoon to new heights

When Moriarty's "Big Little Lies" was released in 2014, a Times critic praised the book's "easy, girlfriendly style," noting that it "isn't likely to attract much of a male readership."

But Moriarty told The Times in 2018 that the emphasis on female characters that had earned the book the label of "chick lit" was also the secret to its television success. Centered on a quintet of major actresses including Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern, "Big Little Lies" filled an untapped need for stories about complicated women.

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Witherspoon with Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley in "Big Little Lies."HBO

Since then, adaptations of contemporary women's literary fiction have taken off. HBO commissioned Moriarty to formulate a second season of "Big Little Lies," featuring Meryl Streep in her first TV role in 15 years, while Hulu adapted her follow-up book, "Nine Perfect Strangers." Kidman got a second book-based HBO series (and second Emmy nomination) with "The Undoing," based on Jean Hanff Korelitz's "You Should Have Known." Caroline Kepnes' "You" books and Kristin Hannah's "Firefly Lane" have been turned into successful Netflix series.

Not all of these shows have been critically acclaimed; "Big Little Lies" took a drubbing in its second season. But they've given Witherspoon the clout to expand beyond literary adaptations, most notably with "The Morning Show," which landed eight Emmy nominations for its first season.

Witherspoon's shows have been huge subscription drivers for HBO Max, Hulu, and Apple. A report from the content-analytics firm Diesel Labs that was shared with Fast Company last year indicated that "Big Little Lies," "Little Fires Everywhere," and "The Morning Show" were key in acquiring new users for their respective platforms, outpacing even other women-centric marquee shows like "Mare of Easttown" and "Mrs. America."

"For a small production company, Hello Sunshine is producing top-tier, high-quality content that is driving measurable engagement and new engaged audiences for streaming services," said Anjali Midha, the CEO and cofounder of Diesel Labs.

Witherspoon's book-to-TV pipeline is just getting started

Scroll back to the earliest days of Reese's Book Club, and you'll find the September 2017 pick: Celeste Ng's "Little Fires Everywhere."

"This deep psychological mystery about two families in Ohio moved me to tears," Witherspoon wrote on Instagram, adding, "To say I love this book is an understatement."

As it turned out, the selection wasn't entirely motivated by literary goodwill. Deadline reported that Witherspoon had read "Little Fires Everywhere" before its publication and brought it to Kerry Washington, who agreed to coproduce and costar. By the time the Hulu adaptation was announced in March 2018, Witherspoon's endorsement had already helped propel "Little Fires Everywhere" to a more than 20-week run on the Times bestseller list.

When the show came out in March 2020, "Little Fires Everywhere" had spent 48 weeks on the hardcover fiction bestseller list and 40 weeks on the paperback list, fueling enthusiasm for the adaptation. Shortly after the premiere, the book hit No. 1 on the Times list, remaining there for three weeks.

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Witherspoon and Kerry Washington in "Little Fires Everywhere."Eric Simkin/Hulu

Even for authors who don't land the top spot on the bestseller list or a Hello Sunshine adaptation, Witherspoon's seal of approval has been huge.

Andrea Bartz, the author of Witherspoon's August 2021 pick, "We Were Never Here," said that book "outperformed my first two books many, many times over." The novel debuted at No. 3 on The Times' hardcover fiction list and stayed there for five weeks.

By September, it had been optioned by Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter's Berlanti/Schechter Films and Molly Sims' Something Happy Productions for a Netflix adaptation — and by the time it arrives, it'll have a built-in audience.

"More than six months later, sales are still strong," Bartz said. "I feel incredibly lucky that, thanks to that spotlight, hundreds of thousands of readers discovered my book."

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Witherspoon sold a majority stake in her company, Hello Sunshine, for a reported $900 million.Dave Kotinsky / Getty Images

Literary adaptations are nothing new, but when it comes to building an empire around them, Witherspoon was in the right place at the right time, said Maris Kreizman, the literary commentator and host of the literary podcast "The Maris Review."

"Streaming has created a bigger market than ever for more shows and movies, and therefore it's created a huge appetite for intellectual property," she said. "It's a no-brainer to build a production company around it. Production companies win, authors win."

Witherspoon has created a model for other actresses

From the moment they make it big, Hollywood actresses face a looming problem: As they age out of the youth the industry demands, their career options narrow.

Some have found massive success in pivoting away from film roles. Jessica Alba built a billion-dollar empire around eco-friendly personal-care products, and Gwyneth Paltrow has become synonymous with wellness and alternative modalities. (Witherspoon has played in this arena too, via her clothing and home-goods brand, Draper James.)

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Witherspoon in a dress from Draper James, her clothing line.Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

But with the success of Hello Sunshine, the game has changed for actresses, who are rushing to emulate Witherspoon's model of producing successful literary adaptations.

Under her LuckyChap banner, Margot Robbie produced Netflix's successful adaptation of "Maid," Stephanie Land's bestselling memoir, and plans to turn Ottessa Moshfegh's novel "My Year of Rest and Relaxation" into a feature film. Kaley Cuoco told The Hollywood Reporter that Witherspoon was "the obvious one" she'd modeled her career on when she pivoted from a decade of "Big Bang Theory" stardom into optioning, producing and starring in HBO Max's surprise hit "The Flight Attendant," based on Chris Bohjalian's 2018 novel. And Washington is following up "Little Fires Everywhere" with a Netflix adaptation of "Rockaway," Diane Cardwell's surfing memoir, which Washington will both star in and produce.

"I think Witherspoon's huge success has encouraged other actresses to explore their own producing power, as well as to harness their star power to get more projects made that center on women," said Joy Press, the Vanity Fair correspondent and author of "Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television."

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Kaley Cuoco said Witherspoon was her inspiration for optioning "The Flight Attendant."Phil Caruso/HBO Max

Hello Sunshine's $900 million sale almost certainly played a role. "It had to be a number that signified that it's big business, because women are big business," Witherspoon told Gayle King in an InStyle interview last year, later adding: "Women are also hyperaware that they are the buying majority. They hold the purse strings. They also consume much more media than men. When you're talking in terms of my business, it only makes sense to cater to an audience that consumes more than anyone, right?"

Witherspoon has no plans to stop catering to her audience, with three more Reese's Book Club adaptations on the way from Hello Sunshine: She's producing TV versions of Tembi Locke's "From Scratch" for Netflix and Taylor Jenkins Reid's "Daisy Jones and the Six" for Prime Video, and a feature film of "Where the Crawdads Sing."

The latter is arguably the book club's biggest success, skyrocketing from an initial print run of 27,500 copies to 11 million copies sold as of May. While Witherspoon doesn't appear in the "Crawdads" film, set to be released on June 24, there's no mistaking who made it happen.

"It's going to be a big year for Hello Sunshine," she told InStyle. "Which makes me so happy!"

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