Reese Witherspoon didn’t literally re-enact author Cheryl Strayed’s grueling 1100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail while shooting the forthcoming Wild. Nonetheless, Witherspoon tells Vulture that the process of adapting Strayed’s memoir often mirrored the author’s journey. “By far, this is the hardest movie I’ve ever made in my life,” says the actress, who is both the producer and star of Wild, which opens December 5th.
Some of the film’s difficulties, naturally, were physical. “I’d run up a hill with a 45-pound backpack on, and they’d say, ‘Wait, that backpack doesn’t look heavy enough. Put this 65-pound backpack on and run up the hill nine or ten times,’” Witherspoon recalls. “We literally didn’t stop shooting in those remote locations — we wouldn’t break for lunch, we’d just eat snacks. No bathroom breaks. It was crazy, but it was so wonderful…We literally pulled each other up the mountains and carried each others’ equipment.”
But the challenges began early, when Witherspoon optioned the New York Times bestseller. Right away, she knew that the role of a recovering heroin addict, floundering to gain control of her life through an arduous hike, wouldn’t jibe with her America’s-sweetheart image.
“I developed it with my own money and an incredible producing partner, and then we went to the studios afterwards, because I did not want to hear, ‘We don’t want to see Reese doing that’ or ‘We don’t want to include the sexual scenes,’” she says.
Witherspoon also realized that she needed to find some more direction in her film career. Since winning an Oscar for Walk the Line in 2006, the actress has struggled to balance her dramatic aspirations with her romantic-comedy roots. “For a couple of years, it was hard for me,” she tells Vulture. “I think I was a little lost — I didn’t know what I wanted to do or say, and I can see from the work that I was searching.”
That all changed, says Witherspoon, when she started her production company Pacific Standard. She has now re-focused on the mission of creating “more interesting, dynamic parts for women,” noting that she’s been inspired by recent work by Lena Dunham, as well as such female-centric films as Obvious Child and Bridesmaids.
Wild is one of three Reese-related films this fall: She’ll appear in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which re-teams her with her Walk the Line co-star Juaquin Phoenix (she says the two know each other so well, they communicated using shorthand during filming). And she’s producing the much-anticipated David Fincher adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl. “When my producing partner and I started our company, we had a purpose,” she says. “We wanted to bring forward more female characters in film and have more interesting, dynamic parts for women. There’s a clarity to our work, which is great. It’s nice to feel back on track.”