Originally created 05/18/99

Actress sites hard work behind fame



Reese Witherspoon is having what she calls a "pregnant lady day." It's the kind of day when she's likely to cry over anything.

"Like television commercials make me cry, for like 30 minutes or an hour," she says, as a makeup artist and hair stylist put the finishing touches on the young actress for an interview and photo session.

The kewpie-doll cute 23-year-old is pregnant with her first child and is experiencing the full range of emotions that often accompany pregnancy.

She can slip into a down-home "y'all" or the girlish verbal tick of "like" at times, but she mostly talks in the straightforward manner of an erudite young woman -- a debutante, the daughter of a doctor and professor of nursing in Nashville, Tenn., the product of an exclusive all-girls school, a Stanford University English-lit major.

On this morning, she's talking about her latest film, Election, and suggesting that it doesn't neatly fit into the usual silly teen flicks that flood the market.

And she's right. The main character is a teacher, played by Matthew Broderick, going through a midlife crisis -- which mainly manifests in his intense dislike for one student (played by Ms. Witherspoon), an overachiever running for class president.

"I think everybody has somebody in their life that they absolutely can't stand. And all your friends like them, and you're just like, `I don't know why, but that person just rubs me the complete wrong way,"' says Ms. Witherspoon, citing her own school experience.

"I had a particular girl in junior high that I didn't like. She just drove me nuts. She was always pretty and had lots of dates and was always putting other people down, surreptitiously, and really just rubbed me the wrong way.

"And now she's like wildly successful. It's depressing. And here I go, playing pretend for a living."

Not that it's a bad living, she concedes.

Since early last year, she's had a run of notable movies: Twilight, in which she co-starred with Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon; Pleasantville, where she played a slut turned bookworm; and Cruel Intentions, an updated Dangerous Liaisons, with her real-life fiance and father of her child, Ryan Phillippe, playing her seducer. She recently finished filming American Psycho, and still in the can is Best Laid Plans.

Her performances have drawn lots of notice in recent months, with magazines putting her on their covers or naming her to their "It List" or "Hot Squad." But Ms. Witherspoon takes all of the up-and-coming-ingenue hype in stride.

"I think it's important to have the right perspective about it," she says. "I have an entirely new perception of magazines -- which is that people pick it up, flip through a couple of pages, throw it on the floor and never look at it again."

So while it's flattering, you can't rest on the laurels of magazine buzz, she says.

"You just have to do the work to match the publicity."

Despite the next-big-thing breathlessness of some publications, Ms. Witherspoon aims to be in this business for the long haul; she already has displayed staying power.

She started 16 years ago, at age 7, appearing in local TV commercials for a flower shop owned by neighbors.

"I just had a great time," she recalls. "I was just so star-struck. And I told my mother that that's what I wanted to do."

Her parents sent her to acting classes, and she did other local commercials before landing her feature film debut in 1991's The Man in the Moon (not to be confused, she jokes, with the R.E.M. song and upcoming biopic about Andy Kaufman). That year, she also made her TV debut, in a Diane Keaton-directed Lifetime movie, Wildflower.

She subsequently starred in Fear, co-starring Mark Wahlberg as a psycho-boyfriend, and Freeway, co-starring Kiefer Sutherland as yet another guy who terrorizes her.

Because of all of her movie work in the past couple of years, Ms. Witherspoon suspended her Stanford education, and she'll be taking the rest of the year off to get married and have the baby.

While she eventually would like to try her hand at screenwriting, she's no longer ambivalent about being an actress or wistfully thinking about following her parents' footsteps.

She can still think about med school, she says, "but I think I kind of realized about two years ago that this was pretty fulfilling for me and that I enjoy what I do."



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