Premiering in Nashville: A Conversation with Reese Witherspoon
The Good Lie is a story set in a civil war, so obviously, it has all the tragedies that came out of that, but there’s some hope to it as well. Filmed in Atlanta, Georgia, The Good Lie stars established actors like Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon, Corey Stoll, and Sarah Baker as well as several actors of Sudanese descent — Ger Duany (Jeremiah), Arnold Oceng (Mamere), Kuoth Wiel (Abital), and Emmanuel Jal (Paul) — who tell the collective experiences of several survivors of the a civil war that broke out in Sudan in the 1990s.
Based on real-life events (compressed into this film by screenwriter Margaret Nagle), it is an upcoming American drama directed by Oscar nominee Philippe Falardeau and features Witherspoon as a brash American woman assigned to help four young Sudanese refugees known as Lost Boys [and Girls] of Sudan who have won a lottery for relocation to the United States.
The 38 year old Witherspoon was born at Southern Baptist Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana, but spent her childhood in Nashville, Tennessee. Witherspoon attended middle school at Harding Academy and graduated from the all-girls’ Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, during which time she was a cheerleader. She attended Stanford University as an English literature major. After completing one year of studies, she left Stanford to pursue an acting career. Witherspoon is proud of the “definitive Southern upbringing” which she received. She has said that it gave her “a sense of family and tradition” and taught her about “being conscientious about people’s feelings, being polite, being responsible and never taking for granted what you have in your life.”
Witherspoon landed her first feature role as the female lead in The Man in the Moon in 1991. In 1996, she appeared in Freeway, and starred in Pleasantville in 1998. For her role in 1999’s Election, she earned a Golden Globe nomination.
2001 marked her career’s turning point with the breakout role as Elle Woods in the box-office hit Legally Blonde, and in 2002 she starred in Sweet Home Alabama, which became her biggest commercial film success to date.
2003 saw her return as lead actress and executive producer of Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde. In 2005, Witherspoon received worldwide attention and praise for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, which earned her an Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role and the Critics Choice Movie Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Now married to agent Jim Toth, Witherspoon has three children and after something of a hiatus has several films being released this year including this one.
In our interview, Reese tells us about opening The Good Lie in her hometown of Nashville, remembering her first time in front of the camera and taking her daughter to a refuge camp…
Having this movie premiere here in Nashville… This film has some great Tennessee connections. producer Molly Smith, with quite a bit of credits to her name. [Alcon Entertainment’s] Fred Smith, who started this transportation company over in Memphis that’s changed the world [FedEx]. And obviously you’re a local girl who’s done really, really well.
Thank you for being here to support us. The film is incredible. I read the script and I just knew. It was just one of those things — I couldn’t not do it. The other really wonderful thing about the process was I got to meet a fellow Tennesseean, who was producing the film, and her name is Molly Smith.
What was it like to show your film here in Nashville where you grew up?
Thank you so much, I’m so glad to be here, and represent Tennessee. This theater [The Belcourt] where the premiere was brings back so many memories for me that I was getting emotional when I got here. I’ve seen so many films here with my family. It’s just such a great thing to be have a premier in Nashville, and to have any of my movies, ever, in Nashville.
This is a spectacular season for you with Oscar talk, this movie, producing and even popping up with Joaquin in Inherent Vice. Was this organized like a military campaign? Have you been on the march to do something like this?
It’s so good to see you all in Nashville! It’s so exciting. I’m so used to seeing you in Los Angeles or New York. No, it wasn’t planned. I think for a few years, I was a little bit lost as an artist, not being able to find what I wanted to do. Not making choices I was ultimately very happy with. What kind of started this whole string of things I was doing, personally, was just getting back to wanting to playing interesting, dynamic female characters.
How do you feel to be back in Oscar buzz spotlight?
It’s so nice it so sweet about it. I’m just excited that everybody’s liking the films I’ve been in lately. I will be talking about it at the Inherent Vice press conference.
And The Good Lie is a spectacular, surprising film with an amazing story, told with such humor as well as compassion.
I read Margaret Nagle’s script, and I was just so moved. And I enjoy that idea that… I remember when I met the director, the first thing he said to me was, “This movie isn’t about you. And I just want to be really clear about that.” And I’ve never had a director say that to me before. But it made me happy, because I didn’t want to make a movie where it was just a white girl, an American girl, coming to save African people. My character [Carrie Davis] is just as emotionally distraught. She’s just as without family as they are. And I thought that was such a beautiful opportunity to talk about family is where you find it. And the rest is, I made these movies, and they all seem to be coming out within three months of each other. I’m in a little bit of a traffic jam, right now. Hopefully that we’ll be able to see all of them, and see them for their different qualities.
What was the message of the movie that spoke to you, and made you want to do it?
Margaret did such an incredible job, you could tell that there was so much research involved, because when I started watching documentaries, it was completely accurate. Every story you’ve heard, the Sudanese refugees told is somehow in the movie or in the script. So we just met and I met with Margaret, and Molly Smith, and Philippe Falardeau, the director. I just felt that there were wonderful — there are so many times when you don’t appreciate your life, until you see someone else’s perspective on our privileges and the opportunities that we have, whether that’s education, or health care, or just food and running water. One of my favourite scenes is when he’s running his hands, turning the water on and off, after they’d walked through the desert, without water or food. I just thought it was a great message also for families. I think it’s really great to take your kids to this movie. It brings up a lot of integral conversations that we should all be having. I’ll take my kids!
Having three kids, how do you juggle everything?
You should have seen my hotel room this morning. It’s a disaster; chaos! Pancakes and milk and fruit and teenagers – it was madness. I felt that this script was so beautiful.
Did you avoid the process of researching or looking into this? It must have been an incredible challenge for you to play a character where you don’t know the backstory to the other characters. You have to discover it along the way. What did you learn, talk a little bit about what you have learned about south Sudan in general?
I came from a place of not knowing, so other than a random newspaper article or something, I knew very little about the story. So there was a lot of really interesting documentaries, some stuff on 60 Minutes that was interesting. Still, I didn’t know. A lot of the things that I learned were from talking to Emmanuel and talking to Ger, and sometimes we’d be doing scenes and I’d say, “Well, did that really happen?”
And Ger would tell us about being a young boy, and walking all that way, and what it was like. It’s hard to even conceive. And then at the very end of the film, we got to go to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. So I, even though I didn’t shoot any scenes there, I didn’t want to just do the part in Atlanta and be done and go home to my life. I really wanted to see what the experience was like, so I took my teenage daughter, and we went. It was really…. it was very emotional, seeing over 250,000 people displaced. Sleeping on concrete slabs, and just the sprawl of that many people living together. There were twelve different languages being spoken; seven different kinds of religions. There was very little health care, very little food.
It just really brought it all home to me — this is an opportunity to raise awareness, but it’s also an opportunity to create change. Because as I was talking to Rick Warren, I don’t know if you know him, the religious leader. And he said, “Sometimes we assume because people are poor that they’re not intelligent. That they don’t have anything to offer to society.”
But these are people who are on top of their field. They’re doctors. They’re educators. They’re community leaders, and they’ve essentially been displaced.” So it’s amazing, through this process, to even two days go, be in D.C., and have all these wonderful men and women from the studio, and they’re there, and they’re doing incredible things. One of them is a war veteran, from Iraq and Afghanistan. One of them is a community leader. So, it’s been really educational for me to learn about refugees, and their contribution to society, and how we hopefully lift more of them up out of those situations.
Why do you think it’s hard for us, as Americans, to grasp what’s going on, the persecutions that’s going on in Sudan — how can this movie change that?
I think there’s not been a lot of media coverage. A lot of people are making comparison to ‘Hotel Rwanda’, but it wasn’t a situation that a lot of people knew a lot about. Once they saw the film, it makes you want to go home and look it up and get more involved.
How did you arrive at Carrie’s look? Was it written on the page, or did you have any input on that?
Her look? Oh, how she looks. Molly called me and told me she wanted me to be a brunette, and I was like, “All right.” I’ve done that before. And we did it. I’d just had a baby, that’s the reason why I didn’t know if I wanted to make the movie, because I’d just had a baby. So I was still nursing and taking care of him.
And I read the script, and I was like, “Oh my gosh! I have to do this. How am I going to do this?” You know how your brain gets confused, right after you have a baby? I was really confused. We just kind of worked with the hair and make-up people. It’s always nice to sort of depart from yourself. I was sort of covering all my post-baby weight, too.
You mentioned that you brought your daughter to the refugee camp. I was just wondering, I’m assuming she hasn’t experienced that sort of poverty before. So what was her experience like? How did it help her perspective on the world and why was it important for you to take her there?
Well, she’s a wonderful, socially-conscious girl. Even if you read a million books on a situation, you don’t understand it until you see it yourself. I was very lucky that they organized for her to be there, because she is a little young to be off on these trips. It was… she didn’t say a word, the whole day. And then she really didn’t talk about it until a couple of days later. I think the memories of the thing… We saw women giving birth on metal tables, with their infant sitting there with no clothes on. Kids that were sick, and kids, babies like her brother’s age, sitting on concrete slabs and sleeping with seven other brothers and sisters. But I think the conditions were worse.
Seeing that is one thing, but the other remarkable thing was the joy and determination of these people, to rise above, and their determination to have a better life for their children. Their spirit was just incredible! They greet you with smiles and laughter and dancing. I think it’s definitely going to effect her for a long time, as it did me. It was amazing. It was incredible to be there with Ger and his family — so many of his family members are there, at that very camp.
I really like the part when Corey’s character says in the movie, you know, he’s so reticent to get involved. He’s like, “Let’s not get involved. We’re probably going to get sued.” Because, back to your point, one of the things that I think is so great about this story, is that you don’t have to be a perfect person, to do something great for somebody else. You actually might, the imperfections in your life might be helped in the process of meeting and helping and creating community for people who are displaced. It’s not just for the saints of the world. We can all make a difference.
What do you think she gained from the experience?
Just consciousness — awareness. Hopefully a feeling of wanting to give back. I just think that travel is the antidote to any kind of selfish behavior – service, really. It’s not their fault, kids nowadays, we give them all these technologies, and access to things that disconnect them, so as much as you can show them of the world, it’s great.
Was she thirteen at the time?
When were we there? Was it last year? She had just turned fourteen. Yeah, it was… a moving experience.
What inspires you about acting? Do you read inspirational kinds of things?
Oh, yeah. I’m definitely one of those people that has post-its everywhere, like, the six evils in the world and how to avoid them I really do. Desire, greed, envy. I try to tell myself all those things to avoid. The positive affirmations, I have to say that judge not less ye be judged is a pretty good one that’s sort of guided me through life.
Was there any advice were you given early on in your career that turned out to be either right or wrong?
I really wanted to be a Broadway kid and so I went to all these camps in the Catskills and I had to sing and dance and act and I remember getting through the singing coaching session at the end and I had my evaluation and they said, ‘Whatever you do — don’t sing!!’ I think that I told that story when I won an award for ‘Walk The Line.’ I was like, ‘Thank God I didn’t listen to them!’ Frankly, it was hard to get over that mental block because someone had told me, basically, ‘You don’t know how to do that. Don’t do it.’ So you have to be careful what you say to people.
What about love advice? If you could give yourself advice about love, what would it be?
Well, I had a girlfriend who said something really smart to me the other day. She was telling me a story about how she always used to go to the same coffee shop and she was really into the guy making the coffee. He was this cool guy in a band and she always wanted to go out with him, but she never noticed that the guy giving her the coffee everyday was like totally in love with her. So she said, ‘I think it’s important not to follow the guy that you’re chasing. Look at the guy who’s chasing you.’ I think that takes time and life experience to sort of notice because boy is it fun chasing boys, especially when you’re young. But when you’re older, it’s a whole other thing.
You have always been involved with charities.
I think there are some amazing people out there doing work with different organizations. There is also a wonderful organization called Service Nation, which is organizing an opportunity for people to give back through service work. I think that’s economical at these times and it’s a great way to get kids involved. They work with everything from ‘Habitat for Humanity’ and ‘Teach for America.’ Its not just about giving money, but its about giving time, energy, and effort.
Do you find it challenging in this economic environment?
I think the need is there more so than ever. I think that what people crave more than financial means is the idea of giving your time and support. People need other peoples support at this time.. That kind of hands on, face to face, is what we are missing sometimes. We are so connected to the Internet, talking on cell phones, and there is a lot of space between people. Hopefully this is going to bring communities together. It can create more of that kind of feel in the world hopefully.
I heard you’re not a person who goes to the gym regularly? Yet you look pretty good to me.
I’ll be totally honest with you. If I never had to see the inside of a gym again I would be a very happy person. There are people who love it, it’s just their thing. I can do it, and I do it for my job because I’m really lucky to get this job or have a job, but it’s not my first choice of morning activities.
Do you remember the first time you stepped in front of a camera?
I had a really great experience in my first film, ‘The Man On The Moon,’ and I just worked with such a wonderful director, Robert Mulligan, and yeah, I mean, I thought that all movies were like that. We finished two weeks under schedule and we only worked from eight o clock in the morning until five o clock at night, and I thought, ‘This movie thing is a breeze,’ and it was a rude awakening on my next film.
What was that?
It was a TV movie, and so, of course, it was like twenty two hours a day, and we came in, and we had five weeks of shooting. So yeah, but I really enjoyed it and I sort of started to love the characters that I would play and start to lose myself.
These days we live in a tabloid world of reality TV and whatnot. How do you stay out of those magazines and live your life?
There comes a point at which you are so subject to public opinion that I think that you have stop reading magazines and stop looking at newspapers and things like that because you could just be so tied up in other people’s opinions of you. Over time, you know, you become self motivated, and I think, yeah, you have to be sort of driven and ambitious to become the kind of person that you want to be because everyone is going to tell you, ‘That’s too difficult,’ or ‘That’s not possible’ and ‘Oh well, you’re this kind of actress, you’re not that kind of actress,’ and you just go, ‘Oh alright, I’ll show you. That’s what you think.’ And I’ve done just that. And I always try to do that.
THE GOOD LIE IS AVAILABLE ON DVD FROM AUGUST 31 2015, COURTESY OF ENTERTAINMENT ONE