Vanity’s Leading Ladies

Reese Witherspoon, Mira Nair forged a formidable pair in filming Thackeray novel

Five-foot, two-inch powerhouse Reese Witherspoon swept into a Park Avenue conference room at New York’s Regency Hotel and was greeted by a collective inhalation of breath otherwise known as “the gay gasp.”

Why were the journalists assembled all but gagging?

The answer is simple.

The star of the “Legally Blonde” franchise showed up for her “Vanity Fair” press conference illegally brunette.

But don’t fret, America’s favorite blonde isn’t going all Esther-crazy on us. She’s currently filming the part of Mrs. Johnny Cash opposite Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny in James Mangold’s “Walk the Line.” The 28-year-old Witherspoon, who grew up in Nashville, even had to be gently steered back once or twice to Becky Sharp, one of the greatest female characters of English literature. Sharp is one of those delicious English heroines who surmounts the class she is born into by sheer force of will. But why would an actress who pulled down $15 million for her last two pictures want to talk about class struggle?

Ryan Philppe, her husband and co-star from 1999’s “Cruel Intentions,” publicly joshed her on the 2002 Oscar telecast about cash, but in that case it referred to her making more money than him. And the couple has a hard and fast rule about only one of them being on location at a time so as to be least disruptive to their young family.

For Witherspoon, one imagines this self-imposed limitation means choosing carefully, and she’s got her own production company, Type A Films, set up at Universal Pictures to allow her to do so. And though a young Hollywood star, with her own production company to boot, set certain expectations for the otherwise all-Brit cast of “Vanity Fair,” Witherspoon, as usual, delivered the unexpected.

“She comes with no Hollywood baggage whatsoever,” her handsome co-star, James Purefoy, explained. “Despite the fact that she’s a one-woman movie-making industry. You could easily expect her to be a nightmare to work with, and difficult, and come with vast amounts of advisers and publicists and assistants, but she had none of that, at all. She approached it very much in the tradition of British actors. She did the scene.”

Scene would be quite an appropriate word to describe the “Vanity Fair” press conference. If Witherspoon is relatively unadorned on-set, there were at least eight flacks hovering behind her while she spoke out of character. In a low-cut purple floral dress and very little makeup, Witherspoon did her best to pretend that they weren’t there and to come off as just another average Reese.

“I’m a slob,” Witherspoon smiled when one of the journalists asked about her glamorous life. “Just like you guys.”

Even a Bollywood dance number courtesy of the film’s Indian director Mira Nair—the script’s biggest departure from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel—couldn’t trip up a then-pregnant Witherspoon.

“As it read in the script,” she explained, “it was ‘Becky and the court dance for the King.’ So Mira brought in Bollywood choreographers and 20 professionally trained dancers. She said, ‘We’re going to show you what we’re going to do’ and then it was, ‘FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT!’ and this troupe of gorgeous, slender women come out and start writhing around. I was like, ‘Okay, but what do you want me to do?’ And Mira said, ‘That’s what you’re going to do.’ So I said, ‘I don’t know. How do I do that?’ So every Saturday, I was going in and trying to rehearse. We also tried to do it as early in the shoot as we could so my pregnancy didn’t show. In the end, I have to say, I’m so proud of that scene. Some of the stuff was really hard to do, but it was so fun.”

Fifteen-million-a-picture actresses are not free to roam the streets without a security detail, but Witherspoon put a smiley face on that reality. It’s as if she’s taken up full-time residence in the titular berg of her film “Pleasantville,” harnessing all the plucky optimism of unforgettable characters like “Election”’s Tracey Flick and “Legally Blonde”’s Elle Woods. It’s a hard thing to fault her for, and it’s telling that both characters were nominated for Golden Globe Awards. This honor, bestowed by the Hollywood foreign press, is jokingly referred in this circle as the “best breakfast buffet” award. It’s largely a measure of a star’s likeability and doesn’t have so much to do with technical performance, per se. And Witherspoon is an immensely likeable star who can clearly get the press corps eating the breakfast buffet right out of her hand.

Even when the talk turned to her director Mira Nair, who conquered Hollywood with her breakout film “Monsoon Wedding” and is preparing to bring a musical version to Broadway, Witherspoon could only accentuate the positive. She trotted out the phrases “woman in Hollywood” and “working against impossible odds within the studio system” to paint a portrait of Nair as a film industry Mother Theresa, even though Nair herself vigorously objects to being classified as a Hollywood director or working for the studios. Nair is first and foremost, an independent thinker. The radiantly beautiful director was Indian-born and Harvard-educated. She exhibits a fire that her actors insist increases exponentially on-set, though she claimed she hasn’t screamed on a film set since her Academy Award-nominated feature directorial debut “Salaam Bombay.” Nair’s energy bursts are all offset by helpful practices like early morning yoga, but asked about a 6 a.m. yoga call, Purefoy said, “Please, I’m a British actor, I don’t even work out.”

“She never screamed,” Witherspoon stated, then took a beat before adding, with perfect comic timing, “at me.” From her description of their working relationship, it’s clear Witherspoon would have done anything—and that included bearing her pregnant belly on-screen.

“She was a great sport about it,” Witherspoon remembered of that dreaded call to inform her director she was pregnant. “She said she thought it would help the film and really tried to use it.“

It did light a fire under the production as certain scenes had to be shot straight-away before the pregnancy began to show, and still other scenes, in which Witherspoon’s character Becky Sharp is pregnant, had to be restructured.

“The great thing about working with Mira Nair,” Witherspoon explained, “and the reason I was so attracted to her work in the first place is she has this way of putting sexuality in her films that’s a very female sexuality. It has a lot to do with color and mood and lighting. So when she asked me to show my pregnant belly, I didn’t feel nervous at all. Well, on the day we shot I felt a little nervous, but I knew she would do it in a really beautiful way and I was really happy when I saw it.”

In the end, it’s probably impossible to know whether Witherspoon showed up for her first day’s work on “Vanity Fair” as a spoiled American actress or one who had already internalized her character’s hard scrabble up-the-British-class-ladder temperament. But one thing Nair would be sure to stress is that in her home, her family eats with their hands, so it would be difficult to show up with a silver spoon in one’s mouth.

And perhaps it didn’t matter.

As Nair put it, in a way that one can imagine did double for her American star, “I don’t give myself the luxury of looking back and feeling like a Virginia Slims ad. I didn’t have a plan, as such. The only plan I had was to make a feature film before I was 30 years old and I managed ‘Salaam Bombay’ when I was 29. When you’re a young person, you have this kind of deadline, but frankly I remember when I got my first grant from the New York Council for the Humanities to make my first documentary. Two other grantees were next to me. They were saying, ‘Oh, I’m so grateful that they gave me money’ and I thought, you know, we have such a voice to speak in this world. We shouldn’t just be grateful. The other people also should be grateful for us bringing our voice to the world. So I must tell you, I don’t sit around looking over my shoulder hoping they won’t catch me. I think it’s the other way around. I have something to say, a point of view, and I’d like to open your eyes.”

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