Reese Witherspoon Reveals That the Perfect Mom We All Envy Is Actually ‘Cracked’

Reese Witherspoon is pretty familiar with overachievers. Early in her career, she played one of the most memorable Type-A characters in movie history, Tracy Flick in Election. She also stole hearts as the bubbly but determined Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. But what makes Reese’s characters so memorable isn’t just their crazed commitment to excellence. She also plays them with a depth and nuance that’s unusual in Hollywood, when female characters can often seem like one-dimensional side notes.

Same goes for her latest role, as Madeline Martha Mackenzie, an uptight supermom in HBO’s new miniseries Big Little Lies (which debuts Feb. 19). There may be a whodunit at the bottom of the show, but the real mystery is what makes today’s moms so wound up. That’s the question at the heart of the series, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Australian writer Liane Moriarty. The director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) moved the story’s setting from Sydney to Monterrey, CA, but the problems are still the same: schoolyard scandals, domestic strife, money woes and the never-ending battle between working moms at stay-at-home moms.

Here, in her charmingly candid style, Reese dishes on everything from Hollywood’s antiquated attitudes toward women to why she’s proud to be a working mom who was raised by a working mom.

Big Little Lies features a mostly-female cast, and each character is fully-developed. It’s refreshingly different from the typical Hollywood fare.
Things need to change … I constantly see women of incredible talent playing wives and girlfriends in thankless parts and I just had enough. I’ve had conversations with so many actress friends and you can’t imagine the level of exasperation that comes with having to compete for terrible parts in terrible movies.

How was this project different from your usual roles? For 25 years, I’ve been the only woman on set. They call it the Smurfette Syndrome: There’s 100 (male) smurfs around and only one woman. […] Here, together with Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern, we nurtured each other’s performances. It’s really a collective performance for all of us.

Why do you think that’s important? We need to create more series and movies that treat women in a realistic way and enable female audiences in particular to be able to see themselves and identify with modern, complex female characters. These are the kinds of (projects) that shift consciousness.

You’re a fan of the book, too. What do you think it gets right about being a mom? What was great about reading the novel for the first time is that I saw myself in different stages of motherhood all through my life. I was a mom at 22, I’ve been divorced, I’ve been re-married … They showed every spectrum and color of a woman’s life. I thought it was incredible to have so many parts for women in one piece and women at every age, every color talking about motherhood. That is the common denominator. Motherhood is the great equalizer. Parenthood is a great equalizer.

You play Madeline, a stay-at-home mom who goes to war with a working mom in her community. As a working mom, how did you identify with Madeline’s character? I fixated on this idea that there’s always someone within a group of women who is “perfect.” She seems to have everything organized and together, and then you realize, “Oh! She’s actually the most cracked of everyone.” I’m always wary of that person who is afraid to show vulnerability. Madeline only shows it to her friends, and then later you see how truly conflicted she is. My mom was my inspiration because she was very hard-working and disciplined and I get my work ethic from her … My mother worked very hard at her job and she also earned a doctorate in pediatric nursing while raising my sister and me.

Your mother sounds fantastic. She’s a dynamic and strong-willed woman who was always very present for us and her dedication as a working mother is something I’ve always respected and wanted to emulate in my own life.

Do you think your kids have learned the same lessons by watching you? I hope my children feel encouraged to work hard in life because I’ve tried to accomplish a lot in my career which hasn’t always been easy for me.

How so? I had to work very hard to get people in the business to take me seriously and even after I had had some success I still couldn’t find the serious roles I was looking for. But following the example of my own mother, I kept pursuing things with a lot of passion and determination, and I would like my kids to feel the same way about their mother. —Interview Hub