She made her name in a string of indie hits, but now REESE WITHERSPOON has gone mainstream. Will she be able to keep her COOl? Words: Catherine Bromley

ut the head off an American sweetheart and another one will grow back in its

place. Cold-blooded nature. red in tooth and claw. but a sad reality for Julia

Roberts. Sandra Bullock and Meg Ryan when the news came out on Monday 30 September. 2002. that Reese Witherspoon’s Street Home Alabama. had taken 337111 in its opening weekend. That's the most money ever made by a romantic comedy in its first weekend. more coin than J ulia's ever managed to scare tip. even playing a prostitute. and its success. the gossipmongers were quick to speculate. meant that the faded blooms of Sweetheartsville had just been effectively dead—headed. From the collective stump. Reese Witherspoon‘s doe eyes. crooked smile and pointy chin emerged triumphant. All hail the new queen of hearts!

Adorably. the modest 26-year-old actor from Nashville. Tennessee confesses to being 'shocked' at her success. ‘l‘m always surprised when anybody goes to see anything I‘m in.‘ she says via satellite from LA to a press conference held at the Dorchester in London for Sweet Home Alabama. liven from a distance of thousands of miles. Witherspoon's humble charm has the hardened hacks eating out of her hand.

Her new film. however. doesn‘t quite have the same effect. In it. she plays Melanie Carmichael. a toast-of-Manhattan fashion designer who returns home to her disowned Southern roots to get a divorce from her redneck husband so she can marry the JFK Jr- like scion of the mayor of New York. l‘ormulaic at best. but pushing all the right buttons. the ‘drama‘ of this vehicle (only the second. after Legally Blrmde. that Witherspoon has helmed so far) rests on our wondering which gtry she’s going to go for: the rich city slicker who proposes to her in ’l‘iffany‘s or the childhood beau she could never quite forget. ‘What’s great about the film.’ says Witherspoon with touching naively. ‘is you don’t know which gtry she’s going to pick - the rich guy or the guy with the great truck.’

Alternately poisonous and perky in the film although she‘s at her most likeable when she‘s being bitchy Witherspoon was particularly attracted to the role because. she says. the movie mirrors her own life. ‘I grew tip in a really small Southern town and when I went to l.os Angeles to try and become an actor. I had to deal with a lot of prejudice for not being from the city and from people who think you‘re not educated or you're ignorant or you're married to your cousin.’

Jokes aside. Witherspoon had to work hard to establish herself at the top of a very competitive pile. A child model. daughter of a surgeon and a paediatric nurse. she got her

first break in a TV movie called Wild/lower. directed by Diane Keaton and was then cast. at the tender age of 14. in Robert Mulligan's 199] coming-of—age drama The Man in the lem.

In the same year she auditioned for the part that eventually went to Juliette Lewis in Martin Scorsese‘s remake of (‘ape Fear: ‘I didn't know who he [Scorsese] was and neither did my parents.‘ she says (adorably. natch). ‘I got on an airplane to go give an audition with him and Robert De Niro and the man next to me said: “Oh. little girl. what are you doing‘.’". So I explained that

l was about to meet Robert De Niro and someone named Martin Scorsese and the gtty freaked otrt. saying how great these gtrys were. So then I started shaking and I didn't stop shaking until after the audition was over. But I was only M l was like a little girl. so fortunately. it wasn’t that embarrassing. I managed to recover.‘

Indeed. she did. Told by her agent to ‘lose the Southern accent or you‘ll never work again.” Witherspoon did and went on to secure roles in a series of critically acclaimed films. all of which had a sharp indie sensibility. including l’leasantt'ille. Cruel Intentions. Nation and Ameriean l’syelzo. It was Legally Blonde. however. and her first leading role as LA bimbette-turned-llarvard law ace lille Woods that set Witherspoon tip for the big time. the latest in a long line of American sweethearts. Certainly. in terms of her private life. her credentials for the role are nigh on distinguished.

Married to screen hunk Ryan Phillippe of whom she says: ‘l'm lucky to find a person to share my life. and the best friend I‘ll ever have‘. and with whom she has a three-year-old child. Ava lilizabeth \N'itherspoon likes nothing more than a quiet night in with the family. She likes cooking (‘I love that Nigella Lawson.. she gushes. playing up to the UK press) and confesses to being endearineg accident prone: ‘I basically walk around with stains all over my clothes: I‘m just really. really clumsy.‘

While she does say that she looks for roles that are ‘180 degrees different than the last thing I played'. she qttalifies it by saying: ‘I try to make sure that when I'm making a film. particularly one that‘s supposed to he very commercial. that it has good ideas and redeeming values.‘ Which means that \N'itherspoon is not going to be playing a pimp- loving crack whore any time soon. The edgy roles she made her name with will soon be all bttt a distant memory. replaced instead with the likes of legally Blomle 2: Red. White and Blonde. currently in production through her fledgling company Type A Films.

And that’s a shame. It’s sad to think that such a gifted actor with above average intelligence will relegate herself to a series of wholesome parts. She certainly seems to relish the prospect of being peachy keen and squeaky clean though. something that was perhaps a burden to Roberts. Bullock and Ryan as their private lives never quite lived up to their public personas. V‘Vither‘spoon. on the other hand. with her nuclear family and homespun values. could conceivably be the ultimate American sweetheart. And because she‘s only 26. there's a great deal of mileage left in her pint—sized frame and pointy chin.

Sweet Home Alabama goes on general release from Fri 20 Dec.

28 Non-~12 Der: 2002 THE LIST 19