Witherspoon was born at the former Southern Baptist Hospital (now the Ochsner Baptist Medical Center) in New Orleans, Louisiana, where her parents were living while her father was a student at Tulane University medical school. Her father, John Witherspoon, is a Georgia-born otolaryngologist who previously served as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army reserves. Her mother, Betty, is from Harriman, Tennessee, has a Ph.D. in pediatric nursing and works as a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University. Witherspoon has claimed to be a descendant of Scottish-born John Witherspoon, the sixth president of Princeton University and a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence. This genealogical claim, however, has never been verified. Because Witherspoon’s father worked for the U.S. military in Wiesbaden, Germany, she lived there for four years as a small child. After returning to the U.S., she settled and spent her childhood in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was raised as an Episcopalian.
Witherspoon was selected as a fashion model for a florist’s television advertisements at age seven, which motivated her to take acting lessons. At age eleven she took first place in the Ten-State Talent Fair. Witherspoon received good grades in school; she loved reading and considered herself “a big dork who read loads of books.“On mentioning her love for books,” she said, “I get crazy in a bookstore. It makes my heart beat hard because I want to buy everything.” Witherspoon attended middle school at Harding Academy and graduated from the prestigious all-girls’ Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, Tennessee, 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.
Reese is proud of the “definitive Southern upbringing” she received, which, as she said, 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.” Reese is described as a “multi-achiever” and was given the nickname Little Type A by her parents. On discussing her early achievements, she told Interview magazine, “I just don’t see any of it as that remarkable. Maybe that’s the attitude I choose to have to keep me sane and keep my feet on the ground. I grew up in an environment where women accomplished a lot. And if they weren’t able to, it was because they were limited by society.”
In 1990, Witherspoon attended an open casting call for The Man in the Moon with some friends, intending to audition as a bit player. She was instead cast in the lead role of Dani Trant, a 14-year-old country girl who falls in love for the first time with her 17-year-old neighbor. Her performance was regarded as “memorably touching” by Variety magazine, and critic Roger Ebert commented, “Her first kiss is one of the most perfect little scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie.” For this role, Witherspoon was nominated for the Young Artist Award Best Young Actress. Later that year, she made her TV acting debut in the cable movie Wildflower, directed by Diane Keaton and starring Patricia Arquette. In 1992, Witherspoon appeared in the TV movie Desperate Choices: To Save My Child, portraying a critically ill young girl. In 1993, she played a young wife in the CBS mini series Return to Lonesome Dove, and got a starring role as the leading character Nonnie Parker, a South African girl who must cross 1,250 miles (2,000 km) of the Kalahari, in the teen-aimed Disney film A Far Off Place. In the same year, Reese had a minor role in Jack the Bear, which garnered her the Young Artist Award for Best Youth Actress Co-star. The following year, Witherspoon acted in another leading role as Wendy Pfister in the 1994 film S.F.W., directed by Jefery Levy.
In 1996, Reese was offered parts in two major movies. She appeared in the thriller Fear alongside Mark Wahlberg and Alyssa Milano, playing the role of Nicole Walker, a teenage girl with a handsome boyfriend who turns out to be a violent psychopath. She was also the leading actress in the thriller and black comedy Freeway, starring alongside Kiefer Sutherland and Brooke Shields. Her character, Vanessa Lutz, is a poor girl living in Los Angeles, who, on the way to her grandmother’s home in Stockton, encounters a freeway serial killer. The film received positive reviews from the press. Among them was the San Francisco Chronicle, with Mick LaSalle commenting, “Witherspoon, who does a shrill Texas accent, is dazzling, utterly believable in one extreme situation after the other.” Witherspoon’s performance won her the Best Actress Award at the Cognac Police Film Festival, and firmly established her as a rising star. The making of the movie also gave Witherspoon significant acting experience; as she said, “Once I overcame the hurdle of that movie – which scared me to death – I felt like I could try anything.” Following completion of Freeway in 1997, Witherspoon took a break from acting in major movies for a year, and began dating actor Ryan Phillippe. She returned to the screen in 1998 with major roles in three movies, Overnight Delivery, Pleasantville and Twilight. In Pleasantville, Witherspoon starred alongside Tobey Maguire in a tale about a pair of 1990s teenage siblings who are magically transported into the setting of a 1950s television series. She portrayed the sister Jennifer, who is mainly concerned about appearances, relationships, and popularity. Witherspoon’s performance received good reviews and garnered her the Young Hollywood Award for Best Female Breakthrough Performance. Director Gary Ross said he firmly believed Witherspoon was going to be an outstanding movie star.
In 1999, Witherspoon starred alongside Alessandro Nivola in the drama thriller Best Laid Plans; she played Lissa, a woman who schemes with her lover Nick to escape a small, dead-end town. In this same year, she co-starred with Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe in the drama film Cruel Intentions, a modern take on the 18th-century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Her performance as Annette Hargrove was praised by the San Francisco Chronicle: “Witherspoon is especially good in the least flashy role, and even when called upon to make a series of cute devilish faces, she pulls it off.” Coincidentally, she appeared in a music video by Marcy Playground for the film’s soundtrack. In the same year, Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick starred in the film adaptation of the 1998 novel Election by Tom Perrotta. She portrayed Tracy Flick, a competitive and ambitious over-achiever who runs for student body president. She received vast critical acclaim for her performance and won the Best Actress Award from the National Society of Film Critics and the Online Film Critics Society, a first Golden Globe nomination and an Independent Spirit Award nomination. Witherspoon also received a rank on the list of 100 Greatest Film Performances of All Time by Premiere. Academy Award – winning director Alexander Payne praised her: “She’s got that quality that men find attractive, while women would like to be her friend. But that’s just the foundation. Nobody else is as funny or brings such charm to things. She can do anything.”
In spite of her successful performance, Witherspoon noted in an interview that she struggled to find work after completing the film, due to typecasting. When analyzing the reasons behind her difficulty to find work, Witherspoon commented “I think because the character I played was so extreme and sort of shrewish – people thought that was who I was, rather than me going in and creating a part. I would audition for things, and I’d always be the second choice – studios never wanted to hire me, and I wasn’t losing the parts to big box office actresses but to ones who I guess people felt differently about.”
In 2000, Witherspoon received a supporting role in American Psycho and made a cameo appearance in Little Nicky. She also appeared as a guest star in season six of Friends, playing the role of Jill Green, Rachel Green’s sister. The next year, Witherspoon provided the voice of Serena in the animated film The Trumpet of the Swan, produced by Crest Animation Productions.
2001 marked a significant turning point in Witherspoon’s career, when she starred in the feature film Legally Blonde. She portrayed Elle Woods, a fashion merchandising major who decides to become a law student in order to follow her ex-boyfriend to Harvard University. Speaking about Woods’ character, Witherspoon said “When I read Legally Blonde, I was like, ‘She’s from Beverly Hills, she’s rich, she’s in a sorority. She has a great boyfriend. Oh yeah, she gets dumped. Who cares? I still hate her.’ So we had to make sure she was the kind of person you just can’t hate.” Legally Blonde was a box office hit, grossing US$96 million domestically. Reese’s performance earned her praise from critics, as the press began referring to her as “the new Meg Ryan”. Roger Ebert commented, “Witherspoon effortlessly animated this material with sunshine and quick wit”, and Salon.com noted that “she [Witherspoon] delineates Elle’s character beautifully”. Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer concluded, “Witherspoon is a talented comedian who can perk up a scene just by marching in full of pep and drive and she powers this modest little comedy almost single-handedly.” For her work, Witherspoon garnered her second Golden Globe Best Actress nomination and an MTV Movie Award for Best Comedic Performance.
Following the success of Legally Blonde, Witherspoon starred in several roles. In 2002, Witherspoon provided the voice of the animated character Greta Wolfcastle in The Simpsons episode The Bart Wants What It Wants. In the same year, she portrayed Cecily in the comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, a movie adaptation of a play by Oscar Wilde; she received a Teen Choice Award nomination for her performance. Her next feature film in 2002 was Sweet Home Alabama, a movie directed by Andy Tennant. Witherspoon, alongside Josh Lucas and Patrick Dempsey, played Melanie Carmichael, a young fashion designer who intends to marry a New York politician but must return to Alabama to divorce her childhood sweetheart, from whom she has been separated for seven years. Witherspoon regarded this as a “personal role” in that the role reminded her of experiences she had when she moved from her hometown Nashville to Los Angeles. The movie became Witherspoon’s biggest box office hit to date, earning over $35 million in the opening weekend and grossing over $127 million domestically in the US. Despite the commercial success, Sweet Home Alabama was given negative reviews by critics. It was called “a romantic comedy so rote, dull and predictable” by The Miami Herald, and the press widely agreed that Witherspoon was the only factor that helped the movie attract a large audience. When describing Witherspoon’s role in the movie, The Christian Science Monitor concluded, “She is not the movie’s main attraction, she is its only attraction.”
In 2003, Witherspoon followed up the success of Legally Blonde by starring in the sequel Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde. Her character, Elle Woods, has become a Harvard-educated lawyer who is determined to protect animals from cosmetics-industry science tests. The sequel was not as financially successful as the first movie, and it generated mostly critical reviews. USA Today considered the movie “plodding, unfunny and almost cringe-worthy”, but also noted that “Reese Witherspoon still does a fine job portraying the fair-haired lovable brainiac, but her top-notch comic timing is wasted on the humorless dialogue.” Meanwhile, Salon.com concluded that the sequel “calcifies everything that was enjoyable about the first movie”. Despite being panned by critics, the sequel took over $39 million in its first five days in the U.S. box office charts and went on to gross $90 million in the US. Witherspoon received a $15 million paycheck for the role – a starting point to make her consistently one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses from 2002 onwards.
In 2004, Reese starred in Vanity Fair, adapted from the 19th-century classic novel Vanity Fair and directed by Mira Nair. Witherspoon’s character – Becky Sharp – is a woman whose impoverished childhood turns her into an ambitious person with a ruthless determination to find fortune and establish herself a position in society. Witherspoon was pregnant during the filmmaking of this movie and was therefore carefully costumed to conceal her pregnancy. This pregnancy was not a hindrance to her work, as Witherspoon believed the gestation had in fact helped her portrayal of Sharp’s character: “I love the luminosity that pregnancy brings, I love the fleshiness, I love the ample bosom—it gave me much more to play with”, she said. The film and Witherspoon’s portrayal of Sharp received good reviews, as The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Nair’s cast is splendid. Witherspoon does justice to the juicy role by giving the part more buoyancy than naughtiness.” At the same time, The Charlotte Observer called her work “an excellent performance that’s soft around the edges” and the Los Angeles Times concluded that Becky is “a part Reese Witherspoon was born to play”.
In late 2004, Witherspoon began working alongside Mark Ruffalo on the romantic comedy Just Like Heaven. Her character, Elizabeth Masterson, is an ambitious young doctor left in a coma by a serious car accident; her spirit returns to her old apartment where she later finds true love. Earlier that year Witherspoon was chosen to portray June Carter Cash, the second wife of country music singer and songwriter Johnny Cash, in Walk the Line. She never had the chance to meet Carter Cash, as Witherspoon was filming Vanity Fair at the time Carter Cash died. Witherspoon performed her own vocals in the movie, and her songs had to be performed in front of a live audience. When she learned that she had to perform live, Witherspoon was so worried that she asked her lawyer to terminate the film contract. “That was the most challenging part of the role,” she later recalled in an interview, “I’d never sung professionally.” Subsequently, she had to spend six months learning how to sing for the role. Witherspoon’s portrayal of Carter Cash was well received by critics, and Roger Ebert wrote that her performance added “boundless energy” to the movie. She won several awards for her performance, including the Golden Globe Award, the Screen Actors Guild, the BAFTA and the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Lead Role. Besides critical success in the movie industry, Witherspoon and her co-star in Walk the Line Joaquin Phoenix received a nomination for “collaborative video of the year” from the CMT Music Awards. Witherspoon expressed her passion for the movie: “I really like in this film that it is realistic and portrays sort of a real marriage, a real relationship where there are forbidden thoughts and fallibility. And it is about compassion in the long haul, not just the short easy solutions to problems.” She also spoke about June Carter Cash, stating that she believed Carter Cash was a woman ahead of her time: “I think the really remarkable thing about her character is that she did all of these things that we sort of see as normal things in the 1950s when it wasn’t really acceptable for a woman to be married and divorced twice and have two different children by two different husbands and travel around in a car full of very famous musicians all by herself. She didn’t try to comply to social convention, so I think that makes her a very modern woman.”
Witherspoon’s first post-Oscar role came in the modern-day fairy tale Penelope, co-starring Christina Ricci. Witherspoon played the supporting role of Annie, the best friend of Penelope, a girl who has a curse in her family. The film was produced by Witherspoon’s company Type A Films and premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. After the final release date of Penelope was delayed twice, the movie eventually had a February 2008 release.
Witherspoon was back in front of the camera again in November 2006, as shooting began for the political thriller Rendition. She starred alongside Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin, Peter Sarsgaard, and Jake Gyllenhaal, playing Isabella El-Ibrahim, the pregnant wife of a bombing suspect. Rendition was released in October 2007 and marked Witherspoon’s first appearance in theaters in two years, since the 2005 release of Walk the Line. The movie received mostly negative reviews, and was generally considered a disappointment at the Toronto Film Festival. Witherspoon’s performance was also criticized: “Reese Witherspoon is surprisingly lifeless”, USA Today wrote, “She customarily injects energy and spirit into her parts, but here, her performance feels tamped down.”
In December 2007, Witherspoon began filming the holiday comedy Four Christmases, a story about a couple who have to spend their Christmas Day trying to visit all four of their divorced parents, and in which she stars alongside Vince Vaughn. The film was released in November 2008. Despite only receiving average reviews by critics, the movie became a box office success, earning more than 120 million US dollars domestically, and US$157m worldwide.
Witherspoon next provided the voice for Susan Murphy, the main character of the computer-animated 3-D feature film Monsters vs. Aliens, which had a March 27, 2009 release from DreamWorks Animation.
Her future projects include a starring role as Lisa, a baseball player, in an upcoming James L. Brooks film, currently entitled How Do You Know. The movie, which also stars Jack Nicholson, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson, was filmed over the summer and fall of 2009 in Philadelphia and Washington, DC; it is expected to be released in December 2010. In March 2010, Witherspoon began circus training for her role as Marlena in the upcoming film adaptation of Water for Elephants. Filming for the movie, in which Witherspoon will star alongside Christoph Waltz and Robert Pattinson, began in late May 2010. Witherspoon will then voice the role of Princess Mérida in Brave, a computer-animated 3-D film produced by Pixar Animation Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, to be released in June 2012. It has also been announced that Witherspoon will both produce (under the Type A banner) and star in Pharm Girl, a film about a woman who takes on the pharmaceutical industry. Another upcoming project is This Means War, a 20th Century Fox spy comedy directed by McG, in which Witherspoon will star as a woman at the center of a battle between two best friends who are both in love with her.
Witherspoon’s name has also been attached to a number of other possible future films, including a Universal Pictures remake of the 1939 comedy Midnight, scripted by Michael Arndt, and the horror film Our Family Troubles, which she would produce through Type A with Jennifer Simpson, co-producer of Legally Blonde 2.
And in December was awarded the 2,425th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by James L. Brooks, accompanied by her children Ava and Deacon and Jim Toth.
Witherspoon’s subsequent films signaled a departure from the love-triangle theme. In September 2011, nearly a year after beginning work on This Means War, she began filming Jeff Nichols’s coming-of-age drama Mud in Arkansas, in which she played Juniper, the former girlfriend of a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey), who enlists two local boys to help him evade capture and rekindle his romance with her. Mud premiered in May 2012 in competition for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but did not win. Following its American debut at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2013, the film had a limited release in select North American theaters on April 26, 2013.
Witherspoon’s next film to be released was Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot an adaptation of the true crime book of the same-name, which examines the controversial case of the West Memphis Three. Like Mud, the story is set in Arkansas. Witherspoon played Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of three young murder victims. The movie was shot in Georgia in June and July 2012. Witherspoon was pregnant with her third child during filming. The film’s world premiere was held on September 8, 2013 at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was then released in selected American theaters on May 9, 2014. In April 2013, Witherspoon began production in Atlanta on Canadian director Philippe Falardeau’s upcoming The Good Lie. The film, which is based on real-life events, will feature Witherspoon as a brash American woman assigned to help four young Sudanese refugees (known as Lost Boys of Sudan) who win a lottery for relocation to the United States.
Witherspoon subsequently shot a small role in Inherent Vice, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, in Pasadena, California in summer 2013. Through her company Pacific Standard, Witherspoon served as a producer on the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, though she did not appear in the film. In October 2013, Witherspoon began working in Oregon on another adaptation which she is producing via Pacific Standard, that of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. Witherspoon stars in this project, portraying Strayed herself on her 1000 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Wild was released on December 5, 2014. Michael Phillips of Chicago Tribune wrote in his review, “Witherspoon does the least acting of her career, and it works. Calmly yet restlessly, she brings to life Strayed’s longings, her states of grief and desire and her wary optimism.” Wild was promoted as Witherspoon’s primary “comeback” vehicle following her previous career slump, and she earned her second Academy Award nomination for the role.
In May 2014, Reese began production in Louisiana on Hot Pursuit, a comedy in which she plays a police officer trying to protect a drug lord’s widow (Sofia Vergara). The movie was released on May 8, 2015.
Reese has officially signed on to produce and play the title character in the upcoming Disney film, Tink, which will retell the story of Peter Pan through the eyes of Tinker Bell. She’s also producing and acting in the upcoming HBO series, Big Little Lies, that will be released in 2017.