Actress Reese Witherspoon Encourages Women to be Ambitious

Early on as an actress in Hollywood, when Reese Witherspoon attended meetings to discuss her movie characters and mentioned a character flaw she would like to accentuate, the male producers would almost always say yes, but that would make her unlikable.

In those meetings, Witherspoon said she felt like she was always reminded she had to stay in her lane. Stay in a place that felt comfortable for everybody and conformed to some other person’s definition of what made a woman likable.

“I think as I got older I said, I’ve had enough of that,” Witherspoon said.

“Women are complicated, they are complex, they are dynamic,” Witherspoon said. “Those are the women I want to see on the screen.”

That led Witherspoon to create her own production company that focused on movies with strong female characters as the stars.

Witherspoon discussed her life, her career, launching her business and her role as an advocate for other women Friday afternoon at the Texas Conference for Women during a keynote interview with 60 Minutes Correspondent Sharon Alfonsi. More than 7,500 people attended the sold-out conference that featured a full day of speakers, breakout sessions, networking and more at the Austin Convention Center.

Witherspoon’s production company has produced Gone Girl, Wild and the HBO drama series Big Little Lies. She self-funded the company for the first five years, and now it is profitable, she said.

In 2010, Witherspoon got a script that she thought was bad. The two women in the movie didn’t seem to have any purpose other than obsessing over the same man. She sulked about it and complained to her agent. Witherspoon also sought out studios that were producing movies starring women. And she couldn’t find any worthwhile projects. Then she decided to do something about it and that’s when she started her company.

Witherspoon read a lot of books, she knew what made a good movie, she knew a lot of screenwriters and she knew movie studio presidents. She decided to take a risk. She called up two friends who were good at business and they helped her create a business plan.

“Ambition has been inside me since I was a little girl and I wish I could turn it off sometimes,” she said.

But ambition is not a dirty word, Witherspoon told the audience.

Witherspoon said she read a study recently from Columbia University about traits in women that made them good job candidates and ambition ranked low.

“Why is that such a negative trait in women?” Witherspoon asked.

“We have to reframe this idea about women and ambition that women are out for themselves,” she said. “They are usually out for their family, their community, their schools, out for their business that is going to help those areas, out for the government.”

Women who are very ambitious are often perceived as selfish, Alfonsi said.

“Yeah, I hear that all the time and it’s simply not true,” Witherspoon said.

Women wake up and they do things for their family, their kids, their husband, their community, their charity, and they rarely have time for themselves, Witherspoon said.

“Women are natural leaders and organizers and they don’t even know it,” Witherspoon said.

Witherspoon started working when she was 14. She grew up in Nashville. Her dad is a doctor and her mom is a nurse. They didn’t understand her desire to pursue acting, but they supported her.

When she got the starring role in a movie at 14, her teacher put up a picture of Witherspoon on a bulletin board and someone took a pen and stabbed her eyes out at her school. She said she learned to put her head down, do her work and not call attention to herself and to stay quiet about her accomplishments.

At 29, Witherspoon won an Oscar. But she didn’t put it on display until a friend came to her house and commanded her to put the Oscar by the front door.

“It’s interesting how even women who are very accomplished in any kind of aspect of their life, we learn how to tone it down,” Witherspoon said.

Women need to own their accomplishments and be proud of them and they don’t need to tone them down, she said. And there is room for plenty of women at the top, she said. It’s not about one and done.

“Instead of scarcity, I think we have to think of abundance,” Witherspoon said. “And when we do lift ourselves up, we have to lift up women with us…You have to lift other people and tell them how amazing they are.”

Right now, Witherspoon’s production team is working on four television shows and they are being written by women of color, LGBTQ women, disabled women, women from all walks of life, Witherspoon said.

“In order to change the stories, we had to change the storytellers,” Witherspoon said. “To be authentic, to really walk the walk, to invite people into the process.”