Reese Witherspoon terrified of playing solo trekker in Wild

Reese Witherspoon earns an Oscar nomination for her role in Wild, in which she plays against type. -- PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Reese Witherspoon earns an Oscar nomination for her role in Wild, in which she plays against type. -- PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

When your biggest successes are frothy romantic comedies such as Legally Blonde (2001) and Sweet Home Alabama (2002), people are not exactly expecting you to take home any awards for your acting, much less become a creative force in bringing character-driven dramas to the screen.

But Reese Witherspoon did just that with her Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning performance as country singer June Carter in the 2005 biopic Walk The Line and has now earned a second Oscar nomination for her new film Wild, portraying a woman who embarks on a life-changing, 94-day hike through the wilderness.

The 38-year-old is playing against type behind the scenes too.

She recently co-founded Pacific Standard, the new production company behind Wild as well as the acclaimed psychological drama Gone Girl (2014), whose star Rosamund Pike is also up for the Best Actress Oscar on Feb 22.

Witherspoon is all too aware that these career moves - which come after several critical and commercial flops, including the romantic comedies How Do You Know (2010) and This Means War (2012) - are seen as a radical departure for her.

But she is used to being underestimated, she says.

"I kind of thrive on feeling underestimated - it's, like, where I always came from, it's a real comfortable feeling for me," says the star.

When she first read Cheryl Strayed's best-selling account of her 1,800km solo trek along the rugged Pacific Crest Trail - which she undertook as a way to face her personal demons - the actress knew she had to turn it into a film and immediately went after the book rights.

"I just thought it was an important story. It was one of the most profound books I had ever read about dealing with loss and grief and about that idea that no one's coming to save you in your life, you have to save yourself.

"Because if she hadn't gone on this journey and reconstituted herself from the tiny shreds of a person she was before, she probably would've been lost in an abyss of grief and drugs and sex. And many people go down that rabbit hole that she decided to pull herself out of. So I think it's beautiful."

Yet she was not convinced that as a performer, she herself was up to the physical and emotional challenges of telling the story, which is also an unflinching exploration of Strayed's heroin addiction, failed marriage and grief over her mother's death.

"I didn't know if I was capable of it," she tells Life! and other press in Los Angeles, saying she was terrified of the role and "tried everything to get out of" playing Strayed, but director Jean-Marc Vallee and her producing partner Bruna Papandrea "wouldn't let me".

"They were like, 'It's too late, we're all here, we're scouting for locations...' I was scared, I was definitely scared."

The gruelling shoot in Oregon - which stood in for the actual trail that runs from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Northwest of the United States - required the actress to haul herself and an absurdly large, heavy backpack across mountains, deserts and rivers in the heat and snow, just as Strayed did.

In the end, Vallee - who directed Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Oscar wins with the 2013 Aids drama Dallas Buyers Club - says the actress was more than equal to the task.

He says: "She had it inside of her. I mean, she bought herself this story, she wanted to do this, our little Reese - beautiful Reese - and she went out there with nothing and said, 'I'm going to serve this story.'"

Asked why she put herself through Strayed's ordeal, the actress murmurs: "Women are tough, man. Women are warriors."

Witherspoon has certainly displayed flashes of that toughness both on screen and off. Her most memorable characters - such as the ditsy but capable Elle in Legally Blonde and Tracy Flick, the square but scheming student in the 1999 comedy Election - often show hints of steel beneath a sweet or innocuous exterior.

In person, the petite performer - who is a wisp of a woman at just 1.56m tall - is all smiles until someone starts talking too loudly in the corridor outside the interview room.

"Do y'all want me to tell 'em to be quiet?'" she says in her Tennessee twang, eyes flashing. "Be quiet!"

Witherspoon's image as a sweet Southern belle was briefly shattered when she was arrested and fined for disorderly conduct after she and husband Jim Toth, 43, were pulled over by police in Atlanta in 2013 and video footage of her drunken rant at the officer was leaked online.

The actress - who is mother to Ava, 15, and Deacon, 11, her children with ex-husband actor Ryan Philippe, and two-year-old Tennessee, her son with Toth - says she did worry that audiences more used to seeing her in less serious films might think "it was ridiculous" for her to take on Wild, in which she carries many scenes on her own.

"This could've been a disaster for me, people could've laughed. But as an artist, some part of you has to be, 'I don't care how people feel about it.'

"But I'm so lucky that people have been open-minded about it. And I think as you get older, your audience gets older too - these aren't the little girls I grew up making movies for, you know. You grow up and you change and if you're willing to be open and vulnerable and show everybody how you feel, I think there's a lot of compassion in this movie."

stlife@sph.com.sg

Wild opens in Singapore cinemas this week.