LOS ANGELES — As tightly wound actresses go, Reese Witherspoon tops the list.
She insists on order in her life. Her production company is called Type A, a moniker that her latest costar, Robert Pattinson, said fits her sense of self perfectly. Even when she appears to have a spontaneous moment, lamenting that her career, orchestrated around an avoidance of bikinis, has been breached by her current role as a leotard-clad circus performer, it turns out the line is a well-rehearsed quip that has been repeated to scores of media outlets.
Which makes it all the more confounding that Witherspoon, 35, would subject herself to the unpredictable behaviors of circus animals, including the nearly nine-ton elephant Tai and a slew of trick horses, when she shot the adaptation of the Depression-era romance Water for Elephants.
"I have anxiety. I get nervous, and I shake," Witherspoon said. The night before shooting with the elephant, "I didn't sleep, and I literally shook and shook and shook," she said, feigning relaxation in a hotel room chair, still perfectly coiffed in a gray dress and 3-inch heels after a long day of enchanting the international press corps. "But the performances with the elephant were really magical for me. Against my better instincts, I decided to ride the elephant with no harness, with no safety equipment. It was pretty great."
Could it be that Witherspoon is finally loosening up? The native Tennessean seems to be doing a lot of leaping without a protective net lately. After ending her eight-year marriage to actor Ryan Phillippe in 2007, she recently began a new chapter in her life, tying the knot with Jim Toth, an agent who represents Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson at CAA, where Witherspoon is also repped, in a private wedding just a week before embarking on a publicity tour for Elephants, which opens Friday.
She has moved easily between big studio projects and smaller films throughout her career, but Water for Elephants is something of a hybrid. It's a roughly $40 million adult drama — a genre that has had a hard time making it at the box office in recent years — but it's based on a best-selling novel by Sara Gruen and costars Pattinson, one of the hottest properties in town.
Its Easter weekend release date hasn't traditionally been strong for such films, but Bruce Snyder, 20th Century Fox's head of distribution, said the spring date was simply intended to fill a void in the marketplace, and that there has been little in theaters for women since Christmas. "The timing seemed perfect, and the picture was ready," Snyder said.
Witherspoon, whose Legally Blonde movies in the early 2000s led to her earning as much as $20 million a picture, starred in one of those December releases, the romantic comedy How Do You Know from James L. Brooks, a film so eagerly anticipated it made it onto many Oscar watch lists before it had even screened. But it was a critical and box-office failure.
"It's a disappointment that audiences didn't go to the movie and didn't love it," she said. "It's such an investment of your time and your energy. You stand by the work and you can't say you didn't try. And if Jim Brooks called me up today and said, 'I want to write a movie for you,' of course I would do it. You can't dwell on the disappointments. You have to keep moving and making interesting choices."
Working with unpredictable animals would seem to qualify. Her commitment to the demands of Elephants surprised even her director, Francis Lawrence.
"A lot of people talk about training and practicing, and what that really means is not very much. I was impressed by her physicality, training with the animals, getting good and conquering it when it feels scary," Lawrence said. "She also got really into the body language. Costume designer Jackie West and I gave her a bunch of movies from the '30s, and she really studied these women and how they moved and spoke and held their bodies. She changed a lot about herself physically for this."
It was the emotion of the character, though, that Witherspoon connected to in Marlena, the luminescent animal rider. Witherspoon readily acknowledged that the roles she chooses subconsciously mirror some of her life experiences. So it's easy to see the appeal of the Water for Elephants story line of finding new love.
In the film, Marlena is trapped in an abusive marriage with volatile ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz). When she meets younger, wayward veterinarian Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson), she discovers that there's a lot more living to be done beyond the big top.
"She's got her life wound so tightly and controlled down to every detail," Witherspoon says of Marlena, but you get the sense she's really speaking autobiographically. "You know whenever you feel terribly out of control, you try to control everything and keep it very small? Then in comes this Jacob character: idealistic, young and hopeful. ... For me, this movie is about optimism, that second chances are possible. And to be fearless in your decision-making."
Witherspoon's bravery also manifested as strength through the dusty and often dangerous shoot in the California town of Piru last summer. Pattinson recalled filming a key scene with the two of them and a sick horse, which Witherspoon is comforting while delivering her lines through her tears of sadness. "I literally saw the horse put his entire weight on her thigh and she didn't say anything to anybody and we continued," Pattinson said. "At the end of it, I had to come up to her and say, 'That must have hurt.' And she said, 'Yes, I'm going to go back to my trailer and cry now.' But she held those tears (of pain) for about 45 minutes."