“About four years ago, I just started to realize that scripts were not that great, particularly parts for women. And I thought, ‘If I’m not developing strong parts for myself and for other women, who’s gonna do it?’” recollects Reese Witherspoon at Sunday night’s Mavericks panel at the Toronto Film Festival.
Thankfully for her, the perfect muse fell into her lap shortly after she asked herself that question: Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild, the true story about Strayed’s soul-searching 1,100 mile journey along the Pacific Crest Trail.
From the scorching, arid desert to the frigid snow of the Sierras to the wild animals and strange characters she meets along the way, Strayed tackles her demons—blood, bruises and all—as she grieves the traumatic death of her mother and searches for meaning from her empty descent into sex, drugs, and infidelity.
“It felt revolutionary to me,” Witherspoon said of Strayed’s New York Times Bestselling book. “She saved herself—it was such a beautiful idea.”
Witherspoon’s unbending enthusiasm for the book convinced the author to share her “beautiful idea” with the actress who promised she’d “make [the film version] with truth and honor.”
But doing so had its challenges — even for the scrappy Witherspoon, who admittedly felt nervous about how sexually explicit the role called her to be. But she kept the scenes in perspective by focusing on its larger message.
“I just think it’s such an important movie about female sexuality… so many times we as women are told to be ashamed, that you kissed that guy or you had sex with that dude in college,” Witherspoon says. “And we’re told to be ashamed of so many things, and I feel like this movie just says ‘It’s gonna be ok’… it’s just such a liberation I think, particularly for young women, to know that it’s really ok to have these explorations.”
But aside from that, there was also another aspect of the film that the self-described “nervous squirrely energy person” was feeling a bit at odds with: She wasn’t going to be speaking all that much.
“I was about to [have] a very non-verbal experience—it scared me!” she laughs.
Indeed, film director Jean-Marc Vallée (of Dallas Buyers Club fame) styled the film with Witherspoon roughing it out mostly in silence — save for a few grunts and explosive curses — interspersed with copious amounts of flashbacks, inner dialogue, and voiceover; in fact it actually felt like a female-version of Tom Hanks’s Cast Away (but one that was very much on dry land).
As one of her final thoughts of the night, Witherspoon touched on that similar notion: “You usually get to see man vs. wild but now it’s woman vs. wild…It’s a real story about a real woman who found herself. I don’t know if women are reticent to tell their stories, but I’m really proud of how brave Cheryl was to tell the whole truth and even the parts that are maybe hard for people to digest. I think that’s what people respond to, her honesty.”