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Witherspoon proves she is cute and smart
- not-so-dumb blonde set for big time

Reese Witherspoon bounds into the room wearing jeans, a pink sweatshirt, no make-up and a smile as disarming as her candour.

The tiny, 5-feet-2-inch actress has just signed up for the sequel to last summer’s surprise hit comedy Legally Blonde for a reported $15 million, propelling her into the league of Hollywood’s highest paid female stars.

Like the not-so-dumb blonde in Legally Blonde, Witherspoon has already proved that in Hollywood you can be cute, smart and have fun. And now she looks set to captivate movie-goers all over again as a southern belle torn between two men in Sweet Home Alabama, which opens in the US this week. No wonder they’re calling her America’s newest sweetheart.

“It’s very flattering, certainly,” Witherspoon said. “It is nice to have people’s good will. But in terms of how I perceive myself, I really just feel like a working actor.” At just 26, she already has her own production company, a reputation as one of the hardest-working actors in the industry and a three-year-old daughter who she says “has taken all the self-obsession out of my life.”

As for the meteoric salary increase (she earned just $1 million for Legally Blonde), last year’s Golden Globe nomination, and her arrival as an “A list” celebrity, Witherspoon has few illusions.

“I don’t use other people’s lives or salaries as a measuring stick for my own life, and quite frankly I would be just as happy to make the same salary over and over again,” she said.

“This business is so evanescent that you have to be really appreciative of good fortune when it comes your way. At some point things will change for you. Even if you are at the highest high, you are going to experience some lows so it is important to have something normal to go home to,” she added. Normal in Witherspoon’s case is her actor husband, Ryan Phillippe, and their daughter, Ava, as well as her family back in Tennessee where Witherspoon says she just fell into movies without any formal training at 14.

After playing several dramatic roles as girlfriend or daughter, Witherspoon was ready to quit acting and went off to Stanford University with a view to following in her surgeon father’s footsteps and going to medical school. But then she tried her hand at comedy in a small, quirky 1996 movie called Freeway and realised she had found her niche as a character actor.

She made waves as the sexually aware teenager in the black-and-white 1950s world of Pleasantville and won a Golden Globe nomination for playing a high-school mastermind in Election.

She played the sweet but calculating Cecily, and mastered an English accent, in the movie version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest opposite British veterans Judi Dench, Colin Firth and Tom Wilkinson.

But Witherspoon says the character she plays in her new romantic comedy Sweet Home Alabama is much more like her real self than any of the parts she has played. Witherspoon portrays a southern girl who has made a successful career for herself as a fashion designer in New York. Engaged to a handsome New York socialite, her past catches up to her when she sneaks home determined to confront the redneck small town husband she married in high school but who refuses to divorce her. “This is the closest I have ever played to myself,” she said. “I wanted to do something that was a little bit closer to my own personality, but still have fun. It makes me feel vulnerable because I don’t find myself, my actual personality, to be that dynamic or charismatic.”

Witherspoon claims she is “a hopeless, miserable failure” at make-up and hair. “When you are a mum you don’t have a lot of time to worry about how pretty your eyeliner is,” she said.

But she does admit to hard work and determination. She is co-producing Legally Blonde 2 through her own production company, TYPE A Films, which describes her own personality. “My mother used to call me ‘little Type A.’ Just very methodical and organised, trying to carry the whole world on your shoulders.”

Witherspoon’s acting idols are also strong, independent women who have made their own way in an industry where fortunes change as quickly as fashions.

“Jodie Foster, Susan Sarandon, Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand — actresses who consistently do great work despite ageism and all sorts of other factors working against them,” she said.

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