April 21, 2011

Animal instinct

Reese Witherspoon makes a bit of a leap to work with unpredictable circus creatures in 'Water for Elephants' ... and finds the experience 'magical.'

By NICOLE SPERLING McClatchy Newspapers

LOS ANGELES -- As far as tightly wound actresses go, Reese Witherspoon tops the list. She insists upon a strict sense of order in her life. Her production company is called Type A, a moniker her latest costar, Robert Pattinson, says fits her strong sense of self perfectly. And even when she appears to be having a spontaneous moment, lamenting that her well-orchestrated career built 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's been repeated, practically on a loop, to scores of media outlets.

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Reese Witherspoon, with co-star Robert Pattinson, summoned up the nerve to ride Tai, the 9-ton elephant, without a harness. “It was pretty great.”

20th Century Fox

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Reese Witherspoon, with co-star Robert Pattinson, as Marlena and Jacob in "Water for Elephants."

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PREVIEW

"WATER FOR ELEPHANTS," starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content. Running time: 2:02

Which makes it all the more confounding that the 35-year-old actress would subject herself to the unpredictable behaviors of circus animals such as the nearly 9-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 says. The night before shooting with the elephant, "I didn't sleep, and I literally shook and shook and shook," she says, 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 Southerner 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 the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson at CAA where Witherspoon is also repped, in a private wedding ceremony just a week before embarking on a publicity tour for "Elephants," which opens Friday.

She's 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's had a hard time making it at the box office in recent years -- but it's based on a bestselling novel by Sara Gruen and costars one of the hottest properties in town in Pattinson.

Though its Easter weekend release date hasn't traditionally been strong for such films, Bruce Snyder, 20th Century Fox's head of distribution, said the spring date was simply intended to fill a void in the marketplace, noting there has been little in theaters for women since Christmas. "The timing seemed perfect, and the picture was ready," Snyder said.

Witherspoon, whose successful "Legally Blonde" movies in the early 2000s led to her earning up to $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 watchers' lists before it had even screened. But it wound up as both a critical and box-office failure.

"It's a disappointment that audiences didn't go to the movie and didn't love it," the actress 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 certainly seem to qualify. Her commitment to the demands of "Elephants" surprised even her director, Francis Lawrence.

(Continued on page 2)

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