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

(Continued from page 1)

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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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"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

"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 says. "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 when choosing to play Marlena, the luminescent animal rider. Though Witherspoon was not interested in speaking about her recent nuptials, she readily acknowledges that the roles she chooses subconsciously mirror some of her own 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 the volatile ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz). When she meets the younger, wayward veterinarian Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson), she discovers 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 recalls filming a key scene between the two of them and a sick horse, one in which Witherspoon is comforting the massive animal, 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," says Pattinson. "At the end of it, I had to come up to her and say, 'That must have hurt. You can't tell me it didn't.' 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."

That tenacity has been beneficial to Witherspoon throughout her acting life. She recognizes that her toughness has helped her maintain a lengthy career in a fickle Hollywood. "There are a lot of stumbling blocks as an actor," she says. "There is a lot of rejection and a lot of being told you're not this or you're not that. Anyone who thinks that once you've become an established actor you're on easy street, that's just not true."

Witherspoon, who has two children with Phillippe, a 10-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son, clearly wants to continue down the path of dramas. When asked who else she'd like to work with, the actress points to some of the great dramatic filmmakers of our time: David Fincher, Terrence Malick, Alfonso Cuaron.


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