Down South: Reese Witherspoon turns on the Southern charm to expand her brand.

Down South

Reese Witherspoon turns on the Southern charm to expand her brand.

By Sondra Barr

Reese Witherspoon isn’t content resting on her laurels. She’d be the first to tell you that it’s not a very Southern thing to do, letting one’s self get too comfortable based on past success. And, if there’s one thing the Academy Award-winning actress, producer, and entrepreneur abides by, it’s her Southern ethos.

In fact, the 42-year-old’s upbringing serves as the inspiration for her latest endeavor, best selling author. “Whiskey in a Teacup: What Growing Up in the South Taught Me About Life, Love, and Baking Biscuits,” is Witherspoon’s 300-page literary debut. Released in September, the pages brim with Southern-inspired recipes, quirky anecdotes, vintage family photos, recipes, and Witherspoon’s signature charm.

“My grandmother Dorothea always said that it was a combination of beauty and strength that made Southern women ‘whiskey in a teacup.’ We may be delicate and ornamental on the outside, she said, but inside we’re strong and fiery,” Witherspoon has said about the book’s title.

“One thing that really in my mind defines Southern women is that they have very strong boundaries,” Witherspoon said to National Public Radio to promote the book. “And there is a warmth there but there’s also a ferocity…to protect your family, or your friendships, or your husband, or your children. There’s definitely an idea of don’t cross the line with me…they always start with kindness, but really, don’t mess with a Southern woman.”

Petite, perky, blonde, Witherspoon’s all-American beauty and sweet demeanor have helped her land roles in movies such as Legally Blonde, Election, and Sweet Home Alabama. Her angelic face, however, belies the intense fire that burns beneath Witherspoon’s surface. It was this deep reservoir of emotion that Witherspoon tapped to play June Carter Cash, the second wife of hard living country music singer-songwriter Johnny Cash in the 2005 film Walk the Line. The role earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress and much critical success.

In Hollywood, one day you’re a hot, young starlet, the next day you’re old news. Many in the entertainment industry thought Witherspoon’s career was on a downslope after she followed up her Oscar-winning role with a series of middling films and went through a high profile divorce from actor Ryan Phillippe. Witherspoon’s not the kind of woman to fade away because good roles dry up and easy opportunities fade. Remember, she’s a Southern girl with grit and determination––or, as fellow actress Kerry Washington describes Witherspoon: “Genteel Southern badass.”

In response, Witherspoon started her own production company. Because, as she told the Hollywood Reporter, she was frustrated with the “complete lack of interesting female leads in film.” In 2014, she brought two of the first books optioned by the company to the big screen: Gillian Flynn’s dark thriller Gone Girl, and Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. Gone Girl was a box office smash. Wild landed Witherspoon, who starred as Strayed, her second Oscar nomination.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Witherspoon discussed the moment she decided to become a producer after being offered a terrible, mind-numbing script. “It was just awful. I called my agent, I said, ‘I’m not gonna do this. Who would want to do this?’ He said every actress in Hollywood wants this part. It was just a lightbulb moment for me.”

Since the success of Gone Girl and Wild, Witherspoon has only grown more confident in her choices and the projects she devotes her time. In addition to films, Witherspoon brought Liane Moriarty’s book, “Big Little Lies,” to HBO as a seven-part miniseries. Witherspoon produced the hit show, along with her co-star, Nicole Kidman.

According to an interview with Fast Company’s Mary Kaye Schilling, around the time that they were developing Big Little Lies, in 2014, Witherspoon began noting changes in consumer behavior. “Women aren’t going to movies. They were streaming shows. They were on Instagram and Facebook. Digital was winning. The only way was to go where women are, instead of expecting them to come to us.”

In response, Witherspoon has harnessed not only the force of the small screen, but the power of social media with her Instagram account (14.6 million followers to date) and a recently announced video-on-demand channel with AT&T, through her media company, Hello Sunshine. According to a press release, Witherspoon will headline her own unscripted series, Shine On With Reese, featuring interviews with prominent women.

Her digital strategy is one that her three children––Ava, 18, Deacon, 14 (with Phillippe), and 5-year-old Tennessee (with her second husband, talent agent Jim Toth, whom she married in 2011)––fully embrace, as YouTube and streaming has replaced watching network television and going to the movies for them, according to Schilling.

Meanwhile, Draper James, the lifestyle brand Witherspoon started to honor her Southern heritage has grown to encompass not only an upscale clothing line, but also housewares, and, more recently, eyewear. Another component to expand Witherspoon’s growing influence beyond entertainment, the brand has expanded to four brick and mortar locations in Tennessee, Texas, Kentucky, and Georgia.

“Whether it’s Nashville or New Orleans, Beaufort or Birmingham, there is a special breed of charm and grace that’s signature to the American South. With Draper James, our goal is to bring contemporary, yet timeless Southern style to your wardrobe and your home, no matter where you live,” according to the Draper James website.

If that weren’t enough, Witherspoon also recently signed up as Crate & Barrel’s first celebrity spokesperson. “We are honored to work with Reese, who expresses so many of the best qualities of our brand––style, warmth, and optimism,” Crate & Barrel President Steve Woodward said in a news release. “Reese has shown the world she has an eye for design, and we’re thrilled for her to showcase that as an ambassador for the company. Reese truly brings the unique Crate & Barrel experience and spirit to life.”

Taking her 40s in tremendous stride, Witherspoon has also found her voice and is no longer bound by the expectations of others. In response to the #MeToo movement, Witherspoon has revealed her own experiences of assault and harassment, including by a director when she was 16.

“A line got drawn in the sand and it got crossed, and my brain just switched and I knew it was going to be very difficult but I just couldn’t go any further. But it was profound and I was young,” Witherspoon opened up to Oprah Winfrey about the experience.

“I feel a shift, completely, a reckoning of people who have been silent for so long finally coming forward and speaking out even if their voice shakes, as I know mine did when I told my story. The female leaders within every industry have to stand up for those who are voiceless and silent, and we have to do better to create more balanced cultures with female leadership and leadership with people of color. It’s just profoundly overdue,” Witherspoon told Anne Fulenwider in an interview for Marie Claire.

What does the future holds for this petite powerhouse? The big news is that Witherspoon is bringing Big Little Lies back to HBO for a second season. Scheduled for a 2019 release, it’s rumored that all the main cast members are back and that Meryl Streep is set to appear. Meanwhile, according to Schilling, Witherspoon and her production team currently have shows in development at Hulu, NBC, and Apple TV, including a series with Jennifer Aniston about morning news anchors. Fans can also look forward to a third Legally Blonde movie.

As for Witherspoon’s advice to women, it’s simple: “Just do what you do well,” she offered up in an essay for Glamour last year. “When I saw the recent Harvard study that found that single female M.B.A. students downplayed their career ambitions in front of male classmates for fear of possibly hurting their marriage prospects, I thought, UGH. Run away from a man who can’t handle your ambition. Run.”