How Adweek Media Visionary Reese Witherspoon Turned Hollywood on Its Head

She became a producer to make the female-centric stories the industry had long ignored

Reese Witherspoon says acting is her first love. John Russo/Contour by Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

When she filmed her first movie at 14, Reese Witherspoon certainly didn’t think she’d stumbled upon her lifelong career. “I didn’t know how viable it was to really consider being an actor. I grew up in a practical family of doctors and nurses,” she recalls. But three decades later, Witherspoon has not only amassed a resume that includes several hit films and an Oscar, she’s created a second, even more influential, parallel career path as one of the industry’s most groundbreaking producers—an achievement that has led to her being named Adweek’s Media Visionary.

After early film successes like Election and Cruel Intentions, Witherspoon had her first smash hit with Legally Blonde and later won the Best Actress Oscar for Walk the Line. But when the quality parts started drying up—as they often do for actresses in their 30s—she took matters into her own hands. The voracious reader self-funded a production company, Pacific Standard, and began optioning her favorite books from women authors featuring complicated, meaty female characters. After a promising producing start with the films Gone Girl and Wild, she really hit it big with the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies.

Then, in 2016, Witherspoon doubled down, expanding to a full-fledged media company, Hello Sunshine, focused on female-centric stories. It not only makes film and TV (including all of Witherspoon’s high-profile projects over the past year: Big Little Lies: Season 2, The Morning Show with Jennifer Aniston, which helped launch Apple TV+ last November, and the Hulu miniseries Little Fires Everywhere with Kerry Washington), but also podcasts, audio storytelling and digital series—and is the home of her monthly Reese’s Book Club.

Witherspoon has already massively changed the industry but, in other ways, she’s just getting started.

She reflected on the ups and downs of her career, learning to be a businesswoman on the fly and going from getting doors slammed in her face as a fledgling producer to kicking them down as an industry leader. As she explains, “If you want systems to change, you have to rethink how you want the system to work.” Here are highlights from her conversation with Adweek:

John Russo/Contour by Getty Images

Adweek: Election was an early breakout for you. But you’ve said for a long time after that came out, you were typecast as Tracy Flick. Did you see that coming, or was it a shock?

Reese Witherspoon: It was surprising. I thought, isn’t that what acting is? I guess people didn’t really understand that I was something different. And at the time, there were very few parts for women. That’s why I felt really lucky to get Legally Blonde. I was having a hard time reestablishing that I actually was an actor that had range.

And how did being in your first commercial hit change things for you?

It changed overnight. I had really smart managers and an agent at the time who said the best thing you can do is another film where you are the star, so this isn’t a fluke—we need to get you back on set within a month. They did, and it was Sweet Home Alabama. The movie did really well, and it was a totally different character than Legally Blonde. So at that point, it felt very much like I was able to anchor movies myself.

Fast-forward a few years, and you won the Oscar for Walk the Line. A lot of people think once that happens, your career is set. But that wasn’t the case for you.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 26, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.