Reese Witherspoon| Innocence Abroad

With a new look, a new man, and newfound happiness, Reese Witherspoon lives out a fashion fantasy in the City of Light.

These days, Reese’s own star is in alignment, in part because of her range as an actress. After last year’s thriller Rendition, she’s returned to romantic comedy in Four Christmases, costarring with Vince Vaughn in a role that reminds us that Reese Witherspoon is the kind of star we like–hardworking, with a young family, a star who considers herself lucky to be a star—even though, believe it or not, it’s a lot of work being a star. But will she maintain her trademark humble grace even here, in Paris, striking a pose of extreme elegance?

The answer: yes. When she pauses for a moment to look behind her, she mentally gulps. “I’d never been to the Crillon,” she says shortly afterward, “and the view is just so striking. Every once in a while you’re hit with moments when you think, Really? This is my life? How lucky am I?”

When the shoot is finished, she calls over a friend who is holding a regular point-and-shoot digital camera. “Can you take a picture, please?” she asks. She wants a snapshot of her wearing this dress, in Paris, for her mom. Big smile. Click. Cut.

“You know, the older I get—and I can only count on one hand the times I’ve been to Paris—I’m starting to feel like I understand the place a little better,” she says. “The people just love the city, and I can really see what they love about it.”

She’s relaxed, as opposed to the person she plays in Four Christmases, in which she’s more than a little high-strung. It’s a comedy about a young San Francisco couple who think of themselves as together, modern, and protected from the baggage of family traditions. “They have their own theology in life,” says Reese. “They work very hard. They live well. They eat at nice restaurants. They have all the modern amenities. They have every new technology you could have.” And they swear by one rule: Never go back home.

“They kind of want to avoid going home for the holidays,” says Vaughn. “They both have stuff with their parents.”

But they do have families and now, owing to a snafu at the airport, their relaxing Christmas vacation away from family becomes a forced visit with parents and stepparents whom they fear and love. “What they discover,” says Reese, “is that when you don’t have that kind of connection to family, when you avoid those things, you also avoid a lot in your relationship. So they discover a lot about themselves.”

For Vaughn, one of the bigger discoveries, he says, was just how easy his costar was to work with. “She was great,” he says. “She’s just a great actor and can do a variety of things and do them well, whether it was physical comedy or more character-driven comedy or more dramatic stuff—she’s just a very talented actress.” He adds, “She’s extremely in touch with herself. I don’t really think there’s anything she can’t do.”

One thing she apparently couldn’t do was resist Vaughn’s sense of humor—according to Reese, she was in hysterics a lot of the time. “Vince is the funniest person I’ve ever worked with in my entire life,” she says. “There were days when we were shooting things, I would laugh so hard it would ruin the take, it was so funny.”

The director, Seth Gordon, was impressed by how Reese encouraged the rest of the cast to make fun of her character—she could take it, she said—and how she pushed for an idea that helped set the tone for the film, a divorced-family group hug. “I think the message is that as quirky and complicated as family can be, at the end of the day that’s what matters most,” he says. “Reese was instrumental in keeping us focused on that.”

To make up for the comic degradations of her role in Four Christmases, in her next film, Monsters vs. Aliens, she will star as a female superhero—one of a group of monsters who are at first shunned and then called on to save the Earth. “I am a 50-foot woman,” she says. “No, wait, I’m the 49 ½-foot woman. It’s me and a sort of motley crew of monsters—kind of B-movie monsters.”

Naturally, she is proud of the fact that the movie is one of the first animated features starring a female superhero, though the role is in some ways a stretch for her. “I have a history,” she says, “a long history of being stereotyped as a five-foot-two woman, which is very limiting.” It’s not a stretch at all to say that playing a female superhero touches on a theme in her career. “I’ve worked so hard to create characters that have dignity,” she says. “And I think everybody knows that I have a very pro-woman message in my work—and in my life.”

Her work for the Children’s Defense Fund and, more recently, for Avon—she is the first-ever Avon Global Ambassador—concerns women’s rights, as she sees it. In the case of Avon, she’s supporting an entrepreneurial version of micro-loans for women building financial networks around the globe—”whether it’s a woman in Texas getting a college education because she got the money to cover a baby-sitter while she goes to school,” she says, “or a woman in a village in Africa who has surpassed all expectations by creating a little network of salespeople within her community. The more work I’ve done with children around the world, the more I realize the way to help them is by empowering women, creating financial opportunities, and that’s something Avon is very dedicated to.”

In the meantime, a romantic comedy about the children of divorce appeals to her for other reasons, related to her own life: She recently finalized her divorce from Ryan Phillippe, whom she met during the filming of Cruel Intentions in 1999. “There are so many dynamics that people deal with all the time, and you don’t really see it in movies very much,” Reese says. “You don’t see the blended-family Christmas very much. And it really is a complication in a lot of people’s lives now. How do you see your mother and your father and not hurt anyone’s feelings? You know, I didn’t grow up like that. I mean, my parents are still married, and my grandparents stayed married, but it’s a situation my own children will have to deal with, so it was of interest to me.

“I have to be honest with you,” she says. “Comedy is what I want to see at the movies these days. Life is frickin’ hard, man. I want to go to the movies and see people happy and enjoying themselves and having some fun. I’ve made other kinds of movies, for sure. But it’s pretty apparent to me that’s what people want. That’s what I want. I enjoy those kinds of movies.”

[When] she was in Paris, in 1996, she was 20, opening in Freeway. She wore a strapless dress and went to the top of the Eiffel Tower and the fair in the Tuileries, and had her first encounter with paparazzi. She mostly remembers the dress, not the paparazzi. “I have a good memory for certain things. And a very short memory for painful things—that’s my favorite Martha Stewart quote, by the way.”

On one of her more recent trips to Paris, in 2005, she arrived the day after her Oscar nomination for Walk the Line. She needed a dress. She wanted vintage. Her stylists, Clare and Nina Hallworth, went to work, and she was driven to an out-of-the-way arrondissement, down an alley where a Christian Dior dress made in the fifties for a princess, literally, was hanging in a dressmaker’s shop window.

Reese loved it. “And Nina said to me, ‘OK, there’s only one hitch….'”

“It’s not for sale,” Nina said.

“Are you joking?” Reese exclaimed.

The Hallworth sisters had a plan. Enter Nunzio Palamara, formerly of Versace, a fashion fixer. Nunzio flew in to Charles de Gaulle airport from Milan, drove to the same out-of-the-way alley, greeted the dressmaker, pleaded, cajoled. Nothing—the dressmaker wouldn’t sell, as he, too, treasured the old jewel. For Plan B, Reese would try the dress on, in the shop, Nunzio hoping that the guy would sell it when he saw her in it, a kind of reverse Cinderella gamble.

“And then the dress,” Reese says. “I mean, let’s talk about this dress again—it was made in 1957, which was the year the single ‘I Walk the Line’ came out. I’m pretty sure it’s the year the single came out, or maybe it was after ‘I Walk the Line.’ How does it go?”

She pauses in the story to sing to herself, trying to recall the tune: “Oh, I never got over those blue eyes….”

Yes, she can really sing—and by the way, if you say so and add that you feel she was one of the very few people born to play June Carter Cash, she does a double take, with a mock-indignant smile, and says, “I was one of the few people born to be June Carter Cash? I was the only person born to play her—I mean, me and June Carter Cash.”

Back in the little Parisian dress shop, she tried the dress on. “It fit perfectly. I mean, like, it couldn’t have been more amazing,” she remembers, “and Nunzio is there and he’s talking in French and finally the man said, ‘You can have it.’ ” She wore it to the Oscars. She won an Oscar. “I don’t mean to sound hokey pokey, but the dress has energy in it,” she says. She will keep it forever. “My accountant got wind of the bill, and he called me and said, ‘Um, don’t you think you should auction this off?’ And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I will never ever ever ever ever sell it. I never thought I’d have a dress like that.”

Along the Avenue Montaigne again, she is talking about dinner the night before, when her boyfriend, Jake Gyllenhaal (who dropped by during makeup), wrote cute remarks in the restaurant’s guest book (something about French melons), which his girlfriend found charming, her smile now bubbling like champagne in a black crepe flute.

The next dress is more than a dress–it’s a gown with a skirt so architecturally structured—an autumnal red, with swanlike swoops of volume—that it won’t fit through the doorway, literally. It must live in the shop or be deconstructed. The craftspeople—pattern-makers, sewers, designers—are now sneaking in to have a look. Reese loves this. “You know,” she says, “I used to not understand fashion, a lot of it, but I completely understood being a playwright or a screenwriter and suddenly having an actor say your words and making them come to life. That I can understand. Finally, I’m starting to understand this.”

The first time the two collaborated was when Reese invited Olivier to Los Angeles. “So he came to my house and sat on the floor and started sketching,” she says. It was her first time having a Paris-based designer in her home. “Of course I put out tons of food and he didn’t eat anything,” she recalls. “He brought out two kinds of fabric—he brought out one gray and one yellow. And he said, ‘I think you are like this! I think you are like a party! I think you are wearing a yellow dress!'” He showed her the Nina Ricci perfume bottle, an echo of the dress. The yellow fabric became the gown she wore to the Golden Globe Awards in 2007. “The yellow dress with the bustier—for me it was the first thing that the world would see from me at Ricci,” Olivier says. “But still, I wanted it to fit with Reese. I was afraid. And it was Reese who picked that fabric. This was one of my favorite fabrics! She just fell right into it. She is very intuitive.”

How do they relate—a Southern girl from Tennessee and a French guy from Belgium? On an artistic level, you might say they are both working hard to appear effortless, doing the homework so that they never break a sweat at the final exam. 

On Bastille Day, Reese is at another café. “It’s the first time I’ve taken my kids,” she says. She believes in taking the kids. “My girlfriend was saying the other day that it’s like that famous Mark Twain line, about how travel is fatal to bigotry and narrow-mindedness—I’m paraphrasing, but it’s something like that.” Travel is also good for discovering croissants, crepes, and macaroons. Also for introducing her son to the toy boats at the Jardin du Luxembourg. And then there’s the Métro, a five-year-old boy’s thrill. “He goes from one stop to another; it makes his day,” Reese says, beaming. And on that very evening, as the French celebrated, she and Monsieur Gyllenhaal would take her nine-year-old daughter out late to see the fireworks. Reese is so high on Paris that now she jokes about making Legally Blonde 3. “Maybe she takes a trip to Paris,” she says. “Or maybe she’s like James Bond, but she’s Jane Blonde!”

Reese likes to talk about her kids, but she doesn’t have to. “The thing I really respect a lot about Reese is that she’s a great mom,” says Vince Vaughn. “She was just great with her kids when they came to the set. She’d make time for them, and you could tell by the way they acted that they were very comfortable and loving with her.”

As far as the boyfriend goes, she doesn’t like to talk about him so much, and it can make you feel a little tabloid about asking. Still, this is Paris, city of light and love. You ask. “He’s very supportive,” she says. You press her. “Suffice it to say, I’m very happy in life, and I’m very lucky to have a lot of really supportive people around me who care very much for me, and, you know, that’s all you can hope for in life. I am very blessed in that way.”

She will tell you that she was with the guy she’d rather not blab about some weeks earlier in Rome and that one night they went out to see the Trevi Fountain. It was late, it was beautiful, and she threw a coin in and made a wish. What did she wish for? Come on. Do you really think she’s going to tell you that? “If I tell you,” she says, “it won’t come true.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Vogue November 2008.

November 24, 2008 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links