It’s hard to imagine, but Reese Witherspoon hasn’t always been the Hollywood heavy hitter she is now. In fact, while accepting the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award at The Hollywood Reporter‘s Women in Entertainment event on Wednesday, the multi-hyphenate star recounted her humble beginnings in the industry. As she tells it, she was a broke new mom being woefully underestimated and — all too often — condescended. But since she has clearly stepped into her power, she’s sharing her secrets so the rest of us can, too.
After giving birth to her daughter, Ava, while Witherspoon was in her early 20s, she did what any mama with mounting diaper bills would do: She started “hustling.” In fact, she had extra motivation, because she was also pregnant with her son Deacon at the time. Her salary from the film Election “wasn’t much to speak of” and wouldn’t support the family for long. However, the studio with all of the roles she really wanted just wouldn’t seem to entertain the idea of casting her. When she asked her agent why, she was told, “‘The executive thinks you are Tracy Flick [her Election character]. He thinks you’re a shrew.'”
At the time, Witherspoon was taken aback but, in her trademark pluckiness, undeterred. She managed to wrangle a meeting with the executive. “My 22-year-old self told him that I wanted to give funny and dramatic performances, and I wanted to deliver smart dialogue and create fascinating characters like my idols Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep,” Witherspoon told the crowd of women and men at the event, continuing, “And he turned to me and said, ‘Well, not that many women get to be the lead in movies. And also, Meryl Streep is completely over.’ I’m not even kidding — this actually happened to me in real life.”
She doesn’t actually remember how, as a broke and hungry (likely in every sense of the word) 22-year-old mom, she responded. Now, though, she says she wishes she could go back in time and show that male executive how women in Hollywood are doing now. And she would warn him, “There will be so many of us, you won’t be able to write us off.”
That’s the funny thing about perspective. You don’t always get to leverage it at the precise moment you wish you could. Still, Witherspoon chooses to utilize hers as it comes — including her attitude toward being viewed as a “shrew” in those early years as an ambitious young working mom.
“By the way, the definition of the word ‘shrew’ as pertains to a woman is technically ‘a woman of violent temper and speech.’ Which nowadays I understand to be a woman who speaks her mind and raises her voice against a system which underestimates her,” Witherspoon told a cheering audience. “I would like to just say ‘Thank you. I am a shrew.'”
She then urged the women in front of her and at home to lead with the same unapologetic resolve, saying, “Send the first email. Break the silence in a room. Ask the first question. Embrace your inner shrew and do something.”