We've Uncovered Every Secret About Legally Blonde—What? Like It's Hard?

Our favorite Gemini vegetarian is getting her own prequel and if you're not down for some Legally Blonde facts, you might be as seriously disturbed as whoever said orange is the new pink.

By Sarah Grossbart May 19, 2024 4:00 PMTags
Watch: Reese Witherspoon Reveals Elle Woods is Returning in ‘Legally Blonde’ Prequel

Once upon a time, a California blonde decided she'd like to go to Stanford Law School—because of its proximity to Neiman Marcus. Nope, not Elle Woods. We'll get to her. 

"I wanted to go to Stanford when I saw the mall," Arizona State grad Amanda Brown admitted to the San Francisco Chronicle of enrolling at the prestigious institution in the early '90s. "When I went for my interview I checked out the Polo Store, checked out Neiman's. So I became myopically focused." 

With what she called "very good" test scores, she got in easily. What? Like it's hard? 

Apparently not, though it does turn out that law school isn't for everyone.

In her first week, Brown checked out a meeting of The Women of Stanford Law and realized just how unlikely she was to find someone who shared her love of shopping and flipping through Elle magazine. "The woman who was leading it spent three years at Stanford trying to change the name 'semester' to 'ovester,'" she recalled. (Sound familiar?) "I started laughing and I realized everyone in the room took it very seriously. So I didn't make any friends there."

Reese Witherspoon's Best Roles

Or anywhere, really, Brown spending her time between lectures penning letters to family and friends lampooning the personalities that she'd encounter, including "this one particularly horrible Trekkie" who told her to just go home and get married already. 

She turned more than 300 pages of notes into Legally Blonde, a feel-good take on the importance of not judging a (text) book by its cover. Her novel—written on pink paper because it gives it a little something extra, don't you think?—was sent "out to studios and publishing houses the same day," she told the Chronicle. It was roundly rejected as a book, but incited a bidding war for the film rights—MGM emerging the victor.

Reese Witherspoon x Hello Sunshine/Youtube

With a then-24-year-old Reese Witherspoon signing on as our pink-loving Gemini vegetarian heroine Elle Woods, "she was so good that you're like, 'Okay, if she signed on for this, this is for real," Selma Blair said during the cast's 2020 reunion, explaining why she eagerly accepting the part as Elle's preppy rival Vivian Kensington. 

And yet expectations were still tempered when the comedy opened July 13, 2001, the $141 million box office haul blowing the expected $12 million opening weekend out of the water. Then there were the awards (Golden Globe nods for both the film and Witherspoon) the $125 million grossing 2003 sequel, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, the 2007 Broadway musical and enough begging and pleading to make not only Legally Blonde 3 a reality, but also Elle, a Prime Video prequel series that Witherspoon announced May 14 with a bend and snap

How's that for showing just how valuable Elle Woods can be? (She once had to judge a tighty-whitey contest for Lambda Kappa Pi. Trust her, she can handle anything.) 

To celebrate Witherspoon's big news, we rounded up our favorite behind-the-scenes secrets from the cast and crew. And we promise it'll be just like your senior year of college, except funner!

1. Inspiration struck for Legally Blonde author Amanda Brown in the middle of her torts lecture. "I wanted to do a parody of law school," she explained to Stanford Magazine in 2001, six years after she dropped out to pursue writing. She lifted most details straight from her own life, with several anecdotes making it into the 2001 comedy.

So while Elle Woods' law school ambitions had to be swapped from Stanford to Harvard when Brown's alma mater refused to be associated with the film, the writer's love of pink paper and fuzzy pens remained as did her experience listening to a fellow law student pontificate on the need to change the term semester to ovester.

2. The toilet paper vote was also true to life, co-screenwriter Karen McCullah having a similar experience at Virginia's James Madison University when administrators denied her sorority's request to have Charmin instead of generic. Since they were all opposed to chafing, she recalled to the college's Montpelier Magazine, "I offered my sorority sisters activity points for stealing replacement rolls from the administration building."

3. Cast as Elle Woods just a year after she cut her own career at Stanford short, Reese Witherspoon conducted thorough research into life as a co-ed, sitting in on classes at Loyola Law School and dining with sorority sisters at the University of Southern California. "It's sort of like an anthropological study," she explained to Entertainment Weekly in 2001. "You learn what they eat, how they behave, how they take care of their young, that sort of thing."

Matthew Davis, meanwhile, loosely based his portrayal of Elle's soon-to-be ex Warner Huntington III (the aspiring senator on the hunt for a Jackie, not a Marilyn), on George W. Bush, studying up by reading the then-president's biography

4. Witherspoon took on the role just months after welcoming now-24-year-old daughter Ava Phillippe with then-husband Ryan Phillippe in September 1999.

"Some nights Ava would wake up screaming because she had the flu and I would spend most of the night trying to rock her back to sleep and then have to be on the set at 7 in the morning for make-up!" she revealed to Cinema.com. "And then you throw in the fact that I'm supposed to be playing a very bubbly and energetic California preppy who is smiling all the time! I kept thinking, 'I'm going to kill myself! I'm never going to make it!'"

5. And, actually, we did come pretty close to seeing a different well-known blonde wearing last season's Prada shoes. With the script making its way to Christina Applegate just as she was finishing her decade-long run as Married... with Children's Kelly Bundy, "I got scared of kind of repeating myself," she explained to ETonline in 2015 of turning down the part. "What a stupid move that was, right?"

6. Luke Wilson, meanwhile, didn't even need to audition to play Elle's eventual love interest Emmett. "We spent a lot of time faxing the casting director, like 'Luke Wilson, Luke Wilson!'" co-screenwriter Kirsten Smith revealed to Insider. "And then finally after the table read where a different actor played Emmett, we were like 'Luke Wilson, Luke Wilson!' And he was like, 'That's a really good idea.' We were like, 'We've been telling you!'" 

7. Initially considered to play one of Elle's sorority sisters, Ali Larter really grabbed hold of the opportunity to audition for the part of Brooke Windham, the fitness phenom accused of murdering her much older husband.

As she was reading the lines from Brooke's jailhouse liposuction confession ("It's not like normal women can have this ass!") for director Robert Luketic, "I remember it being like, 'How can I really sell him and show him that I really want to do this part and that I can make this believable and fun," she recalled during the cast's October 2020 reunion. "And I just reached over and I grabbed my ass as hard as I could and just went for it. And he was like, 'All right, you got it girl. You committed.'"

8. Alanna Ubach had to get creative to be recruited for the role of Elle's sorority sister Serena. Jessica Cauffiel—already cast as fellow Delta Nu Margot—remembers meeting Ubach in the bathroom at the chemistry read.

"She's like, 'Hey, hey, are you in this movie?'" Cauffiel shared during the October 2020 reunion. Having already asked to borrow Cauffiel's red lipstick, Ubach then made a slightly larger request. Cauffiel recalled her begging for help booking the job, saying, "'I don't have any money, I need to make rent, will you help me make rent?' She was so funny and so ballsy, I said, 'Okay.'"

Telling casting directors she needed to make a quick call, Cauffiel instead returned to the bathroom to read with Ubach. "We choreographed simultaneous moves," Cauffiel said of their plan to show they were truly in sync. "I threw the whole audition to get her the job and she's been my best friend ever since."

9. Ubach's ingenuity came in handy on set, the actress nailing her and Cauffiel's manicure scene. While chatting with "this lovely Vietnamese background actress," she shared at the cast reunion, "I thought, 'How funny would it be if we frequent this nail salon so much that I've been immersed in Vietnamese and I've picked up the language?'"

After spending an hour practicing her lines—"She'll never get him back with those cuticles"—she asked director Luketic if she could try a thing. Joked Ubach, "He was like, 'Yeah, gosh you're weird. Just do your thing and we'll see if it works or not.'"

10. Actually, Luketic was very open to every wild idea. "He gave us a lot of freedom," Cauffiel shared of the first-time feature film director who also OK'd her plan for Margot to stumble off a pedestal during the bridal salon scene. "I said, 'Robert, you know, can I fall?'" she recalled. "And he was like, 'Get her a mattress! Get her a mattress!'"

11. Davis was equal parts scared and excited for his first major film role as Warner. "I was so out of my league," he recalled during the 2020 reunion. "I literally was just off the back of the turnip truck out of Salt Lake City, Utah. I couldn't get out of Utah fast enough and I stumbled my way into this movie called Legally Blonde." Very green and harboring a bit of a thing for his costars ("I think he had a crush on everybody," Cauffiel told The New York Times), "I was crapping my pants every step of the way," he admitted. 

His very first scene saw him break up with Witherspoon. "I sat down and all of sudden Elle Woods was there," he shared, "and Elle Woods was so big and so full of life and I realized that all my choices were wrong."

12. Two decades later, he still gets crap for the callous way Warner dumped his college sweetheart mid-dinner date ("If I'm going to be a senator by the time I'm 30, I need to stop dicking around") before going on to propose to his "Jackie", fellow Harvard law student Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair).

Though he'd go on to roles on Damages, The Vampire Diaries, The Originals and Legacies, "For years and years people would say 'You're that a--hole from Legally Blonde!'" he shared during the virtual get-together, prompting Witherspoon to come to his defense. "I'm here to tell people Matthew Davis is the nicest person!" she insisted. "He was just playing a character."

13. Shooting Elle's law school application video was actually harder than getting into Harvard Law. Okaaaaaay, fine. Not quite. But according to Witherspoon, it was "like, 400 degrees" in Pasadena on the day she and Cauffiel filmed the pool scene that saw Elle tout her ability to "recall hundreds of important details at the drop of a hat," like how Hope had been brainwashed by the evil Stefano on Days of Our Lives

Noting how tricky it was to have Margot effortlessly float in and out of the shot on her raft, Cauffiel joked, "Wasn't there a guy with, like, a stick who was pushing it?"

14. It was also awfully hot when Witherspoon filmed Elle's first day at law school, UCLA's campus standing in for Harvard. In an outfit that suggested a more fall in Boston vibe—a button down with a tie underneath a belted sweater—"I was sweating buckets," the actress revealed. 

The film's costume designer had to step in and remind her how necessary it was that Elle "totally looks the part," Witherspoon continued. "Sophie de Rakoff was like 'You are wearing this sweater. You are buttoning up the collar…it has to be this way.' And I was like 'OK!'"

15. It's only fair, then, that the Oscar winner got to keep every single one of the 60 outfits she wore in the film. "They're all finely preserved between tissue paper and in a special storage unit," she shared on Instagram. "I keep a close eye on them."

16. We were almost memorizing a bend-and-snap musical number. The cast actually spent a month working on a more song- and dance-focused version of the nail salon scene that saw Elle revealing the move that in her experience "has an 83 percent rate of return on a dinner invitation." Ultimately, though, explained Witherspoon, "It just felt odd because there was just one musical sequence."

17. As for the move itself that people still ask Witherspoon to demonstrate, it was invented at a Beverly Hills bar. Screenwriters McCullah and Smith were there between meetings trying to come up with a B-plot that could take place in the nail salon, "and we were working in weird directions," McCullah told Insider. "Like, maybe it gets robbed, all sorts of crazy stuff."

Once they realized they could just add a simpler storyline about Elle helping manicurist Paulette get her crush's attention, Smith "jumped off her barstool and was like, 'Like this?' And then she did that move," McCullah continued. The name was invented on the spot. Joked Smith, "There really should be a placard there, honestly."

18. The film's ending got a major makeover in post-production. Originally, McCullah and Smith shared with The New York Times, the film wrapped with Elle's big courthouse victory, she and Emmett sealing their romance with a kiss on the courtroom steps. They then "cut to a year later," McCullah detailed, "Elle and Vivian were good friends, and Vivian's now blonde. They had started the Blond Legal Defense Club and were handing out fliers in the quad." 

That was the ending of Smith's manuscript, McCullah noted, but then test audiences issued a strong verdict. "We screened the movie two or three times, and every time people didn't want to end it with a kiss," she explained. "They thought it wasn't a story about [Elle] getting a boyfriend, which was really cool to have people say that."

19. Still, putting together Elle's inspiring graduation day speech required a bit of ingenuity. Witherspoon's portion of the scene was filmed at London's Dulwich College near where she was working on The Importance of Being Earnest (other actors shot their parts back in California). Having changed her hair for her role in the Oscar Wilde adaption, Witherspoon had to wear a wig, as did Wilson, who'd shaved his head for The Royal Tenenbaums.

20. For Witherspoon, who left Stanford after her freshman year to pursue an acting career, "This is where I went to college," she gushed during the 2020 cast reunion. "I didn't finish college but I finished Legally Blonde."

People often recite her infamous lines (the most repeated: "What? Like it's hard?), but her absolute favorite thing to hear are the many career success stories. "I don't think any of us knew what this film was going to turn out to be or how much it would inspire young women and young people across the world," Witherspoon shared. "The thing that actually really touches my heart is more people stop me and say, 'I went to law school because of Elle Woods.' Which is really amazing." 

Really, she gets a thrill anytime people quote the film issuing "a blanket statement" to E! News at the 2024 Screen Actors Guild Awards: "When anybody starts talking to me about Legally Blonde, it really touches my heart so please know that."

This story was originally published on Tuesday, July 13, 2021 at 12 a.m. PT.