How Reese Witherspoon Became One of the Most Powerful Women in Hollywood

It's been quite a few years for the multi-hyphenate mogul.

By Billy Nilles Jul 10, 2018 5:49 PMTags
Reese Witherspoon Birthday FeatureE! Illustration

It's not that Reese Witherspoon hasn't wielded power in her 20+ year-long career in Hollywood. She has. And it's not that she hasn't been busy before. She certainly has. 

But there's something about the last year or two in the multi-hyphenate's life that's seemed to elevate her to the status of one of the industry's most powerful women. She's found herself in the center of some of the most major stories to come out of entertainment, whether on screens big or small—or simply behind them—and she's begun using her voice and wielding her newfound power in a way quite unlike she ever has before. And no, it's not just because she can now count Oprah Winfrey as a BFF. (OK, maybe a little bit because of that.)

Reese Witherspoon's Best Looks

Sure, she'd already won an Oscar, earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and cemented her status as one of our preeminent rom-com queens, but Witherspoon's empire-building began in earnest with the launch of her production company Pacific Standard in 2012. Now, this wasn't the budding entrepreneur's first production company. In fact, the creation of Pacific Standard represented the merging of her first company, Type A Films, with Bruna Papandrea's Make Movies shingle. But it was then the she began what appears to be her new mission in the industry: Tell stories about women and create more opportunities for them as well.

Her drive was borne out of witnessing six of her favorite actresses "fighting over a really crappy role in a movie," she told journalists at the 2015 Oscar Nominee Luncheon. "I set out with the idea that I wanted to develop material that has strong female leads. I wanted to make movies about what I want to put out into the world—put some good into the world," she said, per the Huffington Post.

Witherspoon and Papandrea quickly got to work putting their money where their mouths were, producing Wild (which earned Witherspoon her second Oscar nomination) and Gone Girl in 2014, venturing into comedy with 2015's Hot Pursuit, and setting its sights on the small screen when the smash hit HBO adaptation of Big Little Lies began filming in 2016.

Soon after, Papandrea and Witherspoon parted ways, with the actress gaining full control of the company, which eventually became a subsidiary of her new company Hello Sunshine, formed in partnership with Otter Media. Hello Sunshine's mission remained very much in step with what Witherspoon was accomplishing through Pacific Standard: Telling female-driven stories, this time across all platforms.

"Women want real substance and premium, thought-provoking, well-made content and they want it now," she noted in 2017 while being recognized as WSJ. Magazine's Entertainment Innovator of the Year. "Quite frankly we just can't see the same films from the same group of people over and over again and expect society to change."

When Big Little Lies finally debuted in early 2017, becoming a smash hit that would eventually earn eight Emmys and four Golden Globes, it was the moment that Hollywood began taking Witherspoon's ambitions truly seriously. And just in time, too. "I'm passionate because things have to change. We have to start seeing women as they really are on film. We have to. And not just in movie theaters on a tiny budget," she told reporters during the show's panel at the 2017 Winter TCA Press Tour. "We need to see real women's experience, whether it involves domestic violence, whether it involves sexual assault, whether it involved motherhood of romance or infidelity or divorce. We need to see these things because we as human beings, we learn from art and what can you do if you never see it reflected?" 

As Big Little Lies afforded Witherspoon the opportunity to be more and more vocal about the change she hoped to usher in, a greater movement began taking Hollywood and the greater world by storm once the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke open the floodgates, leading to the #MeToo and Time's Up era we're currently living in. As women throughout all industries began speaking out against the systemic inequality and harassment they continue to face in the workplace simply for being a woman, Witherspoon was right there, championing the cause and lending her voice.

"You know, we have public voices. We have resources," Witherspoon said during a January 2018 CBS This Morning interview with new BFF and A Wrinkle in Time co-star Oprah Winfrey. "But women who are workers in this country have nothing to gain in certain times by coming forward. But we, we want to help. Like it gives me strength to hopefully help other women."

Through it all, Witherspoon has maintained that by unlocking and embracing her ambition, rather than running from it, she's unlocked her true power. "A Columbia University study found that people considered an ambitious woman more selfish and less worthy of being hired than an ambitious man. I thought, 'We need to start re-framing this word ambition," she said in the March issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. "Because it isn't about being selfish; it's about wanting to create more and do better for communities, schools, the world."

As she has embraced her activism, she's admitted that it's her art that can have the greatest impact. "We don't have compassion unless we see stories through other people's eyes, and we need a broader range of storytellers. They have to be women, people of color, LGBTQ. The storytelling has got to be more balanced," she told Winfrey and Mindy Kaling in the magazine. "I truly believe that art is the antidote. When you see something from another perspective, stand in another person's shoes, that's what creates empathy, in my experience."

As she strives to bring about real, lasting change in her industry—as well as all industry across the board—Witherspoon has also continued full-steam ahead with that enviable ambition of hers. She's just gone into production on season two of Big Little Lies with all of the original cast and a bonus Meryl Streep, she's sold one of the first dramas to be produced by Apple (a drama set in the world of morning TV co-starring Jennifer Aniston), and an adaptation of Celese Ng's Little Fires Everywhere, co-starring and co-produced by Kerry Washington was just ordered straight-to-series by Hulu. 

And she's hardly limiting herself to the world of scripted television. Taking a page out of her pal Winfrey's book, Witherspoon is expanding the reach of her book club, appropriately entitled Reese's Book Club x Hello Sunshine, and has even written a lifestyle book of her own, Whiskey in a Teacup: What Growing Up in the South Taught Me About Life, Love, and Baking Biscuits, due on shelves this fall. (An eight-city book tour will follow.) Oh, and did we mention that she's now launching her own VOD channel? The budding queen of all media announced on Tuesday, July 10 that she's partnered with AT&T for a Hello Sunshine channel, premiering on DirecTV on July 17 with the launch of her first unscripted series, Shine On With Reese. The series "celebrates the stories of extraordinary women who have created their own unique paths to success," per the press release.

Reese Witherspoon Getting Her Own Unscripted Series Shine On with Reese

"I am thrilled to have such like-minded, creative collaborators at AT&T to help Hello Sunshine pursue our mission of elevating and showcasing the voices of women that we have such admiration and respect for," she said in a statement. "I am so excited for the world to experience the stories from our partnership with AT&T, which are set to be equal parts entertaining, inspiring, thought-provoking and unabashedly real."

Despite her years in the game, it feels pretty safe to say with Witherspoon is only getting started.

"I was warned that on the crazy chance Pacific Standard would acquire any good scripts we would never make it past our first few years in business because there just wasn't a market for buying female-driven material," she once reflected at Glamour's 2015 Women of the Year Awards. "But like Elle Woods, I do not like to be underestimated."

Something tells us that's not a problem she has to worry about any longer.

(Originally published on Thursday, March 22, 2018 at 3:00 a.m. PDT.)