Reese Witherspoon – Highlights the Truth of “The Good Lie”
by Brad Balfour
Nashville, Tennessee, might seem as remote a place from the African nation of Sudan as one could imagine. Yet given the fantastic journey of thousands of Lost Boys (and girls) who came to the United States in the 1990s — after an arduous walk from their homeland across 1,000 miles to Kenyan refugee camps fleeing a bloody civil war — it doesn’t seem so strange. Since many of them were settled in places like Missouri, experiencing drastic cultural contrasts became the norm for them.
As a story initiated by this civil war, the upcoming film The Good Lie encompasses the stark contrasts that came out of that conflict. It tells of the tragedies, but also of the determination and hope that drove these young people to survive as well. Filmed in Atlanta, Georgia, this feature draws on the collective experiences of the survivors of that war as they came to this country through various Christian charities. Having stirred audiences when it screened at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival,The Good Lie recently premiered in Nashville — hometown of one of its stars, Reese Witherspoon.
To best aid in telling of these four survivors’ remarkable experiences, established actors such as Oscar winner Witherspoon, Corey Stoll and Sarah Baker joined with actors of Sudanese descent — Ger Duany (Jeremiah), Arnold Oceng (Mamere), Kuoth Wiel (Abital) and Emmanuel Jal (Paul) — to present a composite tale of four who not only walked those miles but grappled with the traumatic cultural conflicts adjusting to a new life in the cold American midwest.
Based on real-life events (compressed by screenwriter Margaret Nagle), Oscar nominee Philippe Falardeau directed Witherspoon to play Carrie Davis, a brash American woman assigned to find jobs for her young Sudanese charges who have won a lottery for relocation here.
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the 38-year-old actress spent her childhood in Nashville, where she went from a high school cheerleader to attending Stanford University as an English literature major. After a year, she left to pursue acting.
Witherspoon is proud of her “definitive Southern upbringing” which she has said gave her “a sense of family and tradition” and taught her about “being conscientious about people’s feelings, being polite, being responsible and never taking for granted what you have in your life.”
Witherspoon landed her first feature role as the female lead in The Man in the Moon in 1991. She went on to star in such films as Freeway, Cruel Intentions, Pleasantville and Alexander Payne’s 1999 hit Election, for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination.
In 2001 her career ratcheted up with the breakout role of Elle Woods in the box-office hit Legally Blonde, and then in 2002 she starred in Sweet Home Alabama, which became her biggest commercial film to date. The following year saw her return as lead and executive producer of Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde.
By 2005, Witherspoon had received worldwide attention and praise for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, which earned her an Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role and the Critics Choice Movie Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Now married to agent Jim Toth, Witherspoon has three children, two from her previous marriage to actor Ryan Philippe. After something of a hiatus, she now has several films being released this year, including this one and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.
This Q&A is culled from a recent press conference and Reese’s introduction at the film’s Nashville premiere.
This film has some great Tennessee connections such as Producer Molly Smith, who has quite a bit of credits to her name, Alcon Entertainment’s Fred Smith, who started a transportation company in Memphis that’s changed the world (FedEx). And, obviously, a local girl who’s done really well.
I’m so glad to be here and represent Tennessee. Thank you for being here to support us. It’s so good to see you all in Nashville. It’s so exciting. I’m so used to seeing you in Los Angeles or New York.
What was it like to show your film here in Nashville where you grew up?
This theater [The Belcourt], where the premiere was, brings back so many memories for me that I was getting emotional when I got here. I’ve seen so many films here with my family. It’s such a great thing to have a premier in Nashville, and to have any of my movies, ever, in Nashville.
This is a spectacular season for you with this movie, producing, all the awards talk, and even popping up with Joaquin in Inherent Vice. Have you had a goal to do something like this?
It wasn’t planned. For a few years I was a little bit lost as an artist, not being able to find what I wanted to do — not making choices I was ultimately very happy with. What started this whole string of things was just getting back to wanting to play interesting, dynamic female characters. I made these movies, and they all seem to be coming out within three months of each other. I’m in a little bit of a traffic jam right now. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all of them, and see them for their different qualities.
How do you feel to be back in the Oscar buzz spotlight?
It’s so nice. It’s so sweet to be getting [attention] for it. I’m excited that everybody’s liking the films I’ve been in lately.
The Good Lie is a surprising film with an amazing story, told with such humor and compassion.
I read Margaret Nagle’s script, and was so moved. I just knew I couldn’t not do it. Margaret did such an incredible job. You could tell that there was so much research involved, because when I started watching documentaries, it was completely accurate. Every story you’ve heard [about] the Sudanese refugees is somehow in the movie or in the script.
I remember when I met Philippe Falardeau, the director, the first thing he said to me was, “This movie isn’t about you. And I just want to be really clear about that.” I’ve never had a director say that to me before but it made me happy, because I didn’t want to make a movie where it was just a white American girl coming to save African people. My character [Carrie Davis] is without family, just as emotionally distraught as they are. I thought it was such a beautiful opportunity to talk about [how] family is where you find it. The film is incredible.
How did you arrive at Carrie’s look? Was it written on the page, or did you have any input on that?
Molly called me and told me she wanted me to be a brunette, and I was like, “All right.” I’ve done that before. We worked with the hair and make-up people. It’s always nice to sort of depart from yourself. I was covering all my post-baby weight, too. I’d just had a baby, and I was still nursing and taking care of him. That’s the reason why I didn’t know if I wanted to make the movie. You know how your brain gets confused, right after you have a baby? I was really confused.
What was in the message of the movie that spoke to you and made you want to do it?
I felt that there are so many times when you don’t appreciate your life until you see someone else’s perspective on our privileges and the opportunities that we have, whether that’s education, or health care, or just food and running water. One of my favorite scenes is when [Ger’s character] is running his hands [in the water], turning the water on and off, after they’d walked through the desert without water or food. I thought it was a great message also for families. I think it’s really great to take your kids to this movie. It brings up a lot of integral conversations that we should all be having. I’ll take my kids!
It must have been an incredible challenge for you to play a character where you don’t know the back story to the other characters. You have to discover it along the way. What did you learn about south Sudan in general?
I came from a place of not knowing, so other than a random newspaper article or something, I knew very little about the story. A lot of the things that I learned were from talking to Emmanuel and Ger. Sometimes we’d be doing scenes and I’d say, “Well, did that really happen?” Ger would tell us about being a young boy and walking all that way, and what it was like. It’s hard to even conceive. Then at the very end of the film, we got to go to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Even though I didn’t shoot any scenes there, I didn’t want to just do the part in Atlanta and be done and go home to my life. I really wanted to see what the experience was like, so I took my teenage daughter and we went.
Your daughter hasn’t experienced that sort of poverty before, so what was her experience like? How did it help her perspective on the world?
Well, she’s a wonderful, socially conscious girl. Even if you read a million books on a situation, you don’t understand it until you see it yourself. I was very lucky that they organized for her to be there, because she is a little young to be off on these trips.
Was she 13 at the time?
She had just turned 14. She didn’t say a word the whole day. Then she really didn’t talk about it until a couple of days later. I think it’s definitely going to affect her for a long time, as it did me. It was amazing.
What do you think she gained from the experience?
Consciousness, awareness — hopefully, a feeling of wanting to give back.
Why was it important for you to take her there?
I think that travel is the antidote to any kind of selfish behavior — service, really. It’s not their fault, kids nowadays. We give them all these technologies, and access to things that disconnect them, so as much as you can show them of the world, it’s great.
Describe the experience; take us back there as it happened to you.
It was really very emotional, seeing over 250,000 people displaced — sleeping on concrete slabs, and the sprawl of that many people living together. There were 12 different languages being spoken; seven different kinds of religions. There was very little health care, very little food. We saw women giving birth on metal tables, with their infant sitting there with no clothes on. Kids that were sick, and babies like her brother’s age, sitting on concrete slabs and sleeping with seven other brothers and sisters. But I think the conditions were worse.
Seeing that is one thing, but the other remarkable thing [we saw] was the joy and determination of these people to rise above [it] and have a better life for their children. They greet you with smiles and laughter and dancing. Their spirit was just incredible. It was incredible to be there with Ger and his family — so many of his family members are there — at that very camp. It really brought it all home to me. This is an opportunity to raise awareness, but it’s also an opportunity to create change.
As I was talking to the religious leader Rick Warren, he said, “Sometimes we assume because people are poor that they’re not intelligent, that they don’t have anything to offer to society. But these are people who are on top of their field. They’re doctors, educators, community leaders, and they’ve essentially been displaced.” So it’s been really educational for me to learn about refugees, and their contribution to society, and how we hopefully lift more of them up out of those situations.
Why do you think it’s hard for us, as Americans, to grasp what’s going on — the persecutions going on in Sudan? How can this movie change that?
There’s not been a lot of media coverage. A lot of people are making comparisons [of this film] to Hotel Rwanda, but it wasn’t a situation that a lot of people knew a lot about. Once [you] saw the film, it makes you want to go home and look it up and get more involved. I really like the part when Corey’s character says in the movie [that] he’s so reticent to get involved. He’s like, “Let’s not get involved. We’re probably going to get sued.”
One of the things I think is so great about this story is that you don’t have to be a perfect person to do something great for somebody else. The imperfections in your life actually might be helped in the process of meeting and helping and creating community for people who are displaced. It’s not just for the saints of the world. We can all make a difference.
Photo Credits: #1 © 2014. Courtesy of Alcon Entertainment. All rights reserved. #2 © 2014 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved. #3 © 2014. Courtesy of Alcon Entertainment. All rights reserved. #4 © 2014. Courtesy of Alcon Entertainment. All rights reserved. #5 © 2014. Courtesy of Alcon Entertainment. All rights reserved. #6 © 2014. Courtesy of Alcon Entertainment. All rights reserved. #7 © 2014. Courtesy of Alcon Entertainment. All rights reserved.