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Playing It Straight

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. (Left, By Mark Seliger; Above, By Suzanne Tenner -- Twentieth Century Fox)

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We broach the subject of her transformation -- girl to woman, comic to dramatic -- and as we are nattering away about what a break with the familiar this Carter-Cash, fire-and-ice film is, Witherspoon interrupts and says, "I think everyone is trying not to insult me."

Meaning?

"This vague sense that I wasn't capable of drama. I find that a little odd."

Her nostrils flare ever so slightly. The blue vein almost imperceptibly throbs.

"This is all I did before comedy. All I did was serious dramatic roles. I, for the life of me, couldn't get my foot in the door of Hollywood because I had too many dark indie credits."

And Witherspoon is correct about how she is perceived. She emits goody-two-shoes. When she's photographed by paparazzi, she's at Disneyland with her two kids, or grocery shopping with her husband, the actor Ryan Phillippe, not falling out of her clothes in the VIP room of some louche lounge. And because of the oversize exposure of her "Legally Blonde" series, audiences don't remember that she starred in some serious fare, namely "Fear," in which Mark Wahlberg was her psychotically jealous boyfriend, or "Freeway," in which Kiefer Sutherland played a murderous interstate killer to her runaway teen. These were released back in 1996, shortly after she dropped out of Stanford (where she was majoring in literature) to pursue acting.

"And all my serious dramatic performances suddenly weren't getting me the jobs or opportunities that I really wanted," she says. "People would acknowledge that. 'I can't cast you because the studios don't want you because you don't make them any money.' . . . I have stacks and stacks of letters from great directors saying I can't cast you because you don't mean anything to the studios. That's why I turned the boat toward comedy."

Turned first to Tracy Flick, the crazed go-getter in Alexander Payne's "Election" (which was critically praised) and then to the "Legally Blondes" (which were box-office bonanzas).

"And I was capable of doing comedy. I didn't realize what a rarefied thing that was. It's hard to do," she explains. And as she's saying all this, she's poised, not a leg-bouncer, not a hand-fidgeter, just an answerer. "I'm lucky to have that as a part of my life. Lucky I haven't had to play the insipid girlfriend parts, but to play great comedic roles. I mean, how many women get to do that in the history of film? We can talk about dramatic actresses a lot. Many, many. For years and years. But very few comediennes who jump out at you. And that is what I feel most proud of."

Good for you.

"Well, I judge myself on different standards."


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