Reese Witherspoon last week sold a large chunk of her production company, Hello Sunshine, for $900m to the US investment giant Blackstone. She is now the richest actress in the world.
Success against all odds – just like her character in Legally Blonde.
Quite. But, unlike Elle Woods, Witherspoon is gaining both respect and big bucks. The deal gives her a stake of at least 18% in Hello Sunshine, a seat on the board and a personal profit of $400m, according to Forbes. Which is all the sweeter given that a decade ago she was trapped in what The Times has called “the romcom doldrums”. She was divorced from her first husband, actor Ryan Phillippe, with whom she had two children, and had just married her second, talent agent Jim Toth. Her accountant warned her that she would make “drastically” less money from acting in her forties. “Basically, you’re not going to have much of a career,” he said, adding: “Somebody has to be honest with you.”
How did she react?
Witherspoon fired him. Within a year she had given birth to her third child and co-founded a female-focused production company, Pacific Standard, with Australian producer Bruna Papandrea. Almost no Hollywood studios were developing films for female leads. Witherspoon later told Variety: “I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get busy.’” First up was Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir. Witherspoon gave herself the lead role, portraying a young woman dealing with grief, divorce and heroin addiction, who sets out alone to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. It earned her an Oscar nomination and took $52.5m at the box office on a $15m budget. The same year her company brought out the David Fincher-directed thriller Gone Girl. Rosamund Pike was nominated for best actress – she and Witherspoon lost out to Julianne Moore – and the film grossed $369m on a $61m budget.
Ker-ching. So where does Hello Sunshine come into the picture?
In 2016 Witherspoon parted ways with Papandrea and struck out on her own by launching Hello Sunshine. It claims to be a “media company that puts women at the centre of every story we create, celebrate and discover”. The streaming services were exploding and, right on cue, Witherspoon was ready to create roles that “show the entire spectrum of human emotion that women have”. A string of lucrative hits followed: Big Little Lies, which won eight Emmys; The Morning Show, for which Apple paid her $1.2m per episode; and Little Fires Everywhere. In 2017 she launched Reese’s Book Club, which has 2.1 million followers on Instagram. Of the 60 books Witherspoon has recommended to her fans, 42 have made their way on to The New York Times’s bestsellers list. The club is considered a kingmaker of popular fiction – as the Telegraph put it last week: “Eat your heart out, Oprah.”
Where did Witherspoon get such self-belief?
Doubtless from her parents. Born in New Orleans in 1976, she spent the first five years of her life in Germany, where her father was a military surgeon. The family later settled in Tennessee, where her mother studied to become a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University while raising Witherspoon and her elder brother as strict Episcopalians in a “definitive Southern upbringing”. A child model at seven and a self-proclaimed “big dork who read loads of books”, Witherspoon was a “multi-achiever” who was given the nickname “Little Type A” by her parents. She was destined for an academic life until, at 15, she accidentally landed the lead in the 1991 coming-of-age film The Man in the Moon. It reportedly made $2.9m million on a $110,000 budget. Witherspoon was smart enough to get into Stanford, but the acting bug had taken hold. She dropped out in 1996 and headed to Hollywood. By 24 she’d set up her first production company, Type A Films. Her first film? Legally Blonde. It went on to gross $141.8m worldwide.
So what’s next?
A Netflix series, From Scratch, starring Zoe Saldana, Apple TV+’s The Last Thing He Told Me, with Julia Roberts, and an adaptation of the bestselling novel Where the Crawdads Sing. Oh, and Time magazine just happened to include Hello Sunshine in its list of the 100 most influential companies of 2021. As the Telegraph added last week: “We can only do as her Big Little Lies character would: kick back with a bucket-sized glass of pinot and wait to see what the power-broker of modern Hollywood will do next.”
As her Legally Blonde character put it: “What? Like it’s hard?”