BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — Reese Witherspoon smiled as she chatted, while sitting in a rugged-looking canyon in Southern California recently. “Hard to believe we’re only about 20 minutes from the center of Beverly Hills, isn’t it?” the Oscar winner said with a soft laugh.
We were there to talk about her performance in “Wild,” the film opening Friday that is based on Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir of her 1,000-mile trek along the incredibly difficult Pacific Crest Trail. What made that journey all the more amazing was the fact Strayed did it without any training or preparation — a trip she made to help her deal with the grief caused by the death of her beloved mother.
Witherspoon, who also produced the movie, explained how this experience was “probably one of the most important, if not the most important, things I’ve done in my career so far.” The actress said that “there were no tricks or mirrors here. This was actually out in the wilderness. It was incredibly physically challenging. It was cold. It was raining. I did all my own stunts. I was out there in the wilderness with this backpack — 65 pounds on my back every day.
“But it was also really emotional too. The scenes I did with Laura Dern [who played her mother]. The scenes with Thomas Sadoski [who plays her husband] were often tough. It was a real emotional journey for me.”
As she began planning the film with Strayed, she was impressed by how the author was able to “synthesize human emotion into words. She told me so many things, but one of the most important was, ‘Finding your best self.’ Also, she stressed how important it was to cultivate who that person is, plus not apologizing for the mistakes that you’ve made in your life.
“Cheryl simply said, ‘We should just learn from them and not be embarrassed or ashamed by what’s come before.’ ”
For Witherspoon, that was a kind of epiphany, and she believes it’s something others who have read Strayed’s book — and now will see the film based on it — can take away from her life’s experiences.
Asked to recall the toughest day for her shooting “Wild,” Witherspoon didn’t hesitate. “It would have been the day we shot what became the first scene in the movie — where my charater is untying one of her boots and she loses it and it falls all the way down that mountain.
“That was a tough day. We were standing — literally — on the top of a mountain where it had taken us like four ski-lifts and a 25-minute hike to get up there.
“Plus for that scene I had to be screaming and acting all crazy. We were hanging off the side of that mountain with ropes. But also … it was exciting as well!”
When asked if she personally could imagine putting herself through the ardor of hiking 1,000 miles along very tough terrain, Witherspoon said, “No, that’s hard, but for me the hardest part would have been doing it all alone, as Cheryl did. Not having anyone to talk to, having to spend so much time in your own head. … That would have been the hardest thing for me.”
At the end of the day, Witherspoon hopes that audiences will take away a lot from “Wild.”
“There’s so much there. Primarily, I hope people will relate to the aspect of what happens as you work through grief, or loss of love. I also think the message is that ultimately we have to save ourselves. No one is going to come riding in on a horse and save you. You have to learn to take care of yourself.”
Those universal themes in “Wild” are also important to Strayed herself. As she sat in another location in that California canyon, reflecting on the film based on her book and life, the author stressed, “The lessons I learned are, I think, ones that many people learn in life. So many people have come up to me and told me, ‘You spoke for me.’
“We always feel alone in our greatest losses, and in some ways we are, because we can only save ourselves. But it’s a universal experience. We’ve all had to pick ourselves up and move forward at some point.”