The Real Story Behind Reese Witherspoon’s Return to Romantic Comedies

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When the trailer dropped for Home AgainReese Witherspoon‘s newest movie, there was a palpable buzz around Hollywood and among her loyal cadre of fans. Timing was part of it—it’s the first project since the actress’ beloved turn in Big Little Lies. The sneak peek into the flick dropped just weeks before the Emmy nominations made official what everyone was expecting: That Lies was a critical darling in addition to taking over pop culture for much of 2017.

But Home Again also marks a ground-breaking transition for Witherspoon: It’s her return to romantic comedies after a five-year hiatus.

She has become a staple in more serious awards material, what with her turns in films like Wild, and her slight retreat into behind-the-camera work (she produced Gone Girl and Big Little Lies), that her start in the industry begs reminding. When Witherspoon broke out onto the scene it was her quirkiness and affability that won over fans and critics (and studio executives). Romantic comedies were here bread and butter, their one-liners her legacy. Quotes like “You have a baby…in a bar” and “Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands” were synonymous with Reese.

One wonders what it would take to get Reese back to her old stomping ground after all this time. (And all that success.) It’s easy to imagine that the A-lister is pitched movies endlessly, that she’s turned down countless roles that instead went to other actresses. Was it that she simply missed romantic comedies after all this time, and wanted to return to her roots? Not really.

Was it that she wanted to take a little mental break, to tear herself away from the crumbling marriages and murders of Monterrey? Sort of. As Witherspoon told E! News, there is something desirable about heading to the movies to feel good.

“There’s a lot of hard stuff to process out in the world right now,” said the actress. “I think it’s nice when a movie just makes you feel great, when it’s about family, love, togetherness and romance.”

But really, her motivation was more altruistic and, frankly, straightforward.

“I just read the script for Home Again and I thought it was so compelling,” explained Witherspoon. “I loved the idea of a woman at a crossroads in her life, where she doesn’t know what she’s gonna do next. I think a lot of women feel that way when they’re my age. And I think it will be really cool to see how people relate to that.”

Home Again really is about crossroads of all kinds. It opens with Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), who has recently moved back to Los Angeles with her two daughters after a split from her husband—hence the title. On the night of her birthday she meets three 20-something guys (make that low 20-something) and winds up having the time of her life. Harry, George and Teddy are aspiring filmmakers new to LA who also happen to be dead broke, so they end up moving into Alice’s guest house.

To make things even more interesting (and complicated), Harry—played by the outrageously attractive newcomer Pico Alexander—falls head over heels in love with Alice, a feeling she reciprocates in a mostly physical manner. Just when the entire group has gotten comfortable, Alice’s estranged husband gets jealous that three guys barely out of college have squeezed their way into his family and shows up at their front door unannounced. The movie is kind of a love triangle-meets-hijinks, with a fair amount of Alice trying to find herself as she faces down an entire life reset in a new city, with a new career, and a new very young kind-of boyfriend.

If this plot sounds like a Nancy Meyers movie you would watch, turtleneck-clad and slice of pie in hand, that’s because the venerable director produced Home Again, with her daughter, Hallie Meyers-Sheyer, taking on her screenwriting and directorial debut.

The elder Meyers is responsible for bringing audiences some of the most-beloved (and most classic) romantic comedies ever, from The Parent Trap and Father of the Bride to The Holiday and It’s Complicated. There’s hardly a leading lady in Hollywood who hasn’t stood in front of Meyers’ camera. The family business was contagious to her 30-year-old daughter, who was inspired by the way that Nancy’s romantic comedies so quickly became inherent to our pop culture.

“I grew up around people who made films that audiences loved so much and that was always so rewarding to me,” she told E! News. “People would quote a movie and I would think to myself, ‘My mom wrote that line.’ I always wanted that for myself—it’s the best thing you could ask for, someone to love your movie and quote it.”

Home Again, Reese Witherspoon

Courtesy Open Road

When Hallie sat down to write Home Again, she knew that an A-list star would be the thing to help take it to the next level. Meyers-Sheyer wrote the flick with Witherspoon in mind as the lead and then eventually worked up the courage to send the script to the actress. The story, combined with a movie-making heavyweight like Nancy Meyers (who had by then signed on to produce the project), made the decision easy for Witherspoon, who counts her not only as an important mentor in the industry but described her as “One of the most important female filmmakers of our time.”

But what might have been casual for Reese was anything but for Meyers-Sheyer. Word came in from the studio that the actress had accepted while she was driving with her mother, and the writer-director admits to pulling over and doing “a lot of silent screaming.”

“Getting Reese on board was a game-changer for me,” she explains. “When Reese wanted to be a part of this movie it was thrilling because she was the absolute perfect person. She just sings with this movie.”

The next step was the set, and while Witherspoon may have been stepping back into very old shoes, it was actually the rest of her co-stars who had the nerves. The three young actors who play her houseguests are practically as new to Hollywood as Reese’s onscreen character, and the prospect of playing opposite one of the movie industry’s biggest stars can be a very daunting one. So daunting that it rendered the men semi-speechless.

“The first three days of filming they barely talked to me,” Witherspoon joked. “They didn’t ice me out or anything, they just didn’t talk to me. But by the end of the first week we were all getting along really well—we just had to go out and get to know each other.”

Alexander, who plays Reese’s love interest, remembers things a little differently, recounting that all of his fear of meeting a huge star and wondering what she was going to be like fizzled the moment they started the table read. “I just realized that Reese is a great, normal person,” he said re-assuredly. The movie had a daunting 30-day shoot schedule—due to budget constraints that come with indie financing—so the stress and constant workload contributed to the camaraderie. Well, that and the dinner parties that Witherspoon threw for the cast.

One aspect of making a romantic comedy that an actress who has been fully entrenched in dramatic roles may forget about is the near-constant kissing scenes. Witherspoon is of course no stranger to on-camera raunchiness, but the rom-com brand of brightly-lit, up-close camera shots can be an entirely different task.

“Kissing is so weird,” she joked. “There are so many people in the room, so you just have to pretend they aren’t there.”

Which is an easy thing to do if you’re Reese Witherspoon. If you’re the young actor who’s supposed to make out with Reese Witherspoon? Not so much.

“Going into it you have this anxiety,” said Alexander. “To be intimate like that with somebody is scary, especially if you haven’t met before. But Reese really is a pro and totally make me feel comfortable.”

It’s worth pointing out again that the young actor on the receiving end of those kissing scenes is 26 (25 at the time of filming) to Witherspoon’s 41. The age difference—15 years for those not quite math-inclined—is almost nothing in Hollywood time. Jennifer Lawrence is the same age as Pico Alexander and her recent onscreen love interests range in age from 38 (Chris Pratt) to 42 (Bradley Cooper) to 43 (Christian Bale) to 48 (Javier Bardem for the upcoming mother!).

We’re hard-pressed to find a leading actor who hasn’t had a movie romance with someone nearly half his age. There’s Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone. Johnny Depp was 48 when he played opposite Amber Heard, 28. Richard Gere was 60 when he starred with a 35-year-old Hilary Swank in Amelie. A 40-year-old Brad Pitt dated a 24-year-old Rose Byrne in Troy. Even Steve Carell, the one person we thought might be immune to this syndrome, has fictionally romanced many a younger woman.

So why is it such an anomaly for Reese Witherspoon to play the older half of the couple? Alexander described people reacting to his role in Home Again as though the relationship was taboo—and even those who didn’t go that far were still curious what it was like to fall in love with a woman who is 40. “Why is that so difficult to wrap one’s head around?” he asked.

Witherspoon has an answer for that and it’s exactly why she’s championing this particular romantic comedy over the surely countless others she’s been offered.

“Hallie wrote this amazing script and I’ve never seen that dynamic before,” she explained. “That a 40-year-old woman is seen as attractive by younger men and is pursued by younger men, no guy would write that movie.”

The actress hopes that will be the legacy of Home Again; that it will get audiences thinking and talking about how far we still have to come.

“I think it’s something that changes the way we see things,” said Witherspoon. “It changes our perspective about what is sexy. We see a lot of older men with younger women, but this is something that’s never even talked about. I think it’s really interesting that Hallie wrote this movie and I love to see that idea turned on its head.”

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