Penelope is not an ordinary story: She is a wealthy young woman (played by Christina Ricci), with loving parents (played by Richard E. Grant and Catherine O'Hara) and a man who is paid to pretend to love her, beacuse she has been cursed by a witch and has the face of a pig. Wait; what was that last part? The production company behind the film is also noteworthy - it is Type A Films, co-founded in the year 2000 by Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon, and Penelope is the first independent production the company has created (and in which, Reese also appears).
Ms. Witherspoon sat down with Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier in Los Angeles, CA to talk about the production company she launched, the film they have produced with the actors she loves and her slightly embassing problems with Vespa scooters.
EI: Is this the very first movie that Type A Films has produced?
RW: This is the first independent film. We produced Legally Blonde 2, but then this was the first film that we found the script, found the director, and did all the heavy lifting.
EI: What was it about this project that galvanized you into doing it?
RW: I read the script! My producing partner, Jennifer Simpson, brought me the script about four years ago. She had been working with my company, she found the script, and she loved it. It was a script that other people had read. There were a lot of ideas about how to make it... people tossed around making it an animated movie...
When she brought it to me, I just thought it was great. It was perfect for our company because, at the center, it was a wonderful, fantastic, cinematic movie. At the center, it also had a really great female character who was strong, ambitious, but definitely had a journey to go through to get to the place where she would find herself.
EI: Did you ever think about jumping in and playing that character yourself?
RW: Yeah, I actually did. I thought about it, but I got busy with other commitments and the movie had to go forward. We decided to cast it, but I always knew I wanted to be in it in some capacity. It was kind of fun for me to get to play a smaller character and get to be a 'broad'.
EI: Speaking of Annie, Penelope's best friend - what did you have to do to develop that character? Was she always sort of a biker chick with fun hair, or was that what you brought to the part?
RW: I found somebody I thought was kind of like her and I just kind of mimicked her. It was fun, yeah. I got to run around the streets of London on a Vespa: I got to wear the funny hair and just be ballsy and funny.
EI: You don’t very often play a supporting role. I am wondering if that is this kind of appealing to you now, to come in and not have to be the star carrying the weight of an entire movie on your shoulders?
RW: Yeah, but I carried the weight in other ways... Like, "How are we going to get distribution?", and that kind of thing... it’s fun. It’s sort of very freeing to play a supporting character. Those are the kinds of parts I came up playing, so it was kind of nice to return to that. I love those kinds of characters. Like Barbara Stanwyck – you don’t know if she’s going to kiss you or stab you in the neck. I love those kinds of characters.
EI: Speaking of distribution, did you personally do the rounds at all the studios?
RW: We did the film festival in Toronto and sold the film: It’s been an interesting journey of finding the exact and right partner. I feel like we finally found the right situation. We really believe in this movie. We wanted it to come out the right way, and we didn’t want to compromise a lot. People loved the film at the Toronto Film Festival, so we got a great response, so that helps. Everybody who sees it just loves it and wants to bring their kids to it.
EI: When it opens, will you have national distribution or international?
RW: National. It opened in the UK already, so there are different territories opening all over the world.
EI: We heard there might have been some mishaps on the Vespa when you were actually filming in London...
RW: Yeah, it’s because I’m height challenged. My feet wouldn’t touch the ground on the Vespa! They tried to lower it as low as they possibly could, and my feet still couldn’t touch the ground on the Vespa. We had to put it on a rig. Christina [Ricci] is pretty short too, and she had to sit on the back. Somebody went off, so we had to rig it up and do it good old movie style...
EI: Since you shot in London, what about the choice of setting it in sort of a non-descript anywhere in the world with non-specific accents: Was that deliberate?
RW: I think because it was such a magical fairy tale, we wanted it to be timeless. I think our costumes are very timeless. We wanted it to seem like a creative, imaginary world to add to the fantasy element.
EI: One of the dramatic tensions is that we really do want to see Christina’s character as Christina by the end. But you and the creative team are also trying to say that she’s okay with the big nose. Was it hard to figure out exactly how to pull that balancin act off?
RW: Yeah, we were very particular with the editing in the script about her not having a miraculous change. Her acceptance comes before her physical change comes, so really she has to accept herself first – who she is and what is great about herself – before her body physically changes. She looks so darn cute with the nose. For a second, we were like, “Maybe we shouldn’t get rid of the nose. Maybe everybody else should change.” There was a lot of deliberation about that moment.
EI: Why Christina as Penelope?
RW: She was my first choice. I was so excited. It’s great when you have this hot script in your hand and you’ve got this great character. You are like, “Ooh, my choices!” So Christina was my first choice. We were lucky when we sent her the script. She and I sat down for lunch and I thought, “She is not going to want to do this.” Here is this weird pig face. I think that people around her were thinking she didn’t want to do it, she just came in and was like, “No, I’m excited! I want to do this. I want to wear this pig face. I think it’s great and it’s awesome.” I was like, “Are you sure?” and she just was fearless.
That is what I have always loved about Christina–she has a real intelligence to her work. She always plays a very intelligent woman, also very sharp, very witty, and she’s always just been great. We grew up auditioning together. We had known each other for years from sitting in the waiting room, waiting to get cast or not cast in movies. We made a friendship. It was great to finally have that collaboration we had talked about for so many years.
EI: What do you guys have in common as actresses and also, how do you differ?
RW: Losing a lot of parts to other actresses, being really grumpy and miserable about it.. [Laughs]. No, I think we have a similar sensibility. She is younger than I am. In The Opposite of Sex, she’s got this great force of nature about her. You do want to wrap your arms around her and love her. That’s why I’m so excited about this film. I do think it’s an opportunity for audiences to really embrace her: She’s great and she’s got great taste too.
EI: What about James McAvoy?
RW: We were just lucky to get James. The casting director suggested him and, at the time, I didn’t know who he was.
Christina had seen some of his work and she was a big champion of his. So was Jennifer Simpson, my producing partner. I watched some of his stuff and thought he was great. Of course, he has become this big movie star now. I tease him and say, “I got you when you were cheap.” That’s not going to happen again... I’ll never get him again! He’s so great and I’m so happy for him to be having all this success. He’s really versatile. You can believe him as a doctor, but also as a superspy: He’s just wonderful.
EI: And Catherine O'Hara?
RW: We were just really lucky to have her. She was really attracted to the material. The thing is that she plays so many different colors of a part that you can have her play something very wicked but also still like her. She had to be pretty evil in some moments in this movie. You find your character’s redemption in that, and that’s what she is really great at, plus she plays a fantastic Autoharp. It’s really annoying. When I was learning the Autoharp for Walk the Line, they kept bragging about Catherine O’Hara. “Catherine O’Hara in A Mighty Wind” and “She could really play that Autoharp.” I was like, “Goddamn that woman.” Then I met her and I was like, “I’m mad.” Then I met her and I was like, “Oh forget it, I can’t keep up.”
EI: Can you talk about producing? What is it that you love about it? So many actors say they want to produce, and then they do one movie and that’s it – they never go back.
RW: It’s a natural progression, I think. I’ve been on sets for 15 years now... just being a part of the filmmaking process, you absorb so much that you don’t even realize what you are looking at. Whether it is lighting or shot composition or casting, you realize how important every element is, so it’s kind of been a natural progression for me.
I did a lot of development and script work. That has been very helpful for me with the production company – sort of learning about what makes a script work or not work. This actual experience of being in physical production was exciting. We would run up against problems. We needed to do 30 close-ups in one day and we had five hours of daylight. The sun went down and, "How are we going to do it?" I was like, “Oh, I remember on this movie that we put it on the dolly and we were just sliding down the line and getting close-ups.” That’s exciting for me, and it was educational too. I got to learn a lot about editing and music – just things I don’t normally get to touch. They don’t let the actors in those rooms.
EI: Did that new knowledge help you when you returned to your 'day job': What kind of character do you play in Four Christmases?
RW: I play Kate, who is a woman who is in a relationship with a man who…we both mutually agree we don’t want to see our families. Every Christmas, we travel and have a very particular theology about relationships and life, that we are never going to get married, never have children, but we like our lives. Through a course of events, we have to go home: Both of our parents are divorced so we have to go to four Christmases in one day.
EI: No matter what the script is does, Vince Vaughn always brings improvisation to it. How was that?
RW: It’s actually great. He’s a wonderful collaborator. He’s inspiring and he’s so open. I was scared to death the first day. I was like, “Oh no! He’s going to say a million things and I’m not going to know what to say back.” The good news is we had been working on it for five months in a room. I had gotten used to his personality and how fast his mind works. His mind literally works so fast. I said to him, “People can’t talk as fast as you think.” You can’t keep up with him. I feel like I’ve been in Vince Vaughn training. Now by the end, he says one thing and I’m like, “Blah, blah, blah. Shut up, just stop talking, you never shut up.”
EI: Did you ever get him? Were you ever like, “Yes! That was the greatest slam I could ever say”?
RW: I got him a couple of times. I have to say it’s like a mental benchmark for me. I was like, “Yes! I got him!”…probably only twice. He gets me six times and I get him twice.
EI: Does it ever get blue, or is it a family-friendly movie?
RW: Yeah, have you met him? [Laughs] Sometimes I have to go home and call my brother and say, “What is a Connecticut Waffle?” I’m sorry–I still don’t know what it is, so I’m sorry if I have offended anybody. Literally, it will be like…I don’t even know. It’s words I’ve never heard of.
EI: He is height-challenged with him being 6′ 10″ or something. Were there a lot of scenes where you guys were sitting down? Did you ever have a situation where you were face to face, or face to belly button?
RW: It really is that the top of my head hits his armpit, maybe. I drag my apple box around. I have an apple box. It’s Reese’s apple box, and I have a platform and an apple box, and I just drag it with me and stand on it next to him.
EI: Are those boxes now sentimental things to you, things that you bring on every movie? [Smiles]
RW: No, but I should invest in some the next time I do a Vince Vaughn movie...
EI: Turning back to this film and this character, when she first meets Penelope, I thought maybe she was supernatural. I thought she was a guardian angel... or is that just me?
RW: My character? Yeah, I think there are elements of that. It’s definitely a magical movie. There are definitely twists and turns that you don’t expect. There was something to the fact that we put wings on her, wings on her bike and stuff. We thought of all these little details that we liked. It’s nice that you noticed them.
EI: You mentioned the family-friendly aspect of Penelope a couple of times. Is that one reason why it was so important to you? Not to say that your kids couldn’t see some of your other films…
RW: No, it’s always important. Sometimes I get frustrated that there are not a lot of really great female characters out there that young women can look at and go, “I want to be like that. It’s awesome.” I go to movies and I get frustrated. I’m just like, “Shoot him! Just shoot him!” Why does the guy get to shoot him? Why can’t the girl shoot him? I miss those characters in film. I feel like it would be nice to see more of them. I’m happy to be part of something where I feel like there is a great female character, which Christina plays, and it could be inspiring to people.
EI: Are you saying you would like to play a really kick-ass female character yourself?
RW: Yes, possibly I would like to do that, and I would like to see other women do it. I love to see Angelina Jolie in movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I can’t wait to see her in Wanted. I think those movies where women have great strength and character – it’s always interesting.
EI: What is the best career advice you have ever received, and who gave it to you?
RW: The best career advice was: Never miss an opportunity to just be quiet. That is always a good piece of advice, just in life. It was actually put “Never miss an opportunity to just shut up.” That was from my granddad. Also, the interesting thing about our business is it’s so ever-evolving. Always be nice to everybody, particularly the people that answer the phones, because they are going to be your boss in four years. It’s true–it happens all the time.
EI: There was one bit of career advice you had told us about not doing television from Sam Waterston.
RW: Yeah, he told me not to do TV.
EI: But you have a project now: Isn’t Legally Blonde being made into a TV show?
RW: No, that doesn’t have anything to do with me.
EI: They just took the character and ran? You created something…
RW: Well, a lot of people were part of creating it. I just played the character and they got to spin that stuff. They have to make a buck.
EI: What is next for Type A?
RW: Type A–we are developing different things. Gosh, I don’t know. We have so much stuff going on, it’s hard to just have one thing that we are going to be doing. I don’t know.
EI: Specifically, what do you hope that teen girls especially, who are having a really tough time with image, take away from this movie?
RW: I guess that there are all sorts of definitions of beauty. Beyond what is the physical aspect of beauty, it’s about finding what makes you unique is what can be really defining in your life. It’s important to really know yourself.
EI: Where do things stand with the Children’s Defense Fund project in New Orleans?
RW: I’m actually going back next month. I’m part of a very exciting project, but I can’t talk about it, but it’s going to be very exciting for the Children’s Defense Fund. I’m looking forward to do doing some work for them in the months to come, raising money.
EI: Your company’s name, Type A, implies a lot of ambition on your part. You seem to have achieved so much. Where are your ambitions now? What are the things that you still want to check off the list?
RW: Kick-ass female role, definitely shooting somebody in the neck in a movie…or in the knee or something–just the knee, nothing permanent. I don’t know. I have a lot of ambitions. I really am interested in doing a period film. There are a lot of filmmakers I would love to work with, like Ridley Scott. There are other actors I think are really interesting. I really like Marion Cotilard, I thought that movie, La Vie en Rose is so good. I am endlessly inspired, but now I’m interested more in design and production design. I’m getting more involved in that sort of thing.
RW: Possibly. I think I’m inching towards it, I have to say. [Laughs] Be afraid…be very afraid. I’m not doing that exactly next. It’s very inspiring to see people like Sarah Polley, who I was auditioning with and on the cover of Vanity Fair with, and seeing her adapt the Alice Munro short story and direct Julie Christie hopefully to an Oscar. That’s really inspiring.
EI: Do you ever see yourself in a film that you direct?
RW: I don’t know. I think it’s hard to have that kind of perspective, but who knows? Maybe.
EI: How much was ICM involved with the project?
RW: ICM–they had a lot to do with that and they have been really helpful. They were really a big part of Christina being in the film–a lot of involvement with getting distribution.
EI: Sticking on the business side of the movie business - Now it looks like the Oscars are going to happen and all the actors will be able to go, do you have any plans to attend?
RW: No, I don’t know what my plans are, but I’m thrilled that hopefully it will go on. You see all these great young people, like Ellen Page and Marion Cotilard, and you want them to have their moment to let people see how beautiful they are. We should celebrate their work, it’s a great thing…and Ruby Dee. You’ve got to recognize she’s got to have her moment.
EI: Where do you keep your Oscar?
RW: Well, I’ve considered making it into a doorknocker or a necklace, but neither one of those options was very practical. I just keep it in my living room.
EI: Do you have a very favorite Oscar moment over the years?
RW: I really liked Jodie Foster’s speech, I remember, that she did about her mom. That was a very inspiring thing to me. She is very cool about it. I’m trying to think of anybody else. I was there when Halle Berry cried, and I cried and cried and cried. I was like, “This is so moving.” The people next to me were like, “Stop crying.” [Laughs]
EI: As an Oscar winner, do you look at scripts through a different eye in the future? Is it just a nice thing on the resume and you go forward like you always have?
RW: I think you just have to go forward like you always have. I’ve never let anything stop me. You are who you are in life. You are just who you grew up being. I still feel like I can barely afford an apartment sometimes. I call my accountant and I go, “Can I afford to buy that car?” and he’s like, “Yeah, you can.” “Okay.” I think, in the sense of choosing material, I feel like I’m always choosing things based on where I’m at in life. The process of what I’ve gone through recently is always a part of decision-making. It’s interesting how things come your way that are right for you. You gravitate towards things that you are trying to work out in your own life.
EI: Speaking earlier about Vince Vaughn and his improv skills, what about Catherine O’Hara? She is fantastic.
RW: She is great.
EI: Did you see any parallels between the experiences that Penelope goes through, just being a celebrity? Once she is revealed, then everybody wants to take pictures of her.
RW: Yeah, we definitely had that aspect of the movie. There is a little representation of the paparazzi there, with Peter Dinklage’s character and the choices he makes. They were definitely fantastic and fairytale-like with the camera. There was definitely that aspect in it. It’s interesting. There are all sorts of different things that make you famous now days.
EI: You were actually involved in trying to get some legislation on that matter. Has that been successful?
RW: Still working on it, but they are making progress. It’s an uphill battle. They want to be mindful of our rights as Americans and all that kind of stuff. The thing about kids is that you just don’t want your kids exposed to so much of that. It’s becoming bizarre too. It’s a little aggressive and strange.
EI: You said you enjoyed having the chance to play a broad. What are your broad qualities? What did you do to embrace them? Do you have any in real life?
RW: Fast-talking, sharp-shooting, tough girl. Yeah, I like to think I’m really tough on the outside with a caramel sweet center. Most people who know me would agree.
EI: I’m curious if you saw Walk Hard.
RW: No, I didn’t see it. Was it funny? I heard it’s funny.
EI: Yeah, there was sort of a tribute to you.
RW: How was I? Was I good? Was I really funny? Good.
Summit Entertainment's 'Penelope' opens in theaters nationwide on February 29, 2009.