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A type A is already on A-list

At 26, Witherspoon juggles her not-really-so-normal life

By Norma Meyer

September 27, 2002

LOS ANGELES – Reese Witherspoon has shed her sneakers and socks to get comfy, and now the barefoot leading lady is insisting, "I'm just a normal mom and wife."

True, at 26, she is married, albeit to another young star, Ryan Phillippe of "Gosford Park." And maybe in their world, this is normal: Their 3-year-old plays dress-up in the strappy designer shoes that Witherspoon wore in "Legally Blonde," and that her contract allowed her to keep along with the couture clothes.

OK, so they're so normal they love eating at In-N-Out Burgers. They'll take daughter Ava, named after Phillippe's grandmother, to "anywhere basically your child can destroy the restaurant and they're not totally peeved at you," Witherspoon laughs. The tyke likes to tear apart sugar packets and shake salt and pepper over the table.

Witherspoon is trying to balance it all. Her new romantic comedy, "Sweet Home Alabama" opens today, and soon she'll produce and star in the sequel to "Legally Blonde." That sleeper hit rocketed her to the acting A-list (she'll reportedly get $15 million for the sequel), but the real-life blue-eyed blonde lets you know right off she's nothing like Elle Woods, sorority ditz.

A onetime debutante, Witherspoon attended Stanford for a year and comes from a Nashville family interested more in medicine than movies. Her mother is a pediatric nurse and her father is an ear-nose-and-throat surgeon. Witherspoon is girlishly boastful about Dad, whom she says is "super super erudite" and nailed a perfect 1,600 on his SAT. Smarts go way back – an ancestor signed the Declaration of Independence and was the first president of Princeton University.

So she's a brainy belle. Laura Jean Reese Witherspoon – she says she was always called Reese, her mother's maiden name – professes to be just a down-home girl from Tennessee. That's why she relates to her latest character, Melanie, who leaves rural Alabama and re-invents herself as a glamorous fashion designer in New York.

"I was a fish out of water in Los Angeles," she says. "I learned it was really OK to be a Southern girl."

She is 5-foot-2 and seems extremely tiny slouched in a chair in a Century City hotel suite. Fresh-faced, she wears little makeup, didn't bother to reapply lipstick after eating lunch, and in jeans, white T-shirt and pink hooded zip-up sweat shirt, looks like a college kid.

A child model in Nashville – she was in Sunday department store circulars – Witherspoon's road to fame began at age 14, when she was cast as the lead in "The Man in the Moon." In recent years, her career took off with "Pleasantville" (1998), "Election" (1999), "American Psycho" (2000) and "Legally Blonde." (2001). In the midst of it all, at age 23 and six months pregnant, she married Phillippe, her co-star in the 1999 film, "Cruel Intentions."

Nowadays, down-home is near Beverly Hills, but life still revolves around family, Witherspoon says. Ava "likes to know what a great helper she is. We bake a lot. We make salads together."

They also swim, do crafts, and sing "The Little Mermaid" songs. "My daughter got this little microphone for her birthday and I have to confess sometimes I steal it. I always wanted to be a Broadway singer."

But being a young parent is daunting, she says, even with a nanny and when not putting in typical 14-to 18-hour workdays. "I'm hard-pressed to find a day that I have any energy after 8 o'clock. At times, I lay down with Ava to say good night and I pass out myself because I'm so tired." She sounds tired talking about it.

Then, that bubbly side – which sparked her parents to call her "Little Type A" as a child (which, in turn, caused Witherspoon to name her production company Type A), pops up. "I love green tea ice cream!" she enthuses, when discussing food.

At work, colleagues say she displays none of the movie star airs.

"I kept waiting for the baggage," says Candice Bergen, who co-stars in "Sweet Home Alabama." Witherspoon, whom Bergen describes as "very intelligent," showed up on the set in Georgia not with an entourage, but with her brother, husband and daughter.

Witherspoon cracks up when asked about her brother, John, 30, a Nashville resident whom she hired as her driver for the location shoot.

"We were fighting the whole time," says Witherspoon, adding that the two always were and remain very close. "He calls me 'Sister.' He's like, 'Sister, you're going to drive me crazy. We can't stop for Starbucks, we'll be late.' I'd say, 'John, I have to stop for Starbucks or I'm going to be in a bad mood.' "

Her celebrity, she says, is still hard to grasp. Last year, she and Phillippe were Oscar presenters and were floored when they discovered at the rehearsal they'd be sitting in the front row. "We couldn't believe it. We were like, what?" she excitedly recalls. "He's from Delaware and I'm from Tennessee."

Soon this day, Witherspoon would go home to her family, past the "Sweet Home Alabama" billboards that are everywhere, displaying her larger than life. "You know, that doesn't even look like me to me," she says, scrunching up her nose. "It looks like the character. I'm really able to remove myself. I feel like I have a pretty good perspective of who I am and what I'm about."

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