Reese Witherspoon was told to play dumb, dress sexy after ‘Election’: ‘Studio heads wouldn’t hire me’

Reese Witherspoon is opening up being pressured to play dumb and dress sexy as a young actress to offset comparisons to her role as uptight student Tracy Flick in the 1999 film Election.

“Two studio heads wouldn’t hire me because they thought I was Tracy Flick,” the 43-year-old actress and producer told host Hilary Kerr on the Second Life podcast.

“So I remember my agent or my manager at the time said, ‘OK, you have to go meet with one of the studio heads, and wear a sexy outfit.’ I was actually kind of told to pretend not to be smart in the meeting. And I’ll never forget it, because I thought, ‘Am I doing this right?’

“I was playing a character,” Witherspoon continued. “That’s what we were told to do. You were told to play parts and maybe I was trying to get a sexy part or something — I can’t remember.”

But things fell apart when the unnamed studio head insulted Meryl Streep, who would go on to star on the second season of Big Little Lies alongside Witherspoon.

“All I remember is sitting with this studio head — who, by the way, I haven’t seen him since — and him telling me, he was like, ‘Who are your idols?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I love Holly Hunter and I love Meryl Streep.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, but I mean, Meryl Streep is just so over.’ That’s what he said to me.

“I remember being 22 years old and thinking, first of all, I’m in this outfit and I’m so uncomfortable — I think I was wearing a leather skirt and I hate leather skirts — and then he said Meryl Streep’s career was over. And I wanted to say, ‘You’re not allowed to talk about Meryl Streep like that. Like, why are you in charge of anything?’”

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NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 23: Reese Witherspoon attends the world premiere of Touchstone Pictures' 'Sweet Home Alabama' at the Chelsea West Cinema September 23, 2002 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Peyton/Getty Images)
Reese Witherspoon and Selma Blair during The 2002 Teen Choice Awards - Seventeen Magazine - Backstage at Universal Amphitheater in Universal City, California, United States. (Photo by Ray Mickshaw/WireImage)
NEW YORK - JUNE 28: (US TABS AND HOLLYWOOD REPORTER OUT) Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon arrive at the Hamptons World Premiere of 'Legally Blond 2 - Red, White & Blonde' June 28, 2003 at te United Artists Southampton Theater in Southampton, New York. (Photo by Matthew Peyton/Getty Images)
Reese Witherspoon during 'Legally Blonde 2 Red, White & Blonde' - Premiere, New York City - Outside Arrivals at Ziegfeld Theater in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
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Reese Witherspoon during special screening of 'Vanity Fair' at Clearview Chelsea West Cinema in New York, New York, United States. (Photo by M. Von Holden/FilmMagic)
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Reese Witherspoon (Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage for 20th Century Fox Studios)
Reese Witherspoon during The 12th Annual Premiere Women in Hollywood at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
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HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 27: Actress Reese Witherspoon arrives at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards held at the Kodak Theatre on February 27, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 03: Actress Reese Witherspoon backstage at the 46th Annual Academy Of Country Music Awards held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 3, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Christopher Polk/ACMA2011/Getty Images for ACM)
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LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 11: Reese Witherspoon is seen on December 11, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 09: Reese Witherspoon is seen on January 09, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 12: Actress Reese Witherspoon attends the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards held at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 12, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 14: Actress Reese Witherspoon attends the release of 'Find It In Everything' at Chanel Boutique on January 14, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 18: Reese Witherspoon is seen on January 18, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 08: Actress Reese Witherspoon attends the pre-reception for the 'Wild' premiere during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival at Shangri-La Hotel on September 8, 2014 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 26: Actress/producer Reese Witherspoon attends the 52nd New York Film Festival Opening Night Gala Presentation and World Premiere Of 'Gone Girl' at Alice Tully Hall on September 26, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - NOVEMBER 21: Reese Witherspoon arrives at the 12th Annual Lupus LA Hollywood Bag Ladies Luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on November 21, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by JB Lacroix/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 03: Actress Reese Witherspoon leaves the 'Good Morning America' taping at the ABC Times Square Studios on December 3, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Ray Tamarra/GC Images)
PALM SPRINGS, CA - JANUARY 03: Reese Witherspoon arrives at the 26th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala Presented By Cartier at Palm Springs Convention Center on January 3, 2015 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 25: Actress Reese Witherspoon arrives at the 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 25, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.(Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage)
Nominee for Best Actress Reese Witherspoon arrives on the red carpet for the 87th Oscars February 22, 2015 in Hollywood, California. AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 10: Actress Reese Witherspoon is seen on June 10, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 30: Actress Reese Witherspoon attends the 7th Annual Produced By Conference at Paramount Studios on May 30, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
BRENTWOOD, CA - JUNE 11: Actress Reese Witherspoon attends a celebration honoring Christian Louboutin and his new boutique hosted by James Rosenfield at The Brentwood Country Mart on June 11, 2015 in Brentwood, California. (Photo by Donato Sardella/Getty Images for Christian Louboutin)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 29: Actress Reese Witherspoon is seen on July 29, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 26: Actress Reese Witherspoon is seen on June 26, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: Actress Reese Witherspoon attends The Broad Museum's Inaugural Celebration at The Broad on September 18, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vincent Sandoval/FilmMagic)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - OCTOBER 09: Actress Reese Witherspoon attends Variety's Power Of Women Luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on October 9, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 30: Actress Reese Witherspoon attends the 29th American Cinematheque Award Honoring Reese Witherspoon - Arrivals at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on October 30, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 30: Reese Witherspoon arrives at the 29th American Cinematheque Award Honoring Reese Witherspoon at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on October 30, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 07: Reese Witherspoon is seen on June 07, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by BG001/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 07: Actress Reese Witherspoon is seen on July 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 02: Actress Reese Witherspoon is seen on August 2, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 15: Reese Witherspoon is seen on August 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by BG004/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
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While Witherspoon earned rave reviews for playing the ultra-competitive Flick in the cult Alexander Payne comedy, she admits struggling with a storyline in which the teen has a romantic relationship with her married teacher, played by actor Mark Harelik. The affair ultimately costs the older man his job and marriage.

“It was completely inappropriate what he did to that girl,” Witherspoon said of the fictional romance.

“I remember being in the scenes and — no disrespect to the actor I had to play it with — but I had to make out with a 37-year-old man and I was 20 years old. And I was like, ‘This is horrible! This is manipulation. This man has manipulated this young girl, and then his friend [played by Matthew Broderick] is out to get her.’”

Harelik, who is 68, is actually 25 years older than Witherspoon and would have been in his late 40s at the time of filming.

Elsewhere in the podcast, Witherspoon got frank about her divorce from Ryan Philippe shortly after winning an Oscar for Walk the Line, and admitted feeling disappointed and not “fearless” at her reaction to sexual harassment she experienced on sets as a young actress.

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