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.

Witherspoon (with Election co-star Matthew Broderick in 1999) says studio heads had trouble separating her from character Tracy Flick. (Photo: FSP/ELD/ws)
Witherspoon (with Election co-star Matthew Broderick in 1999) says studio heads had trouble separating her from character Tracy Flick. (Photo: FSP/ELD/ws)

“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?’”

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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