Reese Witherspoon Is Walking on Sunshine

Witherspoon isn’t just a beloved actor—she’s a multitalented storyteller who turns words into Emmy-winning gold

When she was a young actor, Reese Witherspoon never imagined she’d one day form a production house dedicated to stories centered on female protagonists. But now, as the Oscar winner and avid bibliophile looks back on the risks she took early in her career by playing strong, singular women—Tracy Flick in “Election” (which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year), Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” country singer June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line”—the throughline of her own story has become clear.

“I never thought I was going to start Hello Sunshine,” Witherspoon says of the media company she co-founded with Seth Rodsky in 2016. “It was born out of a frustration with not seeing the parts that I wanted and thinking there were not enough female voices in the entertainment industry. I see seeds of it with ‘Legally Blonde’; I see it with June Carter Cash…. It was all wind at my back. I knew from all of those experiences that women’s stories matter. They’re important for men to see as well as young people, because we need to understand how incredible and strong and dynamic women are in every facet, from every walk of life.”

“Strong” and “dynamic” certainly describe Bradley Jackson, the broadcast journalist Witherspoon portrays on “The Morning Show,” Jay Carson and Kerry Ehrin’s ever-evolving Apple TV+ series that also stars Jennifer Aniston, Billy Crudup, and Mark Duplass. Over the first two seasons, viewers followed Bradley’s vertigo-inducing career trajectory at the fictional UBA network. At the beginning of the series, Alex Levy (Aniston), the co-anchor of a “Good Morning America”–style show, tapped Bradley, who was then working at a West Virginia news station, to replace her co-host, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), after he was accused of sexual harassment. 

The third season picks up with a two-year time jump from when the show left off, at the onset of the pandemic. Professionally, Bradley is at the top of her game—she’s now anchoring the evening news for UBA. Her private life, though, is a mess. She’s no longer dating Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulies), the veteran journalist she began a private love affair with on Season 2, and she’s harboring a secret that could ruin everything: While covering the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, using her phone to record footage, Bradley runs into her brother, Hal (Joe Tippett), who’s part of a mob attacking a police officer.

The season premiere was a harbinger of the wild ride to come over the next nine episodes: Bradley rockets into space, joining her boss, Cory Ellison (Crudup), and tech billionaire Paul Marks (Jon Hamm) on a trip into orbit aboard a private shuttle. Shooting the scene took several days and was “stop-and-go” due to the special effects and wire work involved.

Reese Witherspoon

“It was really fun to do it with Jon Hamm and Billy Crudup because they were laughing and making jokes the whole time,” Witherspoon says. “I was basically hanging in harnesses in space with those two guys.”

Just as surreal—but much bleaker—was filming the intense reenactment of the Capitol riots, a two-minute sequence that weaves in real news footage. Witherspoon credits the stunt and camera departments, as well as the assistant directors, with creating such a startlingly realistic portrayal of the insurrection. (Season 3 showrunner Charlotte Stoudt told the L.A. Times that the idea for Bradley and Hal’s encounter was inspired by the true story of a teen who turned his father in for participating in the attack.)

Witherspoon says that the scene included at least 100 stunt actors who rehearsed for days before filming began. “They put me in the center of this very, very meticulously choreographed fight sequence on two flights of stairs,” she explains. “But it was still scary—I felt like it was really happening. There really is a mob mentality; even if people are pretending, sometimes your body doesn’t know you’re pretending.” 

The actor relished exploring the inherent conflict of how far one should go to protect a family member. Even as Bradley grapples with her decision, making questionable choices along the way, Witherspoon underscores her portrayal with a quiet fierceness. At her character’s core is where she comes from—something the actor certainly relates to as a proud Tennessean. 

“There are thousands of years of untold stories, so we’re really making up for lost time.”

“It’s so fun for me to play a Southern woman. It’s like putting on my favorite coat. To get to go to work, speak in my real accent, and represent where I’m from feels so comfortable to me,” she explains. “That said, of course, I’m playing a character who isn’t really reflective of who I am; but she has this sort of ferociousness that I really relate to. Southern women can be very direct and very feisty. She’s spirited and she’s no-nonsense, and she cuts to the bone when she talks to people about things that matter to her. But now, [in dealing with Hal’s secret,] she’s being evaluated with the same critical lens that she applies to other people. The tables have turned.”

Whereas early episodes of “The Morning Show” focused on Alex and Bradley’s professional world—their achievements, struggles, and missteps in a work environment teeming with bias, harassment, and big egos—Season 3 delves into their personal lives. In addition to the ethical quagmire surrounding Hal, viewers learn what really happened when Bradley and Laura lived together during the pandemic. 

“It was just all these interesting questions about how a woman can care for [her] family, take care of [her] professional life, navigate the trappings of fame and success, and still maintain [her] integrity. It was so complicated and complex,” Witherspoon says. “It was a great challenge for me as an actor.”

We also get a deeper look at one of the most intriguing relationships on television: the complicated friendship between Bradley and Cory. In one of the most powerful yet understated scenes of the series, he takes her to visit his mother (played brilliantly by Lindsay Duncan). Her parenting style—judgmental, manipulative, impossible to please—explains a lot about how her son came to be the controlling, impenetrable egomaniac (albeit one with a soft side) he is today. The vulnerability Cory shows by exposing Bradley to this very private part of his life sets up an intense, moving scene between the two on the season finale.

Reese Witherspoon

Working with actors of Aniston and Crudup’s caliber has helped Witherspoon perform at the top of her game. “We all come in very prepared, and we did a ton of background work on our characters,” she says. “I tell new actors who come in, ‘Just know your lines really well and know your character really well, because everyone here does.’ ” This is especially true of Crudup, she adds. “Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it. His dedication and professionalism is singular. He’s just a machine; he really cares.”

Though Aniston and Witherspoon didn’t have as many scenes together this season due to their separate storylines, the show is still, at its essence, a love story between Alex and Bradley. “Every season ends with this moment of them taking care of each other or protecting each other, and I really love that,” Witherspoon says. “I think it’s something really nice that we haven’t seen a lot of in film and television history: a great relationship between two professional women where they protect each other. It’s very ‘Cagney & Lacey’ or ‘Kate & Allie,’ for a 1980s throwback,” she adds with a laugh.

“Women in Hollywood, contrary to whatever you read in the tabloids, [have built] an incredibly supportive community. We rally around each other; we support each other’s work; we show up for each other; we call each other. It’s a sisterhood that’s very, very strong.”

Showcasing rich, complex dynamics among strong female characters is at the heart of Hello Sunshine’s mission. In addition to “The Morning Show,” the company recently produced Apple TV+’s “The Last Thing He Told Me,” starring Jennifer Garner; Hulu’s “Tiny Beautiful Things,” featuring Kathryn Hahn; the Prime Video ensemble vehicle “Daisy Jones & The Six”; and Apple TV+’s “Truth Be Told,” starring Octavia Spencer. 

All of these shows are based on popular books, which makes sense: In 2017, Witherspoon established Reese’s Book Club, which selects novels written by women, about women. She clearly tapped into something; the New York Times recently reported that print sales of her selections performed better than both Oprah Winfrey and Jenna Bush’s popular picks, selling 2.3 million copies in 2023 alone.

Witherspoon is a voracious reader (she cites Donna Tartt as one of her favorite authors). The actor-producer typically gives novels 100 pages before deciding whether she wants to finish them; for scripts, it’s 55. How does she determine if a story is Hello Sunshine material? Rule No. 1: It must be entertaining.

“The first, most important metric I [use to] decide to either pick a book club book or choose a television script or movie is if it’s something you would want to share with a friend,” she explains. “My intention is to build community and conversation around art and entertainment, because I am really into connecting people through storytelling. I’m always looking for a fresh perspective on a coming-of-age story or a midlife pivot story or a new take on the rom-com. There are thousands of years of untold stories, so we’re really making up for lost time.”

Reese Witherspoon

Although many of Hello Sunshine’s productions feature middle-aged protagonists, “Daisy Jones & The Six,” adapted from Tara Jenkins Reid’s 2019 bestseller, follows the young members of a 1970s rock band. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s limited series, which stars Riley Keough, Sam Claflin, and Camila Morrone, earned nine Emmy nominations, winning two for costume design and sound mixing. 

Witherspoon is immensely proud of the project, which she started working on five years ago. “It’s just everything I hoped Hello Sunshine would be. I really wanted to make shows that I wasn’t starring in. And I thought it was a huge moment for us as a company that we were able to entice these actors and filmmakers and writers and artisans, and that we got all these Emmy nominations.”

She was especially excited for Keough and Morrone, who received their first Emmy nods for their performances on the show. “I’m always here for them on a personal level and a professional level, and that’s very meaningful to me,” Witherspoon says. “Women in Hollywood, contrary to whatever you read in the tabloids, [have built] an incredibly supportive community. We rally around each other; we support each other’s work; we show up for each other; we call each other. It’s a sisterhood that’s very, very strong.” When asked which young actors are on her wish list to collaborate with, Witherspoon names Jenna Ortega, Sadie Sink, Millie Bobby Brown, and Joey King, among others. 

Hahn and Merritt Wever also earned 2024 Emmy nods for their rich, textured performances on Liz Tigelaar’s “Tiny Beautiful Things,” a limited series based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 collection of articles from her long-running advice column “Dear Sugar.” And the show isn’t Witherspoon’s first collaboration with the author. In 2014, she starred in and produced Jean-Marc Vallée’s film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir “Wild,” which helped establish her as a powerhouse movie producer and earned her a best actress Oscar nod. 

Witherspoon produced the film under her Pacific Standard banner, which she co-founded with Bruna Papandrea in 2012. The company also produced David Fincher’s 2014 blockbuster “Gone Girl” and David E. Kelley’s lauded 2017 HBO series “Big Little Lies”; Pacific Standard is now a subsidiary of Hello Sunshine. Though the latter was sold to Candle Media for $900 million in 2021, Witherspoon still retains a stake and sits on Candle’s board. 

Hello Sunshine’s next projects include a recently announced docuseries following 15 female Formula 1 drivers, as well as the romantic comedy “You’re Cordially Invited,” starring Witherspoon and Will Ferrell, which is scheduled for release on Prime Video in January 2025. 

Witherspoon is especially excited about “Elle,” a prequel series to “Legally Blonde”; at the Prime Video upfronts in May, she announced the project while dressed in Elle Woods’ signature pink suit. Slated to premiere next year, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage’s show follows the character during her high school years. 

Reese WitherspoonEven 23 years after the release of Robert Luketic’s comedy, Witherspoon still hears from fans about what Elle means to them. “That’s a long time for people to still be talking about a character,” she says. “I called my president of film and television, [Lauren Levy Neustadter,] in February, and I said, ‘I have a crazy idea.’ ” 

Another big return is in the works, albeit in the early stages: a third season of “Big Little Lies”—a prospect that had been looking less and less likely after beloved director–executive producer Vallée died in 2021, two years after the Season 2 finale aired. 

The decision to move forward didn’t happen in a Hollywood boardroom, but on the hiking trails of Nashville, where Witherspoon and her “Big Little Lies” costar and co-producer Nicole Kidman both live. During last year’s SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America strikes, the two took advantage of one of the shutdown’s few silver linings: free time. “We would just walk and talk for hours,” Witherspoon recalls. “That was part of the inspiration for us picking up the torch again—us being able to spend so much time together.” One of Kidman’s daughters had recently watched the series, and she encouraged them to revive it.

As for “The Morning Show,” the writers are currently working on Season 4. Will Bradley go to jail? How will her dynamic with Cory evolve? These are big questions, of course; but Witherspoon is more focused on the show’s larger themes of equity and giving people grace. 

“I really hope we can talk more about redemption, about the idea that women don’t have to be perfect in the workplace in order to be a success,” she says. Anytime Witherspoon has the chance to drive the conversation, she’ll take it. 

This story originally appeared in the June 13 issue of Backstage Magazine.

Photographed by Elizabeth Weinberg in Beverly Hills, CA on 4/26. Styling by Lauren Mock. Cover designed by Ian Robinson.

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