Re:Thinking with Adam Grant
Reese Witherspoon on turning impostor syndrome into confidence
October 25, 2022
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking: my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking. My guest today is Reese Witherspoon, the Oscar and Emmy-winning actor best known for her iconic roles in Legally Blonde, Walk the Line, Election, Pleasantville, and Wild. Reese is also a wildly successful producer and entrepreneur. Her company, Hello Sunshine, has adapted a number of books into hit shows from The Morning Show to Little Fires Everywhere. It was acquired in 2021 for $900 million. You're about to get a sense of what goes on in her head that makes her a star on and off camera.
[00:00:53] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:00:53] Adam Grant:
[00:00:55] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:00:56] Adam Grant:
So I have tons of questions for you, but I think the place I have to start is I, I have a hard time calling you Reese because--
[00:01:05] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:01:05] Adam Grant:
When I see you, I think of Tracy Flick and Elle Woods and June Carter and Cheryl Strayed and all these iconic fictional and real characters you've played.
[00:01:16] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:01:16] Adam Grant:
And I think what that speaks to for me is how deep you go into your characters. I feel like you've become these people, and I feel like Elle Woods and Tracy Flick are real people. I kind of feel like I know them.
[00:01:27] Reese Witherspoon:
[Laughter] That's so cool to hear. I think they're real people too. I get very invested.
[00:01:32] Adam Grant:
So I would love to hear about how you get into these characters. What do you do to begin getting to know the ones who never existed and also the ones who did?
[00:01:43] Reese Witherspoon:
Well, I have to, I think I have to go backward and say that I was just such an avid reader as a little girl. So, from my grandma taught me to read when I was around five. She was a school teacher, but she just picked me up from school every single day and read to me with lots of different voices of each character.
So I learned to read in a way that was very expressive and immersive. So when I then as an early reader, I just tore through books, and I was always looking for really interesting character voices. So to me, um, I always start with unique character traits. Um, what makes this person tick, right? How do they walk? How do they behave? Where did they grow up is a huge piece of it. Birth order. Socioeconomic status. And then I start working on regional accents and layering things like how do they hold their hands or how they walk.
And it's a very private process for me. I really don't share with a lot of people. Um, I didn't go to acting school, so it's really just comes from my imagination. And I think that's why I'm so interior about it. It's hard sometimes to tell directors what choices I'm gonna make. I try to be generous about it, but I also try to be as spontaneous as possible, because I think that's what creates, uh, real listening behavior between two actors.
[00:03:00] Adam Grant:
Part of the reason I'm curious about this is we all have to become people we're not in everyday life. And for me, this is a huge part of professionalism, right? Is to say, "Okay, uh, I'm a shy introvert and I have to show up on stage or in a podcast interview as somebody a little different from that. And if I were a better actor, it would've taken me a lot less time to get comfortable doing it." So what should I have known?
[00:03:24] Reese Witherspoon:
Oh, well, creating character is just about how you wanna present yourself to the world, right? So with, with as much authenticity as possible. So, look, you're doing fine Adam. Everybody loves you. But you know, it’s… I think how we show up is, is sort of a mixture of social norms and then also what we want to expect of ourselves and what is expected of us inside the environment, our work environment. So if you can hit that sweet spot and it makes it feel authentic to you and you can really show up at work and feel seen and heard, but also remember it's work, right? You gotta show up, you gotta be professional. It's not therapy. It's work. I think that's the-- that's the sweet spot.
[00:04:10] Adam Grant:
So your comment about authenticity reminds me of the, the classic work in sociology and now bridged into psychology around surface versus deep acting. When I think about surface acting, I think about basically putting on a mask and trying to pretend to be someone you're not. And deep acting is much more like method acting where I try to feel internally what I want to project to the outside world. And I, I'm curious about how you adopt those modes in your work. Um, are you, are you fully on deep acting? Are there moments when you're just trying to, to kind of portray the image but you're not feeling it inside?
[00:04:47] Reese Witherspoon:
Mm, it was so interesting. I was talking to, uh, an acting student yesterday and he was telling me he was having a hard time accessing his emotions. And I said, You know, so much of acting is just listening. And behaving how, uh, your character would behave. And if you know implicitly who your character is, um, you're gonna listen and respond the way you should.
But it comes from doing the work, the pre-work, which is, that's not surface stuff. It's really deep stuff. If you come from, you know, you grew up in Beverly Hills and you grew up very wealthy and you were able to have spending money as a teenager, you're gonna act different than a kid who grew up in Omaha and with a single mom and not knowing if you're gonna get a new pair of sneakers that year or the next year. And that, you know, if you don't work hard and use every advantage, you're never gonna get ahead. So those are just two completely different mentalities. And if you know that about your character walking in, you can make any kind of decision. It's really, actually, it makes so much easier, but I think you gotta do the pre-work. It's about prep.
[00:06:04] Adam Grant:
Can you walk me through what that pre-work looked like? What were some of the things that you did to get to know Elle Woods's character?
[00:06:10] Reese Witherspoon:
Okay, so Elle Woods. That's interesting. So she grew up in an upper middle class—probably upper class, I would say—family. And then she went to, um, private high schools. And so, I actually ended up going down to USC and visiting a girlfriend of mine who was in a sorority and lived in the sorority for four years. And I went down every day and I sat with her during the day while she was getting ready, um, for going out. And then I would also have dinner with the girls or I would take them out. And we would talk about, um, what were their life goals? What did they really wanna accomplish? What was next for them? And then the other thing that I did, just to get sort of the posturing of the character is I went to this fancy, um, department store in Beverly Hills: Neiman Marcus. And I watched women try on shoes. And I looked at their nails, I looked at the color of their hair, and then I would watch how they would walk in certain different kinds of shoes and how they held their hands when they walk and how they spoke to people. And if it was clipped, if it was kind, if it was unkind.
And I don't know, just all those little micro behaviors add up to a performance that is just from a place that she felt confident, but somehow she was entering a new world and she got kicked, you know, and suddenly her confidence was shaken and she had imposter syndrome. Even though she had every reason to be there um, everybody was making her feel like she didn't belong. And how you get that confidence back is all up to you. Right? So it came from inside her.
[00:07:48] Adam Grant:
Last time we talked, you said sometimes it's helpful to think about your own life as a movie. And that helps you figure out what story to tell, what speech to give, what moment to hone in on. And you said something about how if you were making my biopic, which should never be made, it would open with, with me standing on the end of the diving board, shaking. So I was wondering if, if we could resuscitate that and have you articulate what was it that stood out about that moment? Why is this a useful exercise? And then I have some follow-up questions on it.
[00:08:19] Reese Witherspoon:
Oh ok, I mean, that's so fun ‘cause I loved your book Think Again. And when I was reading it, you talk about being a diver. And I thought that was such a great visual metaphor too, because how many times do we feel like we're standing at the edge of a high dive and you're like, I can't do it. I can't do it. And there are people who would say, "Well, screw it. I'm gonna do it anyway." And there's people who go, "I just can't." And they'll turn around and walk back down the ladder and off the platform.
So I thought, “That’s the beginning of your movie to me.” But I think about pinnacle moments in people's lives and how we have all had these moments of big decisions and crossroads and how they define us and we don't know what they are. Right? Until we get to the full picture of what your life journey has been.
[00:09:09] Reese Witherspoon:
Um, but I think in terms of when I hear people talking, I'm like, "No, that's your story." ‘Cause everybody has to learn to tell their story. I don't care who you are, where you're from, if you're a small business owner, you need to learn how to tell your story, whether it's on social media to, to for marketing, um, whether it's trying to raise money, you're gonna have to tell your story and you tell it in a compelling way and find the parts that really resonate with people
Find those touchstones that are like the every-person experience. Is it where you grew up? Is it how much you love this, this project that you're so passionate about? Why? Everybody wants to know why. So I think I'm real-- I get very invested in helping people tell their stories in the most effective way.
[00:09:56] Adam Grant:
One of the things I thought was so profound about that was when you pose this, you know, okay, which kind of person are you? Are you the person who is going to take the leap or are you gonna be the person who climbs back down? I'm neither.
[00:10:10] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:10:10] Adam Grant:
I, I, I was terrified to take the leap. I was afraid of heights. I didn't wanna crash all over the pool. It hurt. I didn't wanna get lost in midair. But I also completely refused to get off the board and I, I was not gonna leave practice until I did it. And so I felt like I was frozen in this point of ambivalence. I didn't think of it until you described this moment and, and painted the scene for me. Um, what, what finally would get me to go was the threat of having to get off the board and walk down the ladder. And I, I was so determined to not be that person that it sort of forced me then to, I guess, to be more courageous than I, than I was.
[00:10:47] Reese Witherspoon:
Wow. Well look at that. The fear of regret. It's huge. It's powerful.
[00:10:54] Adam Grant:
Yeah. I was afraid of regretting not doing it. I was afraid of letting my coach down.
[00:10:57] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:10:57] Adam Grant:
And that fear was stronger than the fear of, you know, of flailing and, and smacking.
[00:11:03] Reese Witherspoon:
I, I like that too. Do what you said you were gonna do, you know, and you said you were gonna do it. Go do it.
[00:11:10] Adam Grant:
What are those, those moments of, “I'm afraid of trying, but I'm also afraid of not trying” look like for you?
[00:11:17] Reese Witherspoon:
I mean, every movie I've ever done is like, "Am I gonna be able to do this?" I mean, the ones that really come up for me are Walk the Line because playing a real person, I had to sing, I had to perform instruments that I had to learn how to play. Every day I wanted to quit. Every day I had a pit in my stomach thinking, “I'm gonna be terrible.” I'm gonna have to get up on this stage in front of hundreds of people and I'm gonna sound awful or I'm not gonna be able to do it. And oh, I tried every way. I called my lawyer, I was like, "Get me out of this." I told the director I can't do it anymore.
[00:11:55] Adam Grant:
Are you serious?
[00:11:56] Reese Witherspoon:
Oh my gosh, yes.
[00:11:57] Adam Grant:
Wait, this is-- this is the role that you won the Oscar for?
[00:12:00] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:12:01] Adam Grant:
You wanted to quit?
[00:12:02] Reese Witherspoon:
I wanted to quit. Seven months of rehearsals and, um, probably every day. I, I mean, I cried so much during rehearsals. I was just scared. I was scared about not being good enough. Um, and then I realized I had to be the best I could be. I was never gonna be June Carter Cash. I was never gonna be a perfect musician. I was never gonna play the autoharp perfectly or the guitar perfectly. I was just gonna show up and do the very best of my ability. And there was a reason somebody thought I could do it, and I was not, I was not gonna give up trying. I’ll always try.
So. Ugh. But that first performance, the first time we did it, Joaquin and I were together in Me-- Uh, we were in Memphis on this little stage. Oh my God. It was terrifying. There were 200 extras just staring at us and I thought I was gonna throw up. But I got out there and I was like, "Just do it Reese, just do it."
And I did. And it all worked out, and I didn't perish, and I didn't, you know, melt into a puddle. It was hard. But that, that actually gave me confidence to, to, to dare again. And the other one that was really hard was Wild. Cheryl Strayed's true story. Because first of all, it was, I thought it was so important. It was woman versus nature's story, which we never see on film. And so I was like, I gotta do this movie. I got it. And she faces her, her demons, and she overcomes the grief of losing her mother and getting divorced and being a drug addict to finally find herself after this really long journey of hiking a thousand miles. And I was like, I don't have any dialogue to hide behind. So I'm a talker in films. You can notice--
[00:13:49] Adam Grant:
[00:13:49] Reese Witherspoon:
--if I make movies I'm like "da-da-da-da". And I had no dialogue.
[00:13:53] Adam Grant:
Yeah, you just got cast in Castaway.
[00:13:55] Reese Witherspoon:
Yeah. It was me in a backpack. And the wilderness. And it was just all facial expressions and interior feelings. I was like, Whoa. I was so scared. I'm telling you, I had panic attacks for three weeks before we started. It was, it was really bad.
[00:14:10] Adam Grant:
When okay, so when you talk about trying to quit Walk the Line or when you talk about panic attacks going into Wild, I think this, this captures for me something that people get backward about the relationship between confidence and success, which is I think most people think, "Well, I can't go for this ambitious goal until I've built up my confidence." And the research tells us exactly the opposite, which is you don't need confidence to pursue a challenging goal. You build your confidence through pursuing challenging goals.
[00:14:39] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:14:39] Adam Grant:
And sometimes you just have to go for it and take the leap in order to prove to yourself that you can do it. And then your confidence rises on the back end. Is that an accurate description of your experience? And if not, I am ready to rethink it as quickly as possible.
[00:14:52] Reese Witherspoon:
No, I think you're right. And I think I learned that very, very early auditioning. So I was auditioning for, you know, really important parts by the time I was 14 to, I don't know, 25? And that feeling of, "I'm gonna try and, and I'm gonna accept a rejection." And I was, Oh my gosh, I lost so many parts. What was I looking at today? I was like, "Oh, I wanted that part so bad. I didn't get it." It was a movie that Drew Barrymore did, and I was like-- and Drew is a friend of mine-- I was like, "I wanted that part so bad and I didn't get it. I auditioned and auditioned!" And um, but it was good ‘cause I learned that just because I wasn't right for it didn't mean I wasn't good enough.
Um, so lots of failure you know, helped structure who I am and my self-confidence. I've also made, I'm not even talking about like we're talking about Walk the Line and Legally Blonde, I've made lots of movies that were no good and didn't perform well, and you know, that weekend it came out, made no money and it was hard and, and it's who I am in those moments that is just as important as who I am when things are successful, because I'm still the same person whether the movie doesn't do well or it's the biggest hit of all time and you just-- ha, I heard Eva Marie saying that this amazing actress talked once at a, at a conference, and she said “Sometimes you're on the front of the bus and sometimes you're on the back of the bus. Just stay on the bus.” So I'm just, I'm still on the bus.
[00:16:28] Adam Grant:
I love the distinction that you drew between, you know, not getting the role and being good enough for the role, right? That just because you weren't chosen or you weren't the, the right fit, um, that doesn't mean you weren't qualified. I wish more people understood that.
[00:16:43] Reese Witherspoon:
It didn't mean I didn't do the prep. Doesn't mean I'm not good enough, just means I wasn't there. And I also truly believe that the things that are there for you, you know, what you don't get is as important as what you do get. So, I learned a lot of lessons early on as a child, not making the, um, soccer team, not making the volleyball team, not really getting on the softball team—that I wasn't good at sports! [Laughter] And it's important to know what you're not good at. So that you can really focus on what you are good at. I always love when people say, "Don't chase your dreams, chase your talents." Because you gotta figure out what your talents are. ‘Cause you have 'em. But dreams are different than talents.
[00:17:25] Adam Grant:
Does this mean there aren't mornings when you wake up and say "Curse, you Drew Barrymore?"
[00:17:32] Reese Witherspoon:
No. Never. Healthy competition is good, too. You know, it's good to know where you sit in a group, where you live, and what you bring that's unique, and how you can lean further into what is uniquely you. Drew and I are very different people. But we're both, you know, we're both incredibly accomplished women who just bring completely different things to the table. It also, I, I've always even… I had to learn about competition too. This is a big piece as a woman because I started in an industry where there was scarcity of roles. Right now it feels like okay, there's a lot of women in a lot of shows and a lot of movies about women. There wasn't when we started.
So, and we were pitted against each other and told to fight and vie for roles. And I made a conscious decision when I was about 21 or 22 that someone else's success wasn't impeding mine. But that was a hard lesson to learn. Um, because there wasn't a lot of space for all of us. But I learned by watching Drew produce and direct. And, you know, watching Goldie Hawn work and produce and direct. And then watching all these women I really respected going, "I'm not gonna be waiting around for the phone to ring. I'm gonna take charge of my own career and be the captain of my own destiny."
[00:18:58] Adam Grant:
Well, this, this speaks to a couple dynamics I think are fascinating. The first one, I think, you know, in a, in a lot of situations people talk about the Queen Bee phenomenon and they say, "Look, you know, women are keeping other women out and women need to be kinder to women.”
And my read of the evidence is that the Queen Bee phenomenon is not a cause of inequality. It's a response to inequality. That when, when you limit the number of roles that are available to women, right? Then it's a reasonable reaction to say, "Okay, I'm gonna be really judicious about who I let in the door. I'm gonna hold other women to extremely high standards and I'm worried that their gain might be my loss." Um, and so I don't think we should be blaming women for that. Right. I think we need to fix the broken systems.
[00:19:44] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:19:45] Adam Grant:
That limit those opportunities in the first place and create the scarcity that you're describing.
[00:19:49] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:19:49] Adam Grant:
How did you, how did you--
[00:19:50] Reese Witherspoon:
And if you don't, if you don't like the way an industry look, looks, y'know, particularly when you've risen to the place that I got to when I started my company, it's it, there's a responsibility there to leave the business a better place than the way you found it-- I think.
[00:20:03] Adam Grant:
I wholeheartedly agree with that, but I, I think it's striking that right from the beginning you said, I don't wanna treat this as a zero-sum competition. How did you get there?
[00:20:13] Reese Witherspoon:
Read a lot of books. I literally read a lot of books. Um, Marian Wright Edelman's books were really helpful to me. The Measure of Our Success is one of her books. I mean, honestly, Gary Zukav, The Seat of the Soul was a big one for me: that you are uniquely you, you are the director of the movie of your life. No one else is the star of the movie of your life. Things like that just really fed, um, me as a young person.
Now I read Glennon Doyle, Untamed. I, there's so many things in that book that just were aha moments for me. Brené Brown—Braving the Wilderness. Um, learning how to have difficult conversations with people that you don't agree with is a huge part of life.
I think your books are amazing too, to, to not be intractable in your thinking, to be, um, able to pivot and actually listen to the room, watch behavior change. Like if I hadn't watched with real curiosity, the media industry shifting into social media, into streaming television, I would've never understood to pivot my company towards um, a TV model, right? ‘Cause I grew up in movies. And then I started a company that we made TV show after TV show after TV show. You have to watch consumer behavior too. It's about, hold on, do I wanna tell stories in the way that I wanna do it? Or do I want as many people to be affected by this as possible? That's my goal.
[00:21:45] Adam Grant:
Love that. It sounds like, I, when you were talking about the, the idea of comparing yourself to, to other stars, a lot of people say that comparison is the thief of joy. And whenever I hear that, I think, “Yes, that's true, but it's also fuel for learning and motivation.” Without comparison, there are no role models. There's no one to raise the bar for you. And so it seems like a little bit more of a double-edged sword than we give it credit for when we say "Don't ever compare yourself to other people." I was curious to hear your reactions.
[00:22:16] Reese Witherspoon:
I mean, comparing yourself to other people or looking at other people who do well, I think you can get a lot from that, right? You can learn a lot. Like, what is that, that's so appealing about that movie? We always do sort of a forensics about our shows and go, "So why did that one work and that one didn't work? Why? Why does everybody wanna see that actor and not that actor?" And, and it's important, right? Comparing is tough. Um, because I do think it's innately kind of, it can be destructive, but I think it's about what you're learning and why you're comparing things like what is-- how are you measuring success and looking at it sort of critically and going, “Is there something to be learned here?”
[00:23:02] Adam Grant:
[00:23:02] Reese Witherspoon:
Like, not letting it destroy your self-confidence. Because you literally can't be somebody you're not. You just literally can't do it.
[00:23:10] Adam Grant:
Yeah. Is there something this person's good at that I want to get better at?
[00:23:13] Reese Witherspoon:
Yeah. That's so cool. And people really seem to respond to that. I wonder if I should try that. You know, things like that.
[00:23:19] Adam Grant:
That is a perfect segue to the lightning round.
[00:23:22] Reese Witherspoon:
No. [Light laughter] No. Okay.
[00:23:23] Adam Grant:
Are you ready for this?
[00:23:24] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:23:26] Adam Grant:
You can, you can pass if you want.
[00:23:27] Reese Witherspoon:
Uh, standing on the diving board going, “Okay, I'm gonna jump.”
[00:23:30] Adam Grant:
You're gonna jump. A word, a sentence. Uh, first one is, who is your leadership role model? Living or dead, if you have one.
[00:23:40] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:23:41] Adam Grant:
Okay. In the Reese Witherspoon biopic, who would you want to play you?
[00:23:45] Reese Witherspoon:
Oh! Um, I've had so many great young women play me. I would say AnnaSophia Robb is one that played me younger in Little Fires Everywhere, and I loved it. And also Dakota Fanning, who played me young in Sweet Home Alabama. I just think they're both incredible performers.
[00:24:05] Adam Grant:
Okay. I have to ask you, uh, this might be a tough one to answer, but since you were on Friends, who's your favorite Friends character?
[00:24:12] Reese Witherspoon:
Oh, um, oh, this is fun, Joey.
[00:24:17] Adam Grant:
[00:24:17] Reese Witherspoon:
[Laughing] I love Joey.
[00:24:18] Adam Grant:
[00:24:21] Reese Witherspoon:
Just reliably funny. He's just reliably funny and all my favorite jokes from Friends are from Joey.
[00:24:32] Adam Grant:
It's a cow's opinion. It's moo.
[00:24:36] Reese Witherspoon:
I can't believe you just said that. I was about to say--
[00:24:37] Adam Grant:
Is that your favorite one?
[00:24:38] Reese Witherspoon:
My favorite line is-- he goes so something, and then he said, "You know, it doesn't matter. It's a moo point." And then they go, "What's a moo point?” He goes, “You know, like a cow's opinion. It doesn't matter."
[00:24:52] Adam Grant:
It's a moo.
[00:24:53] Reese Witherspoon:
It's a moo point.
[00:24:55] Adam Grant:
[Laughter] I love that line. Okay, my, my other favorite--
[00:24:58] Reese Witherspoon:
--that's weird you said that. That's my favorite line from Friends.
[00:25:01] Adam Grant:
I mean, it's, it's so memorable. I respect that decision. I'm voting for Chandler, but Joey's a close second.
[00:25:09] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:25:09] Adam Grant:
I think I have more respect for the character who's intentionally funny than the one who's accidentally funny. Which really—
[00:25:14] Reese Witherspoon:
Let me tell you something. You have to be really smart to play dumb.
[00:25:19] Adam Grant:
[00:25:19] Reese Witherspoon:
Really, it's, it's just, we know it's, it's in our business, it's known. If somebody's playing dumb, and they're doing it really well, they're really smart.
[00:25:27] Adam Grant:
Okay. I respect Matt LeBlanc, the actor. Yeah. I still prefer Chandler, the character.
[00:25:32] Reese Witherspoon:
Okay. Are we having a, are we having our first fight?
[00:25:34] Adam Grant:
Can we, can we accept that?
[00:25:35] Reese Witherspoon:
I accept it. Oh, it's accepted.
[00:25:37] Adam Grant:
No, I think your point is spot on. I think it's, I mean, it's incredibly hard to play that character believably. Um, not that I've ever tried, but you would know.
[00:25:47] Reese Witherspoon:
Yeah. [Light laughter]
[00:25:48] Adam Grant:
Okay. Love that. Um, do you think movies are gonna be replaced by TikTok?
[00:25:59] Reese Witherspoon:
No. I always think there'll be a form of, uh, long-form structure of storytelling, but I do think attention spans are shortening, and I do think content is making it, it, it's just gonna get shorter. That's just the natural evolution of it. That's how I feel.
[00:26:17] Adam Grant:
That sounds right. But then I watch our kids binging Stranger Things, and each episode is movie-length now.
[00:26:24] Reese Witherspoon:
And did they stop it ever to get up and go get a snack? Or take a break or go to the bath?
[00:26:28] Adam Grant:
[00:26:29] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:26:31] Adam Grant:
[00:26:31] Reese Witherspoon:
We did not do that. We didn't do that. We sat there for two hours in a dark movie theater.
[00:26:37] Adam Grant:
[00:26:37] Reese Witherspoon:
Yeah. Just it's just different. These platforms have created this lack of attention span that is very real for consumers. We're fighting for eyeballs, and you know, and storylines have to hook you in the first eight minutes. Maybe shorter. But we think with that in mind, you know, it's, it's important to be cognizant of that.
[00:27:00] Adam Grant:
Does that make you sad at all? Is there some, some art or some slow-build experience that's gonna be lost there?
[00:27:06] Reese Witherspoon:
I think it's just different. You can't lament what's gone. You have to keep innovating. And if you're a storyteller, truly in this world, you just wanted to tell the stories, and you want people to hear 'em. I don't get stuck in how it happens.
[00:27:22] Adam Grant:
[00:27:23] Reese Witherspoon:
I mean, I want it to be good. Don't, don't get me wrong. It's gonna be a good story, and it's gonna be told in a premium way. But there's TikTok creators that I find endlessly entertaining and deserve all of the attention they're getting. Seriously.
Because it is, it has, our business for so long has been a closed-door industry and I love that people can self-promote and, and create their own stuff and self-publish.
[00:27:48] Adam Grant:
Okay. Last two lightning round questions. One is, we were talking earlier about how deep you go into characters, and I wonder about the spillover effect of that. Is there a, a character you've played where you actually brought one of their traits into your life?
[00:28:01] Reese Witherspoon:
Yeah, for sure. Um, Cheryl Strayed came home with me many, many days when I was done shooting and I was like, I had an attitude, and I was cursing all the time. And yeah, my family was like, "What are you, what, who are you being right now?" I was like, "Oh gosh. I know. I think Cheryl's in our living room right now. Cheryl's making dinner right now." Um, any other one? It was hard to shake June Carter Cash. That one was hard to shake. Um, Tracy Flick went, went away pretty quick ‘cause I had TMJ from locking my jaw like that. Um, so I was like, “Oh, I gotta stop doing this.”
And movies that I've done that are really physically athletic, I'm like, "Ugh, I'm so glad not to be doing that anymore." Like Water for Elephants or How Do You Know, where I'd have to train and train and train. But it's also like what? I got to train to be an Olympic softball player? I get to train to be a circus performer for six months? I have the best job ever. I really do and I love it.
[00:29:02] Adam Grant:
Is there a movie that you wished you could rethink?
[00:29:06] Reese Witherspoon:
Oh my God, so many of them. Um, one? [Pause.]
No, because I really learned a lot from it. I thought I do a lot with the right intention, but the result isn't what I wanted it to be. But that's just about execution, you know? And you can't, sometimes the stars just don't align. Everything doesn't line up the right way. There's no fault in that. You gotta just. And you gotta, and take your kicks. By the way. It's annoying if every movie's great. Who wants to hang out with that person?
[00:29:38] Adam Grant:
Yeah. But everyone wants to be that person is the problem.
[00:29:40] Reese Witherspoon:
Yeah. Not me, said the bee. I like to hang out with people who have been kicked a few times or had a few failures and just we talk about that other stuff too.
[00:29:48] Adam Grant:
I'm, I'm gonna start saying that whenever I fail or I have a project bomb, I'm just gonna say, “I'm trying to be less annoying.”
[00:29:55] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:29:55] Adam Grant:
I, I want you to wanna hang out with me.
[00:29:57] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:29:58] Adam Grant:
[00:29:59] Reese Witherspoon:
Yeah. I'm gonna draw a big circle around it and we're gonna talk about it. This is gonna come in handy. I love it. Okay. Leaving the lightning round.
[00:30:06] Adam Grant:
You have often described yourself as a troublemaker. Uh, you've said you are not a conformist. Uh, you like to break rules. Talk to me about that and how you've leveraged the good while reining in the bad.
[00:30:20] Reese Witherspoon:
I would say… look, I'm, I, yeah. I'm non-conformist. I don’t… When people set a rule for me, I, I feel like, “Is that really how we have to do it?” Like a Peloton class. I had a Peloton and I was like listening to the thing and I was like, “I consider this a light suggestion.” To turn up the, no, I'm not gonna do, uh, I'm not gonna stand up right now. It was like, so I inherently, I'm always trying to find out my way or if I had a school assignment, it was always like, "What is no one else gonna do?"
That was always my first thought. What's the weirdest way I could approach this? Um, and that's just how my brain works. Um, yeah, that's my sort of non-conformist thing, and I, and I was a little bit of a troublemaker. I like to kind of stir the pot. I put, like, beer in the coke machine in high school. I got in trouble. Don't ask. I was always like in a little bit of trouble, but I also would always turn in things on time and I had a lot of high executive functions, so I was sort of this blend of like, “Let's mix it up. Let's not be boring.” And then, you know, getting things done. Well, I have to say, starting a company, that was like a, a big career shift for me.
[00:31:35] Reese Witherspoon:
So being an actor for, I don't know, at that point, I think I was 34, so I'd been doing it for 20 years. Um, but I was never a businesswoman, so I didn't know how to raise capital. I didn't know, um, key terms like KPIs and ROI and, and, and I think when I first raised capital, and I started having these meetings and hiring executives and being in charge and having a fiduciary responsibility to a group of people, it just, I had to raise the bar.
But I think what was really great about that is I went into that experience going, I'm not gonna pretend I know and nod in my head, I'm gonna say, "Hey, can I stop you? What's KPI?” That's important. "I, I don't know." It's key performance, but like I didn't know that then. And because I was willing to not be an expert and to ask questions of very obvious things, it was sort of endearing, I think, to other people. And, and it let other people be the expert of their area. Um, and then it created this ease of our relationship where I brought my core competencies with just creativity and innovation, and they brought theirs, and it was sort of a beautiful mix of great business strategy and incredible creativity.
[00:32:58] Adam Grant:
I feel like it worked out okay. All things considered.
[00:33:02] Reese Witherspoon:
It worked out and it also—my perspective being a woman inside an industry and seeing a lack of projects being made with, um, real female experiences at the center. I had spent years thinking, why are these roles so flat and why are there so many parts where I'm offered, where I'm the girlfriend or the wife, but I have no agency of my own or I don't have my own, um, storyline basically?
So then I got forensic and I was like, "Okay, well maybe it's because there's not enough female writers, there's not enough female directors." So I went back to source material, which is books. So an author has spent months, years working on these characters and their backstories and working out the plot. And so I just had to find the right ones that were really truly cinematic. And that's when I started optioning my own books and turning 'em into movies and TV shows like Wild and Gone Girl, and Big Little Lies. Those were my first projects as a producer.
[00:34:04] Adam Grant:
I love the way that you've brought books to life and--
[00:34:07] Reese Witherspoon:
--it's so fun!
[00:34:08] Adam Grant:
I mean, it's the best thing you could possibly do for an author. Um, I wanna go back to the, I guess that experience of, of being in the room and not recognizing a term. I think so many people feel the pressure to be the smartest person in the room. Sounds like you were much more interested in just asking, "How can I get smarter?"
[00:34:25] Reese Witherspoon:
Oh, I'd, I'd rather be a learn-it-all than a know-it-all. I just, I don't know. And, and it's certainly the older you get, and particularly if you're gonna pivot into a new career, you have to be endlessly curious and secure enough in yourself to go, "I have something I'm bringing to the table that is a very unique perspective, but I'm not gonna pretend I'm something I'm not." Because that's not what I'm here to be.
[00:34:47] Adam Grant:
One of the challenges that I, I imagine you face quite a bit early on when you were starting Hello Sunshine was you're both acting and now you're producing and running a company. Um, that seems like a lot of going in and out of character. So you do this deep dive to become someone, and then you have to break character--
[00:35:07] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:35:07] Adam Grant:
--to be a completely different person.
[00:35:08] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:35:09] Adam Grant:
How did you navigate that?
[00:35:10] Reese Witherspoon:
It's different sides of your brain too. It's different parts of your brain, right? One's problem-solving, and one's being a great leader who leads by example. And the other is about being completely immersed in something deeply private. So, um, I'm not gonna say it was easy at first, but I have incredible partners who would say, and we had to set boundaries around it. When I'm in character, when I'm on set, when I'm doing this, I'm gonna need you to take over. That also gives them—empowers them to be a leader and really good at identifying talent, um, and giving them the opportunity to truly shine and, and take over. It's not about ego and needing to be the boss. I actually kind of cringe sometimes when people call me the boss, ‘cause I really, I defer leadership to more of a, um, a group leader mentality.
[00:36:05] Adam Grant: You, you just spoke to something that blew me away when I first read your culture deck at Hello Sunshine. Uh, you, you have this observation about ego versus mission and it, I think the deck says something to the effect of, “If your ego is bigger than our mission then you don't belong here.”
[00:36:21] Reese Witherspoon:
Yeah. I mean, yeah, because truly what we do in film and television and every platform, right? Whether we're making an unscripted show or a podcast, or even social media posts for brands and really creating that branded content, it's about showing up to uh, honor female authorship. Um, and that's a collective art, right? So we can't do anything by ourselves. We want, I always say, “If you wanted to work alone, go be a painter.” That's not being a filmmaker. Um, and that's not being part of content creation and media. We have to help each other, encourage each other to think big ideas, and nurture each other when they don't work, and applaud each other when they do.
[00:37:12] Adam Grant:
You also have some phrases, uh, some go-to phrases for excellence that are in your culture deck. What are your favorites?
[00:37:19] Reese Witherspoon:
Um, well, “We're world-class DIY-ers.” I mean, we, we have this feeling like we all wear whatever hat we have to wear at that moment. If something needs to get done, no one-- you don't just sit with your job description. You actually jump in and help. You help problem solve. You… it even comes down to being in the, you know, in the kitchen, at the office. Everybody should be doing their own dishes. Everybody should be keeping our workplace clean and presentable.
So, it's how we show up for each other authentically in every way. And it's not just about the work that ends up on the screen. It's like what we do behind the screen too. You know, who we hire, how we treat people, how we celebrate people, and, and also how we give feedback that is, um, honest, thoughtful, and constructive.
[00:38:11] Adam Grant:
Uh, excellent. Okay, so I, uh, I checked in with your team to see what else should be on my radar that wasn't, and I'll just give you a choose your own adventure here.
[00:38:22] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:38:22] Adam Grant:
So I heard that there are, there are three things that they really admire about you. Um, one is, um, your ability to be a rock in a time of crisis. Two is your fearlessness, and three is your constant ability to generate creative ideas. And so I would love to hear you talk about any of those things, your choice.
[00:38:44] Reese Witherspoon:
Oh, that's so cool. First of all, hearing those things makes me feel so good. Um. You know, I think this, I, I wanna say this. I've never said this to creatives, and I really think this is so important, ‘cause we can all get creative blocks sometimes where you just can't write or you just don't feel inspired: Creativity is infinite. Creativity is infinite. When you are a creative, and it's who you are and it, you either know it or you don't, right? It's inside you or it's not? And it usually means you've had success being a creative? It’s coming back. It's always there. And I just, I always wanna tell creatives that because I'll have days where I have no inspiration or someone has scheduled creativity for me at 11:00 AM on a Thursday, which I, I'm like, I, I can't be creative right now. I don't feel it. The dog just threw up on the rug. You know, I'm feeling a little under the weather and I just, I don't feel creative right now. So. But can I call you back in like an hour? Let me, let me really think about what you said, and then, let's do it again. And I love collaborating with people and spitballing and making up ideas and thinking about like, "Give me a problem and I'm gonna solve it. I'll think of a creative way around it. It might work, it might not work. But it's my favorite thing to do.
[00:40:01] Adam Grant:
I think it's so powerful just to I guess, to give yourself the flexibility and permission to say, I'm gonna wait for the right time. Like the fact that I don't have a creative idea now doesn't mean that I'm incapable of ever having a creative approach to solving this problem.
[00:40:17] Reese Witherspoon:
Yeah, don't go down on that ship, man. Creativity is infinite. And if you feel uninspired, get out, Get outta your house, go watch a movie. Go watch somebody who is inspired right now at this very moment. I promise you: it will ignite something inside of you.
[00:40:34] Adam Grant:
All right, so since you listen to this show from time to time, is there anything that stuck with you or something you wanna challenge me to rethink?
[00:40:43] Reese Witherspoon:
[Slight laughter] Well, I've asked you sort of about the podcast format and what do you think about it, and what I really like about your podcast is that you keep it to an amount of time that I can actually digest. I, I--
[00:40:54] Adam Grant:
You don't have three and a half hours free in your day randomly? What?
[00:40:57] Reese Witherspoon:
No, when people listen to these three-hour podcasts, I think when did-- what? I'm also a mom. Like moms, I, I'm sorry. I'm doing a hundred billion things at the—I’m looking over at my publicist who's like basically filling out her kids' school forms over here while she's listening and while she's running a company. And we just have too much to do to listen to a three-hour podcast. So I appreciate the brevity. I really, whoever your editor is? Excellent job. And I like, you know, I loved your Dolly Parton episode because we all know we love Dolly, but you kind of gave us a perspective on why at the very end, and I don't wanna say too much, because it's really a great episode that I've shared with a lot of people. Um, but I like your perspective about why things work and why she is who she is.
[00:41:50] Adam Grant:
Love it. Um, although it's, it's definitely amplified the pressure I feel as a host to say, not only do I have to not screw up the 24 and a half minutes that I have with Dolly Parton, but now I have to worry that Reese Witherspoon is gonna listen to it. And if I do a bad job, not only am I gonna disappoint Dolly, but then Reese is not gonna like it either.
[00:42:08] Reese Witherspoon:
Yeah. But your history of getting it right should build your confidence.
[00:42:14] Adam Grant:
It should. It should.
[00:42:15] Reese Witherspoon:
And you talk about her idiosyncratic tendon--, you know, that sort of non-conformist idio--, you know, and how it kindles, Right? It builds. And the more success you have and the more you learn from failure, and I'm sure you have some episodes where you're like, “I don't like that episode. I just don't like it, but just put it up anyway." I have to ask you, have you ever, have you ever scrapped an episode?
[00:42:39] Adam Grant:
Yes. Although usually when they get scrapped, they get reimagined, or sometimes they end up… like there's a piece of one that shows up in another. But yeah, especially on WorkLife, when we're doing the like, deep dive into a topic, like sometimes we've, we've had to throw out interviews, sometimes we've thrown out whole topics.
[00:42:57] Reese Witherspoon:
Yeah. Um, You know what I--
[00:42:59] Adam Grant:
Yeah, it's like a, it's like being on a set, right? Sometimes it just doesn't work.
[00:43:02] Reese Witherspoon:
Sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes the chemistry is wrong, or the interview just isn't that great. But I did… one thing I really loved about your Dolly Parton interview was, um, that she said she's not a perfectionist. ‘Cause I can be a perfectionist about some things, but I'm really not across the board overall, really not a perfectionist. And I do think it helps to go, “I did my very best. Everyone here did their very best. Push send. We gotta be done, guys. We gotta put down our pencils.” And ‘cause you can be crushed by perfectionism and you have to just, you have to publish at some point. You just have to.
[00:43:41] Adam Grant:
Yeah, I, I thought she really captured the idea of having high standards, but also being willing to say “I want, I want it to be done. Yeah. I wanna actually finish the work and get it out there.”
[00:43:54] Reese Witherspoon:
I, I, so I was nodding yes. Yes. That's exactly how I feel.
[00:43:57] Adam Grant:
Reese, thank you for taking the time. This was so much fun.
[00:44:01] Reese Witherspoon:
So fun! And I'm so glad we finally did this. We’ve been talking and friends so long, but it's nice to just connect on your show.
[00:44:07] Adam Grant:
Same. Thank you. Thank you.
[00:44:09] Reese Witherspoon:
[00:44:12] Reese Witherspoon:
I can't believe Reese tried to quit the role that ended up winning her an Oscar. It left me thinking that moments of doubt are not a sign that you lack ability. They're a signal that the task is hard. When you're struggling, it's often because you're stretching your skills. Feeling like an imposter might just be a clue that you're on the verge of learning something new.
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant. It's part of the TED Audio Collective. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winick, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced by Constanza Gallardo and mixed by Sarah Bruguiere. Our factchecker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Layton Brown.
[00:44:59] Adam Grant:
Our kids watched Legally Blonde recently, and one of our daughters said, "Oh, is that the singer from Sing and Sing 2?
[00:45:07] Reese Witherspoon:
Aww. That's so sweet. How did she know? Gosh.
[00:45:11] Adam Grant:
I think, I think she must have recognized your name, but the fact that, that you not only got over the hurdle of learning to sing, but you did it so well that our kids thought you were a singer first. I, I feel like that's a mark of success.
[00:45:23] Reese Witherspoon:
Wow. It's really a nod to Harvey Mason, who was an incredible music producer on the film. But those Sing movies have just, I mean, brought so much joy to so many children and parents. Because let's be honest, it's hard to watch some of these animated movies, and I really feel proud of these, these Sing movies.