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Reese Witherspoon: type A all the way

(ran GB edition)

Let's start first with the production company, because if you want to know what Reese Witherspoon is all about, you need simply to look at what she named her business.

Type A Films.

It's a perfect fit, and the 25-year-old actor admits as much. But even if she were a little reticent to come right out and acknowledge her driven nature, Witherspoon's businesslike demeanor and enthusiasm for efficiency would all but give her away. At various times during a recent, lengthy interview, Witherspoon declared that she was "very focused," "very serious," "good at being assertive," "bad at relaxing," adamant that her "feelings about work be known" to her directors and certain that she herself would direct someday because "when I read scripts, I have a total and complete idea about how they should be done."

And, folks, that's just a small sampling.

"Reese calls me on my bull---- more than anybody I've ever met in my life," says Roger Kumble, who directed Witherspoon in Cruel Intentions. "She's always like, "You're lying, Kumble.' I get scared sometimes. When it comes to the work, she's the most opinionated actress I've ever met. And you'd better listen to what she has to say."

Actor and friend Selma Blair says she's in "awe" of Witherspoon's commitment to her craft, calling her intensity a little "otherworldly" at times. Even Ryan Phillippe, Witherspoon's actor husband, seems a little amazed by his wife's laser beam focus.

"What I've always found the most attractive about Reese is her strength; she can handle everything," Phillippe says. "Things just roll off her back. She just knows how to take care of business."

Up to the challenge

So even though Witherspoon, for all intents and purposes, took a two-year leave of absence from the screen to care for her new daughter, Ava Elizabeth (conveniently, for memory's sake, born 9-9-99), she never really went too far away. In addition to her current film, the breezy Legally Blonde, Witherspoon has nearly finished another movie (a Miramax adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest) and has several others in various stages of development with Type A Films.

"It's important in this business to have an opinion and know where you want to go," Witherspoon says. "I have always known what kind of actress I wanted to be. I wanted to be one of those people who had a very long career, and I wanted to be taken seriously. I want the kind of career of a Susan Sarandon or Holly Hunter. So I worked hard on taking the kind of roles that were very unique."

Thus, she turned down leads in teen slasher movies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer in order to take roles in less commercial but more challenging fare like Pleasantville and Election. Witherspoon has also steered clear of the recent spate of youth-oriented sex comedies. ("I've got no time for stupidity," she says frankly.) She has done a topless scene, but it was for the chance to work with Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon and Gene Hackman in Twilight and not for a slice of American Pie.

Appearances deceive

Witherspoon's new movie, Legally Blonde, appears, at least on the surface, to be a concession to commercialism. ("I do need to reach more people," she says with more than a little intensity.) The movie follows a quintessential California blond, Elle Woods, who, after being dumped by her college boyfriend, pursues him to Harvard Law School. The movie's first 15 minutes revel in dumb blond and sorority jokes, but as we learn more about Elle, we come to find that her perkiness masks a fierce intelligence. (Elle does, after all, score a 179 on her LSAT, good enough for Harvard admission.)

Like its close cousin, Alicia Silverstone's 1995 hit, Clueless, Legally Blonde demonstrates that not only are golden girls sometimes in on the joke, but they can occasionally have the last laugh, too.

Witherspoon approaches each role with a Streepian fanaticism for research _ she calls herself an anthropologist, saying it's what she likes most about acting. Such commitment to character paid off with Blonde's Elle, who has a surprising number of shadings for a young woman who regards Cosmopolitan magazine as "the bible" and boasts of growing up across the street from Aaron Spelling, which, she believes, "most people would agree is a lot better than some stinky old Vanderbilt."

"I could have gone into this and been really ditsy and played what I would have thought this character was, and I would have missed a whole other side of her," Witherspoon says. "But by going down to Beverly Hills, hanging out in Neiman Marcus, eating in their cafe and seeing how these women walk and speak, I got into the reality of the character. I saw how polite these women are, and I saw how much they value their female friendships and how important it is to support each other."

Confident yet courteous

And civility and loyalty are important traits to the Southern-bred Witherspoon, who makes it a point to say "please" and "thank you" to everyone she meets and expresses a longing for her Nashville roots because there, "Common courtesy is still practiced" and in Los Angeles, "You feel like if you reach out to people, you might never see them again."

Says pal Blair: "Reese is really underestimated in how kind and warm she can be. She always makes sure I have a place for Christmas and Thanksgiving. She has always been just an angel to me, and I don't take it for granted, because she's got a husband and a daughter and a career, but she can balance it all. I'm in awe of her every day. My cat has fleas right now, and I'm ruined for the next three weeks."

Lest she be mistaken for the psychotically obsessed perfectionist she played in Election, Witherspoon will admit to some imperfections, although she's quick to add that she's "working on them." Later in conversation, when talking about dealing with the demands of home, career and family, she declares: "There's a lot to be done!" However, that statement is less a concession to fatigue than it is Witherspoon daring her schedule to conquer her life.

Thus far, the schedule is losing. Witherspoon and Phillippe are raising their daughter in New York, sending her to preschool and music class, where Witherspoon is reliving her childhood by "singing louder than any kid in that music class."

"I'm like E-I-E-I-OOOO!" Witherspoon says, laughing.

She regards marriage and parenthood as challenges, but welcome ones in a career that's based on image and artificiality. "A child is the ultimate dose of reality," Witherspoon says.

As to whether Ava inherited her mother's ambitious, tenacious nature, Witherspoon says it's too early to tell. But . . .

"She wants to read books more than she wants to play," Witherspoon says enthusiastically. "I taught myself to read when I was about 3. I got to kindergarten and they called my mother and said, "Do you know your daughter can read every single book that's here?'

"And she was surprised, but not too much," Witherspoon continues. "Ever since I was little, my parents have called me "Little Type A.' I always did the extra credit _ even before the teachers assigned it."

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