More than 7,000 people crowded the Austin Convention Center on Friday for the 19th annual Texas Conference for Women, which this year featured a star-studded lineup including research professor and speaker Brene Brown, New York Times best-selling author Shawn Achor and Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon.
Before her keynote speech, Witherspoon spoke with the American-Statesman on topics ranging from the inequality in Hollywood that prompted her to start her own media company to why she has fond memories of Austin from her childhood.
Statesman: Why did you want to be part of the Texas Conference for Women?
Witherspoon: It’s an incredible group of people, women all coming together, so many female business owners, talking about tools and relationships that are really helping develop their businesses. I was excited to be part of it.
More women were elected to Congress this week than ever before. How do you feel about the political climate in the United States?
I think it’s a time when women are feeling incredibly motivated to become leaders in the business world and in politics clearly. It’s remarkable that so many women have run for office and have gotten elected. What we see is that’s an incredible step towards representation in our government, but we have to keep going. I think moments like this and conferences like this bring women together and help us see that we are there to support each other and help each other succeed.
Your created the media company Hello Sunshine, which focuses on female storytelling. Why was that important to you?
Around 2010 I just started seeing the amount of scripts that had women at the center of them really start to diminish. I went around to every studio and said, "Tell me what you’re developing for women," and, with the exception of one studio, they weren’t developing anything. They just didn’t have the kind of mission to tell women’s stories. I thought, that is my drive in life, not just to tell my story or stories about women like me, but movies and television shows that tell the stories of every woman: women of color, LGBTQ stories, stories of disabled women. And tell them with more accuracy. Not seeing as many women behind the camera was really bothering me. I self-funded a company that started with writers and books that I was reading and taking those books and turning them into television shows and movies. I had no idea it would be successful, but I just knew I was driven to change the stories I was seeing and the women around me were seeing.
Hello Sunshine also has a book club. What do books mean to you?
As a kid, I was always escaping through books. It’s a creative outlet for me, and writing is a creative outlet for me. I think of my books as my friends. I had this accumulated base of knowledge about how to turn a book into a screenplay and then get it made into a movie that I didn’t really acknowledge in myself until my husband actually said to me, "Why aren’t you doing that? That’s a skill set. You have all the skills, why don’t you just do it?" It took the people around me to say everything you do, everything it takes to succeed is inside of you already. I read a lot of books, I just started optioning them, finding screenwriters. I knew all of them basically, and I knew every studio. I just started putting the packages together and going forward. My first projects were "Wild" and "Gone Girl" and "Big Little Lies." I went from thinking I couldn’t accomplish something to going, "Oh, I’m actually pretty good at this."
You're also a mom of three. What advice do you give to working moms struggling to find balance?
I really rely on my communities around me. I rely on my friends, I rely on my mother, I rely on the women I work with. We have revolving leadership. No one’s ego is first. We accept help when we need it, we let each other fail, we acknowledge our successes as much as our failures. Creating a community where people feel safe to create and safe to be successful and safe to fail has really been helpful in my life and in my career. It’s hard for a lot of women to accept help. I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older how to say, "You’re right, I need help, can you please pick up the kids after school because I have an important meeting?" I really rely on the moms around me and the businesswomen around me to help me grow.
Have you spent much time in Austin?
My mom actually went to the University of Texas for her Ph.D. I was here as a kid for three or four summers. We lived here, me and my brother and my mom. My mom went to school all day, and my brother and I went to camp and basically rode our bikes around Austin. I love this city. It’s such a great place, and a great place for kids, too, to explore and feel safe.
Do you have any favorite Austin memories?
Barton Springs, I remember going there every weekend with my mom and her fellow students who also had kids and were trying to balance motherhood. And I remember river rafting, we’d get in the tube and go down the river. It was really fun.
Earlier this year you announced that "Legally Blonde 3" is happening. Why did you want to sign on for that?
Creating Elle Woods was a big moment in my life. The success of that movie was surprising and so wonderful. If you talk about feminist role models I think Elle Woods is a really interesting example of how you can be a modern feminist. You can love getting your nails done and your hair done and you’re feminine, but you’re also really determined to know your worth and get what you want out of life. I’m excited to revisit what Elle Woods is like in her 40s, which I think is a different kind of world. She faces different challenges I think a lot of people will relate to.
What do you hope the next 10 years will bring for you?
I’m just really excited about the mission of Hello Sunshine to tell women’s stories and put women at the center of their stories. We have a lot of really great projects right now. I’m working on a show with Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell for Apple that’s being written by this incredible show writer, Kerry Ehrin, who has just done fabulous work on "Friday Night Lights" and "Bates Motel." Our director is a woman, Mimi Leder. I’m just really enjoying a moment where my industry is starting to recognize the talent and the artistry of so many women around me.