When Boise Weekly asked director Jean-Marc Vallee about casting Reese Witherspoon in Wild, the extraordinary adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's 2012 autobiographical odyssey, he shook his head and laughed.
"No, you have it backwards," said Vallee, whose directing cred skyrocketed with 2013's The Dallas Buyers Club. "Reese actually hired me. You can say that she was the one who cast me. She's the boss."
Witherspoon had optioned Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail three months before it was published in March 2012, but Strayed's no-holds-barred memoir was a risky property for an actress who would need to strip bare—literally and figuratively—in order to portray a woman who had lost everything, including her mother, her marriage, her job and her sense of self before spiraling into a life defined by addiction by the age of 26.
"I think we made a film that tells women not to be ashamed of their bodies, in any experience they had," said Witherspoon when asked about Wild's stark drug and sex scenes. "People deal with so much hardship; but this is about finding yourself and most importantly, it tries to say that it's going to be OK."
Strayed's book (which rocketed to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list, was translated into 30-plus languages and was NPR's Best Book of the Year), is a first-person account of Strayed's solo trek across the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington state line. More than that, it is a story of one woman's grief, healing and salvation, and more than a few critics were appropriately fearful of diluting such a fierce book into a neat-and-easy Hollywood treatise.
"My biggest challenge was to make this movie as emotional and powerful as the book was," Vallee told BW during the premiere of Wild at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. "Cheryl's book was amazing because it had zero censorship, and it's rare to read something with such honesty."
Strayed made a point of making the trip to Toronto to endorse how successfully Witherspoon and Vallee had adapted her story.
"Even before my book was published, Reese somehow got a copy of it and read it in one weekend," Strayed told BW. "She called me right away to say 'I want to bring this book to the screen.' Look, Reese is a major movie star, but I really wanted to know from her why she wanted to do this."
Most important for the film, Strayed said, was to capture the emotional mystery between herself and her late mother, played in a heartbreaking performance by Laura Dern.
"It was critical that the representation with my mother be portrayed accurately," said Strayed. "Reese and Laura blew me away."
Perhaps more than any other element of Strayed's journey, the film's portrayal of her relationship with her mother pushes Wild to rare on-screen honesty and far beyond what some critics call Oscar-baiting. Wild will certainly be one of the Motion Picture Academy's nominees for Best Picture—and Witherspoon, Dern and Vallee should all plan on attending the Oscar ceremony in February—but Wild is a major and authentic achievement of acting and storytelling.
Witherspoon says she was, at first, pretty convinced she could pull off pretending to carry a ridiculously heavy backpack.
"I've been on plenty of movie sets and they usually stuff things like suitcases and backpacks with newspapers," she said. "I said, 'For sure, I can pretend that this is heavy.'"
But director Vallee would have none of it.
"No, no, this backpack is going to be heavy," Vallee told the Oscar-winning actress, ordering the pack to be filled with camping gear.
Moviegoers will sense that the backpack is digging deep into Witherspoon's shoulders. More importantly, she doesn't over-act, trying to be convincing in her struggle to carry it; her character tries, without success, to will her mind to believe the pack is lighter than it is.
"But after five-and-a-half weeks of filming and carrying that pack for hours-on-end, I got used to it. And isn't that the way it should really be?" said Witherspoon.
A word of caution for anyone thinking Wild is a "woman's picture." It is a tale of one woman's endurance, but she is not an everywoman. In fact, Strayed was at the bottom-most rung of life's ladder, something that too many of us can relate to.
"I knew even before my book was published that this wasn't going to be a book just for women," said Strayed. "Yes, I'm a feminist and I love to tell my own and other women's stories. But from the beginning, I insisted that Wild was never marginalized. And what's really beautiful is that it never was."
The bonus is that even more people will undoubtedly pick up Strayed's inspiring book after seeing Witherspoon play her so magnificently.