Alexander Payne wasn’t the obvious choice to host the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “An Evening With Reese Witherspoon” on Saturday at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, but the director and screenwriter best known for “Sideways” and “The Descendants” — neither of which starred Witherspoon — can say one thing about the Oscar-winning actress that few in Hollywood can: He knew her before she was famous. Well, A-list famous.
Payne directed Witherspoon when she was an up-and-comer in the 1999 dark comedy “Election.” He said Witherspoon didn’t earn the role during an audition, but during their conversations of the script.
“We discussed the script at length and that’s when I figured she’d be right,” Payne said. “I’d seen her in ‘The Man in the Moon,’ so I knew who she was. She seemed right. Most importantly, she was maybe 19 or 20 at the time, but I still believed she could be 17. I hate when they cast high school kids who look older than high school.
“Then I just had a good feeling about it. I needed someone who could be funny, but also believable and heart-breaking, and she was able to hit all those parts in the film.”
Witherspoon — who is pregnant with her third child — has since gone on to star in “Legally Blonde” and “Walk the Line” (for which she won the best actress Oscar) and was presented with the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Renaissance Award. She was recently cast in the big-screen adaptation of the best-selling book “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.”
“The script is fantastic and it’s a fun concept,” said Witherspoon when asked why she wanted to be a part of the film. “Also, I think the male-female gender dynamic is always interesting.”
Payne is currently scouting locations in Illinois for one of his next films, “Nebraska.” The movie will revolve around a father and son on as they take a road trip from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb.
“It might be somewhere in Illinois, but I’m still figuring that out,” Payne said. “On Monday and Tuesday I’ll be scouting around Galesburg and Moline and Rock Island and then I’ll see if there’s something that whets wetsmy appetite. If not, then I’ll do something else.”
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