In the summer of 1995, a novice 26-year-old hiker named Cheryl Strayed set out to tackle the formidable Pacific Coast Trail in an attempt to rid herself of the demons that were plaguing her life: drug use, a recent divorce, and the death of her mother. Last fall, Reese Witherspoon tread upon some of the same ground to retell Strayed’s story for the film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir, Wild, which Fox Searchlight will release later this year. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) tried to re-create the hiker’s journey as faithfully as possible, shooting mostly chronologically, using natural light, and banning mirrors in Witherspoon’s makeup trailer.
“She went method with the hair and no makeup,” says Vallee. “We wanted to see Reese out there, not vain at all, not concerned with her image, and she went for it. Wait until you see her in the film. It’s a new Reese.”
Her vanity-free performance also included foregoing a hairbrush, a mountain-woman effect not even Strayed could claim to have embraced. (According to Vallee, the real-life woman “was a little coquette, combing her hair every day.”)
Vallee and his crew chronicled Strayed’s emotional and physical transformation in a mere 35 days, shooting with Witherspoon in the Oregon forest from early in the morning before the sun rose until dusk, where the crew would capture the nightly sunset. Strayed was often on set providing guidance to the 37-year-old actress — details from how to carry her heavy backpack to how to assemble her tent. It was a process that became easier as the days wore on.
“The more we were shooting, the more the character, and Reese, got comfortable with Mother Nature, with the wilderness,” says Vallee, who compares his actress’ commitment to the role to his previous leading man Matthew McConaughey, who lost close to 50 pounds to play AIDS patient Ron Woodruff in Dallas.
“They have similar lives..they have everything and they want a challenge. They want to get out of their comfort zone, and Reese did, just like Matthew. It’s impressive to witness, to see where these actors are ready to go and what they are ready to do.”