'Wrinkle' stars talk motherhood, pay equality
Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling talk more than just life on the set of "A Wrinkle in Time." USA TODAY
HOLLYWOOD – It turns out, Reese Witherspoon is a killer travel guide.
Last year, when she, Oprah Winfrey and Mindy Kaling moved with the cast of A Wrinkle in Time (in theaters Friday) from California to New Zealand, it was Witherspoon who knew about all the best spots and local adventures.
“Reese has friends in any corner of the world; generous friends who say, ‘We’d like to take you on a helicopter tour,’ " says Kaling, 38, sitting next to a laughing Winfrey, 64, and Witherspoon, 41.
“Or, 'Would you like to come to our island?' ” Winfrey says.
The fast friends represent director Ava DuVernay’s vision of what a modern adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's classic 1962 sci-fi novel looks like in 2018: Take protagonist Meg Murry (in the book, a young white girl from Connecticut), and cast her as a black child from Compton. Replace the three granny-esque "Mrs." — celestial guides who mentor Meg — with black, white and Asian faces.
“I just wanted to do something that would make a kid go, ‘Wow, I want to fly like that.’ But who’s the person flying? It’s the person who never gets to fly. The black girl,” says DuVernay. “It’s a really big deal to have a scene in the movie, where a black girl says to a Caucasian boy, 'Do you trust me?' And he says yes and he follows her. I can’t think of another film where that happens.
“She’s not a Jedi. She’s not a superhero. She’s a girl in a plaid shirt and glasses and she does extraordinary things. That touched me and I related to it.”
DuVernay's wise Mrs. Which (Winfrey), playful Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon) and patient Mrs. Who (Kaling) say they struggled in real life to find books or movies that reflected them in their childhoods.
Witherspoon was drawn to the magic in 1984's The NeverEnding Story film, but failed to find a young female lead to look up to in her youth. Winfrey says the first book she saw herself reflected in was Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Previously, “I just couldn’t imagine how a black girl’s story was worthy of a book,” she says.
Kaling voraciously consumed young-adult fiction, but “when I was growing up in the '80s, it was really white protagonists for the most part,” she says. “It wasn’t until I was a young adult and we were in ninth grade when I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, with even someone who approximated anyone that looked like me.”
Today they sit atop an industry disrupted by Oscars So White, Time’s Up and the Me Too movement. "It has put everyone in check,” Winfrey says.
Witherspoon pushes past the notion that some men are struggling with the new normal in place since the Harvey Weinstein scandal triggered a national reckoning. “This is a time when everybody’s a little uncomfortable, but I always say we’ve been uncomfortable for our whole lives!” Witherspoon says. “If you’re uncomfortable for, what, four months? Um, I think you can handle it.”
Kaling, who came up writing for The Office and has created, sold and run two shows of her own, The Mindy Project and NBC’s new Champions, says the onus is no longer on minorities to create change.
“It used to be if you were a showrunner of color or a woman of color who had your own show, you would be the only one scrutinized for hiring diverse writers, diverse actors, diverse below-the-line (talent),” says Kaling. “And now they’re finally being like, ‘OK, also if you’re a white man, we’ll scrutinize you as well.' Before, cronyism was fine, it was an accepted thing. And now, it’s not.”
Transparency has become a huge driver. In Hollywood, “women and people of color are turning over their paychecks and showing them to each other,” says Witherspoon. “And that’s what we should be doing.”
But the world will have to live without Winfrey in the Oval Office. Winfrey chuckles when asked if she's recovered from her brief presidential run.
"It’s humbling, and it makes you feel like you have a life that’s moved in the proper direction that people would trust you with such a thing," she says. "But you have to be able to know what is your true calling and to honor that in the best possible way."
Kaling recently entered a new dimension: motherhood. She gave birth to her first child, daughter Katherine, in December. Winfrey, who sent her co-star an extravagant baby gift of books and a lavish, hand-carved bookcase to house them in, asks her co-stars an often-thorny question: how they balance family and work.
“I’m literally her sustenance right now, so luckily I have some mandatory time when I can see her, which is nice,” says Kaling of her 11-week-old.
Witherspoon is mom to Ava, 18, Deacon, 14 (their dad is her ex-husband, Ryan Phillippe), and Tennessee, 5 (with her agent husband Jim Tosh). When she walks in the door, “I put the phone down,” she says. “We have family dinner. Weekends, I usually don’t work.”
“I do wonder how you do it, though,” Winfrey continues. “Because I look at you sometimes and I think, when I’m taking my wig off and I’m going to go have a glass of wine, all I have to do is say, ‘Hi, Luke, Hi, Layla!’ with my dogs. And you’ve got to now go home and be a mother at the end of 14 hours of giving yourself over. How do you do that?"
Witherspoon calls HBO's Big Little Lies, which has swept through awards season, her “fourth child” of late. Driven by a mission to represent women’s stories on the screen, “I hope to leave this business in another place than how I started," says the star.
But she still has her moments.
“I was driving my son to preschool two days ago, and he said, ‘Mommy, I know you work, but the other moms work and they do drop-off but they ALSO do pickup,' ” she recalls, noting that Tennessee has a friend whose mom is a therapist. “He goes, 'Why doesn’t she become a producer and you become a therapist?' And it hurts, you know?”
Still, Witherspoon's mom worked as a nurse and a teacher, she says, and she's proud that her children are starting to recognize her work. “When they saw me on stage with Oprah at the Golden Globes, my son who’s 14 texted me: ‘Mom, that was really amazing and I’m really proud of who you are as a mom.’ That one got me. I’m going to cry," she says dabbing her eyes.
“That what we’re talking about onstage, Me Too and Time’s Up, clicks for him is, like, huge!" she says. There's another happy wrinkle in the Witherspoon household. "And my daughter got into college!”
Disney's star-studded adaptation of the popular children's book "A Wrinkle in Time" challenges viewers to think differently about time and space, darkness and light.