The romantic fantasy movie Penelope is the first film Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Type A Films, developed from the ground up. Oscar-winner Witherspoon (Walk the Line) believes producing is a natural progression for an actor, and she’s determined to continue putting out films under her Type A banner. “I’ve been on sets for 15 years now [and] just being a part of the filmmaking process you absorb so much that you don’t even realize you are looking at. Whether it is lighting, or shot composition, or casting, you realize how important every element is,” offered Witherspoon.
Penelope tells the story of a young girl from a wealthy family who's cursed with a pig’s nose. Only when someone of her own class and status accepts her for who she is will she be free of the horrible curse. Christina Ricci plays the part of Penelope, although at one point in the process Witherspoon considered playing the title role herself. “I thought about it, but I got busy with other commitments and the movie ad to go forward. We decided to cast it, but I always knew I wanted to be in it in some capacity. It was kind of fun for me to get to play a smaller character and get to be a broad,” laughed Witherspoon.
Instead, Witherspoon took on the part of an outspoken, worldly biker chick who befriends Penelope. “I found somebody I thought was kind of like her and I just kind of mimicked her,” explained Witherspoon about getting into this wild character. “It was fun, yeah. I got to run around the streets of London on a Vespa. I got to wear the funny hair, just be ballsy, and funny.”
And speaking of the Vespa, Witherspoon says that because she’s height challenged special arrangements had to be made in order for her to ride the bike. “My feet wouldn’t touch the ground on the Vespa. They tried to lower it as low as they possibly could and my feet still couldn’t touch the ground on the Vespa. We had to put it on a rig. Christina [Ricci] is pretty short too, and she had to sit on the back. Somebody went off, so we had to rig it up, and do it good old movie style. I think that was it.”
Ricci was always Witherspoon’s first choice to star in the film once she determined she wouldn’t be able to do it herself. “I was so excited, it’s great when you have this hot script in your hand and you’ve got this great character. You are like, ‘Ooo, my choices!’ So Christina was my first choice. We were lucky when we sent her the script. She and I sat down for lunch and I thought, ‘She is not going to want to do this.’ Here is this weird pig face. I think that people around her were thinking she didn’t want to do it. She just came in and was like, ‘No, I’m excited! I want to do this. I want to wear this pig face. I think it’s great and it’s awesome.’ I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ And she just was fearless.”
“That is what I have always loved about Christina; she has a real intelligence to her work. She always plays a very intelligent woman, also very sharp, very witty, and she’s always just been great. We grew up auditioning together. We had known each other for years from sitting in the waiting room, waiting to get cast - or not cast - in movies. We made a friendship. It was great to finally have that collaboration we had talked about for so many years,” said Witherspoon.
Penelope wound up in Type A’s hands when Witherspoon’s producing partner Jennifer Simpson brought the script to her attention about four years ago. “She had been working with my company, she found the script, and she loved it,” explained Witherspoon. “It was a script that other people had read. There were a lot of ideas about how to make it. People tossed around making it an animated movie. When she brought it to me I just thought it was great. It was perfect for our company because at the center it was a wonderful, fantastic, cinematic movie. At the center it also had a really great female character who was strong, ambitious, but definitely had a journey to go through to get to the place where she would find herself.”
“Sometimes I get frustrated that there are not a lot of really great female characters out there that young women can look at and go, ‘I want to be like that. It’s awesome.’ I go to movies and I get frustrated. I’m just like, ‘Shoot him! Just shoot him!’ Why does the guy get to shoot him? Why can’t the girl shoot him? I miss those characters in film. I feel like it would be nice to see more of them. I’m happy to be part of something where I feel like there is a great female character, which Christina plays, and it could be inspiring to people,” said Witherspoon.
Surprisingly, Witherspoon would love to tackle a character who kicks, not just a couple, but a lot of butts. “Yes, possibly I would like to do that, and I would like to see other women do it,” admitted Witherspoon. “I love to see Angelina Jolie in movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I can’t wait to see her in Wanted. I think those movies where women have great strength and character. It’s always interesting.”
Jolie’s co-star in Wanted is James McAvoy, who also happens to co-star in Penelope. McAvoy plays the only suitor who doesn’t flee in panic upon meeting Penelope face to face. Commenting on his casting, Witherspoon says they were just lucky to get him. “The casting director suggested him and at the time I didn’t know who he was. Christina had seen some of his work and she was a big champion of his. So was Jennifer Simpson, my producing partner. I watched some of his stuff and thought he was great. Of course he has become this big movie star now. I tease him and say, ‘I got you when you were cheap.’ That’s not going to happen again - I’ll never get him again. He’s so great and I’m so happy for him to be having all this success. He’s really versatile. You can believe him as a doctor, but also as a super spy. He’s just wonderful.”