Cheryl Strayed on Working with Reese Witherspoon and Watching Her Life Unfold on Screen

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 13: Cheryl Strayed and Reese Witherspoon attend The May Fair Hotel Gala red carpet arrivals of 'Wild' during the 58th BFI London Film Festival at Odeon Leicester Square on October 13, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for BFI)
Source: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

There’s a lot of love between Wild author Cheryl Strayed and mega movie star Reese Witherspoon, who plays her in the film. If you judge Strayed on her memoir, and Witherspoon on the red carpet photos of her in US Weekly, the two seem worlds apart. One is (or was) a woman in crisis, trudging across the Pacific Coast Trail alone in hopes of getting her life back together after losing her mother to cancer and losing herself to heroin, empty sex, and a painful divorce. The other is a wildly successful (no pun intended, I swear) actress, living a charmed life in Hollywood.

But Witherspoon obviously related to Strayed and her story, because she (along with her producing partner Bruna Papandrea) jumped to option the film rights to the bestselling memoir. Not every writer has a pleasant experience when their book gets thrust into the Hollywood machine (William Faulkner once said that “Hollywood is a place where a man can get stabbed in the back while climbing a ladder”), but Strayed wasn’t cast out like a peon once the cameras started rolling — Witherspoon, director Jean-Marc Valée, screenwriter Nick Hornby, and Laura Dern (who plays Strayed’s mother Bobbi) all relied on her memories and her insight throughout the process of making the film. “I felt like I was listened to,” she says. Not every writer can say the same.

Wild premiered at the Telluride Film Festival this fall to rave reviews, and Witherspoon seems to have a lock on a Best Actress Oscar nomination. The film, which opens on December 5, is nuanced and emotional and beautifully done. I recently talked to Strayed about the experience of handing her book over to Hollywood, what it’s like watching the movie of the book of your life for the first time, and her thoughts on the state of women in publishing.

BUSTLE: It took you years to turn your PCT experience into a book, so how does it feel now that the film is coming out?

CHERYL STRAYED: Obviously I’m a writer and everything goes into the pot, but I never thought I was going to write about my PCT hike. So to have it turn out that the book is so widely embraced and then to be sitting here going, ‘Here I am watching the movie of the book of the life and the experience’ — that blows my mind. It’s profound and moving and surreal. It’s this constant going back and forth between [the fact that] what is on the screen is so accurate and so clear and so much my life, and this strange distance, like this is an actress who is pretending to be me, and it’s so odd. It’s so bizarre.

What was the first screening like for you?

When we all watched it at the world premiere in Telluride it was really emotional. We came to love each other —Laura and Reese and Jean-Marc and Bruna. It just felt like we were sending our child into the world. I always have great respect for anyone who makes a movie or writes a book, even if it’s a book or movie you don’t end up loving, because a lot of people worked really hard on that thing, you know?

Were you on set at all?

I was on set a lot. We shot in Oregon where I live, and I was on set and talking to the actors about their roles and giving Jean-Marc advice about technical things. None of those guys know anything about backpacking. It was hardcore. If you talk to Reese she says it’s the hardest movie she’s made, physically and emotionally. I joke with Reese that I did the hike but I didn’t have craft services. It was challenging and we were shooting this time last year, in the fall, and making it look like it was summer, which mostly just meant refusing to let Reese put on pants. She’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt and oftentimes it’s freezing.

The film was in good hands, but were you ever nervous that the film version might be disappointing, since you lived the story and are obviously so close to it?

I trusted all the people that made the movie and there was a wonderful, collaborative feeling. I felt like I was listened to. It was when Jean-Marc started editing the film that I just went, Gulp. Oh, wait a minute. This is a movie and people are going to see the movie of my book and what if I don’t like it? What if it violates my vision of that story or my memory or my life? I was terrified the first time I watched the movie. I was like, Please just don’t let it suck. You’re just asking for that, first. And when I watched it I was so moved. Jean-Marc and I have such a similar aesthetic and he really understood the story and I saw it there on the screen. That might be the most moving thing of all - that Jean-Marc saw what I was trying to do in the book and he tried to do it in the movie, but it was his vision of my book.

It might be the same story, but page and screen are very different mediums.

There was this interesting symbiosis. For the movie to be good it has to stand on its own, it can’t just be a rendition of the book. It has to be true to the book while also being its own thing.

With books you can get inside the characters’ heads and communicate emotion through words, and I thought they did such a beautiful job of taking this interior journey and making it cinematic and visceral.

That’s what literature does beautifully is interiority, and film is challenged by that. We’ve all seen ridiculous flashbacks where they’re trying to convey the interior life in a way that ends up being heavy-handed, and I think Jean-Marc masterfully handles memory in the film. 

What would you tell other writers who are about to have their books adapted for the first time?

One of the things is that from the very beginning, the mission was art. Reese wanted to make a movie about a woman who is complicated in ways that Hollywood has sometimes resisted. She didn’t sell the movie to the highest bidder, she took it to people who were interested in helping her carry out her vision of the book, which was to be true to the book and not dumb it down or make it conventional. She wanted to keep its original voice. My advice to writers is that it really does pay to align yourself with people who have that kind of artistic integrity and whose goal is making a beautiful film, not making a bunch of money.

I’m really very conscious of the way that women are marginalized.

And now there’s plenty of talk about the film being an Oscar contender, and the book is an international bestseller. How does that feel?

When I wrote Wild I didn’t think I was writing a bestseller. I wasn’t trying to make money. I wasn’t trying not to make money; I was trying to write the best book I could possibly write and a book that spoke to the truth of what it means to be human. I had no idea of what would happen to it. The book would be the same book whether three people read it or three hundred million. What happens to it in the world is beyond you. I always think, keep the faith in the work, and then come what may. Everyone that worked on the film had that same ethic.

Your New York Times piece about this being a “golden age” for female essayists got a lot of attention, and there’s an ongoing and important conversation happening about the way women are treated in the publishing world. Did you experience any sexism with Wild?

I’m really very conscious of the way that women are marginalized. They are in Hollywood and they are in the book world. One of the things that I very consciously did before Wild was published was that I was adamant about the fact that this isn’t a book for women. By which I mean I know some things about the book will be particularly powerful for women, but the book is for humans. Throughout time what we’ve seen is that male writers have this central space where their stories are about all of us, and women’s stories are about women. I was saying to my publisher, to the marketing team and publicity team, and to journalists who would interview me, I’ve written a book for people. And men read the book. Half of my fan mail is from men.

We all have biases and sometime’s we’re not aware of them. I don’t think there’s an evil committee of men out there trying to keep women down, though… there probably is somewhere. But I think the way that sexism functions, at least in this culture, is this kind of discreet way that women are the particular and not the universal. We have chick lit and chick flicks and really those are ways to marginalize women.

Do you think anything has changed since the book was first published?

Slightly, and I think people like Reese and Bruna are starting production companies that are avowedly feminist, and I think that people like me and many of my female writer friends are saying, No, we’re not going to sit on the sidelines anymore. I remember a few years ago Jennifer Egan won the National Book Award and she was in the running with Jonathan Franzen. I love both of those writers, so this isn’t a criticism of Franzen, but it’s interesting. Jennifer Egan won and in one of the stories on it, the photograph was of Jonathan Franzen and the headline was something like, “Egan Upsets Franzen.” So she wins and the photograph is of the guy that didn’t win. I think women are saying, No more. We’re going to challenge this.

What are you working on now?

I have so many obligations being the ambassador Wild right now, but I have started writing a novel and a memoir and I’m wading into both of them to see which one takes me. I’m hoping in 2015 I get some real time to write. When you write a book called Wild you get to use all kinds of puns. It’s been a wild year! and It’s been a wild ride! I’ve seen them all.

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