Reese Witherspoon hit headlines for all the wrong reasons when she was arrested for disorderly conduct. And during her run-in with the law, she made her frustrations abundantly clear to the cop who had pulled her – and her husband – over. Unfortunately for the star, though, a video showing exactly what went down during the unflattering incident later went viral. What’s more, as the famous actress has since admitted, the comments that she made in the heat of the moment seem to have haunted her.
The ups and downs of the actor’s life in the spotlight are in fact examined in a 2019 documentary series entitled Reese Witherspoon: The Price of Fame. Made by REELZ, the show specifically delves deeper into the story of her now infamous arrest and even considers the unexpected effect that the incident had both on her career and her girl-next-door persona.
Following Witherspoon’s bust, you see, critics slammed her for not behaving in a way that her fans may have expected. And, as a result, the actor subsequently apologized for her actions and admitted that she was embarrassed about how she’d dealt with the situation. Yet all that didn’t seem to stop her career from taking a different direction following the incident.
And as Witherspoon made her film debut when she was just a teenager, she’s now been on our screens for a considerable period of time. But she certainly didn’t come from your typical child star background. Instead, the future star entered the world in 1976 in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, before moving to Nashville, Tennessee, with her family. She had an older brother – John Draper Jr. – and both of her parents were distinguished medical professionals.
And while Witherspoon’s father, John Draper Witherspoon Sr., was still a medical student at the time of her birth, he would go on to become an ear, nose and throat surgeon. Her mom, Betty, was also a doctor and eventually gained an impressive three degrees before taking up a role as a nursing professor at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University.
Witherspoon lived in Germany for four years, too, while her father worked in the reserves of the U.S. Army. After returning to America, however, the star later confirmed that she’d had “a very definitive Southern upbringing.” Indeed, as she told the Los Angeles Times in 2002, “It bred in me such a sense of family and tradition… It helped me establish a normalcy in life that I hope will stay with me for the long haul.”
And as Witherspoon’s career in Hollywood started to take off, she would in fact align this “normal” childhood with her success. In 2002, you see, she told USA Today, “My Southern upbringing has been real beneficial to me in this industry. [It’s about] being conscientious about people’s feelings, being polite, being responsible and never taking for granted what you have in your life.”
Here, Witherspoon was speaking following her breakout success playing the iconic lead role in Legally Blonde. Prior to that, the actor had starred in the coming-of-age movie The Man in the Moon and the teen flicks Election and Cruel Intentions. But as you may have guessed, it was the aforementioned Legally Blonde that truly made her a star.
In the 2001 comedy, Witherspoon plays Elle Woods – a stereotypical Beverly Hills blonde who swaps her sorority for Harvard Law School in an attempt to win back a former boyfriend. Along the way, though, the student discovers that she herself is something of a natural talent in the courtroom.
What’s more, Legally Blonde proved to be a hit with both critics and audiences alike, and Witherspoon’s performance attracted particular praise. The emerging star was consequently nominated for the Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy honor at the Golden Globes. In 2002 she was also recognized in the Best Female Performance category at the MTV Movie Awards.
In the same year, the success of Legally Blonde meant that Witherspoon found further fame with the global smash Sweet Home Alabama. Legally Blonde 2 came out shortly after this in 2003, and the star allegedly bagged $15 million for reprising the role that shot her to fame. It was through gigs like these, then, that Witherspoon established her image as one of America’s sweethearts.
The actor’s status as a sassy Southern belle made her a firm favorite among the film-going public to boot. In fact, it seemed that people couldn’t help but like and admire Witherspoon. So, as the star’s career progressed, she appeared to go from strength to strength. Then, in 2005, she won an Oscar for her role as June Carter Cash in the Johnny Cash biographical drama Walk the Line.
Yet as soon as Witherspoon’s movie career hit an all-time high, things unfortunately started to go awry for the actor. You see, a number of her films following Walk The Line failed to attract similar success. And in 2006 she and her husband at the time, Ryan Phillippe, announced their intention to split.
Witherspoon had met fellow actor Phillippe in 1997 – on her 21st birthday, in fact. They had become engaged the following year and then married in 1999 at South Carolina’s Old Wide Awake Plantation. And before the year was out, the couple welcomed their first child: a daughter named Ava. In 2003 their family grew once more when they had their son, Deacon.
From the outside, then, it seemed as though Witherspoon and Phillippe had begun their relationship as the perfect couple. However, their union was reportedly later dogged by jealousy and rivalry between the pair. And according to Lauren Brown, a biographer to the stars, the Legally Blonde star’s runaway success drove a damaging wedge between the couple.
In Reese Witherspoon: The Price of Fame, Brown also claimed that the actor’s success with Walk The Line had been the final nail in the coffin for her marriage to Phillippe. She said, “Right after Reese has this huge career-changing moment and is now an Oscar-winning actress… Things in her marriage were just getting progressively worse and going downhill.”
So, while Witherspoon and Phillippe ultimately divorced in 2007, the split certainly didn’t mark the end of the Oscar winner’s woes. That’s what Witherspoon herself suggested in a 2014 tell-all interview with 60 Minutes, during which she opened up about this difficult period in her life. And at one point, the actor even admitted that her divorce had had a negative impact on her career.
Witherspoon explained, “You can’t really be creative when you feel like your brain is scrambled eggs.” She added, “I was just kind of floundering career-wise because I wasn’t making things I was passionate about. I was just kind of working. And it was really clear that audiences weren’t responding to anything I was putting out there.”
But Witherspoon did go on to once again find happiness in her personal life, as in 2011 the actor married talent agent Jim Toth. Then, a year later, the couple welcomed their son, Tennessee. But just as it seemed that the star was piecing her life back together, she was rocked by her second scandal to date.
That’s because in 2013 Witherspoon and Toth were both arrested after being pulled over by police in Atlanta, Georgia. They’d attracted a cop’s attention when Toth swerved out of his lane in the Ford Fusion that he had been driving. And after the talent agent had been stopped by a police officer, his eyes were reportedly bloodshot and droopy – and it’s been claimed that there was also a strong smell of alcohol on his breath.
The cop – Trooper J. Pyland – subsequently ordered Toth to step out of the vehicle and conduct a breathalyzer test. The result came in at 0.139, which is much higher than the legal limit of 0.08. As a consequence, then, the officer attempted to arrest the seemingly drunk driver on a DUI charge. And that’s when Witherspoon tried to intervene.
Pyland subsequently documented what happened next in his arrest report. The officer wrote, “Mrs. Witherspoon began to hang out the window and say that she did not believe that I was a real police officer.” Describing his own reaction to the actor’s interference, he added, “I told Mrs. Witherspoon to sit on her butt and be quiet.”
But Witherspoon didn’t heed Pyland’s advice to stay out of matters. Instead, she removed herself from the vehicle and continued with her attempts to prevent her husband’s arrest. Needless to say, though, her efforts were not well received by the officer, who subsequently decided to arrest the star on account of her disorderly conduct.
And to make matters worse, the incidents that led to Witherspoon and Toth’s arrests were caught on dashcam. In the footage, which later became public, Pyland can be heard warning the Legally Blonde star to return to the car. The actor refuses, however, and instead she tells the officer, “I’m a U.S. citizen. I am allowed to stand on American ground.”
Then Pyland can then be seen grabbing Witherspoon by her arms. Describing this moment in his arrest report, the cop wrote, “I put my hands on Mrs. Witherspoon’s arms to arrest her… Mrs. Witherspoon was resistant, but I was able to put handcuffs on her without incident due to Mr. Toth calming her.”
The resistance to which Pyland was referring was Witherspoon’s words of warning. “You better not arrest me,” she said. And in the video she continues to protest. The officer, on the other hand, responds calmly, telling her, “I told you to get in the car and stay in there, didn’t I?” Yet the Oscar winner continues to rage, and she exclaims, “This is beyond! This is harassment. You are harassing me.”
As Witherspoon maintains her innocence, though, Toth can be seen trying to calm her down. Then she plays the fame card, asking the officer, “You know my name, sir?” The actor goes on to warn him, “You’re about to find out who I am.” And later on in the dashcam footage, she tells Pyland that her arrest will make the “national news.”
At least in that regard, Witherspoon was right: her arrest did in fact make national headlines. It was subsequently reported, too, that the actor had to complete an intervention program before trial in order to prevent a conviction. And thanks to the publicity surrounding the star’s outbursts, she felt it necessary to apologize for the far from exemplary behavior that she had displayed in the dashcam footage.
In a statement released shortly after the 2013 arrest, Witherspoon said, “I do want to say, I clearly had one drink too many and I am deeply embarrassed about the things I said.” She added, “It was definitely a scary situation and I was frightened for my husband, but that is no excuse. I was disrespectful to the officer who was just doing his job. I have nothing but respect for the police and I’m very sorry for my behavior.”
Then, a month after Witherspoon’s arrest, she again opened up about the incident in an interview with ABC News. The actor explained, “It was just one of those nights. We went out to dinner and had one too many glasses of wine. [And] we thought we were okay to drive, but we definitely were not. We are just so sorry this happened.”
Witherspoon continued, “We know better than that. It’s something that will absolutely never happen again, [and] I had no idea what I was thinking that night. I saw [Officer Pyland] arrest my husband, and I just panicked.” She added, “I said all kinds of crazy things to the officer. I even told him I was pregnant, [but] I am not pregnant!”
In fact, during Witherspoon’s interview with ABC News, she apologized for her behavior at the time of her arrest over and over again. She said, “I had no idea what I was talking about, and I am so sorry. I was so disrespectful to [Officer Pyland]. I have police officers in my family [and] work with police officers every day, [so] I know better.”
And in the aftermath of the incident, Witherspoon admitted, “The worst part was having to speak to the kids.” At the time, the star’s oldest two children were 13 and nine, while her youngest was just eight months old. Explaining how she dealt with this, Witherspoon said, “We are so embarrassed by it, but we just had to tell them that when you make a mistake, you have to take responsibility. We were honest with them.”
During Witherspoon’s chat with ABC News, host George Stephanopoulos also asked the star whether she’d learned anything from her arrest. Responding to his question, the actor joked, “When a police officer tells you to stay in the car, you stay in the car.” Reflecting further on the incident, she added, “I’ve played a lawyer so many times in movies, I think I am a lawyer sometimes. Clearly I am not!”
But while such a scandal may have been enough to end some stars’ careers, for Witherspoon it seemed to have had the opposite effect. Yes, although some critics believed that the sweet image that the actor had cultivated was forever tarnished by the arrest, others enjoyed seeing a more human side to the Oscar winner.
So, fresh off the heels of her arrest, Witherspoon’s career actually enjoyed a new lease of life. She received critical acclaim for her roles in Mud and The Good Lie, for example. And the star was nominated for a second Oscar for her portrayal of Cheryl Strayed in the biopic Wild – a film that she also produced with her company, Pacific Standard.
Wild was Witherspoon’s second venture as a producer following her involvement with the 2012 thriller Gone Girl. In 2016 the star also began working on the hit TV miniseries Big Little Lies. And in order to produce the show, she teamed up with fellow actor and co-star Nicole Kidman.
So, it seems that Witherspoon’s arrest marked a turning point in her career – a fact that seemingly hasn’t gone unnoticed by the actor herself. In fact, during an appearance at the London Film Festival in 2014, she said that her run-in with the law had shown people a different side to her. And perhaps this new layer of her personality opened up even more opportunities for the actor-turned-producer.
Witherspoon was attending the London Film Festival in order to promote Wild when at a press conference, she acknowledged the incident and how it had affected her image. According to The Hollywood Reporter, she explained, “I think it was a moment where people realized that I wasn’t exactly what they thought I was.”
Revealing what that comment meant, Witherspoon continued, “I guess maybe we all like to define people the way the media presents them. And I think that I showed I have a complexity that people didn’t know about. It’s part of human nature. I made a mistake. We all make mistakes. The best you can do is say sorry, learn from it and move on.”