Sunday 20 January 2019

Three bright stars steal the limelight

Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling tell Julia Molony how they each conquered self-doubt and rose to achieve their potential

Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling stars in a 'Wrinkle in Time'
Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling stars in a 'Wrinkle in Time'
Storm Reid in 'A Wrinkle in Time'

Even by the standards of a big-budget Hollywood press tour, it's rare to get this much star wattage packed into the same room.

Lined up side-by-side, dressed in colour-blocking brights and chatting idly about movie stars are three of popular culture's biggest female power players.

There's Reese Witherspoon - she who started her career playing ditzy blonde romantic leads and is now one of the entertainment industries most influential producers.

Then there's Mindy Kaling, actress, comedian, writer, author of two best- selling memoirs and creator of her eponymous hit show, The Mindy Project.

The third is the cultural empress herself, Oprah Winfrey, whose personal brand is so huge and influential, she certainly needs no introduction for me.

They're here to talk about the new movie they have starred in together A Wrinkle in Time. Disney's latest big-budget family film has its finger dead on the cultural pulse. It is a no-expense-spared technicolour show-piece that heralds a new, post-Weinstein era, and the end of the days when straight, white middle-aged men defined the values of mainstream entertainment.

Which explains in part why director Ava DuVernay (female, black and Oscar nominated for Selma) was able to persuade all three to take part.

"I was casting for leaders - icons," she has said about who she was looking for to play the three celestial guides, Mrs Who, Mrs Which and Mrs Whatsit in the psychedelic science-fantasy adventure, which is adapted from the book of the same name by Madeleine L'Engle.

In the film these three mavens with supernatural powers are tasked with guiding the lead character, 14-year-old Meg (played by mixed-race actress Storm Reid) as she overcomes her insecurities and self-doubt, embraces her flaws, taps into a wellspring of intellectual brilliance and saves her father, a scientist who has slipped through a crack in space and time to a darkest corner of the universe.

The story is based on a head-spinning mix of fantasy, Christianity and astrophysics. But at its heart it is, of course, a parable, preaching a message of self-acceptance and the importance of conquering self-doubt. And this is where the casting of Witherspoon, Kaling and Winfrey come in.

Each of them are, in their own way, the living embodiment of that message.

For Witherspoon conquering self-doubt came when she became a mother very young.

"I think I was around 21 or 22 when I first had a baby," she says. "And I realised I had to stop comparing myself to other people. And it was a big moment for me. I looked at my little baby daughter and I thought, I'm constantly measuring myself against other people and I don't want her to do that...

"I changed a lot of my behaviour when I had a little girl. I thought, 'I've got to really watch this - what I want to show to her and what I don't want to be'."

For Mindy Kaling, growing up as an Indian American girl with an original voice and fierce ambition, there was no blueprint or guide for the path she wanted to forge.

"Growing up, I'd seen so much of the success of people who didn't look like me," she explains. "There was a moment when I'd just graduated from college where I had to decide what my path was going to be and I thought, why not me. Why not me?

"The only thing keeping me from there was my own self- doubt... Because someone is going to do it. That was my big slogan for my early 20s - why not me?!" So much so, indeed that she later wrote a memoir with exactly that title.

For Oprah, for whom self-improvement is not only a guiding principle but a key pillar of her career, conquering self-doubt was about giving up on her habit of people-pleasing.

"I spent many years doing that thing that I think so many women do, and that is, I had the disease to please. Because I wanted people to think that I was nice. I started making money at an early age, and unfortunately every dollar I made was published.

"I couldn't figure out - OK, if people know you have money, you can't say you don't, so if every time someone asks you are you supposed to give it to them? What are you supposed to do? I don't want people to think that I'm stingey, I want them to think that I'm nice. And if that is your intention, in pleasing people to make them think you are nice, they will think you're nice and then they will keep asking.

"So it took me a long time to get to the point of recognising that I may not be nice, but I'm really kind, and generous. And that I get to decide what I want to do. And if you do whatever you want to do, out of a pure, honest intention, then that comes from a clean place, people receive that cleanly and then they don't come back and ask you for more.

"So I learned way too late, to do exactly what I wanted to do, and if it pleases you fine, and if it doesn't that's OK, because I already know who I am."

This film had special resonance for them all, because its core is a celebration of the values of tolerance and inclusion.

"Even when I got the call to be in this movie, that Ava was directing it, that there was a little girl starring in it, there was a woman of colour, I started to cry," says Reese. "I started to cry at my first meeting with Ava - I'm going to cry now! Because I've been looking at Twitter, and seeing little girls posting pictures of themselves and looking like the main character."

She is acutely aware of the power of popular culture to shape our values and attitudes. "One of my children came home from school the other day and he said 'a friend of his came out as gay', and he said, 'I'm so disappointed that he didn't tell me first'. Isn't that beautiful?

"And I think that's due in large part to the transformative idea of television and film, that it becomes the new normal. It normalises things that we need to see normalised," she says.

Oprah agrees. "When you see images, and our movie does that - this little brown girl who happens to represent girls all over the world, but when you see images that reflect you, it makes you feel, key word, worthy.

"And there are lots of things that can happen in your life. You can have lots of successes and you can be the star of your class or your soccer team. But there's a thing that comes from feeling that you are worthy, that gets reflected back to you, either in your family, and if you don't have it in your family, certainly in society, where images say that you are worthy to be here...

"And that's what this film is doing for little brown girls around the world, and for girls that see themselves in her insecurities."

A Wrinkle In Time is out now

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