Author and wisest-person-in-the-universe Cheryl Strayed. Photo by TedXMtHood.
Cheryl Strayed is the author many, many of my friends would easily elect as “Person I Would Most Love to Have as My Best Friend.” When Bitch last interviewed Strayed, she had just published Wild, her memoir of grief, identity, and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Her empathetic, funny, and vulnerable writing style won Wild the number one place on the New York Times best-seller list.
Yesterday, Strayed woke up to the news that Reese Witherspoon had been nominated for a Golden Globe for her role as Cheryl in the film adaptation of Wild. The film, which is directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and was adapted for screen by Nick Hornby, opened in theaters nationwide this month. I talked with Strayed about the movie, red carpet body-policing, and how working with Hollywood somehow made her even sweeter.
Reese Witherspoon plays 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed in Wild.
It’s interesting that Wild is coming out right now because feminism has been so trendy in pop culture this year. I mean, feminism is still maligned and people misuse the word, but I was wondering if you feel like it has been easier to pitch Wild or talk about it as a feminist film than it would have been ten years ago.
Well, I can tell you that I would talk about it in precisely the same terms. I mean it. I've always been on the record as a feminist and incredibly outspoken about it. In fact, when I was in college, I was an organizer for what was then-called the Minnesota Abortion Rights Council and then became Minnesota NARAL. My first job out of college was for Women Against Military Madness, which is a feminist peace group. I've literally had guys spit on my face because I've taken part in protests. I was outside of Planned Parenthood in the '90s, helping escort women inside when Operation Rescue was trying to shut them down. “Feminist” has always been way up there in the top five words I've used to describe myself.
I do feel so pleased that finally more and more people in the public eye—singers and actresses and female celebrities—are also starting to say, "Yeah, you know what? I'm a feminist, too." There have always been a few of them, but I think their numbers are growing. I think social media helps too. There's a greater sense of community. You don't feel like the lone person out there in the wind.
I can't tell you how excited I was when I saw, first of all, that Nick [Hornby] had included the exchange in the script of Wild, where Cheryl, I, ran into a reporter and I say that I'm a feminist. I love it. So in the movie, we have Reese saying, "Yes, I am a feminist." Obviously, she's playing me, but I think that the viewer also sees that it's Reese saying that. In her conversations about the film, she and her partner, Bruna Papandrea, talk about how they really began their production company with this feminist value.
“Trendy” always seems like a diminishing term. It implies that it's cool and fleeting, and that a whole bunch of people who are on the bandwagon now won't be, down the line. But I don't really think that that's fair. I think that what's happening is maybe like in the '70s, when a whole generation of women had a sort-of consciousness raising. I think that that's maybe happening, finally, in our times. A lot of women who have said in the past, "Oh, no. I don't feel discriminated against. Oh no, sexism is a thing of the past," they're starting to see that actually that's not really true, that there are still very clear markers that sexism is alive and well, and that they are suffering from it. I think a lot of people who grew up not thinking of feminism as necessary are seeing that it is, and I don't think that will go away. I think that once you do have that consciousness, it's not a trend. It becomes a different way of thinking about the world.
One of the places where you see most clearly how sexism persists in our society is in Hollywood. We have statistics on how many women have speaking roles in film, how many women are directors of movies, and how many people of color are directors of movies and have speaking roles, and every year it's bad. The numbers are never good, or even necessarily getting better. I know when Reese came and talked to you about first making this film, she promised that she would be true to the spirit of the book and not dumb it down. I was wondering, as you were working on it, were you worried about that happening? Were you nervous about sending your book off to Hollywood and having it come out being a piece of sexist tripe?
Well, yes and no. We did have that long conversation and she was so adamant about being true to the book and honoring both the book and my life that I felt I could trust her. Then soon after that, I met Bruna Papandrea, who's Reese's producing partner, and we had a long breakfast. They're such cool women and we are all so much on the same page that I just knew they weren't going to allow bad things to happen.
We could have made the movie for a lot more money than we did. Wild is an indie film. I think a lot people don't understand that, because they see Reese Witherspoon there at the top, and they think, "Oh, it's a big Hollywood film," but really, it's an indie film made for a very modest independent budget, and that's because they really wanted to protect the film in exactly that way. Reese did not want to listen to studio executives saying, "Well, but we need to make you more likable. We need to have you not swearing so much, we need to have you not having sex with people." You know what I mean? Frankly, she's had those conversations in the past, and she didn't want that, so I trust her.
I also knew that I was going to get to weigh in all along the way. I read the script before it was finalized. I gave feedback, I talked about what I thought, and everyone who made the film, too, was just so great. Nick Hornby and Jean-Marc Vallee are both men with a great amount of sensitivity and really feminist consciousness.
I haven't actually seen the film yet, but I’m kind of nervous about seeing it and having it rewrite my experience with the book. When I was reading the book, I had visions of what your hike looked like, and there are parts of the book that are important to me. I'm a little nervous about going to see it and having that be replaced with the filmmakers' vision.
Yeah, I know. There's always that. When you have had a relationship to a book and go see the film, it rewrites, in some ways, the story in your head. Yet, I can assure you that what I've been hearing from readers, over and over, is how much they feel like the film really honors the book and it maybe, in some ways, just amplifies and deepens their experience of the book.
Are there scenes in the film that change or influence your own memory of what happened? Where you watch it and you're like, "Oh, I never thought about it that way," or that made you rethink your own writing and your own history?
Let's see. Nothing changes my memory, in that way. My memory isn't at all muddied or blotted out by the film, but there are things that Jean-Marc Vallee certainly did with the film that are his interpretation of my journey. Even though they're his interpretation, I think he's right, and I find it to be powerful and beautiful and interesting. One of the things he does that's different in the film than in the book is I see this fox, and it stares at me, and I stare at it, and then it turns around and walks away. And [in the book] I yell after it, "Mom, Mom, Mom." In the movie, you see there's this fox, and Reese looks at it, and it wanders away, and she yells, "Come back, come back, come back." She doesn't yell "Mom," but you get a sense of this as her mom.
Then, throughout the film, after that first encounter with the fox, the fox appears at various times. It's like a supernatural presence, it's like the sort of ghost/spirit-animal that represents Cheryl's mom in the film. I didn't have that supernatural element in the book, even though so many people took it that way and said to me, like, "So, is the fox your mom?" I'm like, "Well, I don't know, all I can say is what I wrote.” I felt the presence of my mom in that very intense exchange with this wild animal, so Jean-Marc just took that feeling and amplified it. He made it a more, I guess. It's fascinating to me where he took what was true and then just made it more literal and cinematic in the movie.
Well, what people connect with so strongly about your work is your honesty and your empathy. Your writing comes across like you're putting your whole self on the table, so readers want to meet you there. I'm wondering, how is that different in a film? Do you feel like a film can be as honest and as vulnerable as your writing, or is there something that's lost when it's turned into a production with the hands of a lot of people on it?
Well, I think that the thing that literature does best is interiority. By which I mean, you get to actually hear another human tell you what is true for him or her in any given moment, what's true inside the body, what's true inside the mind, even if that human is doing something differently. In a book, you can have somebody smiling at a cocktail party and seeming to have a great time, but on the inside, the narrator is telling you what he or she is really experiencing, which might be in direct contradiction to the exterior action.
Certainly, actors can do that too, and they do all the time, but it's harder, and it's less detailed. It's more impressionistic, so when you see Reese walking along on that hike and she stops and she looks across the landscape, you might be able to think, "Gee, I wonder if she's thinking about her Mom now, or if she's thinking about her divorce." She might be attempting to convey that to you, but there's so much room for the viewer to decide what she's thinking about. Whereas if you read that corollary page in my book, you know exactly what I'm thinking because I told you. That's what literature offers. With cinema, that kind of silence is more mysterious. It leaves open so much more room for interpretation.
If you go from the book to the film, you're going to see that story in a slightly new light. It's interesting. It's a fascinating process.
Why make a film? When you were thinking about getting this whole process started, what tipped you in favor of saying, "Yes, I want this to be a movie"?
It's funny, it was one of those things that just happened one step at a time. Because there were definitely times that I was like, “Wait a minute, was this a good idea?" [Laughs] At the beginning it was, "I wonder if anyone in Hollywood would be interested in this, just because I think it's fun." It's a fun idea to imagine the book you've written brought to life on the screen. We use that phrase "brought to life" when we talk about movies, because there's a way in which movies are more like living than books are. There's something so concrete about watching this woman hike along the trail on a screen.
I've always been fascinated by collaborations and interpretations. The film end of it being much more collaborative than I thought it would be. What I mean by that is I was more involved in it than I thought I would be. Even if I hadn't been involved, it's really fascinating to have other artists interpret work that you made.
What do you feel like you've learned through this whole process?
My husband is a filmmaker, so I have been around the film world and it wasn't the first time I was on a movie set. But this was the first time that I was closely involved in the making of a film. I learned a lot about film making, I learned a lot about script writing. Just seeing what Nick Hornby did and how he took my book as the raw material. He adapted it structurally, changed the structure to tell the story in a way that fit the form better. It was an education in script writing, it made me interested in writing script.
I also learned that seriously, as the years pass by, more and more of what I thought to be true based on hearsay and assumptions, it turns out those things aren't always true. You always hear such terrible things about Hollywood and how it’s a vile and shallow world. I have to say I've had nothing but amazing experiences, working with incredibly hard-working, talented people who are doing what they do with so much integrity and heart. I was never lacking in the optimism department, but I know I'm such a—I know. I know. I’m sugar. It made me more sugary. I know I'm insufferable like that already.
Ha! That’s like a funny reverse of the Hollywood tale. You went to the mean streets of Hollywood and you got even sweeter and nicer.
I know, I know. That's what's so funny. I was supposed to emerge as cynical and bitter and, like I've been completely screwed. No, not at all.
I emerged with a whole bunch of new, really good friends. I became really good friends with Bruna and Jean-Marc and Nick and Reese and Laura [Dern], and others too. That too has been so lovely. To meet people who you just truly grow to love.
That's so funny. I've heard you talk about some writers who have been inspirational to you, like Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Munro, but I haven't ever heard about filmmakers you find inspirational.
Jean Marc Vallee, I have so much affection and respect for him. I think he's such a fine director and filmmaker. Two months before production he was hired as the director. We met for lunch in Portland and everything he said about his aesthetic vision was so much in line with my own that I just knew he was so much the right person for this film. From that first impression onward, my respect for him has only deepened. I love Nicole Holofcener. Her most recent film is Enough Said. She did Walking and Talking. I think she is tremendous. I've always been a huge Alexander Payne fan.
I've always been a film lover. There's lots of films and directors I love. One thing, it's been cool to actually have a chance to meet a lot of these people. I met Alexander Payne at the Telluride Film Festival. I got to talk to him and say, “I love your movies." That was cool.
Also, at the Telluride Film Festival, that's where Wild had its world premiere, I saw Foxcatcher and Channing Tatum is in the movie. He's amazing in the film, and I got to talk to him and tell him how great he was. I snapped a picture of him and Reese, and I had no idea that he was famous. [Laughs] He is this nice guy, and I knew he was an actor, but it was so funny because I snapped a picture of him and Reese, and I put it on my Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, whatever. I woke up the next morning and I had 200,000 likes. It was so many more likes that anything I've ever posted in the history of my page. I was, "Who the hell is this Channing Tatum dude?" Then I realized, oh, he's actually a heartthrob. [Laughs] Basically the two most popular people on my social media pages are my dog Janie and Channing Tatum. It's a competition between the two of them. It's a tie.
That's great. Do you still feel like an outsider in that world? I think people look to you and they're, "Wow, you've really blown up. You're best friends with Oprah now." When you go to big fancy events like that, do you still feel like, "I'm just a writer, what am I doing here?"
I don't feel that way because I don't tend to be somebody who gets terribly star-struck with celebrities. I was no more star-struck by Reese as I was by Nick Hornby. You know what I mean? The writers I really admire and respect make me, I would say, more gobsmacked than any Hollywood celebrity person. Obviously it's exciting to meet people that you've known onscreen for a long time. When I first met Oprah, there was definitely a sense of, "Oh my God. I'm sitting here with Oprah." So don't get me wrong, it's thrilling, but really quickly, within about 60 seconds, you go from that "Wow, I'm talking to Reese Witherspoon," to "I'm talking to a person." They're just human. Once you've made that shift, you don't feel like you're outside of anything.
Having said that, I do feel different, I do feel lucky for being different. Actresses especially are scrutinized and under pressure to a degree that I really don’t have to endure as a part of my work life. Not that I'm not scrutinized, but it's really fascinating; I've been thinking lately about the number of times my body has been discussed. I think there's no male writer who would find a corollary.
You mean reviews of your book and the film making note of your body?
Last week in the New Yorker, David Denby reviewed the movie. He said nice things about the book and he had said mixed things about the movie, but he said he referred to me as “big bodied,” by way of comparing me to Reese. Which is kind of funny because in what Hollywood movie of a book is the actor the same size? You know what I mean? Obviously Reese is a movie star. It's a funny note. Why does what kind of body I have have any bearing on Reese's portrayal of me in the film? Reese is shorter than me, but I'm actually not a giant.
Anyway, things like that. We just talk about women's looks more than men. Thankfully, in the writing world we're a little bit removed from that. I love the privacy you get to have as writer.
What's it been like being more in the public eye and on the red carpet with that judgment lens in mind? If you go to a red carpet premiere, you know that people are going to be writing things about your dress and your boobs and your hair.
Does that go through your mind or do you just try not to think about it?
Oh my God, are you kidding me? That's what I mean, it's like suddenly I'm having to, yeah, to worry about how I look. I have to stand up there next to Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, and pose for pictures. It's a different level of dressing than I've ever experienced.
Here we see, it's just like the difference between the film and the book. The film is all about what you see, and so much of the film publicity is about that too.
It's been really actually pretty fun because I never ever cared about fashion before. I was like, "I don't know what to wear and I don't care. I'm going to wear this or that or the other thing." I've had to actually think about it and be more considered. I've definitely done some serious shopping over the last few months and have the opportunity to wear some great dresses on these red carpets with Reese and Laura. My closet is much more well-rounded now.
I've also learned how to walk in high heels for the first time in my life even though I'm absolutely morally opposed to high heels. [Laughs] Some outfits sadly demand them, but I've never been more of an advocate to ban the wearing of high heels as I have become lately.
So we should all go back to hiking boots after this?
We should all go back to hiking boots. No, I sort of say this tongue-in-cheek, but I’m also pretty serious about it. I do think it's interesting how the clothes we wear in some ways define how much power we have in the world and how well we can move through the world in a literal way. I've always thought that if you can't comfortably walk a mile in shoes, you shouldn't be wearing them. If you can't run in them, you shouldn't be wearing them.
One of the things that was like a punch in the gut, in a good way, is my daughter is in this film. My daughter Bobbi Strayed Lindstrom plays me as a little girl in the movie. When you see this little blondie with Laura Dern, that's my very own daughter. She hasn't been able to see the film—my kids are 9 and 10 and the film is rated R, so I don't want them to see it yet. But they went to the LA premiere with me and my husband because I wanted them to have the experience of walking the red carpet. I said to my daughters, "We get to wear fancy dresses!" My daughter is so not a girly girl. She said, "Mom, I'm not wearing a dress. I refuse." I said, "What do you want to wear?" And she said, "I'll wear a suit." She wore a navy suit with a red tie and red vest.
I know, she was the fashion icon of the night for sure. As she was getting dressed, in my hotel room, she pulled on her blazer and she muttered to herself and I heard her. She said, "This is what I'm going to wear when I'm the president." It made me laugh, and it also silenced me because I also thought, “You know what? You're right. You're right.” Of course you think that, because you've never seen a president wear anything but that. You associate this clothing with power and authority, and that's why you want to wear it.
Hallelujah, progress has been made. What are we saying to the world by the clothes we wear? My daughter knew intuitively that she wanted to wear clothes that made her feel like she was in charge.
That's such a wonderful story, and I hope that she stays that way forever.
I do too. I have no doubt that she will, so watch out world. [Laughs]
How old is she now? How many years have we got before we cast our vote for your daughter for president?
Yeah, she's 9 now, so we've got a little time.
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Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media's online editor. When friends need advice, she often hands them Tiny, Beautiful Things.