Reese Witherspoon

For someone who got into acting by accident, Reese Witherspoon is doing rather well. Indeed the star named Hollywood's most bankable actress in 2004 is rapidly closing in on Julia Roberts as its highest-paid, netting $15 million for both Vanity Fair and Legally Blonde 2, while still at the outset of her career.

In reality, the stunning actress is a great deal more sophisticated than the characters she often plays. Her on-screen personas have tended to be, well, not plagued by ideas. But the real Reese comes from a family of accomplished professionals and had intended to follow in her family's academic tradition until she was distracted by Hollywood.

Born in Louisiana on March 22, 1976, Reese was studying at Stanford University in California when the movie industry came calling. Offered a part in the movie Twilight, she says she simply couldn't refuse the opportunity to work with Paul Newman and Susan Sarandon made the offer irresistible.

"Clearly I'm crazy," she says. "Nobody in their right mind would do that!" Her parents, a respected surgeon and a professor of paediatric nursing, were concerned when she decided to abandon her education to work on the film, but the gamble paid off. What had been a hobby became a full-time job as her performance in the film led to a series of other offers. "Twilight begat the next film, Pleasantville, and that begat Election and, well - here I am."

Her 2002 blockbuster Sweet Home Alabama grossed $125 million in the US alone, putting her in a position to write her own cheque when producers called on her to sign up for Legally Blonde II the following year.

And it wasn't just professional success that came from her move into cinema. She also met actor Ryan Phillippe who would become her husband and father of daughter Ava and son Deacon. However, in November 2006 the couple announced they were divorcing.

Despite the stresses of their divorce, it seems that Hollywood hasn't put a dent in the old-fashioned values Reese grew up with in the deep south. The petite star says the hyper-stylish, image-obsessed world of cinema is not a natural environment for her: "I grew up in Tennessee. We didn't know what Louis Vuitton was," she admits. "I had to order all my prom outfits out of catalogues."

Nor had she heard of Robert De Niro or Martin Scorcese when she set off to audition for the film Cape Fear. Unfortunately, a passenger sitting next to her on the plane told her all about the two cinema giants, making her so nervous she bungled the reading. As a result she lost out on the role to Juliette Lewis.

Although she remained unperturbed by her failure on that particular occasion, Reese has her sensitivities and reveals mixed feelings about not having completed college. "I sometimes feel quite insecure because I didn't finish my education," she says. "I feel intimidated when I meet people who are very knowledgeable and learned." A refreshing admission from "Hollywood's most bankable woman"; but one thing's for sure Reese is a long, long way from your average college drop-out.
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