Playing Fair; Reese Witherspoon Sheds Her Wholesome Image to Play English Literature's Biggest Bitch in Mira Nair's Film Adaptation of Vanity Fair. James Mottram Discovers the Darker Side to America's Sweetheart

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Byline: JAMES MOTTRAM

As we know from her huge hits, as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde and Carmichael in Sweet Home Alabama, Reese Witherspoon excels at playing wholesome and perky. Which isn't to say she can't play mean when required - see Election and the first half of the cult comedy Pleasantville. But can the actress once voted the most popular in Hollywood really convince as Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp, possibly the biggest bitch in English literature?

Indeed she can. Witherspoon's Becky - a part normally reserved for the Winslets of this world - is a bitch you understand, ruthless because she's known poverty and manipulative because smart 19th-century women couldn't operate in plain sight. 'Becky Sharp is an early feminist,' argues Witherspoon. 'She is really a very modern character. She's been deprived of parents and has no place to go in the world - yet she still manages to succeed. Every success she has in her life is based on her own merit, which is a modern idea for a period story. She makes choices in the film that wouldn't be the choices I would make, but my job as an actress is not to judge that character but to find out why she is like that.' It's a revealing personal take on the character and completely in keeping with director Mira (Monsoon Wedding) Nair's interpretation of the Victorian masterpiece.

A smart businesswoman, Witherspoon knows exactly how studios tick and is willing to trade the early integrity she gained for arty hits such as Election for the power that box-office success brings. 'Mira wouldn't have been able to get the budget to make this film if it wasn't for my commercial successes,' she shrugs. 'It's a business. You can't kid yourself that you can just endlessly make artistic movies that don't make any money.' You might slot Vanity Fair in that category, having taken only $16 million Stateside - just $1 million more than Witherspoon's usual asking price (only Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz earn more). Still, her personal notices have been lavish, and there's the inevitable Oscar talk.

Best Actress nod or not, she's pleased with her performance. 'I think the most important thing when you're interpreting a classic work is that you're not so bound by your reverence that you can't feel free enough to interpret,' she muses. 'I had a little bit of that on [Oliver Parker's 2002 adaptation of] The Importance Of Being Earnest, where I felt so reverential of Oscar Wilde's material that it was hard for me to be free. So on this project I was determined to be able to let go a little bit and feel like I could put a little more of myself into it.' Today America's reluctant sweetheart turns up for our interview in a maroon silk dress and her trademark blonde hair has been dyed auburn for her next role, as June Carter Cash, wife of Country & Western star Johnny Cash, in the forthcoming biopic Walk The Line. It's a return to her roots in another sense, too. Raised in Nashville, Tennessee - her father is a military surgeon, her mother a nurse - it's clear she remains a product of her old country gal/Southern belle background. We're talking 100 per cent steel magnolia: effervescent, always polite yet fiercely determined. …