Everybody glows in Hollywood. At the chic Mondrian Hotel, even the doormen's teeth are too white. The shiny women stretched like underfed cats out on the pool deck all look eerily the same, beautiful but bony. Nobody moves to Los Angeles to become a dentist; they want a walk-on role on The O.C. ''I don't know if everybody here wants to be an actor,'' says Reese Witherspoon, looking around with a wry smile. ''But they all want to be famous. And there's a difference.''
A sushi roll plunks out of her chopsticks onto the table, soy sauce creeping over the white linen. ''Whoops!'' she laughs. ''I'm very messy and very accident-prone,'' she says, showing you the impressive gashes on her palms and knees from a recent running accident and the dime-size blister on her neck from a bacon-grease splatter. ''Lord, is my sweater on backwards, too?'' she asks, remnants of her Tennessee accent still hanging on after nearly 10 years in Hollywood. She looks down at her black cardigan. ''Yep, all right, I'm just embarrassing myself today.''
These little bumbles, rare flashes of vulnerability, shouldn't lull anyone into thinking Witherspoon is losing her grip. Over a two-hour lunch, she comes across as deeply serious and self-critical, far removed from the clueless flash and dazzle of young Hollywood clichés. At 29, Witherspoon already has two children 5-year-old Ava and 21-month-old Deacon a six-year marriage to actor Ryan Phillippe, a production company named Type A Films (named for her fastidious nature) that actually makes films, and two movies, the romantic comedy Just Like Heaven and the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, coming out this fall.
After 15 years in show business (those in need of a good cry should check out her debut in 1991's marvelous The Man in the Moon), Witherspoon speaks with a weary self-awareness. ''Once you get to a place where you've had films that have done well, you get scared that the next ones won't do as well. People are always telling me 'It's okay if you fail.' But that's hard. Actors are all basically replaceable. You can have a series of not-so-great movies and everybody's off you and you have to be happy that you had your moment. I'd like my life to be a string of moments, good and bad.''
Remember, you're not having lunch with Legally Blonde's Elle Woods, queen of chipper spunk. ''I love comedy, and I do a lot of comedies,'' she says. ''But it's certainly not the end-all be-all of who I am.''
It's this divorce between her public image and private reality, along with the fact that Witherspoon grew up in Nashville and went to kindergarten with the Man in Black's granddaughter, that convinced writer-director James Mangold to cast her in the role of Johnny Cash's great love, June Carter, in Walk the Line. ''June was someone who had grown up on stage and who evolved into a kind of light comedienne,'' says Mangold. ''But in person she was one of the most soulful and honest and tough women you were likely to meet. In a very similar fashion, Reese's stock-in-trade are these comedic, sassy roles. But she's also a mother and a savvy businesswoman and a very feeling human being who isn't all sass all the time.''