Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston’s new show for Apple TV+, The Morning Show, tackles a thorny topic: #MeToo and its impact on the workplace. It’s an issue that Witherspoon has, by her own 2017 admission, grappled with as a young actress. But when the Oscar winner’s experiences with sexual harassment and assault were brought up in a new interview with The Guardian, things reportedly turned tense.
In it, Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman writes that the “temperature in the room [dropped] palpably” when she asked Witherspoon if she regretted not speaking out sooner about being assaulted by a director at age 16.
The question came after Witherspoon called women who have called out sexual misconduct even at the risk of losing work “the real heroes in my mind.”
According to Freeman, Witherspoon responded, “Ummm no. It was a culture of silence and silence was a condition of my employment. That’s what I was told.” Aniston, who was also present for the interview, added a supportive “yes, yes.”
Freeman was dissatisfied with Witherspoon’s answer, explaining to readers that “I wouldn’t normally press a woman about her experiences of sexual harassment and assault. But given that for the past 20 minutes we have been talking about the importance of talking about sexual assault allegations and cover-ups, and the courage of women who speak up, I am surprised that Witherspoon is shutting down any discussion of her experiences with aphorisms about art.” (Earlier in the interview, the actress had shared that her experience “drives me to tell more stories about it because art is the best antidote.”)
Freeman writes that the “room goes sub-Arctic” when she asks Witherspoon if the industry figures responsible for harassing her and forcing her to stay silent are still working in Hollywood. The star dodged the question, prompting a publicist to intervene.
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“‘Ummmmm no,’ Witherspoon eventually says,” Freeman reports. “She shoots a frowny-smiley face towards her PRs.
“‘I think we’ll move on now, OK?’ one of them says firmly to me.
“Aniston is looking at me dazed, as if shocked that I’ve broken some code. I feel a little as if I am about to be ejected from the cool girls’ table.”
But the interview gets back on track, according to Freeman, when the actresses discuss Harvey Weinstein and how neither was left in a room alone with him. Later, Witherspoon tells Freeman, “Thank you for your thoughtful questions.”
The piece ends with Freeman writing, “And I leave them fighting for the #MeToo movement, within their limits.”
The tense moment has stirred up debate online, with many commending Freeman for pressing Witherspoon to dig deeper — or, as one commenter put it, “break through the brittle facade” — and others accusing the journalist of crossing a line.
You’re being snippy and judgemental about a woman speaking in the context of her own experiences of sexual assault, that started when she was a child. She has the right to shut down the conversation whenever she likes. I’m a big fan of yours Hadley, but I think you got this wrong
— Tom A (@sonofswiss) November 5, 2019
Can you imagine being shocked someone doesnt want to perfrom their trauma in front of you? As if you are the only interviewer on the entire international press run to inquire about it? pic.twitter.com/iEmOdFdID9
— Sire (@SireLeoLamar) November 5, 2019
Maybe because I’m American, I found this interview condescending. They seemed genuinely nice and for some reason, you decided you didn’t like that and churned out an article full of snark. Why make Witherspoon uncomfortable? She was the victim, not the attacker, remember?
— AnnaB F (@ATFister) November 5, 2019
Some commenters expressed that they were conflicted — uneasy with Freeman’s questioning and defensive of Witherspoon’s right to privacy, while also disappointed that the star didn’t seize the opportunity to call out her own abusers.
Yes thank you exactly my comments too. Otherwise they are not really speaking up and putting these men to shame. Then we can't move on.
— Lisa (@lisa_in_music) November 5, 2019
While Witherspoon held back on details about her own story, she did tell Freeman that her experience “makes me determined not to let this happen to other young women.”
The Morning Show is streaming now on Apple TV+