LONDON - Never underestimate the power of perkiness. Reese Witherspoon is about to take on Arnold Schwarzenegger in a duel of sequels. Witherspoon reprises the pink and peppy Elle Woods in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, which opens today. Schwarzenegger shakes the rust off for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, opening today.
"Arnold was so nice to me when I was a kid," Witherspoon says during an interview at the Dorchester Hotel. "He flew me out to Los Angeles to have all these meetings with great directors, so I can't begrudge him anything."
Some would say the real muscle now belongs to the 5-foot-2 and pregnant blonde. The Legally Blonde franchise has made Witherspoon the elfin empress of empowerment on both sides of the camera. Witherspoon produced the sequel. She chose the director, Charles Herman-Wurmfield. She probably picked out the curtains, too.
"I was very interested in making a film in the vein of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and having it be a woman," she says, "because I imagine myself as a young girl seeing a woman in a place of political power, and I just thought that would be really inspiring."
In the original, Elle graduated from Harvard, blossoming from sorority twit to legal eagle. In Legally Blonde 2, she has wowed her new law firm and is engaged to marry her boyfriend (Luke Wilson) at Fenway Park. Life is perfect. But then she discovers that the family of her beloved Chihuahua, Bruiser, has met its doom in a cosmetics testing facility. So Elle takes her anti-vivisectionist campaign to Capitol Hill with the help of a congresswoman (Sally Field).
It is a civics lesson in frivolity, replete with a million-dog march (Witherspoon's idea, thankyouverymuch) and a lobbying assault carried out by a giggling army of Delta Nu's.
The real Reese shares Elle's love of shoes. She estimates that she has 150 pairs.
She also has a passion for pooches, making a home for two bulldogs and a Chihuahua. The most obvious trait they share, however, is looking at life on the bright side. "I try to see the positive in people," she says. "It's kind of hard in Hollywood sometimes. People try to spin things negatively. But I think I am just a real optimist."
And Hollywood, she says, sometimes has trouble recognizing the positive in Witherspoon.
"I feel like I am who I am, and they are either gonna get it or they don't," she says. "There are still a lot of people out there that don't like me very much or don't think I am talented. But certainly my whole professional life has been about convincing people that I can do things that they didn't think I could."
Herman-Wurmfield (Kissing Jessica Stein) needed no convincing. "She manages to play the sad, funny moment like nobody's business," he says.
Witherspoon has been on location in nearby Bath shooting the costume drama Vanity Fair, in which she plays the anti-Elle: the conniving, social-climbing Becky Sharp.
A script rewrite and shifts in camera angles were made to accommodate Witherspoon's growing body. She is due in the fall.
"I don't really know exactly," says Witherspoon, who has a 3-year-old daughter, Ava. "I have been working so much. It's funny because with the first baby you count every week. And you get `What to Expect When You Are Expecting' and read `Week 19 ... what's going on?' Now I am like, `How pregnant am I?' I forget. I still don't know my due date."
She can probably afford a break from acting once the baby arrives. Talk of her as the next so-and-so is over. She has become the so-and-so whom other comedic actresses will compare themselves to. Still, she was asked about her predecessors.
"I am probably more Lucy than Goldie, but I don't think I am very close to either one of them," she says.
After a day of interviews, she was whisked away by a man in an SUV. No one in Hyde Park across the street gazed. No Fleet Street types were in sight.
Witherspoon says she and her husband, actor Ryan Phillippe, have been able to move about Europe in peace. Perhaps that is why reports surfaced that she planned to move here.
"I can't wait to see where I'm going to live," says Witherspoon, a native Tennessean who calls Hollywood home.
Gossip hounds are Witherspoon's cross to bear back in the United States. One tabloid digging through her trash broke the news of her pregnancy before she wanted to inform the world.
"I have days when I'm being followed to Ava's nursery and she's 3 years old and she's like, `Who's that man over there in the ski mask taking pictures?' "
She sighed. "You just make peace with it. This is my life."
Jessica Cauffiel, who plays a kooky friend in both Legally Blonde films, says: "I have never seen anyone handle such pressure and responsibility with such grace and aplomb."
Those are qualities that might make even the Terminator look over his shoulder this summer.
Ron Dicker is a freelance writer for The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.