“Wild’s” Cheryl Strayed Becomes One With Reese Witherspoon

“She just became me in a way that’s shocking.”

Courtesy Cheryl Strayed/ Fox Searchlight

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Her pack was too heavy, her boots too tight. She didn’t know how to read a compass. But that didn’t stop first-time backpacker Cheryl Strayed, then 26, from embarking on a soul-searching 1,100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995, from Southern California’s Mojave Desert to the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon.

Yet the physical feat of the hike is not the true star of Strayed’s 2012 memoir about the journey, Wild. Rather, Strayed’s recovery from a near-addiction to heroin, a young divorce, and her mother’s death from cancer take center stage. The story so resonated with readers, they kept it at the number one slot on the New York Times‘ bestseller list for seven weeks straight.

Wild also captivated Reese Witherspoon, who purchased the rights and portrays Strayed in the film version directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), out on December 3. Novelist Nick Hornby signed on to write the screenplay after reading the book and writing Strayed a tender fan letter. The film has garnered early praise, and speculation that it could lead to Oscar nominations for Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who plays Strayed’s mother in the film. After Wild premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in August, the New York TimesA.O. Scott wrote: “Ms. Witherspoon is both an entirely believable modern woman, defying conventional categories and expectations, and also, for that reason, an excitingly credible feminist heroine.”

I caught up with Strayed to talk about Oprah haters, backpacker backlash, and her Hollywood mind meld.

Mother Jones: The movie version of Wild opens soon. Is Reese Witherspoon the first person you would’ve thought of to portray you?

Cheryl Strayed: It’s funny, it never occurred to me that a movie star would play me. But now that she is playing me, it’s like, of course, it couldn’t be anyone else! I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of Reese and me and Reese and my daughter Bobbi, who’s named after my mother, and also plays me. There’s a kind of resemblance. What’s interesting is how much more perfect she’s become over time. Watching the movie for me is uncanny, because they have her wearing the clothes I wore. They put her hair in a barrette the same way I put my hair in a barrette. She just became me in a way that’s like, shocking.

MJ: How involved were you in the production?

CS: I was involved from the beginning. Reese was always very concerned that the film would honor my life and the book. And Nick Hornby, who wrote the script, had read Wild before he was involved, and out of the blue had written me the kindest fan letter. That just blew me away. When Jean-Marc Vallée, the director, came on board, it was just this wonderful piece of luck, because we have a similar artistic sensibility. The film was shot in Oregon and California, and I was welcome on the set. If the director had his way, I’d have been there every day. I’d give Reese tons of advice about the character and backpacking, and teaching her how to do this, that, and the other thing. The art department looked at pictures of my family and the prop people took my backpack. The gear I had on the trail—I have most of it still—they re-created for the film. I probably saw seven or eight versions, and I offered feedback, and Jean-Marc listened very seriously. [Unlike] every bad story you’ve ever heard about Hollywood from writers, with this everything was fun and golden.

Reese Witherspoon on the set of Wild Fox Searchlight
“It never occurred to me that a movie star would play me. But now that she is playing me, it’s like, of course, it couldn’t be anyone else!”

MJ: Were there any scenes you lobbied for or against?

CS: Let me think. I wanted to make sure that the love and respect was there that Cheryl felt for her mother, who’s played by Laura Dern. I weighed in pretty strongly that, even amid some tensions between mother and daughter, there’s a lot of love and tenderness. It mattered to me that they portrayed that accurately.

MJ: Your epic solo walk on the Pacific Coast Trail came more than a decade before Wild. How did you reconstruct it?

CS: I liken it to when you run into an old friend from high school and you get to talking and suddenly you’re remembering things you’d thought you’d forgotten. There are different patches that open up in the brain. I also kept a journal, not just because I was on the hike, but all through my 20s and 30s. When I would meet somebody, I would write the way a fiction writer or a memoirist writes about them. And I did research, the good old-fashioned, “Let’s see, what flowers were growing in that field when I might have passed by that time?” Obviously memoir is subjective truth: It is my memory, my perspective, that’s the beauty. But I still wanted to be as factual as I could.

MJ: You wrote, “I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told.” What had you been told about the wilderness prior to setting out?

CS: I grew up in northern Minnesota on 40 acres of wooded land 20 miles from the nearest town, and so the wilderness was home. It was not an unsafe place. I had that advantage. But there are so many representations of the wilderness being dangerous. You know, depictions of wild animals attacking people. It’s like, “No, we kill those animals in far greater numbers than they kill us.” So on one hand, because the wilderness was familiar to me, it really helped me be brave. But it still was scary sometimes. I had to say to myself: “Chances are, you’re not going to be mauled by a bear.”

MJ: The people who get rescued from wilderness areas often turn out to have been ill-prepared. Do you worry that some people might take your book too literally and set off on a three-month hike with little preparation?

CS: If you want to read anything nasty about me, just go to the backpacker websites. I mean, lots of outdoor people love Wild, but there’s this kind of elitist branch where they really believe that I had no business going backpacking. I get blamed: “Oh, Cheryl Strayed, it’s her fault if somebody needs to be rescued.” First of all, things have gone awry in the wilderness well before Wild was ever published. [Laughs.] But I actually don’t have any fear of people reading Wild and going out unprepared. Because one of the best things that ever happened to me was that I went out unprepared. And when you really think about it, all I did wrong was that I took too much stuff, which is the most common backpacker mistake. The part that I wasn’t prepared for is the part you can’t prepare for. You can’t replicate walking 94 days through the wilderness by yourself with a really heavy pack until you do it. I had to learn how to do a lot of stuff on the trail, that’s true. But I was the one who suffered the consequences.

MJ: So you’ll be cool with it when your kids announce their plans to hike the Appalachian Trial alone?

CS: That would make me so happy! I would feel like I had parented them well. I would take full credit. [Laughs.

MJ: NPR did a segment on a woman who read your book only to realize that you were her half-sister. Have you met her?

CS: I knew her first name, but she doesn’t have our father’s last name anymore, and I don’t either. [Strayed chose her new surname in her early 20s after divorcing her first husband.] When I got the email, she didn’t say in the subject line, “Hey, I think we’re related.” It was just like, “Wild,” and it seemed like just a fan email, and I sometimes will sort of skim those. She said what a lot of people say: “Oh, we have so much in common. Your life is so much like mine.” And just when I was about to move on, she says, “You know, I actually think we share a father.”

MJ: Way to bury the lede!

CS: Exactly! In the second or third paragraph, I’m not kidding you! I almost missed it. And I knew the moment she said my father’s name. So I wrote her back, and we bonded. I haven’t met her yet. She lives across the country, and we’ve not had occasion to get together because life is complicated. But yeah, isn’t that crazy? 

MJ: Yeah! So let’s talk about Oprah. As someone who had gone through an MFA program and been to writers’ conferences, what was your view of Oprah’s Book Club before she asked to feature you?

CS: Oh, I have always been a great fan. I guess I got kind of politicized about it when that whole Jonathan Franzen thing happened: He was picked for the club, and then in interviews said things that seemed to be disparaging. I was really offended by that. I really hate snobbery, especially in literature. And I do think it’s funny: People get away with criticizing Oprah: “Her book club is low-brow,” or whatever. They forget that many of Toni Morrison’s books, two of Franzen’s books—Faulkner is an Oprah Book Club pick! I’d say 98 percent of the criticism directed at her, what they’re [really] saying is, “Well, her audience is female. So if women like it, it must not be high art.” Any time you have a group that is primarily women, there’s gonna be a whole bunch of snobs who step in and say, “Oh, that’s beneath me.” Is it such a terrible thing that a bunch of people read novels that no one would’ve read had it not been for her? Wild was a bestseller before she came along, but some books wouldn’t have ever had the audience they got. And it was all because of Oprah. That’s the first thing I said to her. I said, “Thank you so much for being such a supporter of literary fiction.”

“If you want to read anything nasty about me, just go to the backpacker websites. There’s this kind of elitist branch where they really believe that I had no business going backpacking.”

MJ: So are you feeling hungry for your next project, or do you just need a break?

CS: Both. To me, a bit of a break would be getting to write again. My life has been so outward—the book is still on the best-seller list and all that stuff. So that’s been busy enough. But now with the film everything’s amped up even more. I am hoping 2015 is all about me going back into the cave and writing.

MJ: What are you working on?

CS: I’m sort of working on a novel and a memoir. I don’t want to talk about it too much. It’s kind of a prequel.

MJ: For a time, you also had a gig as Sugar, the advice columnist for the Rumpus, the online literary magazine. Is Sugar on hiatus, or has she retired?

CS: I don’t know. I really did mean for it to just be a hiatus when I took off with Wild and the book tour and all that stuff, but I’ve never not been busy, so I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I also started to reach a point where I feel like I’ve spoken my piece. If you read [the “Dear Sugar” collection] Tiny Beautiful Things, I so universally answer so many questions, there’d be a point where I’d start repeating myself.

MJ: If you were to seek advice from Sugar, what would you ask?

CS: “How do you say no?” It’s so much easier said than done. Because I’m being asked to do so much, and my friends are saying, Cheryl, you just have to say no. I like to be generous; it’s truly part of my personality, so to have to manage that in a way that keeps me sane and healthy has almost been impossible.

MJ: As Sugar, you’re frank and validating without being snarky. How do you avoid the snark trap, given how the internet puts a premium on humor with an attitude?

CS: That’s why I thought I’d be a failure with Sugar: I’m not funny and I’m not going to be able to be glib and all the stuff the kids like these days. I said, if I do this, I’m just going to have to be what I am, which is direct and candid and very sincere and very loving—and not hiding behind a kind of mask of cunning witticisms. Ultimately, Sugar makes you cry more than she makes you laugh. I was so afraid that people wouldn’t like the column because I wasn’t snarky, and it turned out that’s the reason they like it so much. People really were hungry for sincerity. And not just people, but young San Francisco hipsters who read the Rumpus. People who you would think would just roll their eyes. But no. They were like, “Oh Sugar, please help me.”

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