Pvt. Benjamin goes to college 

Witherspoon plays it smart and girly in Legally Blonde

Imagine Reese Witherspoon reprising her role as Tracy Flick -- the overachieving high-schooler she played to Oscar-worthy perfection in the savage 1999 satire Election -- newly transplanted to Harvard Law School, and you'd have the beginnings of another potentially razor-sharp comedy.

Now imagine Witherspoon sending-up the Alicia Silverstone character from Clueless, portraying a seemingly bubble-headed southern-California sorority sister and a proverbial fish-out-of-water in her new Ivy League environs, and you pretty much have the innocuous gist of Legally Blonde (opening July 13). Witherspoon stars as Elle Woods, a pampered "princess" who ostensibly enrolls at Harvard to impress a shallow ex-boyfriend, but more purposefully to prove something to herself.

"This script reminded me a lot of Private Benjamin. There's a certain Goldie Hawn sensibility to the character, because everybody perceives her as being this ditz, but I loved the balance between being all girly and feminine, but smart and accomplished at the same time. I wasn't interested in just playing a stereotype. The challenge for me was finding the character's likeability. I wanted to look for elements in her that an audience could appreciate, because on the page she's just this rich girl who seems to have it all," the actress observes during a recent interview.

Witherspoon admits she could relate. As the Nashville native puts it with a laugh, "I haven't really had a problem with anybody writing me off as a dumb blonde, but as someone who grew up in Tennessee, there's this misconception that Southern people aren't very smart, because we talk more slowly or more deliberately or whatever. That's a responsibility I take very seriously. It's important to be articulate, even if you have a Southern accent."

Moreover, at 25, Witherspoon is already a veritable Hollywood veteran with 10 years and more than a dozen movies under her belt. She and her husband of two years, actor and fellow "beautiful person" Ryan Phillippe (they met while making Cruel Intentions), have spent their fair share of time in the glare of the celebrity spotlight -- and those experiences also provided her with an insight into the character of Elle Woods.

"There comes a time when you simply have to stop reading what people are writing about you in newspapers or magazines, because otherwise you start getting too wrapped up in other people's ideas about you," Witherspoon says. "Actually, that's another reason why I responded to this girl in Legally Blonde, in terms of how she has to overcome other people's judgments.

"It's like, in this business people are always trying to tell you, 'You're this kind of actress, not that kind of actress,' and

it's like, 'OK. That's what you think. I'll show you!'"

Indeed, Witherspoon has grown up on screen, literally as well as figuratively. Since her auspicious debut as an innocent adolescent in the Southern coming-of-age drama Man in the Moon (at age 14), she has played both virgin (opposite Mark Wahlberg in Fear) and vixen (opposite Paul Newman in Twilight), and archetypal teens spanning the impressionable '50s (with Tobey Maguire in Pleasantville) to the self-absorbed '80s (with Matthew Broderick in Election).

"I like trying to make bold choices, finding something drastically different from whatever I did before, and putting myself out there to dangle in the wind a little bit. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it doesn't," she says with a shrug.

To that end, Witherspoon recently wrapped her first full-fledged period piece -- one which required a British accent, to boot -- in the upcoming film version of Oscar Wilde's Victorian-era play The Importance of Being Earnest. Directed by Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband), the movie casts her alongside the heady likes of Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and Frances O'Connor. Better yet, she says, "It was as far away from my character in Legally Blonde as I could get."

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