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Joining the circus; For the order-driven Witherspoon and post-'Twilight' Pattinson, 'Water for Elephants' is a walk on the wild side

As far as tightly wound actresses go, Reese Witherspoon tops the list. She insists upon a strict sense of order in her life. Her production company is called Type A, a moniker her latest co-star, Robert Pattinson, says fits her strong sense of self perfectly. And even when she appears to be having a spontaneous moment, lamenting that her well-orchestrated career built around an avoidance of bikinis has been breached by her current role as a leotard-clad circus performer, it turns out the line is a well-rehearsed quip that's been repeated to scores of media outlets.

Which makes it all the more confounding that the 35-year-old actress would subject herself to the unpredictable behaviors of circus animals such as the nearly 9-ton elephant Tai and a slew of trick horses when she shot the adaptation of the Depression-era romance "Water for Elephants," opening Friday.

Witherspoon says that the night before shooting with the elephant, "I didn't sleep, and I literally shook and shook and shook. But the performances with the elephant were really magical for me. Against my better instincts I decided to ride the elephant with no harness, with no safety equipment. It was pretty great."

Could it be that Witherspoon is finally loosening up? The native Southerner seems to be doing a lot of leaping lately. After ending her eight-year marriage to actor Ryan Phillippe in 2007, she recently tied the knot with agent Jim Toth.

She's moved easily between big studio projects and smaller films throughout her career, but "Water for Elephants" is something of a hybrid. It's a roughly $40 million adult drama -- a genre that's had a hard time making it at the box office in recent years -- but it's based on a best-selling novel by Sara Gruen and co-stars one of the hottest properties in town in Pattinson.

Witherspoon connected to the emotion of the character when choosing to play Marlena, the luminescent animal rider.

In the film, Marlena is trapped in an abusive marriage with the volatile ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz). When she meets the younger, wayward veterinarian Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson), she discovers there's a lot more living to be done beyond the big top.

"She's got her life wound so tightly and controlled down to every detail," Witherspoon says of Marlena, but you get the sense she's really speaking autobiographically. "You know whenever you feel terribly out of control, you try to control everything and keep it very small. Then in comes this Jacob character: idealistic, young and hopeful. For me, this movie is about optimism, that second chances are possible. And to be fearless in your decision-making."

It's hard to believe that the diminutive actress, who landed a lead actress Oscar in 2006 for her performance as June Carter in "Walk the Line," has trouble getting roles. But she contends that the Oscar didn't change her career exponentially; rather, it broadened the possibilities. "I'm very lucky that I've gotten to do a lot of comedies and a lot of dramas, but [the Oscar] sort of legitimized my dramatic career. It made it easier for people to see me in that context."

Witherspoon clearly wants to continue down the path of dramas, although she has the action-comedy "This Means War," opposite Chris Pine and Tom Hardy on deck next. She plans on a honeymoon once her current work is finished and if she can escape the paparazzi, she may take in a few more deep breaths.

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