WASHINGTON—One might surmise that there aren’t many people who can rattle an A-lister like Reese Witherspoon.
But the Academy Award-winning actress says she was a bit nervous when she first learned with whom she’d be working on her latest film, The Good Lie.
A fellow Oscar winner, perhaps?
In the film, which hits theaters on Friday, Witherspoon stars with three men of Sudanese descent—Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany and Emmanuel Jal—two of whom are former child refugees.
“I thought it was a great idea the director had that he wanted to cast real refugees, but I had some trepidation,” says Witherspoon, who plays Carrie Davis, a woman who takes four refugees under her wing after a humanitarian effort brings them to the United States.
“But from the minute I auditioned with all three of these men, I was put at ease. They were so professional, so prepared, and had a real, emotional connection to the material. Their personal experiences just elevated the performances to a level where I felt like, ‘Oh, now I understand what this movie is going to be like.’”
And after first reading the “moving” script, she says, her “immediate reaction was, ‘I can’t not do this.’”
Though the characters in the film are fictional, The Good Lie mirrors the tale of “lost boys” and “lost girls”—real-life orphans of the civil war in Sudan, which began in 1983. Some walked more than 1,000 miles in search of safety, and 3,600 of the refugees eventually made it to the USA in the 1990s.
“It was painful. A lot of flashbacks,” says Duany, who plays Jeremiah in the film and in reality escaped to Ethiopia with his family. In 1994 at age 15, he came to the US from a refugee camp in East Africa.
The film “is a reality. It’s the story of millions of people, and these types of problems are still going on all around the world,” he says.
“This is just like my story,” says Jal, who plays Paul. As a child, Jal was recruited into the South Sudanese Army but was able to escape to a refugee camp and made his way to the United Kingdom.
Though making the film brought back difficult memories, Jal says, he “immersed myself in it” and took the opportunity to sharpen his acting skills under Witherspoon, who the actors say took on the role of a big sister.
“We did form a friendship,” says Oceng, who stars as Mamere. “We formed a family. It’s the first film I’ve done where I’ve actually connected and made real friends.”
And, much like in the movie, Witherspoon says she learned from them as well. She says that at the beginning she wasn’t familiar with the story of the Lost Boys, but it worked out because she “came at it from the perspective my character had, which was knowing nothing.”
The experiences of her co-stars helped her understand what the refugees had gone through.
“I asked these guys a lot of questions.… Part of it is so hard for me to process and understand. I’d say, ‘This really happened?’ They told me stories that were incomprehensible.… I learned a lot.”
“I feel like you are my small sister,” Jal says.
“Even though I’m older than you?” Witherspoon cracks. “Or maybe we’re the same age? I don’t know. I think you’re younger than me.”
Witherspoon’s Carrie, an employment-agency counselor, who has been enlisted to help the three refugees find jobs upon their arrival in Kansas, ultimately ends up becoming much more involved in their lives.
“It’s a beautiful movie about family and taking care of one another,” Witherspoon says. “It’s just one of those movies that makes you think about what you can do to be more appreciative and grateful for the things that you have.” Cindy Clark / USA Today