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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Winning an Academy Award can make an actor's career, open doors in Hollywood, or in some cases become a curse.
For Reese Witherspoon, who took home Hollywood's Golden Boy portraying country singer June Carter Cash in 2005's "Walk the Line," it brought something no one -- certainly not she -- expected. A-list Hollywood writer/director James L. Brooks wrote a role especially for her.
Witherspoon portrays a top female softball player whose love life gets all mixed up in the romantic comedy "How Do You Know." It hits theaters on Friday with co-stars Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson.
"Director and script are the most important thing (and) this was a no-brainer," Witherspoon told Reuters. "He writes some of the greatest female protagonists."
Indeed, Brooks has had a strong track record writing and directing movies with strong women characters, starting with 1983's "Terms of Endearment" up through 1997's "As Good as It Gets," which earned Helen Hunt an Oscar for lead actress.
"Terms of Endearment," about the relationship between a mother and daughter, won Oscars for best writing, directing and motion picture for Brooks.
In "How Do You Know," Witherspoon plays Lisa, whose loses her life's focus when her softball playing days come to an abrupt end at age 31.
She embarks on an affair with fellow athlete Matty (Wilson), a clueless baseball player looking for good times who tries to reform his ways under the sway of Lisa's allure.
At the same time, she is drawn to another man, George, a sensitive businessman portrayed by Rudd. While Lisa likes George, her life experience and undeveloped emotional maturity put her more in sync with Matty.
But her affection for George is challenged by his being innocently targeted in a federal investigation, and she is torn between the two men.
Witherspoon, who shot to fame a decade ago with a string of acclaimed roles in low-budget films such as "Election" as well as huge hits like "Legally Blonde," said she was intrigued by the contrasts between Lisa and herself.
"I'm not really that athletic," she said. "And Lisa is a woman who doesn't know how to talk about her feelings, whereas I can talk constantly about my feelings and romantic conflicts and relationships and loves lost and gained," she laughed.
"Also I usually play very verbal characters, but this is a woman who isn't interested in that, and really doesn't want to talk about things," Witherspooon said. "I met a few women athletes like that, that I sort of modeled the character on -- more masculine in their emotional qualities. That was all really different for me."
At age 34, Witherspoon does see at least one similarity between her A-list career in Hollywood and that of a top athlete. Both can be suddenly cut short by anything ranging from injuries to diminishing skills or fading popularity.
"It's a career that shifts. We have our time that we work, and work a lot, but we have a shelf life. So you have to understand what your plan A is, your plan B, and your 911."
Accordingly, after years of mixing romantic comedies and dramas with the occasional period piece, Witherspoon just finished her first action film, "This Means War," which she said was an education in "how you shoot that kind of film."
She also tries hard to cultivate her personal life outside of acting. She is a mother of two children, one son and one daughter, with ex-husband, actor Ryan Phillippe.
Witherspoon said she likes to go to museums, read, cook and work in her garden. She has a growing fascination with stars and movies from the 1930s and 1940s, mentioning the likes of Constance Bennett and Claudette Colbert in particular.
Those ghosts of Hollywood's past may have stoked in Witherspoon another film about a great musical star. "I've been working on a Peggy Lee project with Nora Ephron," Witherspoon said. "That's sort of a dream project of mine."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte