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Reese Witherspoon in a scene from the film, "Wild." The movie opens in U.S. theaters on Dec. 5, 2014.

Anne Marie Fox/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Once she'd decided to take on her gritty new role in Wild, there were a few things Reese Witherspoon knew she did not want to hear from movie studio executives: "We want her to be more likable." "We don't want her to use drugs." "We don't want her to be profane."

So, she says, she didn't give them the chance. She developed the film, which follows a hard-living woman's path to solace and redemption via a long trek in the wilderness, outside the studio system under the auspices of her own production company, with private financing.

"And then I took it to the studios and said, 'I'm not changing a word,'" Witherspoon says. "And I had three bids on it that day."

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"I think it's important," the actress adds. "You grow up, you change – I'm a 38-year-old woman now, I have three kids, and I've lived a lot of life experience. It's really important to me that the things I put out into the world are meaningful and thought-provoking. Otherwise, what am I doing?"

Wild, based on the bestselling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, is a story of personal catharsis and, listening to Witherspoon, one gets the sense she was seeking a sort of professional catharsis by choosing it. The role, which has garnered significant Oscar buzz, includes difficult scenes depicting rough sex and heroin use. Witherspoon wore no makeup and spent days lugging a heavy backpack up and down hills.

"By far, it's the hardest thing I've done in my life," she says. "The physical aspects were really challenging – the elements, the heat, the cold, the water, the rain, 55 locations in 35 days, and carrying that backpack. And there was nothing else to cut to – just me."

Emotionally, the script was even harder, she says: "One day I'd be getting divorced. Another, my mother would be dying. The next day I'd be using heroin. It was just nonstop – not even a roller coaster, just a continual descent downward! There are always scenes that I dread, that I say, 'That day's going to be miserable.' And it was three weeks of that."

Director Jean-Marc Vallee calls the actress "a trouper." As well he should: He noticed that the backpack looked too light and forced her to carry a much heavier one. "You can see it digging into my skin," she laughs, "because it really was digging into my skin!"

Witherspoon, who already has one Oscar for 2005's Walk the Line, says it was no accident that she chose such a film at this point in her career, a time that finds her veering away from trademark sunny, bright roles and romantic comedies. (Her 2012 supporting role in the Mississippi River coming-of-age tale Mud is another example of her new direction.)

Her production company, Pacific Standard, is specifically geared toward projects with complex roles for women – such as the role played by Rosamund Pike in the recent Gone Girl. "I was seeing sort of a deficit in leading roles for women," Witherspoon says. "It was just sort of the lack of complex characters, of interesting, dynamic women onscreen. I have a 15-year old daughter and it's very important to me what she sees, in movies and television."

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Wild, which opens in select cities next week, was an easy choice. "I read the manuscript in 24 hours," she says, after receiving it from Strayed. "And I immediately called my agent and said, 'I don't know who this woman is, but I need to talk to her. I need to hug this person, and get to know her.' It is absolutely one of the most important books I've ever read in my life."

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