The Fox Lot in Century City looks incredible; there are clowns of all kinds — white-face, sad-face and hobo — surrounded by acrobats, midget cops, zebras and stilt-walkers, all leading the way for an elephant that soberly plods through a street scene lined with cheering, period-dressed extras. On the elephant’s back perches the ethereal figure of Marlena, a 1930s circus queen who, on closer inspection, turns out to be Reese Witherspoon, the star of this big-budget adaptation of Sara Gruen’s Depression-era novel about a young vet (Robert Pattinson) who runs away with the big top.
“Marlena’s a really interesting girl,” enthuses Witherspoon when she finally dismounts. “She was abandoned as a child, found her way through ’20s America — which was obviously headed towards the Depression — and once we find her in this movie, they’re in the middle of the Depression. So she definitely has a survivor instinct.”
Married to ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz) — a “very dark, very abusive” character, the actress reveals — Marlena’s head is turned by the arrival of Pattinson’s student of veterinary science, Jacob. “Just as he’s about to take his final exams, both his parents die in a car crash,” explains the Twilight star. “Within a couple of months his entire life has disappeared. So he basically gets on a train — any old train — to try and find a job. And it ends up being a circus train. He sees Marlena within, I guess, the first day, and it’s one of the biggest reasons he wants to stay and become a part of this world.”