There’s a familiar face—and a familiar name—in the movies these days.
Abby James Witherspoon, 16, appears alongside Owen Wilson in the new family-friendly superhero adventure Secret Headquarters (available Aug. 12 on Paramount+). She’ll be seen later this year onscreen with Mel Gibson.
Young AJ—who also happens to be the niece of Hollywood superstar Reese Witherspoon—made her movie debut in the 2015 road-trip comedy Hot Pursuit, which starred “Aunt Reese” as a straight-arrow cop escorting a snippy Columbian beauty (Sofia Vergara) across the state of Texas to testify at a drug trial. The youngster played the pint-size childhood version of Witherspoon’s character.
“I was 9 years old,” Abby James says. “I was so excited. I got to eat donuts for one of my scenes. There was a doctor on set to make sure I didn’t eat too many and get sick. I filmed for one day, it was super quick. But I do remember loving it, every second of it. After that, I just fell I love with acting. There was no turning back.”
Since then, it’s been full forward for the fledgling actress, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her parents (her dad is Reese’s brother) and her younger sister, Draper. And Abby James is forging her own path in Hollywood, shooting movies around the schedules of high school. She’s played a young daughter in a 2018 Lifetime Christmas movie, Every Other Holiday, appeared in a web TV series (I Would Have Kissed You) and recently wrapped up production on Boys of Summer, a fantasy thriller starring Mel Gibson and Lorraine Bracco.
On a recent morning from her home, Abby James—about to begin her junior year—caught up with Parade.com to talk about her blossoming career, cheerleading, advice from her famous aunt, her most desired superpower, and why autographs are so old-school.
So, what does a young movie star do in Nashville when she’s not making movies in Hollywood?
This year, football games. I’m cheering, so that’s going to be every Friday night. It’s going to be super fun, getting ready for games and then hanging out with my friends.
Are you ready to go back to school?
Definitely! But I also want to book more jobs, because I really love acting, and I really love school; I’m super serious about both. And it’s all working out, so that’s great.
So, you’re driving now. Have you had your first fender bender, a teen-driver rite of passage?
No, thank goodness! I think I hit a pole one time when I was trying to park, because I’m horrible at parking. I have to be careful not to scratch the car with the trees when I’m going out of my driveway.
Your aunt also grew up in Nashville. Do people who knew her when she was younger ever say, ‘Gosh, you look just like young Reese Witherspoon!’?
Some people do, but others don’t even realize I’m related to her—even though we do have the same last name, and I feel like we look pretty similar.
Had you done any acting in school before you got the call to for Hot Pursuit?
I was in all my school plays, and I did a ton of musical theater in middle school. I’d definitely been in front of people before, just not in front of a camera.
Reese has a wide-ranging filmography, and some of it is rather grown-up. When you were younger, did your mom and dad ever put any of her projects, like Election or The Morning Show, on a restricted-viewing list?
Well, I wasn’t allowed to watch Election for a really long time. But I’ve seen it now, and it’s very good. I have watched some episodes of The Morning Show.
Related: Everything You Need to Know About The Morning Show Season 3
Tell us about Secret Headquarters, and your character.
It was so much fun to film. I play the role of Lizzy; she’s super outgoing and super funny. She talks a lot and she’s really smart. I think the best part was there were so many kids in the cast who were my age [Momona Tamade, Keith L. Williams, Aiden Malik, Walker Scobel]. We’re going to be best friends for life. We were always laughing. We rode scooters all around the set one day. I was super excited because Momona came to Nashville for my 16th birthday!
In the movie, one of the kids discovers that his father [Owen Wilson] is secretly a superhero, and his friends all spring into action. If you could have one superhero ability, what would it be?
Teleportation. I’ve always wanted to be in two places at once; hanging out with my friends but also working in Hollywood, or doing homework. That would be a very helpful superhero power, for sure.
What advice has your aunt given you?
She’s been super helpful. She told me to always know your lines, be ready for your first day on the set, and always know the names of everyone working on set. Be super-kind to everyone and be professional. Realize that your job is important, whatever it is, and be prepared.
What can you say about Boys of Summer, releasing in theaters later this year, and working with Mel Gibson?
I’m so excited for this to come out. It’s a thriller, definitely, but I don’t want to give away how it’s a thriller. My character, Sammy, is so different from Lizzy [in Secret Headquarters]. She’s a tomboy, for sure; all her friends are boys. Working with Mel Gibson was amazing—and with Lorraine Bracco, from Goodfellas. To hear all her experiences… She told me, “Always work with directors who love women.”
When everything began to click into place for you as an actor, was it like you had anticipated?
I was definitely surprised; I don’t think I realized how much work auditions were, and how much time it can take [to get cast or rejected] after an audition. I have submitted about 200 [video] auditions, and there have been a lot more no’s than yeses.
Have your parents always been supportive?
I had to talk them into letting me start auditioning. They were like, “Oh, we’ll just wait a little bit.” But I think I asked them so many times, they finally went, “OK, OK, we’ll help you get an agent and get into acting.”
When you go out in public, does anyone ever want your autograph?
I haven’t been asked for that many…yet! But I played the Elephant Bird in Seussical: The Musical in second grade, and someone asked me for my autograph after the show. I was so excited! But I think having a selfie with someone is so much cooler than an autograph, nowadays.
People who come to Nashville can see your name, sort of, in Reese Witherspoon’s hip retail store, Draper James, which stocks her own clothing line. Can you just walk into the store and say, “I’m Reese’s niece, I want that’?”
Oh gosh, no! The store was actually named after my great-grandparents, whom my sister, Draper, and I happened to be named after. I love going in there and I love all their clothes. Their pajamas are the most comfortable pajamas in the world, and I wear them every night. Draper and I did the [marketing] campaign for Draper James this year, and we were in photos and video of all their clothes for the summer.
Who are some other actors you’ve always admired?
One of my favorite movies is Clueless, with Alicia Silverstone. I loved her character in that. I always wanted to play a character like her, and I think Lizzy [in Secret Headquarters] is a little bit like that. I love Florence Pugh, her role in Little Women. Emma Watson, Emma Roberts, there’s a ton.
In a couple of years, high school will be over. What do you see coming next?
I hope to go to college in L.A. I always wanted to live there, and I definitely want to pursue acting. I’ll continue auditioning and working on my craft.
What advice do you have for other young people who have dreams of acting?
Know that there’s probably going to be a lot of rejection, always. But you just have to keep going, if you really want it, with hard work, acting classes, training yourself. You just have to persevere, because it’s a very hard business to get into. And I know that first-hand.