Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon was born on March 22, 1976 at Southern Baptist Hospital (now Memorial Medical Center) in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is the second child of Mary Elizabeth "Betty" (Reese) and Dr. John Draper Witherspoon, Sr. Her father was a military surgeon specializing in ear, nose and throat. Her mother was a Registered Nurse who later became a Ph.D in pediatric nursing. Reese spent the first four years of her life in Wiesbaden, Germany, where her father served as a lieutenant colonel in the US Army reserves. Shortly after, John moved the family back to the States, settling in Nashville, Tennessee.
Reese was introduced to the entertainment industry at a very early age. At age 7, she began modeling. This led to appearances on several local television commercials. At age 11, she placed first in a Ten-State Talent Fair.
In 1990, she landed her first major acting role in Robert Mulligan's The Man in the Moon (1991). Her role as a 14-year old tomboy earned her rave reviews. Roles in bigger films such as Jack the Bear (1993) and A Far Off Place (1993) followed shortly after.
Following high school graduation in 1994 from Harpeth Hall, a Nashville all girls school, Reese decided to put her acting career on hold and attend Stanford University where she would major in English literature. However, her collegiate plans were shortly dashed when she accepted roles to star in two major motion pictures: Fear (1996), alongside Mark Wahlberg, and Freeway (1996) with Kiefer Sutherland. Although neither film was a huge box-office success, they did help to establish Reese as a rising starlet in Hollywood and open the door for bigger and better film roles. Those bigger roles came in movies such as Pleasantville (1998), Election (1999) and Cruel Intentions (1999).