LOS ANGELES — Before her latest film, if anyone had asked Reese Witherspoon what the term "extraordinary rendition" meant, she might have answered with a blank stare.
The words could be bureaucratese for something as innocuous as a tax deduction. But as Witherspoon's "Rendition" spells out darkly and melodramatically, the term actually stands for a U.S. government practice of transferring terrorism suspects to other countries, where their interrogations could subject them to abuse and torture.
"I don't think I realized what the term was called," Witherspoon told The Associated Press at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where "Rendition" played in advance of its theatrical release Friday. "The term is not really in the popular vernacular.
"It sounds like public-policy rigamarole. It doesn't sound like anything that you would connect with the torture and detainment of innocent people."
"Rendition" marks the first release for Witherspoon, 31, since 2005's "Walk the Line," the Johnny Cash film biography in which she played the country-music legend's wife, June Carter Cash.
Though Witherspoon won the best-actress Academy Award for "Walk the Line," the dramatic turn she takes in "Rendition" may surprise fans of the performer best known for breezy comedies such as the "Legally Blonde" flicks and "Sweet Home Alabama."
In "Rendition," Witherspoon plays the wife of an Egyptian-born man (Omar Metwally) suspected of involvement in a Middle East terrorist bombing who is abducted by U.S. authorities and sent overseas for questioning at a secret facility. Jake Gyllenhaal co-stars as a CIA analyst who comes to question his government's sanctioning of such abusive interrogations.
As her character begs for answers from government officials, including a cold-hearted intelligence bureaucrat played by Meryl Streep, Witherspoon transforms into a desperate, emotional wreck.
As a master of the light touch, did Witherspoon find it tougher to get into the head of a woman in such distress?
"I wouldn't say tougher or not tougher. Every film is like its own set of difficulties or experiences that are emotionally challenging," Witherspoon said. "But this was certainly a more dramatic role than one of the comedies I've done.
"I think it's all the same. You come at it from a character perspective. It's just really doing that work of where is this person from, why do they have these attitudes, why did they marry this person and not that person? Just a lot of building back-story. There has to be a part of it where you feel like it could be an experience you could have or someone else could have."
"Rendition" director Gavin Hood, whose South African drama "Tsotsi" won the 2005 foreign-language Oscar, said Witherspoon's casting served as a Trojan horse to draw people into the movie.
"I don't need this movie to play to the choir. I need this movie to play to the people who are deeply skeptical to what I'm doing, so that they can be engaged in the debate. Well, who better to help take that out there to that world than the all-American girl?
"Reese is a woman of integrity. She is not a flighty, fluffy person. She's an intelligent woman who's done great work, who is also an all-American girl. This is the reality. It can happen to Reese. And it could. The girl next door who happens to marry a nice Egyptian guy who was at NYU."
Co-star Peter Sarsgaard, playing an old friend of Witherspoon's character now working for a U.S. senator, said the actress subtly captures a woman coping with a nightmare scenario without giving in to one-note anguish.
"She was playing a grieving woman in every scene in the movie. It's an incredibly difficult thing to do, just because it's hard to act like you're in grief or be in grief. It's hard to create variety within that," Sarsgaard said.
"When I first read it, I was like, oh my God, every scene is going to be like what I always call the `dead-baby' scene. It's going to be, the baby's dead, the baby's dead, the baby's dead. I need the `I'd like cream in my coffee scene,' the `No, that's my parking spot scene.' ... She handled that really well by finding the part of the person that doesn't think about it every minute, doesn't allow her mind to see the worst-case scenario."
Starting acting lessons as a child in Tennessee, Witherspoon broke into movies with the 1991 teen drama "The Man in the Moon." She later turned heads with 1996's "Freeway," a Red Riding Hood black comedy in which she plays an illiterate youth who goes toe-to-toe with a real-life big bad wolf (Kiefer Sutherland).
Witherspoon continued focusing largely on dark comedy and edgy tales such as "Election," "American Psycho" and "Cruel Intentions," which co-starred her future husband Ryan Phillippe (they recently divorced).
Mainstream success followed with "Legally Blonde," and Witherspoon has moved into producing with such films as the modern fairy tale "Penelope," in which she took a supporting role as a pal to a young woman (Christina Ricci) cursed with a pig's snout and ears.
In next year's comedy "Four Christmases," Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn play a couple rushing to squeeze in holiday visits to each of their divorced parents all in one day.
Besides bringing Witherspoon an Oscar, "Walk the Line" gave her a taste of the musical career she once dreamed about. Witherspoon underwent extensive voice training and learned to play the autoharp for the film, in which she and co-star Joaquin Phoenix did their own singing.
"I wanted to be a Broadway kid. I wanted to be on Broadway when I was 12, so I had singing lessons, but nothing prepared me for what it's like to stand in front of a microphone and hear it played back to you," Witherspoon said. "It's so humbling, and it made me really appreciate people who are naturally gifted."
While "Rendition" openly challenges U.S. policy in the war on terrorism, Witherspoon plays the diplomat when asked if she thinks unlawful detention and torture are ever justified.
Witherspoon said she prefers to keep her own counsel and not let her beliefs muddy up the debate.
"I have a real aversion to talking about my own personal politics just because I feel the influence sometimes, I see the influence of celebrity on our culture," Witherspoon said. "And to think that my opinion is any more informed than anyone else's or taken as thus is erroneous. I'm just like everybody else. I'm learning, reading, I'm trying to figure it out. ...
"I can't imagine being responsible for national security or global security. I can't imagine having to be in that position and make those decisions. That's why I'm not. That's why I'm an actor," Witherspoon said, laughing. "I'm allowed to question these things, question them and think about them and hopefully get other people talking about them. That's the best you can hope for."