PHOTOGRAPHY BY WALLY SKALIJ
PUBLISHED BY LOS ANGELES TIMES
BY GLENN WHIPP
Many people thought they had “Big Little Lies” pegged after HBO aired the first episode of the limited series in February. Soapy whodunit. Bitchy behavior. Mommy wars. Privileged women. Impossibly gorgeous homes.
The series invited those judgments and then proceeded to methodically upend them, delivering a nuanced look at motherhood, domestic abuse and, yes, the ways that knee-jerk assumptions can be wrong, damaging and self-sabotaging. Ultimately, it’s about a group of women finding solace and strength in each other.
That dynamic played out among the cast, as we learn from a long conversation with “Big Little Lies” stars Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. In the series, Witherspoon plays Madeline, the community’s queen bee, who clashes with Dern’s steely career mom, Renata. Kidman plays Celeste, envied, elegant, but hiding a secret life of violent abuse.
These actresses adore one another and, in between Dern and Witherspoon planning a vacation together and stories of Dern’s dad, Bruce, visiting the set (“It was a scene with a lot of profanity,” Dern remembers, laughing, “and I think he brought out the best in us”), they spoke about what made the series so special and why they’re eager to bring it back for a second season.
People take this show to heart. They want to talk about it. Has that led to some interesting public encounters?
Kidman: I was on a plane coming out here last night and I had a guy stand up and go, “ ‘Big Little Lies’! Yes!” And I’m kind of embarrassed because of my character. I’m not quite sure how to communicate with people. Am I communicating on behalf of Celeste and saying, “I know”? It’s weird. And then the people sitting behind me told me, “We just really want a Season 2. That’s all we want to say.”
Dern: I think we all want a Season 2!
I think the show pulled back the curtain on what women are really thinking in marriage and life and that it’s not just the persona we construct for society.
— Reese Witherspoon
Nicole and Reese, you’re producers. You can make it happen.
Kidman: We’re putting out feelers. We’ve talked to [“Big Little Lies” author] Liane [Moriarty]. It never started that way, the idea of another chapter. But at the same time, the thought of continuing the lives … there’s definitely room for exploration.
Witherspoon: The only thing about a Season 2 is that Renata and Madeline wouldn’t get to torture each other. Now we’re friends. That’s no fun!
Dern: We’ll figure out somebody new to torture. A new character. And we can hate them together. Renata and Madeline united!
Witherspoon: It was just a joy and privilege to work with actresses of this caliber.
Dern: Or actresses, period!
Witherspoon: Right. I’m always the only actress in a movie. The idea of sitting across from you guys and breaking a scene together. I remember telling Laura, “I can’t say this thing … I need your help.” It was just a completely different working experience. I’ve never been able to talk about those things with anybody on set.
Dern: Both of you were so fierce about making sure Renata’s plight was a piece of the story. We were in the middle of a huge moment culturally of watching a woman run for the highest office in the U.S. and there was so much projection on who she is as a mother, as a wife. All these misconceptions of a woman in a position of power.
And so the two of you, making sure we’re telling the story of what if you’re the one lone woman running the show in a boardroom with 14 guys and there’s no other women you’re working with. And what does that feel like?
And then just the life experience … because these two goddesses have made me feel not alone as the mom who’s working and feeling guilty at every step I take on set when I’m not with my children. To have other women ask, “How do you get them to the singing thing?” “Can we change schedules so I can go see their play?”
That kind of commiseration ends up being one of the show’s themes. I loved the scene of Celeste and Madeline in the car, just after Celeste argued and won the “Avenue Q” case with the mayor. It really captured those feelings of conflict and guilt and the fear of not measuring up.
Kidman: [To Witherspoon] I told you. People love that scene.
Witherspoon: We talked about that scene a lot. With HBO. With [writer-creator] David Kelley.
Kidman: A lot. There’s an unburdening, but Celeste still isn’t saying what’s really going on. She’s revealing, “I felt good in the work and it’s not enough being a mother.” But I don’t also say, “I’m getting hit.” I can’t say that. I can get close but then I pull back. And she can’t reveal what’s going on with her, the affair.
Witherspoon: I think the show pulled back the curtain on what women are really thinking in marriage and life and that it’s not just the persona we construct for society. What are the deep, secret, sometimes shameful things, sometimes just plain longings, that women have about everything from abuse to sexuality to maternal ambivalence?
Kidman: And it’s unapologetic too. Maybe that’s why men liked it. It was, in a way, educational.
Dern: The number of men who watched shocked me.