It’s fair to say there is hardly anything little about HBO’s new limited series.
“Big Little Lies,” which premieres Sunday, boasts two megastar executive producers, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. The star-studded sensibility continues from there, with a cast that includes Zoë Kravitz, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley.
The seven-part series, which is based on Liane Moriarty’s 2014 bestseller of the same name, introduces viewers to a group of upper-middle-class mothers of first-graders living in Monterey, Calif., who are vexed by sexual assault, domestic violence, class issues and the everyday stresses of motherhood.
The group of women includes Madeline Mackenzie (Witherspoon), a know-it-all busybody who is trying to cope with the resentment she feels about her eldest daughter’s growing relationship with her ex-husband’s second wife, Bonnie Carlson (Kravitz), a twentysomething yoga instructor with a strong moral compass. Then there’s Madeline’s best friend, Celeste Wright (Kidman), who gave up a legal career to focus on her twin boys and is in an abusive marriage. There’s Jane Chapman (Woodley), a young single mom who just moved to Monterey to escape a difficult past. And Renata Klein (Dern), a successful businesswoman who’s at the center of school politics on and off the playground.
We spoke with the women who brought it to life on the big little screen.
On not portraying women as good or bad
If you want to hear how women really talk to each other, I think you should watch the show. We’re, at times completely cruel and at times kinder than anyone could possibly be. And there’s parts of us that are very divided in the beginning, but you have to watch the entire spectrum of the thing to understand all seven episodes. You understand how these relationships shift. And why, at the end of the show, these women will be forever together.
On how much of herself she brought to the role of Madeline
She’s a different kind of mother than me. We’re not similar. She’s very controlling, she’s kind of negative, pushy. And then you get into her back story [and] you see it comes from a place of just feeling so less than everyone else. And feeling maybe she made some wrong choices in her life.
I see myself in Jane, I see myself in Madeline, I see myself in Bonnie, I see myself in Renata. I think there definitely have been moments of being like Celeste in my life, and I think women and men alike are going to find a universality in all of these characters.
On her Shailene Woodley obsession
I literally would just stare at her sometimes. She can literally lay you down with something she says. I would read it on the page, and be like, “Ugh, that’s kind of, I don’t know how I would do that.” And then she would find a way to say it in the most natural way, and break your heart saying it. It was just extraordinary.
On the domestic violence research she did
I took in an enormous amount of information. I read stories, watched interviews, talked to women. I saw some extraordinary TED Talks about domestic violence, particularly women that are seemingly successful women.
I know it. I’ve worked for the U.N. in terms of eradicating violence against women. This is a very deep subject that is prevalent and in many different ways, shapes and forms. This is just one form of it. But, on the surface, you go, “Oh, everything is great. And then as it unravels, you’re like, ‘Oh.’ ” The fragility of the relationship is just so heartbreaking. There is love there. And there’s children, and there’s a family. And it’s very authentic.
On shooting some of the more violent scenes
I just told [director] Jean-Marc [Vallée], “I trust you.” I want to be truthful and authentic. I want it to be complicated, which it should be. And the way Liane had written it, it was complicated. There’s a reason Celeste fights back. A lot of times she blames herself because she fights back. I thought that was a very interesting, but very real part of this relationship. People are going to be shocked by that at times.
It’s probably the most emotional I get when I’m discussing a role. This is a very insidious, devastating situation that this relationship is in. So, I am so careful with it and delicate with it.
On how she always seems to end up playing complicated characters on HBO:
For whatever reason, HBO has given me my greatest opportunities, or we’ve worked together to create opportunities, in which not only is the character difficult at best to have empathy for — Amy Jellicoe [in “Enlightened”], [former Florida] Secretary of State Katherine Harris [in “Recount”] and now this. These are the characters on the page that you’re not necessarily going to like or be rooting for and now it’s our opportunity to dig deeper and find the other side of that person or the other side of the story. And that’s been the most fun I’ve had as an actor. You pray for those moments, and I’ve been lucky to have it several times. Without giving too much away, I’m definitely the character you want to hate.
On how people judge women in power
Isn’t it interesting when a woman is in a position of ultimate power, the boss of the group — my character being a CEO — what the perception is of that woman? It’s incredible the commentary on what the marriage must be like, what the woman must be like, what her sexuality is like and that she can’t be connected on any level with other women. Oh, and she’s a horrible mother. But that was the fun thing about it, because I think we were all madly in love with our characters. I don’t think any of the five of us women wanted anything more than to delve into the world we were in, which is thanks to David’s [Kelley] writing and the brilliant book.
On meeting Liane Moriarty and her research for the role
We got to know her. I got to have fun talking to her about where Renata came from in her brain. But as it expanded to this long-form, limited series, I got connected with a couple of extraordinary women, a couple of the more high-powered women in America who are the only women in their boardroom of 12 men. I learned so much that I never knew about what that’s like, and so everything is on the defensive. … I know the challenges of being in the film business, but no one’s looking at me like it should be a man’s job. So I don’t have to live my life on the defensive, and it’s fascinating.
On the feminist label that’s been attached to the show
I was just talking about this with someone else because they were like, “How does it feel to be part of a feminist project, and part of a piece that so many people are labeling as progressive or liberal or feminist?” It’s interesting to notice that if you have five male leads and their spouses, you don’t say, “Oh, this is a misogynist piece.” You don’t put a label on it. But when it comes to women, you have five women leads, and all of sudden, it becomes a feminist piece. That to me just lends to the reality that society is not able to accept five women lead roles.
It’s not the norm, yet, so we still have a lot of work to do. That being said, we’re making progress.
On returning to TV (Woodley’s breakout role was in “The Secret Life of an American Teenager,” which ran for five seasons on what used to be known as ABC Family)
Doing something for six months is a long time, but the nice thing is because we had the same director and we had the same actors, and it was all with HBO, it felt like we were just doing one large movie.
On not overwhelming “Big Little Lies” author Moriarty with too many questions
In terms of making my character, I strictly went off of what David [Kelley] wrote, but I did get to meet Liane when she was in town. She came to set for a day, and that was really neat. You always sort of want to pick their brains, like, “What does it feel like to see your brainchild manifested, and embodied, and personified?” But also you choose to be a little bit more respectful of their space, because I can imagine how overwhelming that would be.
On how first impressions can be deceiving with “Big Little Lies”
Even I’m annoyed by Bonnie at the beginning. The nicer she is, the more annoying it is. But as the story goes on, you see everyone’s character develop in such a way where you kind of feel like a [jerk] yourself for judging them so quickly. (Laughs.) It’s beautiful the way it tricks you. You think you know who these women are, and then you learn to have such compassion for them, because everyone has so much going on and what we show to the world is only a very thin layer of who we are.
On the refreshing change of pace from blockbuster films like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the “Divergent” series to a more intimate drama
Real character study and work, especially for women, it doesn’t happen a lot. And as a woman, to do it with other women, it’s such a gift.
On Kidman’s and Witherspoon’s collaborative spirit as executive producers working with the younger actresses
They are the big dogs on the set, and I look up to both of them, and Laura as well, so having them ask “What do you think?” meant a lot to me, and I learned through that. It was a really beautiful experience.