For ‘Big Little Lies’ fans, the houses are as much of a draw as the drama
It’s been two long years since the first season of “Big Little Lies” graced the screen. There’s a lot for fans to look forward to on Sunday night, when Season 2 premieres on HBO: Meryl Streep is joining the already star-studded cast. The first season was based on Liane Moriarty’s bestselling book, but Season 2 will explore what happens after that.
And, of course, those houses. To many viewers, the stunning homes and decor are a big part of the appeal.
For the record:
1:00 p.m. June 6, 2019An earlier version of this post gave actor James Tupper’s first name as Nathan.
John Tyler, a “Big Little Lies” fan who lives in Glendale, said he first started watching because of the cast. But right away, “I really responded to the aesthetic of the show.”
The architecture and design of all the homes “really captures a certain kind of California, the different archetypes of California living,” he said. “Indoor-outdoor, the bungalow, the luxury seaside mansion.”
In reality, many of the houses are located in Southern California, not Monterey, where the show is set — and, like the rest of the Southern California housing market, they are not cheap.
Even Jane’s home, intended to show that Shailene Woodley’s character is the youngest and poorest of her new friends, is in reality a three-bedroom bungalow in a part of Pasadena where similar homes routinely sell for more than half a million dollars. Bonnie and Nathan, played by Zoë Kravitz and James Tupper, live in what’s really a four-bedroom mansion in Calabasas in a neighborhood where homes go for $1.5 million to $3 million. Reese Witherspoon’s character Madeline’s seaside home is a seven-bedroom vacation rental in Malibu that can be yours for $3,000 to $5,000 a night. It was last listed for sale in 2012 at $16.75 million.
“Most of the homes on that show, I’m not at a place in my life where that is attainable,” said Tyler, who works in digital marketing for a healthcare provider.
But watching the show lets you imagine it.
A New York Post article quipped that the show is “real estate porn,” and on social media fans seem to agree: “‘Big Little Lies’ is ‘Revenge’-level beachfront property porn,” joked New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum on Twitter.
Though the houses have different architectural styles and design philosophies, Stephanie Feinerman, a fan of the show who lives in Atwater Village, said they collectively represent “aspirational design”: “a beautifully designed home that’s enviable and that you’d want to live in.”
She said she loves the way things look and the attention to detail on the show but admits she’s a little bit biased: She’s an art department coordinator who has worked on several TV shows herself, including “Barry,” “Transparent” and “Glee.”
One thing both Feinerman and Tyler picked up on right away was the way the physical spaces are designed to reflect the people who inhabit them. That is certainly not a coincidence: Production designer John Paino and set decorator Amy Wells worked for weeks before filming began to decide precisely which architectural style, color scheme and design sensibility made sense for each character.
Even the filming locations within the homes reflect them: For Madeline, who’s more of an emotional open book, many scenes take place in the open-concept kitchen (which is the actual kitchen of the Malibu house). For Nicole Kidman’s Celeste, who is closed off and hiding a big part of her life, most of her scenes happen in small, controlled spaces, such as the walk-in closet and the bathroom (both of which were constructed on soundstages). Bonnie is more earthy and grounded; the big dinner scene at her house happens in the outdoor dining area.
One of the most important things initially in the process, according to set decorator Wells, “was to make sure each character was differentiated in their homes. Their homes had to reflect as much who they are as their socioeconomic situation.”
To do that, she and Paino spent weeks creating character boards. They consulted books, movies, magazines and art to create multilayered guides that have the color palettes, textures, fabrics and overall feeling and mood. Everyone works off those boards, from production to the costume department to the actors themselves.
Though both Wells and Paino insist that the phrase “architecture porn” never came up in the planning process, they both know it’s something fans love about the show. To them, it all originates with the setting. Everything had to be informed by Monterey.
“We knew we wanted everything to be sumptuous. They’re affluent. It’s really what’s appropriate for the characters,” Paino said. “The more fantastic and more posh everything is, the more it counterpoints to what’s going on. … Not all is what it seems in sunny old Monterey.”
Once Wells and Paino had figured that part out, it was time to go shopping. Wells, who lives in South Pasadena, did a lot of her shopping at Cisco Home, H.D. Buttercup and shops and showrooms in the Pacific Design Center.
For Reese Witherspoon’s character, Wells said she looked to more mainstream home decor places: “She has that beachy look, beach meets Pottery Barn meets Williams-Sonoma.”
On the other hand, Celeste’s house is filled with unique, expensive, highly curated pieces, reflecting husband Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgard) controlling nature and high expectations. Renata (Laura Dern), who’s intensely invested in how she is perceived, has a house with unique architectural elements (that staircase! That sweeping vista!) and the high-end decor to match.
In Season 2, expect to see some changes. Celeste no longer has to keep her house decorated and cleaned to Perry’s exacting standards. Jane’s living situation changes. Renata’s living room was given a purposeful update: “She’s just so filthy rich that she would have changed her living room,” Wells said.
And, of course, Meryl Streep is there now. Wells said she consulted at length with the Oscar winner, who is playing Perry’s bereaved and suspicious mother, about how and where her character would choose to live.
Between Meryl and Monterey, there’s plenty for die-hard fans to be excited about.