Murder roils oceanfront town in HBO’s ‘Big Little Lies’
Looking for bare-knuckle politics? There’s no need to go all the way to Congress. Just visit your local school.
That’s where the moms of HBO’s Big Little Lies (Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT) take out the big guns — verbally, at least — when the arrival of a new family and an accusation of bullying disrupts a California seaside community where beautiful family facades aren’t as sturdy as they appear.
The fighting is vicious, but sometimes hilarious, especially when local firebrand Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) and no-nonsense businesswoman Renata Klein (Laura Dern) go at it.
“I always say there’s girl politics,” Witherspoon says, “but I don’t think we’ve seen as much of the girl-politicking and mother-politicking world on film. This is how women really speak to each other: candidly, raw. They say filthy, dirty, disgusting things to each other. Then, they smother each other in love and admiration. It’s a very interesting thing to see, and I think we worked really hard on making that grounded and natural.”
Maternal power runs through the seven-episode miniseries, with the five women at its center expressing deep love but also darker emotions when it comes to their children, husbands and jobs in beautiful Monterey. And that’s before a mysterious murder — a future incident that plays in the background as the story recounts the days leading up to it — rocks the community like a tidal wave.
The star-studded drama, based on the instant (and durable) 2014 bestseller by Liane Moriarty, digs into the lives of the women, all with first-graders attending a model public school, and shows how outward appearances can deceive.
“This is very much about what goes on behind closed doors, and the conversations that are happening in kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms and, suddenly, in your schoolyard. But there’s the friendships formed and navigated that are not behind closed doors. That’s life,” says Nicole Kidman, who plays Madeline’s close friend Celeste Wright, a married mother of twin boys who harbors a dark secret.
“There are all kinds of ways of covering up and pretending. It’s that posturing you do when you want to project a certain kind of confidence or maturity or good mothering,” says Witherspoon, who calls parenting the great equalizer that doesn’t differentiate between wealth or background. “All those lies break down by the end.”
Celeste and Madeline take young single mom Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), a new, less well-heeled arrival with an unknown past, under their wing, trying to shield her when the bullying charge stirs controversy at the school.
“Most of the women seem like they live very privileged, shiny lives,” says Woodley. “And Jane comes in as someone who has endured many struggles at a very young age. She brings a grit and groundedness that a lot of people can relate to.”
When activist Madeline isn’t offering moral support to Jane or spewing venom at Renata, she feels resentment toward sweet Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz), a twenty-something aerobics teacher who’s married to Madeline’s first husband and getting the spousal support she never received.
The drama opens at a school fund-raiser, the scene of a murder. But neither the victim nor the culprit are identified until late in the series. And the investigation serves as a backdrop, complete with catty commentaries about the women by other school parents.
Lies, adapted by David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Goliath) and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club), shifts the action from Australia to the ruggedly beautiful California town, where the rich bump shoulders with longtime working-class residents.
“We needed a town that was big enough that secrets could exist, but small enough so that people’s lives would be cross-pollinated,” says Kelley, who changed the novel with “some tweaks, but not by leaps and bounds. I’m a big fan of the book.”
Secrets are revealed at home, where the women face challenges relating to divorce, infidelity, domestic violence and sexual assault that aren’t black and white. It’s not what you think it is,” Witherspoon says. “We’re looking at issues that are very prevalent and talking about them with a complexity they deserve.”
Emotions are strongest in those intimate settings, but that can lead to the best and worst of outcomes, Dern says. “People become their most protective and their most fearful in (matters of) love, marriage and parenting.”
Murder only raises the temperature, she says. “It’s interesting to see who rallies. Who becomes their best self and who becomes their worst self?”
Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman get honest about their show ‘Big Little Lies,’ an HBO series about a town that will do anything to maintain its perfect image.
No ‘Lies’: Actresses bonded on HBO set
As the women connect in Big Little Lies, so have the five actresses who play them in HBO’s miniseries (Sunday, 9 ET/PT).
It’s the kind of on-set bonding opportunity that was rare until recently, for one simple reason: There weren’t many female ensembles in Hollywood.
“Are you kidding? None of us did movies together, because there was just one of us, with like six guys. Maybe there were two female roles,” says Laura Dern,
Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, also executive producers of the project, say the limited-series format gave them an opportunity to delve more deeply into multiple characters than they could in a feature film.
A look at the actresses behind the series:
Reese Witherspoon, 40 (Wild, Walk the Line)
Character: Madeline Martha Mackenzie, a sharp-tongued, big-hearted woman always looking for a cause. She’s on her second marriage, with a daughter from each union.
Witherspoon, who worked with Lies director Jean-Marc Vallée on Wild, says she celebrated her birthday during filming, “and all the women took me out to dinner.” Getting together off set “was a great opportunity to share life beyond the (acting) parts. We’ve had so many common life experiences because of what we do and where we live,” she says. “Nicole, Laura and I have done this for many years and Shailene and Zoe are young women who have incredible talent. It’s exciting to see them on their journey.”
Nicole Kidman, 49 (Lion, The Hours)
Character: Celeste Wright, the mother of twin boys whose marriage to a handsome businessman (Alexander Skarsgård) appears to create a perfect picture of affluent wedded bliss.
Producing provides the chance to champion programs such as Lies, creating more acting opportunities for women. “As an actor, a lot of times your destiny is controlled by what you get offered, so it’s nice if you can create your own opportunities,” she says.
Shailene Woodley, 25 (Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars)
Character: Jane Chapman, a twentysomething single mom with an unknown past, who arrives in Monterey seeking a quality education for her son.
Woodley checked in with Fault co-star Dern before taking the role. “To work with a cast of empathetic and compassionate women who are true champions of other women and a male director who was approaching this from a matriarchal point of view was really special.”
Laura Dern, 50 (The Founder, Wild)
Character: Renata Klein, a high-tech businesswoman, wife and mother, whose career success leads to harsh judgment of her mothering skills by others.
Dern found the new role — and the vicious dialogue between Renata and Madeline — an amusing contrast to their roles in Wild. “We had an opportunity to tell one of the great love stories between a mother and daughter in Wild, and no two people hate each other more” than Madeline and Renata, she says. “We were horrible to each other and shocked at how easy the improvisations would come.”
Zoë Kravitz, 28 (Divergent, Mad Max: Fury Road)
Character: Bonnie Carlson, a yoga-teaching mom married to Madeline’s ex-husband, whose improved spousal and parental devotion helps spur Madeline’s resentment.
Kravitz says none of her more famous co-stars pulled rank. “Knowing that Reese and Nicole were producing, it was a great honor to be asked to be part of this. It meant they thought Shailene and I had what it took to play with the big dogs,” she says. “On set, there was no competition. They really wanted to collaborate.”
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