Episode 6 – ‘The Uncanny’ – of Little Fires Everywhere was a flashback episode to show us the backstories of Elena and Mia. The performances of AnnaSophia Robb and Tiffany Boone who played the younger Elena and Mia were exceptional, particularly in the way they captured the mannerisms of their older counterparts. The episode also helped us to better understand Elena and empathise with her. Read about how AnnaSophia Robb prepared for the role below:
How AnnaSophia Robb Perfected Reese Witherspoon’s Voice on ‘Little Fires Everywhere’
From the moment AnnaSophia Robb received the email to play Reese Witherspoon’s younger character on Little Fires Everywhere, she knew she had to have it. Robb stars as the younger version of Witherspoon’s character Elena, a wealthy white woman with three kids, in episodes 5 and 6 of Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere.
Based on Celeste Ng’s 2017 book of the same title, Little Fires Everywhere follows two mothers in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in the 1990s, whose lives are upturned after a story about a young single mother who abandons her baby at a fire station rocks their small town. The sixth episode of the miniseries, which Witherspoon and Kerry Washington executive produce, explores the lives of Elena and Mia (Washington) before they were mothers with teenage children in Shaker. Robb plays Elena at two stages of her life: The first is in 1970s Paris before a wide-eyed Elena returns to Shaker and starts a family. The second is a decade later when Elena, now with three kids, learns that she’s pregnant with a fourth and must pivot the life she pictured for herself once again.
“As an actor, it was a fun role to play, because I’m not a mother,” Robb says. “It was challenging in certain ways. It was a nerve wracking experience, but it was also one of the most gratifying things I’ve done.”
Ahead, Robb talked to StyleCaster about the key advice Witherspoon gave her on the set of Little Fires Everywhere, what it was like to work on a show that was created and written by women and what she learned about her own from a privilege from the series, which explores race, class and motherhood. “I think fostering an environment where nobody feels silenced is super important. That was definitely present on this set,” Robb says.
On how she listened to Reese Witherspoon’s audiobook to practice her voice
“I was emailed the breakdown for Little Fires Everywhere, and I freaked out because I loved the book. I’m such a huge fan of Reese Witherspoon. She’s been one of my heroes pretty much my entire life, so I listened to Reese’s book on tape because I wanted to get as close to her voice as possible. And then I put myself on tape.”
On the advice that Reese gave her to play Elena
“I was able to shadow Reese, so I could watch her and ask questions. She was so open with me about talking about the character, her own experiences as a mother, what mastitis feels like, what it’s like to breastfeed and the origins and pathos of the character.
Reese said something really interesting. She said, ‘Elena had her whole life planned out, and when she goes to Paris, for the first time, she doesn’t have a plan. Her plan is to not have a plan in Paris. And then she’ll go back to her real life and her plan continues.’ I thought that was such a perfect way of describing her. There’s somewhat of a real heartbreak for Elena, where there’s a little bit of hardness created. She needs to protect herself. She needs to protect her vision and her view of the world and what is right and what is wrong in order to survive.”
On what she learned about her own privilege from the show
“When I got to set, I was like, ‘OK. What book should I read?’ And they said ‘White Fragility.’ The book touches on it a little bit, but it doesn’t touch on race as much as the show. The producers and the writers were such a diverse group of women writers, who were not only mothers and non-mothers, but also of different backgrounds, which is so important for writing truthfully about these issues.
I wonder if this will be a hard show for people to watch. I don’t know if people are necessarily aware of their own privilege. I hope that this show gives you a moment to check yourself before judging other people. What I learned from this show is that it’s important to have collaborators where these tough conversations are encouraged and there’s an open dialogue and a lot of room to listen. I think fostering an environment where nobody feels silenced is super important. That was definitely present on this set.”
On what it was like to work on a show where women were at the “forefront”
“Most sets are inclusive, but there was a certain positive energy and spirit of collaboration on this one, especially because women were at the forefront. I remember sitting at the video village, where the producers, the director and the writers sit to watch the show, and just to see it filled up with women was something I hadn’t encountered before. That was a really unique and empowering experience for me.”
On how Little Fires Everywhere had an intimacy coordinator for sex scenes
“There’s a scene in episode 5 where Elena is intimate with Jamie. Immediately they were like, ‘We have an intimacy coordinator. Hey, let’s talk about this, so you feel comfortable, safe and protected. Before I even thought about it, there were all these measures in place, like, ‘The set is closed. Let’s make sure you have the right wardrobe. Let’s have a rehearsal.’ It wasn’t awkward. It was very open and easy to express myself.”
AnnaSophia Robb On Playing A Young Reese Witherspoon In ‘Little Fires Everywhere’
Little Fires Everywhere, the Hulu limited series based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel of the same name, features Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington as Elena Richardson and Mia Warren, respectively — two mothers both at odds with and inextricably tied together through their mysterious intertwined pasts. When two powerhouses like Witherspoon and Washington come together on screen, it’s always a treat. But in the series’ sixth episode, “The Uncanny,” actors AnnaSophia Robb and Tiffany Boone were tasked with bringing younger versions of the characters to life through a series of flashbacks.
Robb (The Act, The Carrie Diaries) expertly took on a younger version of Witherspoon’s Elena, embodying both Witherspoon’s mannerisms and energy while fleshing out Richardson’s backstory. In “The Uncanny,” we’re transported back to early 1980s Shaker Heights, Ohio, where Elena is a young mother struggling to adjust to a life of suburban and maternal confinement after a series of disappointments, including an unwanted pregnancy. NYLON caught up with Robb to learn more about how she took on the task of bringing a young Elena to life.
Playing a younger version of a character in a flashback is a unique challenge, especially paired with an actress as distinct as Witherspoon. How did you approach the role?
AnnaSophia Robb: I did a lot of different things. I started listening to Reese’s book on tape, Whiskey in a Teacup. And then I would just listen to a bunch of interviews, so I could know, sort of, the cadence of her speech. But it was kind of different from the character that she plays. She sounds a little bit more clipped in the show. I listened to her a bunch and watched her mannerisms. And then I was able to shadow Reese on set, which was a huge privilege. It was just such a fantastic show to be a part of. It was run by women, and it was so supportive, and the show tackled a lot of challenging conversations about race, about class, about motherhood and about ugly parts of ourselves that we don’t want to see necessarily.
I would sit at Video Village and I would watch Reese’s scenes. They gave me the whole schedule and I just circled the scenes that I was like, these are really important. I didn’t want to be too lingering when I shadowed her, but Reese was super open and available to talk to me about any questions that I had, or just little things of what I thought she was like as a teenager. Just different psychological questions.
Had you read the book before being cast?
I was huge fan of the book. I read the book before I knew it was going to be turned into a show, and I loved it. That was a huge resource, because everything is sort of built off that and Celeste Ng, she just wrote such complex characters. Then Reese and Kerry embodied them so beautifully and the writers instilled upon these roles… they have depth to them and all sorts of different colors, you know? People that aren’t necessarily likable, but they’re really complex and their motives are… they want them to come from the right place but often they don’t, just like so many of us.
Why do you think the show is taking off as it is and is striking such a chord with fans?
I don’t think there are a lot of shows about motherhood necessarily, or middle America. That’s sort of been forgotten for flashier shows — procedural shows, for instance. It’s not sleepy at all, because there’s a ton of drama in it. But I think a lot of people can relate to it, and relate to different characters that they might not expect themselves being able to relate to. You might start finding yourself drawn to a different character that you wouldn’t have expected. I think we do have such a race and class issue in our country that I think everybody can speak about whether you are the privileged or the underprivileged.
So it’s peeling back those layers and all the complex emotions and experiences that go along with them. I think just high schoolers, what’s it like to identify with the different Richardson children, or with Pearl or with Izzy not measuring up to her mother’s standards? Or struggling with if you’re figuring out who you love and your sexual identity? There’s just a lot of different entry points into this story for viewers. I also think a lot of people love and know the book. But this is such a great conversation starter because it’s about just people and a suburb and I think a lot of people can relate to that.
What has it been like to transition into those more mature roles, for lack of a better word?
I’m pretty excited about what’s happening right now. I think there’s so much good writing right now. There’s so much material, especially in television. I’m curious what is going to happen with film. Especially independent films and bigger films after this quarantine and what that space looks like. But in terms of good writing and great roles, this has been a great time to come of age. I feel like so many women and actresses, Reese especially and Kerry, have paved the way in terms of speaking up for equal pay, and getting really great female leads. Where it’s not just a strong female lead, it’s somebody who’s more complicated. Did you read that Brit Marling piece in the New York Times? She was talking about how she doesn’t want to be a strong female lead because they’re actually just like a mimicry of masculine characters.
It’s a really great piece and I really enjoyed reading it. It speaks to sort of not writing characters that don’t necessarily… they don’t need to be strong, they don’t need to have male characteristics. I think Little Fires does that really well. I’ve found right now that a lot of the characters that I’ve been able to play and that I’ve been reading don’t, they’re not necessarily strong female leads. They have myriad colors in them and they’re very vulnerable. It’s not like, it was written for a man and now we’re just changing it to a woman’s role, a female role.
I really want to produce. I always wanted to do that, even since I was a kid actor. But I think especially after working on Little Fires and seeing the collaboration between on Hello Sunshine and Simpson Street, and the tenacity of [Hello Sunshine’s head of television and film] Lauren Neustadter, and how much passion she showed in caring for every detail. And how much power they gave me and encouragement they gave me.
It made me feel empowered to just go after things and feel okay failing. I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned this past year or just since graduating I guess, is that there’s not really a rule book. I find myself constantly wanting to be told what to do and that doesn’t really exist in the world. I wouldn’t call myself a freelancer, but I feel like my life fits into more of a freelancer scheme than a regular job. You just have to make your own path and make mistakes, and then just keep moving forward and trying and failing and working hard.
AnnaSophia Robb and Tiffany Boone on Becoming Young Elena and Mia on Little Fires Everywhere
This week on Little Fires Everywhere, a flashback episode sent us back to the ’80s when Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) were just two young women figuring out their lives.
Young Mia, played by Tiffany Boone (The Chi), goes off to college to study art in New York and encounters an intriguing professor who later becomes a mentor and, deviating from the book, a lover. Meanwhile, young Elena, portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb (The Carrie Diaries), is juggling three kids and a budding journalism career when she discovers she and her husband, Bill, have another baby on the way.
Struggling to pay for her tuition, Mia takes up a suspect offer to be a surrogate for a wealthy couple yearning for a child. But when her brother, with whom she is very close, passes away, she fulfills his wishes of keeping the baby for herself. After being shunned from his funeral by her own parents, she steals away in his car and starts a nomadic life, traveling from city to city, even after the child, her daughter, Pearl, is born.
Over in Shaker, Elena is an exhausted young mother of four. In one scene, her children are crying and the water has just run out; in another, she agonizes over her youngest not being able to breastfeed. With Bill off at work, she’s shouldering the caretaking responsibilities on her own. One night, after an especially stressful day, she meets up with ex-boyfriend Jamie for what almost turns out to be a one-night-stand.
The episode is about finding these women in a period of becoming, building who they are when we meet them in the present day in the series. Elena’s being overwhelmed with her responsibilities explains why she so rigidly plans and follows every rule, while Mia’s close bond with her late brother explains why she’s so protective of Pearl. Here, Boone and Robb discuss why it’s important for viewers to see Mia and Elena evolve as characters, and what they as actresses learned about motherhood through their roles.
I love how you both capture young Elena and young Mia so well. How were you approached for the role, and were you familiar with the book beforehand?
Tiffany Boone: I wasn’t familiar with the book before, but I just got a call from my reps and they said that they were looking for someone to play young Mia, and they were kind of having a hard time, because I was cast right before we started shooting. I FaceTimed with the casting director, David Rubin, and he showed me some clips of Kerry and said, “Okay, try to capture that.” I self-taped in my apartment in New York, and the rest is history.
AnnaSophia Robb: I had a very similar experience. Same thing, my reps contacted me. And David Rubin was just the absolute best. They had already started filming, so he sent over some of the scenes, and I had never had that experience before. So it was just really generous and really kind. I felt like I understood what they were going for. But I was familiar with the book. I had read the book and was a fan of it.
And then I put myself on tape, and I was cast pretty early on. So once I found out that I was cast, I came out to L.A. to try and shadow Reese as much as possible because they said that they were really open to that.
I was actually interested to see if either or both of you spent any time with Kerry or Reese to learn about their characters and their portrayals.
AR: Both of us that had the opportunity to shadow, which was so generous of Reese and Kerry and the producers. I wanted to get it right. I was so excited about the script and about the story. Reese was such an open book, and I had lots of questions for her. I would come and watch the scenes, and we could talk about them. The showrunner, Liz Tigelaar, was so collaborative, and they had such a strong vision for the characters, and also for the episode, that I didn’t feel alone. It was so nice to be able to share this experience with Tiffany and know that we both were going through it. We’d pass each other a couple of times on set and knew that we’re both going through this very bizarre experience. But I felt so supported by the producers, and the writers, and Reese and Kerry, and it was just a very motivating experience. It was really creatively fulfilling.
TB: I was able to shadow as well. Like I said, I was cast kind of late, and so I only had a couple of weeks to kind of shadow and get on board and understand what was going on. But I took full advantage of that, going to set whenever I could to watch Kerry work and got to chat with her about how she was approaching the character and how she was researching certain things, and she shared that with me. Just like AnnaSophia said, the whole production team was so welcoming and so supportive, and they really wanted it to be a really great episode. So they just made sure that we had everything that we needed and access to Reese and Kerry and Liz.
I don’t know if she did this to you, AnnaSophia, I just remembered this earlier, but I got, like, a mini page breakdown of the character for every single scene Liz sent to me towards the beginning.
TB: It’s crazy. I’ve never had a showrunner do that before, and literally every scene she wrote a paragraph at least about what she was thinking and the vibe that I should be going for and what I should be thinking about going into the scenes. We were just so well equipped to get started.
In this flashback, there were some deviations from what was in the book, especially Mia’s relationship with her professor, Pauline. Tiffany, what did you discuss with Liz or with director Nzingha Stewart about showing that relationship or the general changes to Mia’s storyline?
TB: I had a brief conversation with Liz about the changes that she was making from the book. I told her that I thought every change that she made was really well done and only made it better, which is not something that happens regularly. I didn’t read the book until after I got the role, but a lot of times you’re so disappointed when these books come to life. I feel like the changes that were made really served the project.
I talked with Kerry and Liz and Nzingha a lot about what I think is the major change is that Mia is a Black woman. That changes so many of the dynamics from the book. It complicates things even further. So a lot of the conversations, especially with Nzingha and I, because she is a Black woman as well, was about how a young Black girl in the ’80s would be feeling in certain situations and coming into this world that’s so different than her own. That most of the time she looked at it as being kind of a white world, and then her first teacher is this beautiful Black woman and how important that is to her. And her connections with her Caribbean family are really strict and how every choice she makes, especially having a relationship with a woman and getting pregnant and all of that, how much pressure is on her.
Obviously the relationship with Pauline, which is so important and beautiful the way that Nzingha wanted us to portray it, because even with our sex scene, she was like, “Look, this is not porn. I do not want this to be overly sexualized. I want it to really be about them falling in love and taking your time and being very tender with each other.” Because I think a lot of times when we see lesbian relationships on TV or film, they are very sensationalized and respect isn’t necessarily given to the depth of the relationship.
AnnaSophia, I thought the contrast between Elena’s first few years of motherhood versus how we first see her on the show is so interesting because Reese’s version of the character seems to have it all under control, but in this flashback, we realize that she did kind of struggle with motherhood at first.
AR: Yeah, we just got off a phone conversation with Nzingha, and she was talking about the episode as a process of “becoming,” the characters “becoming,” and I think that that was really a helpful frame when building upon the foundation that Kerry and Reese helped me create.
I’ve never been a mother, but it was a really enriching and eye-opening experience to speak with Reese, among other mothers and women, about their postpartum experiences and the sort of feeling like your body is no longer your own. And feeling this sort of exhaustion and making irrational decisions and snapping, and just feeling completely untethered. In preparation, I spoke with Reese about what her experience had been, and then I spoke to other friends who’ve also had babies about just what it feels like in your body and how your brain just sort of disconnects between your brain and your body and your instinct, and what your life was before and what your life was after. I felt like I had a lot of room to play and shape the scenes, because there are a lot of emotional … she’s just sort of spiraling out of control.
She’s the absolute opposite of the Elena character that we meet in the beginning who’s so tightly wound. It’s a process of just unwinding and sort of spiraling. We talked a lot about control and trying to make the right decision and the things falling apart, but then at the very end, how to structure the Elena that we need in the rest of the series. What are the decisions, and what are the truths that she has to hold on to in order to build her worldview back up and set herself in this structure of justifying her decisions and justifying her experiences?
I thought it was also interesting when amid her confusion before she has Izzy, that she has a conversation with her mother about maybe not wanting to have a fourth child and her mom says that’s “not for people like us,” and literally one or two episodes before, her oldest daughter gets an abortion.
AR: Totally. I think that when you meet young Elena and young Mia, I think they’re a lot more similar than they are when they’re older, but we get to meet these versions of them deciding who they’re going to be. I think that’s a really valuable scene. I’m curious to seeing how mothers and daughters and families and friends and people talk about it, because it’s a choice. Obviously, it sets up the contentious relationship between Izzy and Elena. I mean, it totally broke my heart, there was one day where we had nine babies on set, and I felt like my brain was melting.
I was just like, “Oh, my gosh,” but this scene that we started out with was when Elena’s trying to breastfeed and she’s not able to express her milk and the baby isn’t latching, and just as a woman, as a person, I had never imagined what would it be like to have this beautiful, gorgeous baby and your body is not allowing you to feed it, even though it’s naturally saying that you’re the sole provider for this child that you didn’t want but is now this beautiful, gorgeous, healthy baby. That inner turmoil is so complicated, so challenging, and it just really made me feel. And Elena’s not exactly the most likable character, but it really gave me pause. I feel like I’m looking at mothers very differently now.
Definitely. And Tiffany, this episode sheds light on Mia’s relationship with her brother, Warren, who we hadn’t seen in previous episodes. For you, portraying this character, what did he mean to Mia, and what does it mean for her when he passes away?
TB: I think it’s in a book where it’s more clear that they were attached at the hip growing up, right? He was her everything, because she had this really complicated relationship with her parents, especially her mother. And you can see that a little bit. The opening scene with the family around the table and they don’t understand her. He’s the favorite son. He’s a football player, he’s the golden child, and she’s getting a degree in art? What is that? Who is this weird child, right? She only has him. She doesn’t feel the love from her mother, her father doesn’t understand her, and he truly sees her and sees her potential in a way maybe that she can’t even yet.
That’s why I think that relationship is just so important and for you to see the loss of that relationship. The loss of him, and then the loss of Pauline, just shows you why she’s so fiercely protective over Pearl, because literally she’s all that she has left in the world. She lost the people who believed that her, she lost the people who truly loved her, and she will fight to keep this beautiful thing she created whole and protect it. Mia says other times in the show, “She’s mine. She’s mine. She’s mine.” And you understand why she holds on so tight to her, because seeing her relationship with her brother and Pauline.
From the time when you’re portraying your characters as younger women to the show’s present day, there are a lot of changes and evolutions, but is there anything that’s still at their core?
TB: For Mia, something you see from the beginning until she’s older is just her complete passion for her art. She’s kind of willing to sacrifice everything to still be able to create this art, and she loves it so deeply and she has to be able to get that out. And I think that’s the same. Because she is more innocent and less jaded, it’s less there [when she’s younger]. But I still thought of the way that Kerry was explaining it to me is that she doesn’t fill in the awkward moments for people. If you’re uncomfortable, she’s going to let you be uncomfortable or she’s just going to be like, “Okay, well it’s uncomfortable for you. All right.”
I feel that’s a personality trait that somebody had to be raised with. You have to grow up being fine being uncomfortable, and I tried to find moments where young Mia also has that. Even when you see she’s in that argument with her brother, she’s like, “Okay, you’re unhappy. That’s your problem. I’m not going to fix this for you.” So those are two things I think are kind of the same about her.
AR: I think Elena always has a plan in place. There’s always a structure in her mind and this decisiveness of what is right and what is wrong. She doesn’t have gray in her mind, she has black and white, which is usually her way and not her way. Even when I’m talking about it, I start going in the cadence of the character. [Laughs] But early on, Reese and I talked about her voice, and Reese was saying, “I think it’s very deferential to men,” when Elena’s speaking to a man.
Reese based this character obviously on a book, but also somebody she had known from back home who’d grown up in this—they had the same house that their mother had and their grandparents before them, and they had four children. I think young Elena, even though she says, “Oh, we’re going to work for The New York Times,” her plan for Paris was to not have a plan, and that’s the only time she’s never had anything planned.
It says this in the book, there’s just a right and a wrong way to do things, and I think that just dictates every single decision that she has made. It’s somebody else’s standard. It’s never even if it is her own internalized standard that she’d actually be making these decisions from, she thinks that there’s a hierarchy of rules out there somewhere and that she’s obeying them. I think that is her sort of MO from the time when she was young, which we see in her conversation with her mother, and we see in her conversations with Jamie, to when she’s older. She’s lived by these sets of rules of what you’re supposed to do. It blows up, ultimately, because she loses her daughter. I think that’s when it shreds apart, because Mia represents the absolute opposite of living by her own standards, making her own rules.
Do you see any similarities between your characters in their youth and their children now?
AR: Yeah, definitely. It says this in the book, but Izzy’s supposed to be that spark that Elena suppressed. I think, having had four different children, Izzy is this sort of, like, wild side that Elena feeds on a daily basis and refuses to acknowledge, and so she started refusing her child. Obviously, the rest of the children are different reflections of their parents, but Izzy is the one whose most the younger version of Elena, the wildness.
And Lexie is definitely a prototype of young Elena to a T. I mean, there’s so much that’s problematic with Lexie’s character and her blindness to certain things and the way she uses people like Elena does, with just an insane amount of privilege. But I think the beauty in also is, I do believe that Lexie will make different decisions than her mother. My hope is that with each generation, they learn from the sins of their parents and see what is wrong, what is problematic with that certain perspective or those blind spots. They see their parents’ blind spots, and then learn from them. I think that’s something Pearl definitely does, Izzy definitely does. All of the kids. I love that they are reflections of their parents, but are maturing, hopefully, past them.
TB: I think with Pearl, it’s that thing with Mia. At the end of the day, she’s just going to do what she wants to do. Pearl keeps going to that house and keeps talking to those kids. She’s like, “This is who I am, and you’re going to have to explain to me why I shouldn’t do this.” She’s very strong-willed like Mia is. It’s so weird watching the episode, because there’s moments when I’m like, “Now I feel like I’m doing Pearl.” Which is so interesting, because I also think that Lexi Underwood, who plays Pearl, picked up some of Kerry’s mannerisms as well and wanted you to be able to see her mom in her.
And finally, what do you hope viewers get from these little windows into Mia’s and Elena’s pasts?
TB: Like, what AnnaSophia said, Elena is not the most likable character, and I don’t think Mia’s the most likable character either. They can be difficult people to love, you know? But in playing the younger version of Mia, I wanted people to, if they hadn’t already, have a lot of empathy for, because you see her just being really hard and blunt with people and not having a whole lot of compassion for some of the characters. Even sometimes you understand where she’s coming from, like with a lot of the microaggressions, you’re like, “Yeah, I totally get why you’re pissed, but why are you always pissed? Why don’t you loosen up a little?”
If you can see the innocence and the joy that she has at the beginning, this wide-eyed girl who really was just doing her best with what she had, you can learn to have empathy for her when she gets older and see why she made the decision she made, and see why she’s so fiercely protective of her daughter and see why she doesn’t trust this family.
AR: I 100 percent echo what Tiffany has said. As I watched this show, and when I was reading the script and when I was on set, I thought it’s so unique to watch these female characters that aren’t likable necessarily. That’s not the first word that you would [use]. Both of these mothers in a show about motherhood, they’re not maternal figures necessarily. They feel like women. Like full, complex, individual people. I hope that in these episodes you get an understanding of these women becoming who they are, and you get to see these choices, these junctures in their lives, and then choosing who they want to be.
Like Tiffany said, having that empathy, having more compassion, and then bringing that into conversations about the show. I think one of the great things about it being based on a book and then becoming a TV show is that so many different people have eyes on it, and it talks about so many different levels of race and class and microaggressions and abortion and motherhood and all of these different, difficult subjects and in a very empathetic way. I found myself relating to characters that I didn’t necessarily anticipate empathizing with or finding similarities to. I hope that this flashback helps reframe some of these characters and helps reframe some of the conversations in thinking about why people are the way they are.
AnnaSophia Robb, Tiffany Boone discuss the Little Fires Everywhere flashback episode
The sixth episode of Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere showed viewers a new side of Mia and Elena, long before they met on the streets of Shaker Heights. And for the flashback hour, Little Fires cast AnnaSophia Robb as a young Elena and Tiffany Boone as a young Mia. EW spoke with both actresses about their experiences taking on characters played by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you signed on, was it just to play young Mia/Elena, or did you fully understand that it was young Kerry Washington and young Reese Witherspoon?
TIFFANY BOONE: I don’t think I understood what it was gong to take, not when I first signed on. I was like, “What the hell did I agree to?” [Laughs] Once I started talking to the producers and seeing how this important this episode was to them and seeing how closely they wanted us to embody what Kerry and Reese were doing, and especially once I came to set and saw AnnaSophia on her second day and I saw how much she was like Reese, I was like, “Oh no. Didn’t mean to do this.” [Laughs] So I had no idea.
ANNASOPHIA ROBB: I didn’t know how nervous I would be. It felt like a workout — it felt really good because it was challenging, so I hated it and loved it at the same time. The writing for the show is so good and so strong. They really packed so much into all of the episodes, especially episode 6. Both of us have so much to do and the emotional roller coaster that happens was a lot to chew on. Both of us were able to shadow, which was so important, being able to spend time on set watching Reese, having conversations with her, talking with [showrunner] Liz [Tigelaar], talking with the writers and producers and living in the environment was so important for me.
BOONE: I also had no idea it’d be so rewarding.
In your conversations with Reese and Kerry, was there a specific piece of advice or something that felt central to their interpretation of the character that you wanted to emulate?
ROBB: The calculation of Elena. The things that really stick out to me are her having a very internal sense of what is right and what is wrong, the way she judges herself, the way she judges the world, other people, everything. She sticks so hard to this plan and her worldview is this black-and-white way to live life that it totally dictates the way that she drives her life. And then when she ends up having a fourth baby, it totally veers out of control. We meet her for a period where she’s completely trying to grasp at something and then by the end with Jamie, when she gets ahold of the wheel and is like, “I like my life, I chose my life,” that is the Elena we meet in years to come. She goes through this whole unraveling and that’s how it has to end. It was like this map in my brain that was created by Liz and everybody involved.
BOONE: Some of the first things that Kerry shared with me were about the way that Mia looks at the world, which as a visual artist is different than how we look at the world as actors. Kerry would say she’d play this game in scenes, she’d be in scenes looking at the colors in the room, seeing how many colors she could point out in the middle of a scene. I didn’t really have the brain space to do that in a scene, but it was looking at the world very visually. I would see Kerry listening to a person but really be looking at them like she’s trying to take a picture of them. That’s how she is in the world, everything is a possibility for art. That’s very central to the character. And also Kerry talked about her mother being an inspiration for her in that her mother would never try to fill in pauses for people or make people comfortable. You see that with older Mia — people asking her questions and waiting for her to be like “thank you” or “sure,” whatever that uncomfortable moment is and she will not play along. I still wanted to have a little bit of that in young Mia even though that impulse gets stronger and stronger as she gets older. She’s just really an observer of the world in a lot of ways.
I knew it was impossible, but I kind of wanted you two to have a scene together.
ROBB: They would’ve had a very different relationship. I feel like they would’ve gotten along.
BOONE: I think they would have too, yeah!
What was the process like of trying to nail Reese and Kerry’s voices and mannerisms?
BOONE: I focused less on sounding like her, although she had certain rhythms I tried to stick to, but I feel like physically Kerry is such a specific actress and she’s doing really interesting things with Mia in particular. So for me to get into the character, I really went from the outside in. I tried to understand her by the physical choices she was making, watching every hand movement. When Kerry cries as Mia, she uses two fingers above her lip to stop her nose from running, and she tilts her head when she’s listening, or she’ll grit her teeth when she’s angry. She does something with her neck when she’s trying to make a certain point. And I think those things really helped me to get into the character, but I didn’t want to feel shackled to that. Once I felt like it was in my body, I just let it happen and was able to be free and focus on what choices I felt like the character’d be making.
ROBB: I listened to Reese’s book on tape to hear her, because she has a really interesting voice, she has a lot of range. But with this character in particular she was more clipped, it was deferential to men, like when she’s speaking to them. I’ve been watching Reese my whole life so there are specific things I just know that she does, like the way she squints her eyes when she’s listening or she’ll tilt her head or you notice her arms are always very close to her body when she moves. Her voice never gets angry, there’s always a slight sweetness to it. There’s a certain range of emotions that she’ll let herself have as Elena. It was interesting because when she does become untethered, we don’t see the older Elena freak out in that way in the scenes that I watched. So I felt more of a freedom to hold onto certain parts of her behavior and voice but then let go because she feels so detached from her body and her emotions. It was a weird line to walk, like how far to let her crumble. It felt like I was sliding a lens into my brain and looking at the world through that perspective, which just colored the whole thing.
Were Kerry and Reese on set for your scenes?
BOONE: Kerry was there pretty much every day I was shooting except for my first day. She was very respectful. She would show up and sometimes I wouldn’t know until she’d been there for a few hours. She helped me with the scene where you see Mia walking down the street and she has her camera and she’s shooting and she was telling me, “This is how I think of it, this is how I hold the camera,” which was super helpful because I hadn’t been able to see footage of her doing that. But other than that, she was just being a producer on set. I was terrified at first when she started coming, but she was so supportive every day.
ROBB: Reese didn’t come on set, and I’m so grateful she didn’t because I would’ve had a breakdown. [Laughs] But she was so open if I had any questions, she recorded some scenes for me because I wanted to make sure I got her voice right. I was so nervous and I wanted to do a good job, not only for myself but for everyone involved. She was very chill about talking to me. She as like,”You’re going to do great, don’t worry about it!” I was like, “Okay, she thinks I can do it, I can do it! Let’s do it!” I’d have to remind myself of that stamp of approval on set every day.
New episodes of Little Fires Everywhere hit Hulu on Wednesdays.