Big Little Lies: How Nicole Kidman And Reese Witherspoon Turned the Bestseller Into An Equally Addictive HBO Mini
Best girlfriends. Nothing like ’em — right, ladies? They’re our playmates, fashion consultants, de facto therapists and there’s nothing we can’t tell them.
Except there always is.
Australian novelist Liane Moriarty became a best-selling author with her humorously direct-hit observations about what really goes on behind our closed doors — and how hard we work to edit the story, in public, on social media, in our own minds — including 2014’s instant hit Big Little Lies. The irresistible tale of a trio of struggling moms in an affluent seaside town caught producer Bruna Papandrea’s (Gone Girl, Wild) attention as a possible project for her, close pal Nicole Kidman and Papandrea’s sometime producing partner Reese Witherspoon to do as a team.
Like all good things, it was meant to be.
Kidman happened to be Australia-bound and booked a date with Moriarty to talk possibilities. “I had coffee with Liane and said, ‘Let us option your book, please, and I promise you we’ll get it made,’” Kidman recalls. “She said, ‘Only if you and Reese play Celeste and Madeline,’ and I said, ‘Deal.’”
The production came together quickly, thanks to the trio’s star power. TV super-producer David E. Kelley (Chicago Hope, The Practice) signed on to pen scripts rife with honest comedy and rending drama, while Witherspoon brought her Wild director, Jean-Marc Vallée, aboard to helm the visually stunning series. A feature-worthy cast — including Shailene Woodley, Alexander Skarsgård, James Tupper, Laura Dern and Zoë Kravitz — signed on to embody Moriarty’s vivid characters, and the result is an emotional feast served in seven delicious episodes.
Big Little Lies moves Moriarty’s story from Australia to America — California’s idyllic Monterey makes a fine stand-in for the fictional Pirriwee — but keeps its aching bones and fearless heart. Kidman says the trio always intended the project as a limited series, to flesh out the players, populate them with top-notch actors and let the story’s layers — public and private personas, the devastating power of secrets held, our impressions of others, the roller coaster ride that is parenting when we can’t even trust our own emotional ballast — breathe and unfurl.
At the center are Celeste (Kidman) and Madeline (Witherspoon), well-to-do, 40ish pals who find themselves taken with a young Monterey newcomer, naive single mom Jane (the terrific Woodley), whose son, Ziggy, enrolls at their kids’ school. Jane tells her new companions that she’s making a fresh start with her boy, but when Ziggy is targeted by the school’s mean-girl moms, a torrent of truths — Jane’s, Celeste’s, Madeline’s, the community’s — unspool to a stunning conclusion that stitches the women together for life.
Witherspoon’s Madeline is a sunshiny chatterbox whose soft-spoken, tech guru husband Ed (Adam Scott, The Good Place) helps parent teenage Abigail (Kathryn Newton), Madeline’s daughter with ex-spouse Nathan (Grey’s Anatomy’s Tupper), and precocious, music-obsessed Chloe (a scene-stealing Darby Camp), ringleader of her first-grade class. Wealthy, driven and comically outspoken, Madeline is still haunted by her years as a scrambling single mother after Nathan left her and Abigail to chase his youth. And, eventually, a younger woman named Bonnie (Kravitz), who is now his wife and the mother to a daughter of their own.
“Madeline’s struggling with a lot of things, and she’s very open about her struggles,” Witherspoon explains. “She’s just an open book. She’s constantly searching for happiness and as the series goes on you’ll find out she’s wrestling with some real ethical dilemmas and things that she wishes she hadn’t done.
“I fixated on this idea that there’s always someone within a group of women who is ‘perfect,’” Witherspoon continues. “She seems to have everything organized and together, and then you realize, ‘Oh! She’s actually the most cracked of everyone.’ I’m always wary of that person who is afraid to show vulnerability. [Madeline] only shows it to her friends, and then later you see how truly conflicted she is.”
Living in the same small town as Nathan and the sexy, diplomatic Bonnie hardly helps.
“My character has a really interesting relationship with Zoë’s — they’re so polar-opposite,” Witherspoon says of her ex’s exotic bride, who does yoga for her health, not for the cool cred, and whose socially conscious ways make her a huge hit with Abigail, with intriguing results. “Bonnie is such an earthy, loving, spiritual woman and it just rubs Madeline the wrong way. She thinks it’s phony. There’s so many times that Bonnie is trying to bridge the gap between me and Nathan. There’s a particularly great scene later on in the series of us all having dinner that is just an absolute disaster — but there’s humor in that, as well. The pettiness of it is funny. Madeline’s just openly jealous and not nice.”
Fans of Moriarty’s novel will welcome television’s ability to expand Ed and Nathan into whole-cloth characters, doing their best to do right by all of the women in their lives and maintain some goodwill toward each other in the process.
“I think it’s important to point out that there’s a lot of focus on the women, but no marriage and family dynamics exist without strong men in them, as well,” Witherspoon says. “I just wrote James and Adam about how extraordinary their work is. The complexity of the divorce dynamic between James and I, it’s really amazing to see our journey from beginning to end, and where we get to be. … There’s a lot of people that didn’t wrap up their divorce in a nice, pretty bow, you know? I think it’s important to reflect that, too.”
Kidman’s Celeste is a cool, strawberry-blond beauty who left her humble, rough-and-tumble beginnings — and a burgeoning career in law — to marry Perry (Skarsgård), a younger, jet-setting businessman with whom she has lively twin boys, a gorgeous seaside home, a hefty bank account and a life that is the envy of the Monterey moms. But if you’ve ever heard “… but most of the time, he’s wonderful” from a furrow-browed friend or relative, you’ll recognize this union, too.
“We wanted it to be complicated,” Kidman explains of the explosive pair. “We didn’t want it to be black and white, because so many of these relationships are very complicated. That’s why they’re so hard to heal. That’s why they’re so hard to diagnose — and why it’s so hard for the people in them to see a way out. I don’t like to talk in broad strokes because everyone’s different, but in this relationship, there’s an addictive quality for them, and the way in which they’re both culpable and the way in which they can’t get away from each other because there is love there. Deep love. And they have two children.”
Children who observe more than their parents imagine.
Though Kidman has played many complex women, she says embodying Celeste Wright presented new and indelible challenges. “[The other characters] were never like this,” she exclaims, adding that her husband, country superstar Keith Urban, was often shocked by the fallout of his wife’s efforts on set. “It was deeply disturbing playing her. A lot of times I can move away from the character very easily. This I found a lot harder to move away from.”
Still, she welcomed the opportunity to represent women caught up in the same vortex of love, loyalty, cruelty and suffocating secrets. “There’s scenes in it where I was going, ‘I’ve got to be so truthful with this, because many women out in the world right now are in this — and much, much worse — and I want this to be authentic.’”
“[I wasn’t] there for those scenes, so actually seeing them was very traumatic,” adds Witherspoon. “I think it’s incredibly brave of her. She’s such a fearless actress, and that particular storyline is the kind of thing that you see on film and you feel forever different about women in those situations, because it’s the truth. … It needs to be a conversation that women are having with each other: To take it into the light, get it out of the shadows.”
“For me, this has just been something I’ve been dreaming of doing, so to have it all happen like this, I’m just so proud,” Kidman says. “It’s very topical and it’s very funny — but it’s also hopefully very moving and disturbing.
“I hope men watch it with their wives or with their girlfriends or with their partners,” she continues. “I also hope women get together — people get together — and watch it as a group, because it’s that sort of show where you want to have dinner, drink some wine, and talk at the TV. People that have seen it already go, ‘I watched it with two other girls and we were yelling at the screen and we were laughing.’ It’s that sort of viewing. That’s rare these days, right?
Big Little Lies airs Sundays at 9/8c beginning Feb. 19 on HBO