Nicole, Shailene, Zoë, and Reese on Acting, Activism and the Role of Art
The stars of HBO’s forthcoming Big Little Lies speak candidly about being part of a powerhouse pack of all-star actresses.
Take two megawatt executive producers, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. Add a pair of Hollywood’s most zeitgeisty twentysomethings, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz. Throw in a blockbuster novel about a group of upper-middle-class mothers of kindergartners roiled by sexual violence, class issues, ageism, and…murder! (That’d be Liane Moriarty’s 2014 Big Little Lies.)The result is an HBO miniseries that, even in this big-budget, high-minded small-screen era, we’ve never seen before: a seven-part thriller that looks like a movie, feels like a movie—and packs enough woman power to populate the Oscars’ front row—but grips like only episodic TV can. Here, the insightful foursome sound off.
Reese Witherspoon and Zoë Kravitz
Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon and born-and-bred actress/musician Zoë Kravitz discuss growing up in the spotlight, lifting women up, and taking TV as high as it can go.
Reese Witherspoon, 40, disappears into the role of Madeline Mackenzie, Big Little Lies’ fast-talking, gossip-collecting queen bee of insular Monterey, California. Zoë Kravitz, 28, plays free-spirited, yoga-obsessed beauty Bonnie Carlson, who also happens to be married to Madeline’s ex. Let the games begin!
ELLE: Reese, how did you fall in love with Big Little Lies?
Reese Witherspoon: I read Liane Moriarty’s book The Husband’s Secret two years ago, and she wrote so accurately about the interior lives of contemporary women. And then I was on a movie set and the female producer handed me a book; she said, “My company’s not going to buy this, but maybe you and [producing partner Bruna Papandrea] should buy Big Little Lies.” We read it overnight and were both just like, “Oh my God!” It has the juiciness of a crime, so that part pulls you forward and gets you invested in the characters. But it was also about the complexity of being a working mom, coupled with issues like domestic violence and abuse, and blended families. Bruna sent it to Nicole Kidman, and Nicole was like, “I want to play Celeste.”
Had you called dibs on your character, Madeline, at that point?
RW: No. Everybody involved was like, “You’re Madeline.” I was like, “I am?” I didn’t know who I was, and that made me understand that I was all of these women. I’ve been a young mom; I’ve been a divorcée; I’ve been a single mom. I’ve been the working mom versus the nonworking mom.
Zoë, how did you get involved?
Zoë Kravitz: It happened quickly for me. Jean-Marc [Vallée, the series’ director] had a meeting with me. The writing was really good, but the opportunity to work with Reese and Nicole is what got my attention. We’re taught that we should compete with one another, especially in this industry. Seeing the struggle to connect with one another is something that should be highlighted. Once women find sisterhood, there’s nothing stronger.
RW: We’re all different ages; we come from different areas: Australian women, American women, women from New York, women from the South, women from the middle of the country. But there’s so much commonality between us. When [the characters] start out, we’re very shut down, and as we get into the show, our connections start deepening at a human level. We’re all moms who are ferocious in our love and desires for our children. And then episode six is just a watershed moment for me. It’s better than most movies I’ve done. I talked to Nicole, and she’s like, for sure—in the past 10, 15 years? This is one of the best movies we’ve done. And it took a French-Canadian man to direct it. [Laughs] So it isn’t about just women, you know?
ZK: I was nervous to start this job and to work with you and Nicole and Laura [Dern]—I had this fear that I was going to be found out, like, “What are you doing here?” Reese and Nicole just took such good care of all of us. I was able to really feel comfortable and free and strong and inspired in my work. And these amazing, unlikely friendships.
The book takes place in Australia. Why set the series in Monterey?
RW: Monterey has both very wealthy people and people who live hand-to-mouth. We purposely set it in America because of the storytelling aspect—people living in different areas, with the consciousness of urban versus rural, clearly living different lives. As an artist, I feel more strongly than ever that my job on earth is to tell the stories of the invisibles, and women have been invisible on film for a long time. Women are wives and mothers and girlfriends, but not the center of our own stories. No one’s the good guy; no one’s the bad guy. We all do deplorable things and very honorable things.
ZK: I was just thinking about women’s role in art, because artists also have the responsibility of reflecting the truth, which I think women often do. Reese, I wonder how you feel about women’s [versus] men’s role in art?
RW: I’ve been meditating about women in television. Film seems sometimes really backwards to me. I think about Mary Tyler Moore. I’m working with Candice Bergen right now [on the movie Home Again]—I think about Murphy Brown. Zoë, I think about your mom [Lisa Bonet] in A Different World and about how television has always been much more progressive and reflective of contemporary times than film. This is my first TV show. And there’s that whole blur—what is television? What is entertainment now? I’m actually thrilled that there’s a blur.
ZK: Yeah! I know, I know.
RW: Art is art. Television has elevated itself, in certain ways, but it’s always pushed people’s consciousness. What was it like to grow up with a mom who was at the forefront of people’s political consciousness?
ZK: She kind of stumbled into that world. It wasn’t a conscious choice (a) to be an actress, (b) to be a famous actress, and (c) to be—she shook things up—a model for so many young women. The beautiful thing about her is that she just thought a certain way and lived her life that way. And I grew up without television—I wasn’t allowed to watch.
ZK: We had a VCR, and she’d let me watch movies that she’d choose on the weekends. Besides that, she was like, “Play in nature; go outside.” She lived her life in that really honest way, and people were attracted to that. Film can be kind of pretentious, and it’s one person’s idea. It’s a lot of money into one thing. TV is part of your life—it makes you feel connected to the rest of the world—as opposed to someone else’s perspective crushed into a few hours. I think my mom was a bigger part of that evolution than the show itself.
RW: She was a visionary outside of it, too.
ZK: That’s the most important thing in art: to be aware, pay attention, be inspired—but it should come ultimately from you. My parents [father Lenny Kravitz and Bonet] did exactly what they wanted and didn’t let anyone tell them not to. Now, as women, we need to continue to do that. Especially in the age of social media, when everyone has an opinion and it’s so easy to be influenced.
RW: Six months ago, someone said, “Was it hard for you to let your daughter dye her hair pink? Are you embarrassed?” I mean, we’re talking about something so small. I said, “No! I’m an artist, her dad’s an artist, and she’s an artist.” There are so many ideas blurting out in the world right now. I think, “God, this is a country predicated on listening to everybody. When did we stop listening to one another?” An actress texted me the other day: “They’ve asked me to play this character who wears furs and believes in certain things about the environment that I don’t believe in.” I said, “You’re an actress! It’s not about your ideas! You’re there to tell other people’s stories.”
ZK: And find compassion in that, right? You don’t understand that person? Find a way to understand it. That’s going to help you grow.
RW: You have music too, Zoë. I always think about how you’re just as talented a musician as you are an actress. Is there a medium you feel like you can be most expressive in?
ZK: Music has always helped me stay creative and grounded because I’m traveling and shooting and trying to understand other people. Music was something I could just sit in a room and make with my friends. Especially with the election, I want to dig deep and say something. Not that it all has to be profound, but I want to be some kind of example—not of anything perfect—of another human being trying to figure it out in the world.
RW: You’re doing that! I [asked] my daughter and her best friend, “What do you want to ask Zoë?” They started this list of questions.
ZK: Oh my God, I want to know everything!
RW: They love you. They think you have your own style expression, and you’re not afraid. God bless that women are free in this country. We can say what we want, and I do think women will heal the world.
ZK: There has to be something positive that can come out of [the election]. Already it’s helped me want to connect with everybody. When I go to the deli or I’m talking to a waiter or my Uber driver and they say, “How are you?,” I’ve answered in an honest way for the first time. Like, “Oof.” Even that felt good. Let’s let everything come to the surface, even with people we come in contact with for a moment. This situation can help us be a little bit more awake with each other.
RW: I love that you and Shailene are in your twenties. Nicole, Laura [Dern, who plays high-powered businesswoman mom Renata Klein], and I grew up in a different time. Your social consciousness, both of yours, has moved me so much. My daughter looks up to you; she looks up to Shailene. Shailene’s work with Native Americans has been incredible.
In the office, we talk about our “TV parents”—characters who raised us alongside our real-life parents. Zoë, you said you didn’t grow up watching a lot of TV, but Reese, who was that for you?
RW: For me, Friends was a really interesting reflection of time and love dynamics. Roseanne was a big show for me, and Murphy Brown. I remember Dan Quayle saying Murphy Brown was an aberration, that it was disgusting to be a single mother in America. That kind of stuff really raised my consciousness of single motherhood. And Roseanne, who was blue collar, but was just loving her family, loving her country—and her ability to speak her mind.
ZK: Television’s getting better because people are investing more money and time and respect into it. But the secret weapon of television is that, because it’s a slow burn, you get to meditate on things and develop them. As opposed to film, where you have an allotted amount of time and hopefully you can wrap it up in there.
Reese, I saw that you’re producing a TV series about First Ladies.
RW: Oh yeah! I haven’t told you yet, Zoë, but we optioned [First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, by Kate Andersen Brower], about the real First Ladies and their conversations with one another. Hillary Clinton, Michelle. They all have very candid conversations about what it means to be at war and about social consciousness. They have different ideas on how to deal with it, but they’ve all been—honestly, I don’t know how this conversation continues—communicating with each other for years, having meetings and lunches. Robin Wright is going to direct the first one. We haven’t cast the First Ladies yet, but I’ve got my eye on a couple of them.
ZK: Perfect timing.
RW: Yeah. That’s all I can say about that right now. Just “wow” and “yeah” and “wow” and “yeah” and “God.”
Your time making Big Little Lies sounds like such a dream. Were there any challenges or tough moments?
RW: There was a long two weeks [shooting] the climax. It was outside, and Jean-Marc doesn’t light, he just shoots, so you don’t have time in your trailer while lighting’s going on. It’s great—it’s part of the work—but by the end, we all became crazy gremlins because we’re not sleeping and we’re up until 6 a.m. every morning. We’re also living in this alternative universe of one night for two weeks.
ZK: Reese got everyone chicken and waffles one night, but I was on a cleanse. We all took care of one another. It was interesting.
Okay, one more: How do you think about style in terms of your work?
ZK: Fashion is fun, and fashion is a form of art and self-expression. And I think it should have a wink-wink nature to it. For me, it’s about the way it makes you feel. If you want to feel sexy, you want to feel bright, you want to feel good. That’s what people are attracted to—when they see you execute an emotion or an idea clearly and proudly.
RW: I didn’t really understand fashion until I started going to Paris and seeing the ateliers and how hard these people work. It’s art. I’m doing this movie right now with fantastical costumes—as are you, Zoë. You’re in the second Fantastic Beasts, right?
ZK: Yeah, we haven’t started shooting yet, but I just saw the first movie, and the costumes are insane. I’m really excited.
RW: I’m doing Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, and it’s me and Oprah and Mindy Kaling. Costumes, fashion, it’s all an expression of self, and the more you push the boundaries—the more that people work at creating alternative ideas—the more it changes people’s ideas of beauty. I love that people are going, Yeah, I love a hundred different kinds of beauty; it’s not all the tall, skinny supermodel. Around the world, we have to find the beauty. Now more than ever, we’re looking.
ZK: We need it. We need it to survive.
How is it working with Ava DuVernay?
RW: She’s incredible. Just what she demands. Even the crew, not just the cast, represents the diversity of our country. She’s just a consciousness shifter. The fact that Disney, this giant company, has given her this opportunity—and given her so much money—gives me so much hope that people are really understanding that we need to give artists a lot of free room to create.
ZK: I also think it helps inspire and create a better environment for the actors working on set, being surrounded by different kinds of people while they’re making art.
RW: For sure. Movies will finally reflect the world we live in, not some weird dinosaur reality. Like movies with old white men dating 25-year-old girls? I can’t. Every superhero is a man? I’m so bored of that idea. I love that you’re in Fantastic Beasts. Fifty percent of the fantastic beasts of this world are women! We should be 50 percent of what you see on film. Or TV! —Moderated By Rachel Baker
Our favorite Academy Award–winning Aussie-turned-Tennessean gets candid about living without boundaries, and rough sex with Tarzan himself—and reminds us why there is only one Nicole Kidman.
Kidman plays wealthy, gorgeous Celeste—mother of twin boys; wife of a hot younger man (Alexander Skarsgård); harborer of very dark secrets. Originally, ELLE invited friends and costars Kidman and Shailene Woodley to interview each other by phone. But when Woodley, who was in North Dakota protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, ran into some technical difficulties, Kidman, 49, didn’t miss a beat.
While we wait for Shailene, let me just say the series is so fun and so juicy.
NK: I’m so glad you loved it! I hope that it gets out there in terms of people watching it together at viewing parties, because there’s something to be had in watching this with a group—everyone just laughing and gasping and going, “What?!”
Shai’s team just e-mailed me saying they’re trying to find her—but I’ll go ahead and say it’s so exciting to see all you powerful actresses in one TV show.
NK: It kind of speaks to what’s happening on television right now, right? And the way in which you can get things made. We optioned the book and got it written and into production in 18 months. That never happens.
How were you able to do it so quickly?
NK: Because when women in this industry band together, we’re powerful. As a singular entity, it’s much harder. Jennifer Lawrence, maybe she can get something green-lit and made, but by joining forces and working together, that’s when it happens for most of us.
Why did you want to play Celeste?
NK: When I read the book, it was Celeste’s point of view that grabbed me. Her relationship with her husband [played by Alexander Skarsgård] is highly sexual. But it’s also an addiction and it’s abusive and it’s disturbing. There are many different ways in which it can be viewed, because it’s also something many women go through.
Some scenes between you and Alex are pretty intense. What was it like to film those?
NK: At times, I got lost in it. So many of the bruises you see on me aren’t fake. I had to do a shower scene where you would see a lot of them, and I asked them not to put makeup on me. It needed to be pretty raw and out there. There’s certain choreography that you need for a scene like that, so that you don’t actually get your cheekbone shattered, but a lot of the time, they’d say, “Oh, you can put some pads in your back,” and I would say no, because you might be able to see them. I also felt that the nudity was a part of it. It wasn’t about exploitation. It really feeds into their relationship. You really get their sexuality through that.
Did you have any apprehension, putting yourself out there like that?
NK: No—but I don’t think I’ve ever had that. [Laughs] I was doing a Q&A recently for Lion, and someone in the audience put a hand up: “How do you build boundaries when you’re acting?” I said, “I’m the worst person to ask about that—because as much as I have a technique, my boundaries get blurred.” I even said to Alex in some of our more intense scenes, “We create the bubble, do what we need to do in it, and then move out of it.” Because I have to do justice to the story line.
Sorry, I just have to interject for a minute—Shai’s team is still having trouble tracking her down. They’re suggesting we just continue….
NK: This is kind of good for the article, right? This is so Shai. It’s why she’s such an original and amazing girl. She’s not ruled by anything other than passion and her desire to live her real life, and I love that. Half the time, you can’t get her when you want to, because she’s never within cell-service range. I just say, “You go, baby!”
What else do you admire about her?
NK: Shailene and I talked a lot about love. She’s very love-based. She asked a lot about relationships and marriage and how I got through certain parts, shall we say, of my life. She would see [my husband Keith Urban] and me together and go, “Ugh, I love how you guys are really just so in love.” And I’d say, “It’s such a blessing.” She’s just into digging around in that and trying to find the how and the why. She also has an extraordinary talent. Acting is very easy for her. It’s not a struggle for her to do the performances she does. It’s just a God-given gift. The same way Adele can sing. How do they do it? Who knows?
Do you feel jealous of that, or proud?
NK: It’s more like, how do I help and protect you? Because I want someone to do that for my daughters, too. I’ve got an eight-year-old and a six-year-old right now; I’ve got a 23-year-old. I want people to reach out to them and help them and protect them.
Zoë mentioned how helpful and nurturing you and Reese were on set. Is that an active role you take when involved in a project?
NK: I always say, when I work with younger actresses, “I’m here.” Reese says it, too: “We’ve lived it. We know things. So if there’s anything you want to know….” I’m careful not to be the preacher, like, “Now, listen to me!” But I do want to be available. Even in terms of things like finances—where do you learn that, if you don’t have people you can ask, “Hey, can I ask you a question?”
What have you learned from Shailene?
NK: She gives me access to the mind-set of girls in their twenties, which you can become removed from if you’re not surrounded by it. She’s politically engaged, which is surprising for someone her age and in her career. She’s very, very responsible. She’s good at keeping her boundaries and standing up for herself. If she doesn’t believe in something, she says so. I could probably have learned from that at her age. I don’t think I stood up for myself in the same way she does. Reese and I have both said it: It’s a whole different world now. When we were growing up, we were far more protected, but we weren’t as empowered. We weren’t connected through knowledge, which is what social media gives you.
Do love or loathe social media?
NK: I’m somewhere in the middle ground. I don’t have enough time or the desire to be in it too much, but I like it sometimes. I want to have my cake and eat it, too. [Laughs]
Do you identify with her activism?
NK: Do I talk about my process of voting and all those things? No, because this is what it is now. But I think we do need radicals. We need extremists, because that’s how change happens. And I also believe in continuing to put love and kindness and compassion and art into the world. That’s me as a woman who has seen many, many things over the course of her 49 years. Oh my gosh—Shai just texted me! Do you want to hear? “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. I’m on the reservation with Standing Rock and totally lost service and my phone was dead and there was no way to contact anyone. I’m so sorry!”
I just got an e-mail saying she can get on the line in a minute or two!
NK: Oh, but I’ve got to take my daughter to a birthday party. I’ll text Shai as soon as we get off and just say, “Don’t you worry about a thing, my darling. You live your life.” How much do you love that girl? That’s my baby! —Interviewed By Seth Plattner
Once we could finally get her back on the grid, the ever-outspoken Shailene Woodley spilled about our brave new world, her A-list mentors, and, oh yeah, that time she got arrested.
Woodley, 25, (slightly belatedly) joins us from Standing Rock Reservation, where she’s been protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline—the construction of which, at press time, had been officially halted by the Army Corps of Engineers, a major victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the thousands who protested the drilling. While Woodley’s Jane is the youngest, humblest, and most recent inductee to Big Little Lies’ mom squad, one thing’s clear about this girl: She has a past.
Shailene Woodley: I’m here! The crazy girl who can’t work her phone. I’m so sorry!
No worries! You’re still in North Dakota, right?
SW: I am. Let me know if at any point you can’t hear me. I’ve been here for a few days. It’s the first time I’ve been back since I was arrested. And it’s freezing, man! It’s close to 4,000 people out here, and half of them are camping! They wake up with frost on their eyelashes, yet with a smile on their face. When you say, “Thank you so much for your sacrifice to protect clean water,” they look at you with this look of confusion and go, “It’s not a sacrifice; it’s an honor!” That to me is really hopeful for the future that I get to bring my kids into.
What made you know you had to go up there?
SW: The tribe has been trying to stop this pipeline since 2014, and I’ve been working with them since February , when the youth of the tribe started a petition against the pipeline. My friend Ezra Miller said, “Hey, if you’re interested, this is going on.” I was completely appalled, but not very surprised. This happens all the time to indigenous communities around the world. It’s just that no one gets behind them enough to make it, like, a public issue.
You were arrested at Standing Rock in October and charged with criminal trespassing and engaging in a riot. What was that like?
SW: Well, I didn’t plan on getting arrested, but sometimes activists do because it brings attention to a subject. I was one of the only ones to get arrested out of 300 people, because I had a Facebook Live feed with 40,000 people watching. There are a lot of corrupt actions happening, but it’s a Catch-22, man: It’s beautiful that I got arrested. It got the attention of millions of people around the world.
How has social media helped you get your message out?
SW: I got involved in social media this year because I realized I didn’t know anything about politics in our country, and I’m a well-educated, well-read, very much privileged woman. If I didn’t know about our political system, how is that democracy? What does that mean for everyone else in our country who doesn’t have the privilege? That’s why I got involved. Twitter came into that, and I got a Facebook for Standing Rock, just to be able to do the live feed. I’m fascinated to see the future of social media and also how the generation who grew up with it will evolve into adulthood.
How are you doing since the election?
SW: I was shocked when—actually, I can’t say that. I wasn’t shocked. I was…silent when Trump won. It’s hard to talk about politics in a Hollywood world. I learned that really quickly. But after the California primaries, when Bernie Sanders lost—and I’m not saying he should have won—I knew that Trump was going to win. Because I’d been on the ground for months, and we would be in small cities in America and big cities in America, and Bernie would get tens of thousands of people at his rallies. And then Trump would come and he’d get the same numbers. But Hillary would only have a few hundred people at her fundraisers. It doesn’t matter how much more you have in your bank; if 50,000 people show up to your opponents’ rallies and you only have a few hundred people, it says a lot about what the people of America are ready to do. I grieved all of this months ago, whereas most people are grieving it now.
Do you think the new administration will affect how people view Big Little Lies?
SW: Well, we’re going to have some amazing art over the next four years. Because when things go to shit, art just gets radical. But the heart of the show is that it deals with the dynamics between mothers and their children, mothers and their spouses, and mothers and their friends. And that’s something everyone can relate to, whether you’re a man, a woman, or a child. It’s intergenerational. There are so many relatability factors that I think people will find it comforting to know they aren’t alone in their experiences. That being said, we do have to acknowledge that it takes place in Monterey, California. Not everyone can relate to the lifestyle, but everyone can relate to the relationships.
What was your hardest day on set?
SW: To be honest, there was a lot of running. I hate running! And I keep doing these projects where I have to run all the time. And it was during the winter, so it was freezing. That sounds like such a wimpy thing, but it was so hard. Because you have to still commit when you run. Vertical motion is not my thing.
Tell me about working with Nicole, Reese, and Zoë.
SW: It’s rare that you get to work with actors, female or not, where you all get along. Just because of the nature of humanity—I’m sure it’s the same in your office. But everyone truly got along. And I must say I am generally really bad with my phone. I’m not on it a lot because I try to be present in any given moment, but I get messages of support from Reese constantly. Same with Laura [Dern], Zoë, and Nicole. I feel like I understand Nicole in many ways that are silent. We’re deeply spiritual people who show up for others. You constantly see Nicole—and this is true for Zoë and Reese and Laura—asking others if they’re okay. If you’re warm enough. Do you need a blanket; do you need hand warmers? Are you feeling supported? Do you need a break? She’s a true mom but retains her self-integrity. And the power of that is her separation from her family and her independence. She also feels on every level, whether it’s the food she’s eating or smells she’s inhaling or the thing she’s touching. In moments I catch myself saying, God, I bet Nicole would really love this tree right now.
Were you intimidated to work with her?
SW: To be totally honest, I was so nervous I was going to break into a Moulin Rouge! song. It’s my favorite movie. At least once a day, I catch myself singing a song from it. There were multiple times on set when I would starting singing “One Day I’ll Fly Away” or “Elephant Love Medley.” So I would have to do a check-in to make sure she wasn’t next to me. I would have been mortified.
What did you learn from her?
SW: When it comes to sexuality, sensuality, self-representation, self-nurturance—America fails in those departments. Women like Nicole trailblaze these paths of self-love and self-recognition. Not from a pretentious place or a greedy place, but from a place of knowing that in order to help those around you, and in order to even be a good actress and a good mother at the same time, you have to know your worth —Interviewed By Seth Plattner