Reese Witherspoon on Who She Initially Wanted to Play on Big Little Lies—and What She Thinks About Those Critics Who Dismiss the Show as Just Another Soap Opera
We only have a few days to go until the finale of HBO’s Big Little Lies airs—why, oh why are there only seven episodes?—but we can already anticipate the massive void we’ll be feeling once the show wraps up on Sunday. Thankfully, Reese Witherspoon is here to help us cope. As Madeline Martha Mackenzie, Witherspoon’s character has become a fan favorite for her type-A personality and wicked one liners (“I love my grudges; I tend to them like little pets,” she says in an early episode). We spoke on the phone with the star and executive producer of the hit TV show, and talked about who she initially thought she would play, whether or not Ed and Madeline have a good marriage, and what she thinks about those (mostly male) critics who dismiss the show as just another soap opera.
Some spoilers ahead for those who aren’t caught up.
What drew you to Liane Moriarty’s book? Why were you excited to bring it to the screen?
I thought the book was really well plotted. I loved all the characters, I thought they were really dynamic women and very truthful in their struggles and the way that they communicated with each other. I thought it was a unique opportunity to have five really talented, diverse women on screen together, which is something that doesn’t happen that often.
Did you always want to play Madeline, or did you ever consider playing any of the other roles?
I didn’t know who I was going to play. Nicole [Kidman] really wanted to play Celeste, but I don’t know, I thought for a minute I might have played Renata. But then I was in a meeting with David Kelley and Nicole and I said I didn’t know who I was going to play and they looked at me like I was crazy. They said, “You’re Madeline!” And I said, “I am? What do you mean?” And they were like, “You are very clearly Madeline.” And I thought, “Is this an insult? I don’t know.” But then I kind of started thinking how I would do this. I started talking to Nicole, she was very helpful when I was creating the character. We added a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the book.
I haven’t read the book, but I know that David E. Kelley rewrote a lot of Madeline for you. I know the affair with her play’s director, for example, wasn’t in the book. What was behind the decision to add that?
Well, we talked about it. I just felt like everybody sort of has a secret in the show. All five of us have a secret. We’re all hiding something from each other and I felt like Madeline needed something she was hiding as well; it added a new conflict for her to resolve. It was just something interesting to play instead of just being a busy body.
On that note, do you think Madeline and Ed have a good marriage?
I don’t think of it in terms of good and bad. I think they have an active marriage, they are working on their marriage. There are aspects that are really positive and there’s parts of it there are really difficult. I don’t know what “good” is, but there’s a lot of love there, for sure.
What kind of reaction have you gotten to the show? In our interview with Nicole, she said she had never gotten this sort of response from anything she’s done in the past.
I’ve never had this either. It’s really remarkable, I think it’s hit some sort of chord. I think it will take a minute for me to figure out what it is exactly. But no, I’ve never seen so many people stopping me and wanting to talk about it or wanting to—[laughs] they love Madeline! I don’t know why they love Madeline so much; she’s so mean!
You think she’s mean? I think she’s hilarious.
I think part of her is mean and part of her is deeply conflicted and part of her is sick and tired of being nice. I think it’s that whole thing when you’re past 40 and you’re like, “I’m not going to pretend anymore that I like people that I don’t like.” She’s sick of artifice, you know, a lot of her personality is a construct. In a way, all these women are wearing masks, but they’re looking for a deeper—you’ll see at the end, these women are very different by the end of these seven episodes. The way they relate to each other is very different.
The set design is such a central part of the show. Did you always want it to be the kind of series that people lust over?
I think we knew that it had to be beautiful. My only request was that I wanted Madeleine’s house to be traditional and for everything to be in its place. I loved that beautiful kitchen that overlooks the ocean. But there was something really amazing about the ocean as a character—well, you’ll find out in the end. You’ve been watching the ocean this whole time and you don’t know what it means and then you find out. It’s a huge metaphor for these things that look beautiful from the outside that are really turning and smashing and crashing. There’s a lot of mystery out in the water.
There’s been a lot of talk online on how male critics have failed to understand Big Little Lies or give it its proper due. One compared it to Desperate Housewives, another called it an upscale soap opera. I think this speaks to a greater problem of gender diversity amongst critics in Hollywood. What do you think about all of that?
[Laughs out loud.] I think it’s hysterical! Doesn’t it just say it all? Your question just says it all! How are we supposed to change the conversation? I don’t know, that’s just a huge disconnect—wow. When women write about this show, it’s really extraordinary how they relate to the truth. This is how women really speak to each other. There are a lot of dynamics where women are not telling each other the truth, and I think it’s deeply relatable. I think the men in the show are incredible, too; I think their performances are extraordinary. Alexander Skarsgård is just an amazing performer. So yeah, sometimes I wonder if [these critics] have really watched it? I don’t really read the reviews; that’s not for me, it’s for other people—but look, I only heard about one bad review from a guy. And I’m pretty sure he was an old angry white dude. So listen, who cares? It’ll find the audience it’s supposed to find. Maybe it’s not for him.
What was the hardest part about producing a TV show?
It wasn’t hard at all actually. It was really fun, it went by really easily. For me, it was the longest thing I’ve ever made, it was the length of three movies. It was great working with Nicole and Laura [Dern], and Shailene [Woodley], and Zoë [Kravitz] and really being able to rely on other women for advice, and performance advice. There were days when I would be staring at Nicole Kidman and thinking, “I cannot believe that I’m working and sitting across from Nicole Kidman.” I’ve never gotten to work with actresses of this caliber, because we’re usually cordoned off and we’re the only women in movies. Usually you’re with a group of men and you’re the only girl. To have all these amazing women there and all these great men—and working with Jean-Marc [Vallée] directing was really just a dream, too.
How was it reuniting with him after working on Wild together?
I had the best time on Wild. To have that sense of comfort, I just knew him so well. When he asked me to do things that were outrageous, I knew it was going to be in service of the movie. It helped because Laura and I had worked with him before, so we trusted him. There were a lot of explicit scenes [in the show], a lot of violent scenes. But he’s just so incredibly thoughtful and understands humanity in this way that’s not about gender, it’s really just about loving these people. He loves these characters so much. And honestly, you’d think [the cast would] all be sick of each other, but we went out to dinner all the time, too. We couldn’t get enough of each other. When we were in Monterey we would all go out every night and have dinner and share our lives.
You mentioned that you’ve often been the only woman on a set. Now that you’re a producer, do you feel the same way behind the camera? Or has it started to change in the past few years?
You’re seeing it more and more. Even 10 years ago you never even saw women in the crew. Now my last two movies have female directors: Ava DuVernay and Hallie Meyers-Shyer. Ava’s great, and working with Nancy Meyers and her daughter was just incredible, because there’s really no difference [than working with a man], but it’s just nice to see a woman’s perspective. And the things that they focus on are certainly different, and they bring a new voice and perspective to film. I feel like it’s a really great time to be a woman in Hollywood. There are many barriers that still need to be broken down, but the gates are definitely opening.