LOS ANGELES | When friends told her she was perfect for a role in “Big Little Lies,” Reese Witherspoon didn’t know whether she should be flattered or offended.
“Bossy, know-it-all busybody,” she says, describing the character. “As you get further into the series, you start to realize the reason she’s so controlling and high-strung. It’s because she’s concealing something very difficult for her to hold. And when she finally lets it go in the end, she can see her truth and become mellower.”
The series, based on Liane Moriarty’s best-selling book, tells the story of friends living in the competitive world of Monterey, California. Witherspoon plays the queen bee – a stay-at-home mom who isn’t afraid to call others on their behavior. Nicole Kidman plays her best friend, an equally doting mom with her own bag of secrets. Shailene Woodley plays a single mom who has just arrived in town. Laura Dern is a successful businesswoman and Zoe Kravitz is a second wife who has to deal with the demands of her husband’s ex.
All could be classified as “helicopter” moms, although one observer describes them as “kamikaze” moms.
Early on, it’s clear this is a kill-or-be-killed setting and, yes, someone doesn’t survive, creating a mystery that drives a series of personal revelations.
Friends in real life, Witherspoon and Kidman say they liked the project because it gave them a chance to reflect on their own experiences.
“I was a mom when I was 22, like Jane (Woodley’s character), and then I was a mom who was 40, like Madeline (her character),” Witherspoon says. “I’ve been divorced. I’ve been remarried. There were just so many aspects of it that were so relatable to the lives of women. The really amazing part was actually digging deep: It wasn’t about them being good or bad. It’s just that they showed every spectrum, every color of women’s lives.”
Kidman says she was excited to show their “array of emotions.”
The “helicopter mom” concept, she adds, came to roost when her daughter said she was overprotective. “You learn as you go along.”
Director Jean-Marc Vallee, who helmed all seven episodes, encouraged the actresses to get to know each other before they played the scenes.
“I’ve never worked with a director who …will sit and cry with you about what your character is feeling,” Witherspoon says. “He is not separate. He is not watching you. He is part of the performance.”
That gave them a comfort zone and an ability to push the relationships even more.
Kidman says she and Witherspoon, both executive producers of the HBO series, are “very, very close friends. We’re able to talk about anything. We’re both at a stage in our lives – I am – where I want to be with people I really like. I don’t want to be working on things with people that I’m not happy to be there.”
More female-driven projects, Witherspoon says, are necessary.
“For 25 years, I have been the only woman on set, so I had no other women to talk to,” she explains. “They call it the ‘Smurfette Syndrome,’ where she’s got 100 Smurfs around but she’s the only girl. (With this), we nurtured each other’s performances. It was really a collective performance of all of us.”
Both Oscar winners see “Big Little Lies” as a way to change a Hollywood mindset.
“We need to see real women’s experiences, whether it involves domestic violence, sexual assault, motherhood, romance, infidelity or divorce,” Witherspoon says. “We need to see these things because … we learn from art. It’s a unique privilege to be able to come to other women with a piece of material that I feel deeply proud of.”
Kidman says films, books and art have a way of changing attitudes. “When I have been in very, very bad places (they) have lifted me.
“As a child, my whole life was books. I would get lost in (them) and they were my fantasy. That was, a lot of times, the things that saved me. There are five great roles here. They’re all complicated. They all deserve to be told…and that is rare. It’s very, very rare to find five roles in one piece that we’d all jump at the chance to play any of them.”
“Big Little Lies” airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO.