A version of this story on “Big Little Lies” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
Four lead women in “Big Little Lies,” the HBO miniseries based on Liane Moriarty‘s book, all landed Emmy nominations, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon in the lead category and Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley in supporting. (Zoë Kravitz, the last of the main actresses, was left out.)
Dern, Woodley and actors/executive producers Kidman and Witherspoon described the rare experience of making the miniseries, which starts with a murder investigation and then slowly unveils victim, murderer and motive over 10 episodes. Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Kidman’s emotionally and physically abusive husband, was also nominated — but these conversation were about the women at the center of the miniseries.
REESE WITHERSPOON I found the manuscript and sent it to Nicole, and we decided to do the project together. She met with Liane Moriarty first and got the rights, and then we got David Kelly. And then Jean-Marc Vallee came on.
NICOLE KIDMAN For me, it was the complication of the women, and the strength of their stories, and the fact that it focused on the female relationships and was told primarily through the female point of view. That’s why the book was so appealing. And it seemed to warrant being told, because amidst the entertainment of it, underneath were issues that were incredibly topical and relevant and real.
WITHERSPOON We had to decide, Is it a miniseries or a movie? And we decided it would be better to do this for television. If we had done it as a two-hour movie, it might have been about two of the women, not all five.
KIDMAN I think it would be strange if Reese and I produced something that was all men. Don’t we have enough of those? So it was very important for us to throw our weight behind finding these great female roles, and calling our friends and people we admire. That was the glorious part of it.
LAURA DERN Reese and I had made the film “Wild” with Jean-Marc, and we all became a family as we spent a few months making the movie and then a year doing promotion and press. You really become this traveling circus, and we loved each other and our work together. We kept saying, “All we want to do is keep working together.” So when they came to me and said, “What part do you want to play?” it didn’t even feel like a reunion. It was just continuing with my family.
KIDMAN So much of filmmaking is about tone, and the tone of this was unusual. I loved that, but it was tricky, and that was our biggest fear going in: Would we be able to balance the humor with the really devastating elements of it?
DERN I did my first movie at 11, and Reese and Nicole were about that age when they started. The three of us really bonded in this experience of, “Oh, my God, here we are in our 40s, and none of us can remember a time like this. If we’re lucky, we might be on a project with one other woman.” To wake up and find ourselves in an ensemble was gorgeous, and what it should be.
SHAILENE WOODLEY I remember that Reese came up to Zoë Kravitz and me a few times and said, “We’re so grateful you said yes to this.” And Zoë and I would look at her and say, “You’re grateful?” There’s a certain softness that women provide to one another that we all had, a certain level of camaraderie and support. It can be hard to find groups of females who are 100 percent supportive of one another and protective of one another, and in alignment without competition and jealousy and a certain type of manipulation. And none of that happened. That is something that to this day we talk about and marvel about.
DERN Reese and Nicole and I found ourselves on the set all day problem-solving with kid pickups. It was amazing, and rare to have that. I’ve done it with Woody Harrelson, but it’s not often that you have that and can really make a family of the experience.
WITHERSPOON Women share things that are deeply personal and will never be told to another person. I think that was critical to understanding who my character is as a mother. She gets so stuck in the idea of perfection that eventually she just collapses under pressure, until she surrenders to the truth.
DERN I’ve played many complicated female characters — sometimes the lead in the film surrounded by boys, where she’s crazy or angry or dishonest. But when you see a tribe trying to navigate life between truth and lies, it’s really powerful. Everyone in it is equally a mess and equally relatable.
KIDMAN I loved Alexander [Skarsgard]’s physicality. And we’d both done sexuality on screen before, we weren’t overwhelmed by that part of it and we went in with a very professional attitude. But when we started those scenes, it was very intense and it seeped into me in a way I’d never had happen before. Being hit like that, and it wasn’t just a day or two — there were so many days over a long period of time, mixed in with therapy scenes and the marriage itself. It was a very dark place to go, and it was disturbing.
I sort of staggered out of that series, is how I described it.
WOODLEY For me as an actor, I want to be as authentic and truthful to the experience of healing emotionally after such a traumatic event [a rape that resulted in the birth of her character’s son], without trying to act my way through it. It was a very delicate balance of wanting to be truthful and not step on anyone’s toes who had also been in that position.
KIDMAN I think it struck a nerve with people because the issues that are being dealt with are what’s going on in a lot of people’s real lives. Not just domestic violence, but divorce, exes, affairs, teenage daughters, families that are fractured, female friendships, laughter…
WITHERSPOON Look, I think we just don’t get to see women at this stage of their lives very often on film, and when we do see them they’re relegated to the fringes and the outskirts, just to create a framework for a man’s journey. So the deliciousness of constantly thinking any one of these women is capable of being murdered at any point, and capable of murdering someone, I think was really compelling to people.
KIDMAN I also loved “Feud,” and it’s so great that roles that rich and strong are there for Jessica [Lange] and Susan [Sarandon] and all of those women. It’s much better to have an abundance of roles than to be scant, and be trying to find people to nominate. Believe me, there have been years when that happened, not only at the Emmys but at the Academy Awards. That’s terrifying and sad.
But I’m reluctant to say, “Yes, things are changing,” because maybe people will just become complacent. I’d rather say they’re changing a tiny bit. Not enough. Just enough to keep the fire burning.
WITHERSPOON This was born of Liane Moriarty’s imagination, and it’s up to her whether or not these women continue. But certainly their stories aren’t over. There’s a huge mystery at the center — nobody really knows what happened except these five women.
WOODLEY I would love to do it again, absolutely. How could any of us say no to that?
Read more from the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.