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Nicole Kidman on Her ‘Big Little Lies’ Battle With Meryl Streep: ‘Intimidation Was a Wonderful Thing’

TheWrap Emmy magazine: ”It’s not superwoman stuff — it’s real human behavior that you’re watching,“ Kidman says


This story about Nicole Kidman and “Big Litte Lies” first appeared in the Drama/Comedy/Actors issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

The first season of “Big Little Lies” built toward a death; the second season was haunted by an absence. The death was that of Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard), the passionate but abusive husband of Nicole Kidman’s character, Celeste, and his death was witnessed, and maybe even precipitated, by Celeste and a quartet of friends played by Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz.

The women are all mothers of school-age children in an affluent Northern California town, and in Season 2 they’re grappling with the secrets they must keep in the aftermath of Perry’s demise.

Kidman said she herself grappled with the absence of Skarsgard, who is seen only in flashbacks. “Not having Alex in the series was huge,” she admitted from the Nashville home where she was self-isolating with husband, Keith Urban, and home-schooling their two daughters (with a broken foot, no less). “That threw the whole thing off.”

Then again, “Big Little Lies” did a pretty formidable job of bringing in a heavyweight replacement. Perry Wright may not have been around in Season 2, but his distraught mother, Mary Louise Wright, arrived on the scene to wreak a little havoc.

And since Mary Louise Wright was played by one Mary Louise Streep, better known to all of us as Meryl, her arrival singlehandedly boosted the number of the cast’s Oscar nominations from nine to 30 and the number of wins from three to six.

There’s also a good reason why the character was named Mary Louise. While Season 1 of the series was based on a best-selling novel by Liane Moriarty, Season 2 came from an unpublished sequel that Moriarty wrote to serve as the basis for the season — and the author, Kidman said, was well aware of Streep’s birth name when she wrote it.

“Liane Moriarty wanted Meryl,” she said with a grin. “That’s why the character’s name is Mary Louise — that was Liane’s code to Meryl that this was for her.”

Big Little Lies Season 2

Streep’s character is blunt and plainspoken and carries around deep grief over the loss of the son she adored. Much of the season is a showdown between her and Celeste, who start out sparring in nicely furnished living rooms and end up foes in a courtroom as Mary Louise tries to take custody of her two grandchildren from their mother.

Asked if it was intimidating, even after her lengthy and celebrated career, to go head to head with Streep, Kidman at first dismisses the idea. “I think we both work from within — it’s all from the inside, and it’s more about that,” she said, before admitting that, well, maybe that intimidation factor did exist.

“Intimidation was a wonderful thing to have, because Celeste has that towards Mary Louise,” she said. “So I used that. And the way in which Meryl created the character and what she looked like, all of that helped because it was so disarming. Celeste is protective of her initially and also wants her to be part of the family, but she knows there’s things she can’t say. Intuitively, Mary Louise was picking things up — but they weren’t the right things, because Celeste was trying to protect her from the story of her son being violent.”

Through most of the episodes, Mary Louise keeps Celeste off balance and on the defensive, because the older woman knows the story doesn’t add up but Celeste can’t admit the truth. “You have one character who’s letting it out, and another character, my character, who’s all interior,” Kidman said. “Those things are just beautiful to work with.”

The relationship comes to a head in a courtroom during the final two episodes, when Celeste and Mary Louise square off over custody — and in the end, it comes down to Celeste, a lawyer, deciding to put Mary Louise on the stand and do the questioning herself.

“She tried to acquiesce, because her self-esteem is so low,” Kidman said. “But then she thought, ‘No, I have to fight because this is about my children. Maybe I’m willing to put myself in jeopardy, willing to sacrifice myself, but when it comes to my children, I’m going to fight to the bitter end.’ And the deepest part of who she is comes out: ‘Under no circumstances are you taking my children away — particularly you, because of the way in which you raised your son.’

“A really deep part of the series is the way it’s specifically about how she’s raised her son. Her son was abusive, and so the pattern continues. So much of abuse is about breaking that pattern, and so Celeste has to take that responsibility as well. It’s not superwoman stuff. It’s real human behavior that you’re watching.”

After the first season of “Big Little Lies” ended, Kidman and all of her co-stars told TheWrap how much it meant to work on a project in which almost all of their scenes were with other women. The second time around, she said, the feeling was even more pronounced.

“The depth of the friendships are so much stronger, and the desire to be together. I think that the one thing that pulls us towards a Season 3 is that we would love to be able to explore these women and their children and see what happens next.”

Does that mean there will be a Season 3? “It would be a lovely thing to all come together again,” she said. “I mean, I’m working with the greatest actresses in the world. We’ve all got lives that are quite full, so finding the time could be difficult. But how beautiful to have the possibility? Right now, it’s definitely not in the offing, but the desire is always there.”

Read more of the Drama/Comedy/Actors issue here.

Emmy Magazine 2020 Drama Comedy Actors