'Big Little Lies' Season 2 Star Goes Inside "Electric" Battle Between Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep 

Denis O'Hare speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about the courtroom showdown that encapsulates the end of the HBO drama's second season, while teasing the finale: "It's fireworks."
Merie W. Wallace/HBO
Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman in 'Big Little Lies'

[This story contains spoilers from the penultimate episode of Big Little Lies season two, "The Bad Mother."]

“I was examined, she should be, too. I was fair game. So is she. It’s my fight, your Honor. I ask that you let me wage it."

Heading into the finale for Big Little Lies, Nicole Kidman has set the stage for a courtroom showdown between her and Meryl Streep's characters to bring the HBO drama to the finish line.

Amid a complicated process of grieving her late husband, Celeste Wright's (Kidman) fitness as the mother of twin second-grade boys is being put in question by her mother-in-law, Mary Louise Wright (Streep). After keeping tabs on Celeste's stumbles for the entire second season, Mary Louise hires the best family attorney in Monterey to legally fight her for guardianship.

The penultimate episode saw Celeste taking the stand in court during an open evidentiary hearing that was attended by the rest of the Monterey Five (Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz). Going into the hearing, the five women were most concerned with Celeste facing questions under oath about late husband Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard), whose death is still being investigated by the police. But when attorney Ira Farber (guest star Denis O'Hare), began his line of questioning, he exposed Celeste in ways that surprised and shocked anyone watching.

Celeste, who is a survivor of domestic abuse at the hands of Perry, was forced to answer questions about the abuse and whether their violent sexual relationship has manifested into a "sickness," as evidenced by the casual sex she's been having of late. Farber questions her about Ambien misuse and altercations with family members, while also using private family conversations as a courtroom weapon. When the judge inserts herself into the saga, it becomes clear that Celeste, a practicing attorney, is going to have to wage her own fight by putting Mary Louise on the stand if she wants to retain full custody.

"It became this scene between two women who were talking about spousal abuse, the struggle they have with raising kids and female sexuality and what’s allowable," O'Hare tells The Hollywood Reporter of the female judge (Becky Ann Baker) questioning Celeste herself after Farber went on the attack. The 13-page scene between Farber and Celeste is what drew O'Hare to the key role and a storyline he praises for igniting a "mature" conversation in the #MeToo era: "Nicole Kidman’s character is a human being with human needs who is, nonetheless, still a victim and has the right to claim that mantle no matter what behavior she’s engaging in."

Below, O'Hare goes inside the courtroom battle as it rages on through the finale, when Celeste and Mary Louise will swap roles so Streep's character can take the stand. With no news about a third season in sight, the July 21 finale — which O'Hare predicts will be well-received by viewers — is poised to give the audience exactly what they want. "It’s fireworks," he says. "It’s what everyone wants to see: Meryl Streep on the stand being cross-examined by Nicole Kidman."

What attracted you to this key season two role of pit bull lawyer Ira Farber? 

It really was a no-brainer because I loved the show. I wanted to see how I would be a part of the Monterey Five and the fact that I would be Meryl Streep’s lawyer was a slam dunk — of course I’m going to say yes. I love the fact that I got to spend so much quality time working with her. And in the penultimate episode, I love the big engagement in court with Nicole [Kidman]. That was such an intense scene to shoot and that was why I took the job, for that scene, basically.

What was it like to join this Big Little Lies world as a latecomer?

I was there all told for two weeks. The courtroom scenes were maybe five days. But it was great. I loved being around everybody. After the premiere [event in New York] I actually stumbled into a very sort of exclusive private party. I was going into the hotel the same time that Meryl was and I made a joke about how we both had escaped the crowd out front. She turned around and laughed, grabbed my arm and we went in the elevator and she pushed down. I said, “No, no, no, I’m going up!” And she said, “No, no, no. You’re going down.” The doors opened and it was some party. I went in with her and we had an amazing time. I had lovely conversations with a lot of the cast and I was so grateful for that.

Last week served as an introduction to your character, who plays a big part in the courtroom showdown for the final two episodes of the season. What was it like to walk into set and play the enemy?

I’m walking into the second season of a huge hit show, where the cast has a tight relationship, and into a situation where Meryl Streep has already been on four episodes. I’m the new boy on the block. There’s a lot of fancy footwork you have to do to give yourself the permission to be as big as you need to be. My character is supposed to be very powerful and an expert. I can’t come in with my head down and be modest or shy. You have to come in swinging. We actually ended up shooting that big [Celeste courtroom] scene the first days I was on that set. Andrea [Arnold], the director, turned to Nicole and I and said, "Do you want to just go for it?" And we did. It’s a 13-page scene and we both did the entire scene without stopping. It was incredibly electric — doing one take for one scene that is that long with that sort of build. When we finished, the assembled audience of background [actors] and a lot of the cast started applauding. You’re doing a performance in a courtroom, which already feels like you have an audience, so it feels like you are on stage and to have that response was really thrilling. 

There were attorneys on set. What research did you also do into family law?

I spent a lot of time online looking at YouTube videos. Family law attorneys for the most part don’t want to be in court, because they understand that’s a failure of the process. The minute you’re in court, you’re now doing something which is violent and that is destroying bonds and relationships. It’s much better to have figured out a way to amicably share or amicably agree. I love how that was in these episodes and that we actually see that conversation taking place. We see unreasonable interactions on both sides.

How many takes did you end up doing of the courtroom scene with Ira and Celeste?

We did about six or seven complete takes and then a lot of bits and pieces here and there. It was a pretty intense scene but with a scene that big, once you get it, that can make the days fly by. We ended up being ahead of schedule because that scene was kind of a runner. You wanted to shoot it without taking a break to keep the tension flowing. Nicole is obviously such a highly skilled actor that she knows how to ride the rhythm of a long scene in a way that makes it delicious to do.

Your character's face-off with Nicole Kidman's character is hard to watch. What conversations did you have with her, Andrea Arnold or David E. Kelley about how far to push the scene? 

Nicole and I didn’t talk, because I think she’s the kind of actor who wants to discover it in the moment and I love that. Andrea and I talked about what the game plan was and what they wanted to see, and I had a couple questions for David. But I thought it was all on the page. What is great about that scene is that not only is Farber within his rights to ask the things he’s asking, he asks them in a very non-disrespectful way. He was simply stating the facts: “You slept with that guy and you slept with that guy. And you didn’t know his name? Well, how about this guy? So, wait a minute, did any of these guys meet your kids?” It’s not like he’s asking her unfair questions. He’s asking her things that are absolutely germane to the topic of, “Are you a fit mother to these two kids?” His point of view as Mary Louise's lawyer is that Celeste is not a fit mother, and my job is to point that out for the sake of the court and to let the court know what’s going on. If I don’t let the court know what’s going on, then I’m not doing my job. 

But the iffy part is the part about, “Did you push your husband down the stairs?” That’s straying into other territory and we definitely talked about that. I said to David Kelley, “Is that me being an arm of the state at this point?” Did they come to me and say they would like to know that? That was a subtle thing. “Are you a murderer?” goes to character. If you pushed your husband down the stairs and murdered him and are lying about it, that goes to your fitness as a mother. That was how Farber justified that. Whether or not he was approached by the police is not in the script, so it’s only conjecture to say that he was. But I do believe that he was talking to them.

The penultimate episode ends with the judge about to announce her ruling, but Celeste cuts her off to propose her cross-examination of Mary Louise. At this point, how confident is Ira in the case he's presented? The episode is titled, “The Bad Mother.” Is Celeste the bad mother?

What I thought was really interesting is that during Celeste's lawyer’s redirect, the judge jumped in and took such a heavy hand in asking direct questions. It became this scene between two women who were talking about spousal abuse, the struggle they have with raising kids and female sexuality and what’s allowable. Here we have the judge really asking her questions like, “Are you seeking help for this?” And Celeste says no, not for the sexual addiction. Celeste says she doesn’t think she’s addicted. And the judge asks again if she’s seeking help for this and Celeste says, “I will.” If you were the judge, how would you feel about a client who persisted in the behavior and only now, under the threat of losing her kids, decides to get help? Although she loves her kids, is that the measure by which we judge the best place kids should be? My personal feeling as a human being is that kids should probably be with their parents as a default, unless they can show an extraordinary danger. Because no one is perfect. Parents make mistakes and if you take kids away from parents making mistakes you’re going to have chaos. But I do think it’s a great rationing up of that question. And Celeste will get her revenge in the last episode when she gets to turn the table and say, “Well, if I lose my kids and you get them, why should you get them?” And she’ll make the case that Mary Louise shouldn’t get them.

There is another layer with Celeste being a domestic abuse survivor and having to face questions that can deter survivors from coming forward. She is asked, “Why didn’t you report him?” and “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Big Little Lies is showing a very specific story of one survivor, but it’s also relatable on a larger scale.

From my character’s point of view, his job is to win the case for his client. So the idea that Celeste is going to cross-examine his client is a terrible one. He doesn’t want this to happen, but he also has no power to stop it. It’s a disaster in many ways. However sure he was of victory before, he’s may be shaken because of this new tactic. I do think in the #MeToo era, it’s extraordinary to be on a set of this show where Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman are executive producers and the ones who have made this happen. Andrea Arnold, who is an amazing force in directing and who comes from the world of Transparent and other shows, is directing the show. We had a huge female crew and it was just great to have a mature conversation about these topics in a way that I think hasn’t occurred in TV in a long time. That Nicole Kidman’s character is a human being with human needs who is, nonetheless, still a victim and has the right to claim that mantle no matter what behavior she’s engaging in.

You get to go head-to-head with Kidman in the main scene but the next time you question her, the cross-examination plays out in the more vague and trademark style of Big Little Lies. What were Andrea Arnold's director notes and, now that you've seen the final product, did it turn out how you imagined? 

A lot of actors are like this, in that whenever I do takes I tend to not do the same thing twice. For me, each take is going to be new and different and wherever the take takes you. So there were some that were a lot harder and there were some that were a lot softer, there were some that were a mix. But at the end of the day, I feel like what I saw was a great assembly of all the different versions we could do, because Ira’s not a villain. He is doing his job and his job is to rattle the witness to force them to be spontaneous. And spontaneity often produces the truth. Objectively speaking, Celeste’s character is remarkably truthful so there wasn’t a whole lot that could be shaken from her. She was remarkably truthful in her vulnerability. The one thing she’s lying about is what happened to her late husband. But that’s a late focus in the scene.

There was a story from IndieWire claiming the executive producers, including [Jean-Marc] Vallée, edited out a lot of Arnold's stylistic choices. In your experience as an actor, have you ever seen a director’s cut air? And now that you’ve seen the final cut, did the process seem normal to you?

I’ll be honest — that would be above my pay grade. I’m not included in these conversations! I will tell you, in my experience working in TV for a long, long time, that every director in the world wants to be able to get every one of their ideas in there and all the producers also have opinions, and it’s always going to be a shared end product.

So, what can you say about the finale?

Well, the finale is already set up in this episode, when Celeste says she wants a cross-examination. Nicole is in the hot seat this entire episode, so it’s time for Mary Louise to be in the hot seat. The showdown is between Meryl and Nicole; Nicole as Celeste cross-examining Mary Louise and questioning her fitness as a mother. And it’s fireworks. It’s an amazing scene and of course it’s what everyone wants to see: Meryl Streep on the stand being cross-examined by Nicole Kidman. It was a joy to be in that room watching those two go at it.

Nicole Kidman said ahead of the season that Celeste’s storyline would be controversial. David E. Kelley, meanwhile, said the end of the season would be satisfying. How do you think the audience will feel after the finale?

I think they’ll be relieved, in a way. I have to admit that I don’t remember all the wrap-ups on all the aspects. I was involved in the courtroom scenes, so I was focused on my story. But I think the worst thing that can happen to a show is for the audience to go, “No! What? No!” And I think the audience will nod their heads and go, "Yeah. Of course, of course." I think that’s a sign of good storytelling and good human storytelling.

As a fan, who are you rooting for: Mary Louise or Celeste?

That’s hard. Mary Louise is a delicious, amazing character. It is such a creation between David, Andrea and Meryl. It’s so hard to get your finger on her. In many ways, she makes you so frustrated and so angry and yet other times, you completely see her point of view and completely understand her. She’s a truth-speaker in many ways and among the Monterey Five, there’s not a whole lot of real honesty going on sometimes, so to have this honest character come in and pull things apart is really refreshing and challenging. That being said, I think your sympathies probably go with Celeste because she’s a character we’ve come to know for a long time and she’s being challenged on a fundamental level, to lose her children. That’s such a huge threat. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for that.

As an actor, what was it like to watch that finale showdown and see Meryl Streep in all her glory against Nicole Kidman?

They’re both extraordinary actors and part of what is so extraordinary about them is a technical thing in how they make the lines feel incredibly spontaneous. You can see their imaginations and their craft in working the line to make it have one or two meanings. Meryl is sort of a genius at giving in line readings that accentuate that second meaning. And both are very alive in the moment. I’ve been lucky enough to work with great, great actors like Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates [in American Horror Story], Nicole and Meryl. They all share the same trait. Which is, they take their time. They let the moment happen. They don’t rush. They completely let the moment land. They feel it and react to it. And that’s hard sometimes for us to do because we feel — well, I do at least — this panic to keep the audience entertained. And they have the great gift of following the experience of the character over everything. It’s just remarkable.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

The finale of the second season of Big Little Lies airs Sunday, July 21 at 9 p.m. on HBO. Head here for all of THR's show coverage.