'Big Little Lies': Shailene Woodley on the Healing Journey of Season 2

The Monterey Five star speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about Jane Chapman's "incredibly vulnerable" arc as a sexual assault survivor.
Jennifer Clasen/HBO
Shailene Woodley in 'Big Little Lies' season 2

[This story contains spoilers from the third episode of Big Little Lies season two, "The End of the World."]

The second season of Big Little Lies is about a reclaiming of identity for one of the main characters.

After the fatal season one finale — where Jane Chapman identified her rapist before he was pushed to his death — the return of the HBO drama opens up months later and Shailene Woodley felt that Jane should look different onscreen. The actress imagined how her Monterey Five character would react after identifying Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard) as her attacker, and the father to her son, after eight years of not knowing and her input resulted in Jane changing up her hairdo. 

"At the end of season one when Perry died, I felt like maybe two or three weeks after that incident she would have woken up one morning, looked at herself in the mirror and thought, 'This isn’t who I am anymore. This monster is gone and I’m not going to let him live in me or control me any longer,'" Woodley tells The Hollywood Reporter about the backstory of Jane cutting herself bangs, which drew attention on social media after the season premiere. And the physical transformation is just the beginning as her journey as a survivor continues to unfold: "It is something that I think is missing in a lot of our storytelling on TV and in movies today — somebody’s path toward reconciliation with themselves and reclaiming of themselves."

In the first three episodes of season two, Jane has embraced change with a new job at the Monterey Aquarium and potential romance with a coworker (Douglas Smith). She also spoke her truth about the assault in two powerful scenes. First, with her 10-year-old son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) when he heard through school gossip about his father, resulting in Jane and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) making the decision to bring together the half-brothers; and second, with Meryl Streep's character, Perry's mother Mary Louise Wright, who is struggling to reconcile her son's sins.

Below, in a chat with THR, Woodley discusses the truthful vulnerability that she brought to Jane's story, the "messy" relationships with the rest of the Monterey Five Plus One that are "dynamic and deep and chaotic," and why Jane's transformation by the end of the season fills her with hope.

How does it feel to be back in full swing with season two and see the audience response?

It’s incredible. People have been asking for so long and it just feels good to have it in the universe and up for grabs by whoever is interested in the season.

As a cast, you have spoken about Big Little Lies being a collaborative process where you give input on each other's characters. What was that experience like and how did you influence Jane’s storyline in season two?

[The storyline] was up to David E. Kelley and his creative genius, but I was very adamant that we explored what a healing journey can look like. There are so many things that we deal with in our show that are relatable, unfortunately, for people. Whether it’s domestic violence, sexual abuse, infidelity, lies, etc. I thought it was really important to show a young woman who had survived rape and who had survived so many atrocities in her life — like being a young mother without very much support from anyone else around her — and yet forging through with a bravery and a courage that has helped give her son a beautiful life. That we provide her a chance to heal. And that we show what one person’s healing journey can look like. Because all of our paths to healing look so incredibly different. It’s important if we’re talking about these subject matters to also talk about how these things might be a part of your story, but they don’t have to define who you are. And that was the case with Jane this year.

Jane’s journey as a rape survivor is unfortunately relatable to many, while also being very specific in this Big Little Lies world. How did that concern for authenticity and that level of care impact what makes it to the screen?

It absolutely makes it richer. This season felt so incredibly important. I grew up with two psychologists who would come home every day, and we would sit around the dinner table and they would tell me horrific stories of what they saw at work while working with kids. Yet I was also very fortunate to hear the survival stories and how people were able to move through specific trauma. It is something that I think is missing in a lot of our storytelling on TV and in movies today — somebody’s path toward reconciliation with themselves and reclaiming of themselves. So it felt important to be as truthful and as honest and as vulnerable [as possible] with Jane this season, because it would be very easy to act the experience of falling in love again, or act the experience of wanting to be sexual again, instead of genuinely feeling that trauma in your body and exploring the mind-body disconnect. Jane’s mind is living in 2019; it’s living in the present and ready to move on, but her body is stuck living eight years ago when she was raped. And her body doesn’t know how to move past that trauma. So trying to find ways to explore that sense of release and reconnection between body and mind with 10 minutes of every episode [laughs] was tricky, but that’s why it felt all the more important to capture the right beat when given the opportunity.

Jane’s new bangs were your idea. What does her season two look represent? 

I’ve been in this position in my life where, after a major breakup, triumph or celebration or after a big change, a lot of people alter the way they look. I know for myself, it’s always been haircuts and piercings. That’s been my way of moving forward in new chapters of my life. I felt that for Jane, she’s carried this weight of not feeling in her own body because of what happened to her for eight years. She felt disconnected from her own identity on not just an emotional and mental level, but on a physical level as well. At the end of season one when Perry (Skarsgard) died, I felt like maybe two or three weeks after that incident she would have woken up one morning, looked at herself in the mirror and thought, “This isn’t who I am anymore. This monster is gone and I’m not going to let him live in me or control me any longer.” In that moment, I feel like she took a pair of scissors and cut her bangs herself. And she went through her closet and gathered up almost everything and took it to the nearest clothing swap store and donated it and got new clothes in order to reestablish and be in control of her identity again. I felt like that would have been her reclaiming her space, even if it was a subconscious decision, because this ghost who has been a part of her identity for so long had then left on the physical level.

Jane has spoken her truth with her son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) and with Meryl Streep’s character, Perry's mom Mary Louise Wright. After all the secrets and lies, why was it important that Jane tell her son the truth about what happened? She almost speaks to him like an adult in the scene.

I think that parents have no idea what they’re doing. [Laughs.] I assume that when I become a parent, I’ll have no idea what I’m doing. You’re just trying to keep your kid alive; you’re trying to keep your kid safe. But at the end of the day, you’re trying to figure out your own life as well and Jane being a young mother, I felt like in that scene she didn’t have the tools or the awareness; she wasn’t equipped with the right aid in order to speak to him as a child. I think she herself went into “I’m just a child” mode. She had to speak to him straight-up because that was the only way she knew to communicate. I think that when shock and adrenaline hits your system, and embarrassment and shame and fear and pain hits your system, you react almost on a one-way street with whatever your natural instincts are. And that was her natural instinct in that moment. She didn’t know how to do anything different.

We don’t see her explaining everything, but she tells him about the assault after he says he heard that she was "salted" by Perry (Skarsgard). What were the conversations like about that scene and how do you imagine that conversation went?

I think when you go into shock you don’t really know exactly what to say or how to say it. It’s almost as if you don’t have a choice but to be incredibly vulnerable. And I think in that moment, she chose to be authentic with her son instead of continuing to lie to him, because she could tell that he’s been seeing through her for so long. Had she had more time to process what she was saying and doing, I think she would have said and done it differently. But I saw that moment as two human beings in the world who are both broken and in pain, and both done with the bullshit and desperately needing connection and needing to not feel alone in their situation. Age went out the window; hierarchy of parent-son, teacher-student, leader-follower — all those roles or labels disappeared and it was just two souls trying to forge their way forward in an incredibly uncomfortable circumstance.

In the sit-down with Streep's Mary Louise, Jane says, "Your son raped me and as he was doing so, I was screaming for him to get off." Mary Louise is also a mother who can’t accept her son’s sins. What was it like to film that conversation with Streep and how does her character bring another layer of complexity?

It’s really easy for us to judge Meryl’s character right off the bat. And it’s easy to not want to empathize with her. But, like you said, all she wants to do is figure out [what happened]. This is her way of coping and her way of dealing through her son’s traumatic death. I really find it fascinating how David wrote her character and then how Meryl chose to portray her. Because no matter how conniving or rude or sketchy Mary Louise can be, she’s always grounded in her form of justice and there’s something to be said for that. Our show explores the themes of not being seen, not being heard and loneliness. Even this group of women who are now “friends,” they’re friends forced by circumstance. They’re not natural friends. Maybe Celeste [Kidman], Jane and Madeline [Witherspoon] are. But all of these women don’t necessarily truly get along or agree with one another. But they love each other based on the experience that they shared. And I think Mary Louise is an extension of that extreme loneliness in a room full of people who feel that constantly. But because of the facade and all the white-picket fences we put around our personalities, pretend like everything is fine when the house is burning down. Mary Louise doesn’t have time for any of that. She cuts through the BS in her pursuit of justice and that’s what feels so abrasive about her, but that’s what also feels very intriguing about her.

Jane and Celeste (Kidman) form a bond and bring their sons together. What is it like to play out those scenes with Nicole Kidman and show the complications that survivors of sexual and/or domestic abuse can face when children are involved?

That was tricky. That’s probably the one thing I wish we had more time in the show to explore. The relationship between Jane and Celeste is so dynamic and deep and chaotic, not only because of the circumstances that Jane and Celeste shared with Perry, but also that they're now sort of raising these boys together. They’re both on their own. They’re both still psychologically dealing with the pain that Perry incurred upon them, and yet they both have to be strong and figure out a way to forge forward in their lives with their children being half-brothers by the extension of rape and infidelity. There’s just so many complex emotions at play. These women I think deep down want to resent one another, but can’t because they genuinely love each other. It’s just messy, like so many of our relationships are. I don’t think any friendship or relationship is black and white. There’s a big gray area in everything and I think for Jane and Celeste, that gray area is dense and thick and it’s also not something either of them are tapping too deeply into, I think out of the fear of what could happen if they open those doors.

Abortion bans are passing in some states, something you have spoken out against. Jane at one point made a decision about her body. Do you hope her storyline resonates?

Honestly, that’s not something I have ever thought about. What people decide to do with their bodies and what women decide to do in certain circumstances have to do with their personal circumstances and you can’t relate that to Jane. There’s no relation there. Every person is an individual and has their own path, and their life experiences and circumstances will define what the best decision is for themselves.

Part of Jane's season-two journey is exploring a romance with Corey (Douglas Smith). She tells him she needs to stay in neutral for a bit. How did you prepare to play out this relationship onscreen?

I can research all day long — and I did do a lot of research, via YouTube videos and articles and a few books that I’ve read — but, for the most part, a lot of the things that I brought to Jane were from personal experiences I’ve had or personal experiences very, very close friends or family members of mine have had. And that’s what helped me form how she was going to move forward with Corey, more so than researching elsewhere. Because it’s such a personal thing and, like I said, everyone’s journeys are so different. I can only pay homage to who I thought Jane was as a person using circumstances that I could personally very closely relate to.

At the end of the third episode, Jane is dancing with Corey and she wipes a tear. Can you fill in what’s going through her head in that moment?

For me, acting is just surrendering to the moment. So it wasn’t about filling it in, it was about feeling what Jane would be feeling in that moment. Which is probably not thinking very much, but simply trying to breathe and survive and get through it, and battle how her mind was telling her one thing but her body was telling her something else. And how she reconciles the two and how she brings them together in order to just simply get through a moment.

How would you describe Jane’s transformation — how do you feel about where her story ends?

The final episode actually changed a lot between reshoots and the time of filming. So I don’t actually know how it ends still. I’m very much an audience member when it comes to season two of Big Little Lies. But I will say that the way Jane’s storyline ends just filled me with a lot of warmth and a lot of hope for the world. And for women and for men who are of any age who are trying to move past trauma in a way that fuels their future with a sense of comfort. 

The second season of Big Little Lies airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. Head here for THR's coverage.