10:30am PT by Jean Bentley
Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington on Promoting 'Little Fires Everywhere' in a Pandemic
Last Thursday, TV productions had only just begun to shut down as a result of the World Health Organization officially declaring the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. And while Hulu canceled the series' red carpet premiere scheduled for that evening, the cast of Hulu's Little Fires Everywhere, an adaptation of Celeste Ng's best-selling novel, still headed to the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills that morning for what would turn out to be the last Hollywood junket for the foreseeable future.
"It feels a little odd to be here talking about a television show," star Reese Witherspoon told The Hollywood Reporter the morning of March 12, well before any emergency regulations were put in place by the state and national governments. "If we have an opportunity to distract or entertain, I feel very lucky to be part of a community that's helping [do that]."
Added her co-star and fellow executive producer Kerry Washington, "Figuring out how to have moments of respite and calm and joy even in these times is really important because our stress level impacts our immunity. If we're doing everything we can to stay well, then we have to get all the facts we need to get in order to make smart decisions about taking care of ourselves and our families. But we also need to figure out how to cultivate some calm."
The duo's new series, an exploration of motherhood told via the stories of very different women whose lives intersect in a unique way in 1990s suburban Ohio, debuts its first three episodes on Wednesday, with subsequent episodes premiering weekly. At the time of the interview, seven of the season's eight episodes had been sent to critics for review — and Witherspoon and Washington told THR that's because the finale was still being tweaked.
"We're still working on it," said Witherspoon, with Washington adding, "We are tweaking one little thing. For people who love the book, I will say there are some surprises. Celeste said something really beautiful and generous to us in the process of making the show. She said, 'The best covers of songs are the ones that really make it their own.' She saw us as doing that. It's a beautiful cover, but she gave us room to be our own thing while we were honoring what she originally wrote."
Below, the pair discuss Washington's return to TV after Scandal, working with their onscreen children and the series' now-hyper-relevant take on xenophobia.
Both of you have been producing for a while, but what was it like working together as producers and stars?
Kerry Washington: It was really, really fun. But I think one of the reasons why we had such a good time is because we put in the same amount of work. We worked really hard. We have teams around us that work really hard. With all of that collaborative, creative energy, we were able to build something that we're really proud of and have good time doing it.
Reese Witherspoon: Yeah, the show is really special because of, I think, what our teams brought to it. The thought and care about really creating realistic mothers and showing the nuance of motherhood that I don't think is on film very much.
Reese, this is another look at the types of issues you tackled on Big Little Lies in terms of both motherhood and class.
Witherspoon: Yeah, but we're dealing with hundreds of years of storytelling about mothers. We're just barely scratching the surface of stories that tell the spectrum of female behavior. There are so many different kinds of mothering ideologies. I think just exploring four different ones in this, actually five with my character's mother, it just informs you so much about parenting.
It's almost as if women aren't a monolith and there are a lot of different experiences.
Witherspoon: Can you imagine? It's just so interesting.
What was it like to work with the actors who play your children?
Washington: We were teenagers in the '90s. We were there. It was this weird like, "You're playing me. I had that outfit when I was 16."
Witherspoon: They're wonderful. I thought a lot, too, about my experience with being a teenager on sets and tried to be really helpful, helping them by giving them a lot of information that we had done about our characters. Josh [Jackson, her onscreen husband] and I sat down and had a family dinner with them before we started to talk about, "What does this family talk about? What are our political views? What are religious views?" [So they could] have that information to mind when they needed it.
Kerry, why choose this as your first onscreen project after Scandal, particularly since that seems to be how a wider audience came to know your work?
Washington: I was really lucky. I was really blessed before Scandal to have a fantastic career as a character actor where I really was able to disappear into different cinematic roles, where people didn't even really connect that the girl from Save the Last Dance was the same girl from Last King of Scotland was the same girl from Ray. I was able to work at a really high level without it impacting my anonymity or my personal life. I think for me, the fact that the characters are so different is just a symptom of how I like to gravitate toward diversity even in the kinds of women that I play and the kinds of characters that I bring to life. I like to change it up because you can't do as much when you're on a television show.
What was the biggest theme from the book that you wanted to bring to the screen?
Witherspoon: There's such an exploration of class in this [story]. What do we value as society? Where do we place importance for parenting? Is it about genetics? Is it about biology? Is it about affluence? Is it about education? Exploring that through the idea of what we talk about 25 years ago versus now almost gave us this great Mad Men perspective: You got to look at the way [society handled] every issue in the 1960s into the '70s with the sigh of like, "Oh, we know better now." But maybe that's not true, and I think it'll start a lot of conversation.
Washington: Yeah. I think some of it is, "Oh, we know better now." Some of it is, "Oh, we're still making those mistakes or we're still thinking some of those thoughts or we haven't come as far as maybe we thought we have or had."
Witherspoon: You know what else I was thinking? The show reminds me a little bit of Parasite in that you meet one world, and then you think, OK, well, there's a different class. It's mothering and then there's a whole other [look at] class and immigrant culture. What do we value? Do we value the immigrant experience as that pertains to motherhood?
Washington: Yeah, there's that kind of upstairs/downstairs Downton Abbey [clash].
The show is also hyper-relevant in terms of how it looks at xenophobia, even in a way that's more topical than it would have been a month ago.
Washington: We've been talking about that in my house because we overheard somebody talking about how they were nervous to order Chinese food and somebody was like, "Are you nervous to order Italian food?" It's really an interesting conversation to overhear. I think people are exploring their own feelings around who has [COVID-19], who doesn't, how do we get it, our assumptions about who represents what levels of safety.
Little Fires Everywhere is now streaming on Hulu. Hear more from Little Fires Everywhere showrunner Liz Tiglaar during Friday's new episode of TV's Top 5.