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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the fifth episode of HBO’s Big Little Lies, “Once Bitten.”]
Laura Dern’s character Renata Klein on Big Little Lies has so far come across as an absolute psychopath. Whether it’s being a control freak, threatening Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline McKenzie or dubbing Shailene Woodley’s Jane Chapman as a nanny because of her appearance, the character has not been shown in the best light.
But Sunday’s episode showed viewers the more sympathetic side of the character when Renata discovered marks on her daughter Amabella weeks after the alleged confrontation with Ziggy on the first day of school.
“She is falling apart,” Dern tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s just a terrifying situation to feel your child bullied and in danger at such a young and delicate age, and a little girl who you feel so protective of.”
Dern spoke at length on the phone with THR about the character’s similarities to former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, reuniting with director Jean-Marc Vallee and Witherspoon and what to expect going forward.
How did you first get brought onto the series? Was it something Reese had in mind for you to do?
I knew she and Nicole [Kidman] and Bruna Papandrea, Reese’s producing partner, had the book and wanted to do it. David [Kelley] was adapting it and they were very excited. They had told me early on, “There are some great parts and we’re going be talking to you at some point.”
But it was really Jean-Marc coming on board and I think ultimately thinking that I would have so much fun with it and championing all of us, championing us to stay together, to work together as a team, which I love so much. I just want to do everything with them. It’s such a luxury when you have a director who literally will change his schedule for you and help you be part of something because I so wanted to be with literally my family, but I was working on two other things and it was a very crazy time. So the fact that they made it work so I could be a part of it was just miraculous and I was so grateful cause I loved playing this part.
What was the reunion like between you, Reese and Jean-Marc on set?
Amazing. In addition, our cinematographer, Yves Belanger, had done Wild, who we love so much, and Bruna. With Jean-Marc, it’s so funny how there are filmmakers who so believe what they are going to get from you that their level of confidence is what drives you there. And whether that’s instantly or in several takes, they’re going to guide you to it and you just have to get out of your own way and trust them. I know it was like that for both Reese and myself.
And then Shailene and I had not only worked together [on Fault in Our Stars], but then had also become best of friends. And so that was another incredible reunion.
David Kelley mentioned he had Shailene in mind for her role. Did you rally behind that?
They had loved the idea of her and I was the voice going, “You have no choice! You are doing this. We can live at my house while we do it.”
Going into shooting, what did you have in mind for who Renata was as a character?
Well, certainly, I knew her from Liane Moriarty’s book, but then of course [learned more] with David expanding upon that and Jean-Marc’s description. They really wanted not just to see her, but to understand her and really try to find a compassionate place for each of these women. And as their characters break down or unfold, you see the whole person and not just the judgment that you might see at the very beginning. And that was really interesting because from Jean-Marc’s and David’s perspective, they felt like these were characters they hadn’t seen. You know, the ferocity of the CEO woman who is still juggling the luxury of being a wife and mother but also the stigma of what that’s supposed to look like.
If we as women are going to be fiercer than ever about telling women’s stories and women telling stories, then it’s interesting to look at how women treat each other, not just how they’re treated by men. And it isn’t always pretty nor does it always come from a place of community and unity. So that was really fun to explore women’s fear and competitive nature because of their own insecurity and what can happen when that occurs.
How do you hope these stories will impact the portrayal of women on television going forward?
What I love particularly about this and I love the privilege of doing it with HBO because we did our show Enlightened with HBO with similar challenges, is you start with a label and then you get to break it down. It’s an acting dream. It’s the dream if what we’re trying to do is consider empathy, which is something that’s been very lost and there are so many figures, even at the top of the heap in our culture in America, who don’t consider people’s feelings and are bullies and aren’t respectful, particularly of women. So when you see that certainly as an artist you’re like, “Let’s see why do we do that and where does that come from.”
So to start with, “She’s a bitch or she’s an ice queen or she’s untouchable or she’s asexual,” it’s been interesting just walking around and having people come up to me and tell me even from the first couple of episodes what they think of each woman. And then they are definitely archetypes. That is how they’re presented, but it’s not who they are. Renata on the page is very clear and very fun but there’s a lot more going on. Even the way they wrote and directed her marriage and what her marriage is like maybe compared to some of the other marriages because it’s sort of like CEO, powerful woman, in a position of power, she’s frigid and an awful wife, she doesn’t really love her kids. It’s a very common stereotype that we have seen a lot in the last year. While this election was going on, we were filming and it was very interesting to be playing this woman because I was hearing so many things thrown at Hillary Clinton. If you’re powerful, if you’re smart, then you must be like this at home.
Can you expand on that a little bit?
It happens regularly and there is this sort of archetypal thing that a powerful woman must be cold. A powerful woman isn’t sexualized. A powerful woman isn’t doting, isn’t tender, she’s not a girl’s girl, she doesn’t have friends. We heard it so much during the election: “She must be a liar, must be hiding things.” The projections are so interesting. We were watching it in the election but then look at it just between Reese and I’s [characters.] [Madeline] feels so insecure about not having a life beyond her children and that now the kids are growing up and she’s losing them that’s all she can focus on and she thinks, “If I had had a career, it would look like that and she’s a bad mother. I was a great mother. Look at powerful women. They’re more important than me but see, they don’t do what I do.” Because she feels justified by saying that. If we women want to run corporations and run a film set or run government, then we have to give room to break down the stereotype of who that woman is and her heartbreak and worry over her children and her love and longing to be seen by their husbands and all the things that are true of anyone.
Right now more than ever, any material that shows the complication of someone so that we can have empathy for them, regardless of how different they are than us, then I think we’re doing our job. A lot of people have forgotten how to be empathetic or maybe never had that skill.
In this episode, Renata does become more sympathetic. She is very concerned about who is hurting her daughter Amabella and she just wants to protect her.
The starting place of it, which I think is beautiful, is the terror she has in a world where she has to be in control. And now she doesn’t get to protect her own child and can’t make it OK because she doesn’t know what’s really happening and doesn’t know what the truth is or if her child is protecting someone or herself. It’s just a terrifying situation to feel your child bullied and in danger at such a young and delicate age, and a little girl who you feel so protective of. She is falling apart out of not having any clues how to help her.
That is so relatable for all women. For all parents, for all humans, when we feel like we are stripped of control, we do crazy things. All of us know that if we’ve had a loved one get a health diagnosis that’s terrifying. We have all watched things around a hospital with family members where one relative is screaming at nurses and one is being calm and detached and somebody doesn’t show up because they can’t handle it. I love that that’s starting to show up about her because it’s where she started but we just decided she was a…every word in the book.
Did you have notes on how to make her a little bit more relatable?
Your job is not to find the place where people watching are going to like you more. Your job is to be true to the character. And that’s why the more I learn about acting and the more fun I have in doing it, the greatest thing that’s happened to me is working with beautiful directors who push me to be more committed to that. I have had some of the fiercest teachers in that area and I don’t know that I would love it as much if I didn’t have them. David Lynch, Alexander Payne and Robert Altman were determined that I play people who maybe you’ll never like and that’s not my job to worry about. What I love is when they crack open and you do find those places to reveal other sides.
The show tackles domestic abuse. How do you think Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) and Celeste’s story handles this issue that affects so many women in real life?
To me speaking as a viewer in the audience, what most resonates is that they look like the all-American, perfect couple. You’re jealous of them, everyone hates her, he’s younger, he’s beautiful, they have all the money in the world, she dresses perfectly, they have adorable kids, it’s all such a perfect life. And I love that, hopefully, in the first episode or two. Women are pining because we don’t know who is being abused and we often admire abusers. We admire them every day. In fact, we hire them to hold our highest positions of office. Bullies have no place in being honored but they’re honored every day. Whether they’re a sports hero or a rock star or holding political office, we commend them for this amazing thing, but we have heard many stories where the woman living with them at home is being abused. It’s such a tragedy because for all the women that are being abused, if you don’t speak up, you keep the silence for everybody.
I’m thrilled to be part of something that exposes the role- playing, that exposes how we pretend because of terror. Nobody wants to admit it’s happening, so you live in denial and you justify the behavior until it gets so dangerous or dangerous for your kids. Then hopefully you speak up or someone speaks up or a cop hears or something happens. But if there is any way this can be a reminder to women that there are millions of women just like you and they are as afraid as you are and nothing will ever change, it will only get worse. Just run, get out, or talk to somebody.
It’s touched upon in episode five in Celeste’s therapy sessions where Dr. Resiman asks Celeste if the children ever see the abuse. If they are seeing this abuse, is it fair to assume that maybe one or both of the twins are abusing Amabella?
It’s a very interesting theory one that’s coming up and going to start coming up for all of them. You are put in the position of protecting your child above everything, believing your child beyond everything and, if you’re a good parent, questioning your child above everything. We as parents have to learn to detach enough to see the whole picture and to consider all options to help our kids. And obviously, Shailene’s character and Nicole’s character have those questions to ask. All of them do, but you can see that there is a common, incredible fear if you have had an experience of violence and your child has been around or has anything to do with it or has a bloodline that has anything to do with it, there is constant terror. People deal with that all the time, with abuse, with mental health issues with addiction, and they are real things to consider but it’s devastating.
With Enlightened and Big Little Lies both on HBO, is HBO the place to be in terms of television? Do you want to tackle more roles on television and would it be with HBO?
Network television has become more complicated, more irreverent, more profound than ever. We’re now seeing incredible boundaries being broken through in every area of television but yes, particularly cable television is an incredible place to be. And as my kids and I have binge-watched things, my son has brought me into new shows and you start to see all these cable networks doing just extraordinary things.
What do you binge-watch?
Right now, I’m watching Shameless for the first time, which is just so horrifying and so brilliantly acted and so complicated. But you think about Shameless, Breaking Bad, Stranger Things, The Crown, the work you mentioned that I’ve gotten to do with HBO, we’ve just mentioned several major cable networks.
[Television] is definitely, for me, is the place that characters can go the deepest. Your job is not to protect a franchise, your job is not to make a hundred million dollars on a weekend, and in the world of independent films, unless you’re working with an auteur director who has some autonomy and can go make their film, which we got to on the film, Wilson, I have coming out, like that feels like the ‘70s and it’s United Artists, Fox Searchlight.
That’s the kind of film where it feels like I’m back to my roots. They are the most flawed, complicated characters and it’s still funny and raw. It’s very rare to get to do that and I think that’s why HBO and these other homes, like Showtime and Netflix, are allowing outrageous, complicated, beautiful characters. I know for me certainly and I have a few things in development with HBO for upcoming stuff that’s very exciting and very —
Can you tell me what they are?
They’re very cool projects and they’re all equally incredibly complicated with beautiful, flawed characters.
You’re in the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Can you talk about your role in that at all?
I can’t say anything about my role but I’d say that I had an incredible time and I just fell so in love with [director] Rian Johnson, who working with is beyond a dream. He’s a radical, loving, generous and innovative filmmaker. That’s a crazy pleasure where you’re actually on a set and you literally, not figuratively, are begging people to pinch you and tell you if you’re actually eight-years-old and pretending in your mom’s kitchen or you’re really on a movie. That was just a dream come true.
The series is coming to an end with one episode left before the finale. What will surprise viewers about where Renata ends up going forward?
What if we do more? I’m sad to say goodbye to her. I’m sad to say goodbye to any of them, I’m so in love with all these characters now although we will be saying goodbye to one character. In terms of Renata, all I can say, given what we have seen, is she’s got a couple episodes to radically shift her consciousness or it’s disaster. There are moments in one’s life that they have to pull themselves up from their bootstraps and become their best self or all hell is going to break loose. What we’re now facing for the next two episodes is who are people going to be. The lines are drawn and there are choices to be made.
Who is hurting Amabella? Did you sympathize with Renata this week? Sound off in the comments section below and stay tuned to The Live Feed for more Big Little Lies interviews.
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