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Big Little Lies is returning for a second season on HBO because there is more story to tell.
“I would say we do go a little bit broader, but mostly we go deeper,” David E. Kelley tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There are more stories to tell when you look at the Monterey Five plus one.”
The creator, writer and executive producer of the HBO drama is, of course, referring to Meryl Streep as the “plus one.” Her character, Mary Louise Wright, comes to Monterey searching for answers about her son Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), who died in the season one finale, and her arrival shakes the Monterey Five tree enough that their secrets might just come spilling out.
“In terms of year two, the cast and producers, we didn’t want to come back unless we thought we had a legitimate shot of measuring up to the bar that we all set for ourselves,” says Kelley, who spoke to THR at the recent New York premiere for season two. “Liane Moriarty wrote a novella with some terrific ideas — the best and the brightest being introducing Perry’s mother, and we were lucky enough to get Meryl Streep.”
Since the first season used up all the source material from Moriarty’s best-selling book of the same name, the Big Little Lies team asked the author to return to the page for season two ideas. Within her 200-page novella that Kelley would adapt into the season two screenplay was a “telepathic message” to Streep, since Mary Louise is the Oscar-winning actress’ legal name. Streep didn’t even read the script before agreeing to the key role.
“It worked,” Kelley now jokes of Moriarty’s nod to Streep. But, looking back, he adds, “We were all daunted and a little bit reluctant to take on year two, because we didn’t want to do it just to do it. But we got excited about the stories and the material and realized there were places to go.”
He continues, “The key at the beginning was not to expand the canvas so much, although we do, but to drill down deeper on what we’ve got. Especially when dealing with the malignancy of the lie. And that’s going to live at a very low level and it’s going to take a little spelunking in order to get at it with the various characters. The biggest challenge for me was keeping the entertainment and the fun part along with the dark side. And we’ve been blessed with a pretty gifted group of actors.”
The stories that Big Little Lies tells in season two will dig beneath the surface of the familiar five women, as the team set out to mine the worlds of the main characters. Beyond the one secret that ties together the Monterey Five — who were all present when Bonnie Carlson (Zoe Kravitz) pushed Perry to his death in a bid end his abuse against wife Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) — the effects from other traumas will also come into play.
“This season is about digging and the corrosiveness of lies — which is a big theme for the show — and how lies raise everything in your own life to the surface,” executive producer Bruna Papandrea tells THR. “It’s about looking at each individual and their relationships, and going deeper and getting more complex to see where that leads all our characters.”
When season two picks up, Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), guilty of having an affair, is still distant from her husband (Adam Scott); Renata Klein’s (Laura Dern) rage will be tested in an unexpected way; and Bonnie (Kravitz) has completely shut down.
“I wasn’t really privy or aware of the fans saying, ‘We need more.’ In fact, I heard some of that, but I heard just as much of, ‘Don’t ruin it. Leave all this alone.’ Neither really had a whole lot of play with me. In the end it was about: are there stories to justify season two?” explains Kelley of taking the storylines and backstories further. “There was so much more to tell with the characters, especially with Bonnie. We only hinted about who Bonnie was. We had not mined where she came from and what led to the big push at the end of year one.”
Then there is the complicated friendship between Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) — who newly identified Perry as her rapist and the father of her son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage) — and Celeste Wright (Kidman), the widow and mother to twin boys (who were caught bullying Renata’s daughter in school) that Perry left behind. Both women are survivors, and season two will follow their very specific journeys to show how they move on, especially with Celeste’s grieving mother-in-law over her shoulder.
“The journey of healing is complicated and tricky. Both for Celeste and Jane,” says Kelley. “And we don’t shy away from it, and Nicole doesn’t shy away from it. She really tunnels in on Celeste — the good, the bad and the ugly. Nicole and I had some conversations, we’re always going back and forth. I think we’ve been on the same page from the beginning. My process as a writer and hers as an actor are very similar: we go inside the character. I went for many long walks in the woods with Celeste and as Celeste. And then you turn the pages over to the actors, and Nicole takes it and she drills down even deeper.”
When speaking during a panel at the Wing’s SoHo location ahead of the premiere event, Kidman stressed how being an executive producer, along with Witherspoon, on Big Little Lies has allowed her to contribute to the specificity of Celeste in a way that is unique to her storied career. “I’ve been an actress since I was 14, and so much of my life I haven’t had a say,” Kidman said. “I’ve been able to go in and contribute in terms of a performance, but I never get to go, ‘What about if this scene ended this way?’ or ‘What about if this is what was actually being thought through and this is the psychology and what we were trying to achieve with this episode?’ Just to be heard is amazing, and that’s been the greatest gift for me in terms of producing.”
Streep, who was also at the cast panel along with Witherspoon and Dern, said she felt part of the appetite for season two had to do with the characters not being emblematic of all women. “That responsibility to stand in for all women with a character is what’s exploded in this,” Streep said, calling the ensemble one of very complicated, flawed, hysterically funny but tragic female characters.
And Kidman agreed. “After playing Celeste, my connection with so many people who are either living it or going through it or have been in it, suddenly was augmented,” she said of connecting with survivors of domestic abuse. “I was suddenly able to hear the stories, be a voice for a lot of those stories and I’ve continued on with that. But when you’re dealing with Celeste, it’s her particular story. We’re not doing an overall analysis of domestic violence. It’s very specific. Hopefully it’s incredibly real. And there’s an enormous amount of truth in it. I was adamant when we started the series that she wasn’t a superhero. She wasn’t coming out of this saying, ‘I’m healed. Off I go. Let’s go.’ So you’re going to see the path and her navigating the path of what that means.”
She continued, “I wanted it to be deeply authentic, and so did Meryl with what we were doing in terms of our relationship to this man. And the way in which he changed my life, her life, the way we both perceive him. And then with Jane, who has been abused by him, she is also a survivor, has a child and the way in which we’re all connected — and that’s just one of the storylines. But it’s such deep material, and to mine it is just extraordinary to have that chance and hopefully, with that we reach out and reach out to building conversation. Because it will be controversial. There hopefully will be discussion and create more and more awareness and, hopefully, change.”
Ultimately, Witherspoon said Big Little Lies is about the spectrum of the female experience and raises a universal question within all of the characters: “Am I living the life that I’m supposed to be living?” The producing pair said they fight for the characters in the edit room and they fought to bring them back to the screen.
“The situation originally was that it was one go around, and I remember Reese and I both going, ‘Well that’s that, gosh it was great,'” said Kidman of the reaction to season one. “Then, by popular demand, we had to address whether we wanted to do it again, and I had a lot of people who said, ‘No, that’s it. It was fantastic one season.'”
She continued, “And a friend of mine, a male, said those women deserve their stories to be told beyond what was that first season. And I was so touched by that and I went, ‘Yeah. That’s what we’ve got to fight for now.’ We don’t have to just be shut down and told, ‘No, that was good. You did well and off you go now.’ You actually get to explore them on a deeper level and explore the consequences and see their lives unfold in a much deeper way, and that’s what was so exciting for me and having the chance of everyone coming back together with that passion.”
Similar to the first time around, there is no news on another season beyond these upcoming seven episodes. When asked about a potential season three, it seems that Kelley has also learned that lesson. “My idea is this is the end,” he tells THR. “But, everybody has now lectured me to never say never, so I’m not saying never.”
Big Little Lies premieres its second season June 9 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
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