'Big Little Lies' is back with even bigger lies (and some hard truths)

  • TV
  • Friday, 31 May 2019

Big Little Lies

There's a flurry of activity outside the ballroom of Langham Hotel in Pasadena, California one winter afternoon. Publicists, agents, makeup artists and hairstylists move about in a group, forming a circle – not unlike hyenas surrounding their preys.

But these are no preys. Look closely and you’ll see the entourage is getting a group of ladies – Zoe Kravitz, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep – ready for their close-ups.

If ever there was a dream team of power women in Hollywood, this would be it.

These formidable actresses are at the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour to talk about the new season of Big Little Lies, the acclaimed limited series which was aired on HBO in 2017.

If it was a limited series, why is there a second season, you ask? Moreover, the show was based on the 2014 best-selling novel by Liane Moriarty and as far as we know, there’s no second book in the series.

Indeed, Big Little Lies was supposed to be a one-off series. But because it became a critical and commercial success, audiences demanded for more. “We all said goodbye at the end of the series,” Kidman informs the media, adding that a second season was never in the cards.

“But there was an enormous demand from the audience. I’ve never been in something that reached so far, globally,” adds Kidman, 51.

Kidman, and her co-star Reese Witherspoon – both of whom were also executive producers of the series – then sat down with writer David E Kelley to talk about the possibility of a second season.

They quickly realised that coming up with the story for the second season was a tad tricky considering there wasn’t a source material to rely on.

“We didn’t want to do (the second season) unless we could at least have a fair shot of living up to the bar that we felt we had set in year one,” says Kelley.

Lucky for them, author Moriarty stepped in and wrote a novella for the team to use as a template for the second season.

Zoe Kravitz, Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, David E. Kelley, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Shailene Woodley attend a panel for the second season of the HBO series
Zoe Kravitz, Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, David E. Kelley, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Shailene Woodley attend a panel for the second season of the HBO series "Big Little Lies", during the Television Critics Association (TCA) Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, California, . Photo: Reuters

Nothing is what it seems

Big Little Lies tells the story of five women from the scenic beach town of Monterey, California, who seemed to have it all but deep down, each one of them is struggling – marital problems, financial issue, domestic violence.

Witherspoon plays the high-strung real-estate agent Madeline; Woodley is Jane, the mum who doesn’t fit in the upper-class echelon of Monterey; Kravitz is the free-spirited Bonnie – who’s now married to Madeline’s ex; Dern is the high-powered CEO Renata aka “Medusa of Monterey”; and Kidman is Celeste who’s trapped in an abusive marriage. The thing that binds them together is they each have kids in the first grade at the same school.

At the end of Season One, when an altercation broke out between Celeste and her abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) at the school fundraiser, the other four ladies stepped in to help, with Bonnie pushing him down the stairs and killing him in the process. The ladies covered up the murder by telling the police Perry slipped and fell.

Now, in Season Two, the Monterey Five find themselves caught in a massive lie. And some look like they are on the verge of cracking.

“We really didn’t close the chapter in Season One; it ended on a very open note of what’s going to happen next. And that being: Will the lie have a life, will it have a malignancy, what will it do to the equation of these friends, these relationships, their marriages?” says Kelley who has written shows like Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope and The Practice.

“I think when I look at Season Two, we don’t so much go broader but we go deeper. We take the story that we left off, the lie, and we drill down on how that lie is going to permeate the world of Monterey.”

Big Little Lies
Reese Witherspoon and Zoe Kravitz in HBO's Big Little Lies.

The new season starts off several months after the momentous night. Everyone seems to be back leading a normal life. Celeste is coping, Renata is still on top of the corporate world, Jane – who was raped by Perry – feels the weight off her shoulders, while Madeline is still high-strung. Only Bonnie can’t seem to shake off the guilt.

“When we come back, their lives seem very well put together on the surface,” says Kelley, 63. “But then the fissures and fractures begin to emerge. So, once the crevices start to widen, it escalates pretty quickly.”

Matters are made worse with the arrival of Perry’s mother Mary Louise, who is hell-bent on finding out the real reason behind her son’s death.

Mary Louise was written with Streep in mind; in fact, Moriarty named the character Mary Louise after Streep’s real name. But would an acclaimed, 21-time Oscar nominee accept a role on a TV show, one in which she would have to share screen time with five other actresses?

Luckily for HBO, Streep was more than happy to jump on board.

“I loved this show,” exclaims Streep, who’s turning 70 next month. “I was addicted to it. I thought it was an amazing exercise in what we know and what we don’t know about people, about family, about friends; how it flirted with mystery of things.”

Streep was said to earn US$800,000 (RM3.3mil) per episode for her work on Big Little Lies.

She wasn’t the only one with a big pay cheque. Both Witherspoon and Kidman received a raise in their salaries as well – from US$250,000 (RM1.05mil) and US$350,000 (RM1.47mil) respectively to a cool US$1mil (RM4.19mil) each per episode.

Meryl Streep's character, Mary-Louise was named after the actress' real name.
Creator, writer and executive producer David E. Kelley. Photo: Reuters

Never say never

Season One of Big Little Lies premiered in February of 2017, around the same time the #MeToo movement took flight, with women all over – especially in Hollywood – coming out to talk about rape and sexual abuse. That timing wasn’t lost on Witherspoon.

“We had no idea (the series) was going to converge with this moment when women, sensing their need to be leaders, stepped up and talked about their experiences.

“And I do think that is part of the reason that we felt why we should do another season. (In Season One) we talked about trauma, we’ve experienced trauma, we see each other’s trauma, but, now how do we cope with it? How do we carry on?” says Witherspoon, 43, adding that this is the big theme the new season will explore.

Kelley, who wrote all seven episodes, had his work cut out for him especially in a series with six strong female characters. When asked if that became an issue to write for so many A-list stars, Kelley – who is married to actress Michelle Pfeiffer – replies: “Yes, there’s definitely a lot of writing, rewriting, tweaking. That’s the process, really, on every show. But this show certainly went through a fair amount of it because all the actresses are committed.

“My favourite quote from a writer would be Robert Frost, ‘No tears in the writer. No tears in the reader.’ Which means if you don’t feel it, don’t expect your viewing or reading constituency to feel it.

“Everybody brought such commitment to their roles. Every discussion that we had, there wasn’t one that was about, ‘I want my role to be better.’

“All of them were, ‘How do we make the story better?’ And that’s exactly the kind of input and collaboration that you hope for.”

The first season of Big Little Lies won eight Emmys including Outstanding Limited Series, and four Golden Globes, three of which were acting accolades for Kidman, Dern and Skarsgard.

Needless to say, the second season is highly anticipated and is considered one of HBO’s tent pole series, especially since its top moneymaker Game Of Thrones has ended.

Will Big Little Lies be a franchise? Will there be a third season, and beyond, perhaps? “No such plan now. I think that’s it. We like where our closure is at the end of Season Two. So that will probably be it,” Kelley offers.

Kidman interjects with a laugh: “That’s what you said the last time.”

Season Two of Big Little Lies premieres June 10 at 9am on HBO (Astro Ch 411). It repeats at 10pm.

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