Hollywood actress Reese Witherspoon turned 40 last year. By Hollywood’s typical ageist standards, Witherspoon would eventually be resigned to roles of a mum to a younger starlet.
But the Oscar winner is not going to wait around for Hollywood to put her in a corner. “Things have to change. We have to start seeing women as they really are on film. We have to, and not just in movie on a tiny budget. We need to see real women’s experience. Whether it involves domestic violence, motherhood, romance, infidelity or divorce,” Witherspoon shared during a Television Critics Association event in Los Angeles, California recently. She had enough of seeing “women of incredible talent playing wives and girlfriends with thankless parts".
As a producer, Witherspoon is making it her own initiative to flesh out better and more diverse roles for herself and other women in Hollywood. The Louisiana-born actress was one of the producers of the critically-acclaimed film Gone Girl, where a seemingly-bored housewife (played by Rosamund Pike) punishes her husband for deceiving her. She makes use of the media narrative assigned to her as “the victim” and emerged a true winner at the end ... albeit in cold-blooded style.
Witherspoon also produced and starred in Wild, a survival drama about a divorcee going on a solo hiking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail in the US. In 2015, she earned her second Best Actress Oscar nomination for the role.
“The constant sort of question for me now is how am I discovering something about woman on film that I’ve never seen before? And how am I creating something that hasn’t been done before?”
The answer to her question is Big Little Lies, a best-selling novel by Liane Moriarty about women in a scenic small town, which has been adapted into a seven-part miniseries for HBO.
As one the executive producers, Witherspoon eagerly explained why Big Little Lies deserves such treatment.
“It wasn’t about them (women) being good or bad. It’s just that they showed every spectrum, every colour of women’s lives. And I thought that was a really unique opportunity to have so many incredible parts for women in one piece of material.”
Big Little Lies stars Witherspoon as Madeline, a mum who has to watch her ex-husband and his new wife (Zoe Kravitz) take their kids to the same pre-school as her daughter.
Witherspoon brought in A-list pal Nicole Kidman (credited as one of the executive producers) to play a woman married to an abusive husband. It also stars Shailene Woodley as a young single mum with a mysterious past.
Then there’s Laura Dern (who also co-starred with Witherspoon in Wild) as a no-nonsense mum who starts a feud with Madeline. If anything, these women are not your typical desperate housewives-type of ladies.
The intriguing series opens with a murder and the identity of the deceased is not revealed until the end.
Witherspoon said when she read the novel for the first time, she saw herself through its many characters on personal levels.
Witherspoon was 21 when she married actor Ryan Phillippe (her co-star in teen drama Cruel Intentions). Their eight-year marriage ended in 2007. They have two chidren together, Ava and Deacon. In 2011, Witherspoon married talent agent Jim Toth and they have a son, Tennessee James.
“I saw myself in different stages of motherhood all through my life. I was a mum when I was 22, like Jane (Woodley’s character) and then I had a child when I was 40, like Madeline. I’ve been divorced, I’ve been remarried.”
She admitted to having different approaches to motherhood during the different stages of her life. As a younger mother, she remembered being more nonchalant. Her stance changed from, “Oh, they’re going to be fine. I don’t worry about it at all” to, “Oh, am I taking them to the ballet?”.
Realising things about herself seems to be a common thread throughout the process of making Big Little Lies.
Having a cast of mostly women on set was something special for Witherspoon.
“Nicole and I were reflecting about this during the shooting. For 25 years, I’ve been the only woman on set so I had no other women to talk to. They call it the Smurfette Syndrome and she’s got 100 Smurfs around but she’s the only girl. Who gave birth to all these Smurfs anyway? (laughs),” she pondered.
Witherspoon said it’s “refreshing” to have more women on set as they help each other to prep for their roles.
“We just nurtured each other’s performances. We would send each other articles and bring books. It was really a collective performance of all of us,” she offered.
The blonde beauty felt strongly enough to call Big Little Lies the “greatest ensemble experience” she’s ever had. It also definitely fit the bill of what she wanted at this phase in her career. “That’s what I’m always looking for – something new, and something challenging.”
Big Little Lies premieres Feb 20 at 10am on HBO (Astro Ch 411).