Yes, even Reese Witherspoon has felt judged as a parent. The actress, producer, newly-named Elizabeth Arden brand ambassador and mom of Ava, 17; Deacon, 13; and Tennessee, 4, is fascinated by just how opaque and unreadable kids can be and how hard moms and dads try to seem absolutely perfect.
“Have you ever gotten a call that your kid bit someone at school? I have. You feel awful. You feel like there is something wrong. It’s interesting how we stigmatize people,” she tells Yahoo Style.
She explores the disparaging, cutting and very juicy side of motherhood (and fatherhood) in Big Little Lies, which has exploded as this season’s must-see show. The HBO miniseries delves into the inner lives of a multitude of multidimensional women, showcasing a bully (Laura Dern), a cheater (Witherspoon), a domestic abuse victim (Nicole Kidman), and a single mom raising a child of rape (Shailene Woodley).
Witherspoon was instrumental in bringing Liane Moriarty’s bestseller to the screen. She, along with Kidman, produced it and the project resulted in a bidding war. That’s because while much of Hollywood was busy lamenting the dire lack of roles for women of a certain age, or any age, Witherspoon was busy creating them.
Her production house, Pacific Standard, is now a part of the content company Hello Sunshine, a joint venture with Peter Chernin and AT&T whose sole mission is to tell female-driven stories on TV, film, and digital platforms.
“It’s my entire life. It’s so fulfilling to me. It’s all been leading to this place where I took control of my career,” Witherspoon says. “It came out of a frustration, of seeing the kind of roles for women that were so flimsy. Buying books that have complex and real interior lives of women is my life’s work. I’m a storyteller, but I’m passionate that women have stories that need to be told.”
For years, she’s been diligently optioning, producing, and releasing projects with women at their core: 2014’s Gone Girl, starring Rosamund Pike as spectacularly manipulative Amy Dunne, generated $168 million domestically. The same year, Witherspoon and her friend Laura Dern earned Oscar nominations for the soul-searching saga Wild. In the pipeline is the date-rape thriller Luckiest Girl Alive.
Big Little Lies, meanwhile, is set in glitzy Monterey, Calif., but peel back the lush exteriors of waves, beaches, and pristine landscaping, and you’ll see the ugly underbelly of the posh town and its denizens — led by Witherspoon’s insufferable but also oddly tender grudge-bearer Madeline. The role fits her like a proverbial glove, but when Witherspoon read Moriarty’s book and realized it would make for delicious television, she didn’t know what part she’d play, just that she wanted in.
“You don’t know why people like a show. I responded to the truth, a real truthful look at how women feel about parenthood. Sometimes there’s maternal ambivalence. Women are not good or bad. I like that complexity of character,” she says. “I don’t think you ever know if things are going to work or not work. But there’s something interesting about five dynamic roles for women in which they talk about sex and marriage and relationships the way that women really talk about sex and marriage and relationships.”
Witherspoon’s Madeline fantasizes about a past fling, but has freezer levels of passion for her second husband (Adam Scott). Woodley’s Jane loves her son but is conflicted about being a mother and worries that he carries the taint of how he was conceived. Kidman’s Celeste is the definition of denial, until her husband casually tells her, in the wake of a beating involving a tennis racket, that he could have killed her. “There’s something bubbling underneath the surface that’s so frightening. I love the idea of the masks that we wear as people for each other,” says Witherspoon.
Perhaps most notably, Big Little Lies defetishizes motherhood, a concept that resonated with Witherspoon. The moms at the heart of the series are dedicated and protective, bored and frustrated, sexual and maternal — and sometimes, downright scary.
Women, says Witherspoon, tell her all the time that the elementary school in the show — one in which a parent starts a petition to a suspend Woodley’s 6-year-old son because of suspected bullying — mirrors their own.
Her Madeline, constantly agitated about something, and wracked with guilt about her affair, isn’t trying to be cute or funny or adorable or lovable. But she puts on a great front. “Anyone who has their s*** together and is always telling everyone how perfect their s*** is, is full of crap,” Witherspoon sums up.
She just celebrated her sixth wedding anniversary with her second husband, Jim Toth, and rang in her 41st birthday. That, too, affected how she approached the role.
“Having the experience of being a both young mom and an older mom — I’ve seen both sides. I’ve been married and divorced. I have an ex-husband. I have kids from a first marriage and a second marriage. A lot of us had that in common,” says Witherspoon.
That meant the actors actually connected.
“We did a lot of eating dinner together and talking and going into each other houses. It was a deep dive into motherhood. It’s about the complexity of being a woman in a relationship,” she says.
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