Sara Vilkomerson
January 06, 2017 AT 01:00 PM EST

For more on Big Little Lies in Entertainment Weekly’s Winter TV Preview, pick up the latest copy of EW, on stands Friday, or available here — and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos.

It began with a manuscript. In 2014, a friend slipped Reese Witherspoon an early galley of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. The Australian author has a knack for spinning a compelling tale — her previous book, The Husband’s Secret, had hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list a year earlier — and this one was no exception.

“Liane’s writing is so enthralling, I was hanging on every word. I read it in one night,” says Witherspoon of the story of a wealthy seaside enclave where not everything is as perfect as it seems and the combined community secrets lead to a mysterious murder.

Her producing partner, Bruna Papandrea, called Nicole Kidman — a longtime friend since the women were teenagers — and said simply: “I’ve found the thing for us all to do together.” Kidman (who also read the book in a single sitting) happened to be leaving the next day for Australia, and while there she met Moriarty for coffee. “I said to her, ‘If you give us the rights to the book, we can get it made,'” says Kidman.

Within 18 months, a staggering number of A-listers were heading into production. Witherspoon and Kidman were joined by Shailene Woodley in the lead roles, with Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgård, and Adam Scott also in the cast. David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal) signed on as an executive producer and wrote all seven episodes. Jean-Marc Vallée — fresh off his Oscar-nominated film Wild — agreed to direct every installment, too. (He’d been planning to direct only the pilot but had a hard time saying no to his Wild leading lady. “This is all Reese’s fault,” he says with a laugh. “I was about to take a vacation, and I was so tired. But then I read it, and I couldn’t abandon it after I started.”)

All that talent shows: The series has its fair share of humor and dark drama — and then even darker drama — yet the actresses never miss a step. “I sometimes felt like I was watching a class in acting,” says Witherspoon of her costars.

Big Little Lies premieres on Feb. 19 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Check out the trailer above.

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