Is it any surprise that actor-producer Reese Witherspoon’s first major TV project, HBO’s hit miniseries Big Little Lies, resulted in not just an Emmy nomination for her, but a whopping 16 for the show overall? The star, who also produced literary adaptations Gone Girl and Wild, turned Liane Moriarty’s thriller into a moody, suspenseful — but wonderfully funny — must-watch series that has viewers begging for a second season. And as lovable but complicated busybody Madeline Martha Mackenzie, Witherspoon, 41, was at the top of her game, spitting the show’s funniest lines one moment and delivering taut drama the next.
EW caught up with Witherspoon ahead of the Emmy Awards (airing Sept. 17) to talk about making the switch from film to TV, what story lines could be explored in a potential season 2, and how her costar (and co-producer) Nicole Kidman convinced her that her comedic role was necessary for the series.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is essentially your first TV role, aside from some guest spots.
REESE WITHERSPOON: Yeah, this is the only thing I’ve ever done! [Laughs] I’ve never done TV before, other than being Jennifer Aniston’s sister on Friends and a Lifetime movie when I was 15.
Tell me about making the switch. What was it like getting to spend so much more time with a character?
It’s a very different process. It’s a much longer process, but as an actor, the ability to dig deeper into a character and have more time to live with these characters, I think [helps] you create a more whole picture of a human life. Nicole [Kidman] and I were approached and asked to make it into a feature film right before we were about to make a decision about what network we were going to go with, and we just really felt like we wanted to tell the story of five women, not two, and there just wouldn’t be enough time within a film format to get that deep level of storytelling.
And also, to be quite frank, audiences are much more deeply invested in these long-form storytelling opportunities. I think you get a lot more engagement. You’re chasing the audience that is Nicole and I’s audience for years and years, but it’s also Shailene’s audience and Zoë Kravitz’s audience. It’s important to go where your audience is, not expect them to necessarily come to you.
You had to balance so much in this role: Madeline had dramatic and comedic scenes, and she was a bully as much as she was a protagonist.
It was funny, when we were making it, Laura Dern and I kept looking at each other and going, “I think we’re in a comedy and everybody else is in a drama.” But I think that’s what makes it relatable and why people see themselves in it, because there’s a part of it that is so much about the intimacy of marriage and relationships and parenting and the secrets we keep from each other. And then there’s this whole other element of tension and mystery and murder, and that any one of us is capable of something truly horrible at any moment.
Did you do anything specific to prepare for the role?
I mean, not really! You know, you pull a lot from life. I’m a mom, I’ve been divorced, I’ve been remarried, I’ve had more children. I just lived a lot of this life! I was a young mother… I’ve pretty much been every woman in that show.
And sitting with Nicole and Laura and Zoë and Shai, we all had experiences that were applicable to each character. So instead of spending a lot of time thinking about lines and doing deep research, we just spent a lot of time getting to know each other. Honestly, the rehearsal process alone where [director] Jean-Marc [Vallée] just put us together and having dinners, these women became some of the closest people that I’ve ever worked with. The intimacy of friendship that was created through this process really showed through, I think, in the work.
It definitely shows!
You can tell we’re having a good time! Other than that terrible Trivia Night sequence which was literally the worst shooting experience I’ve ever had in my life. It was two weeks of nights, and we were all just delirious and miserable and emotional, because we all had to be very emotional in the scenes, so we were all a wreck. I mean, we were so delirious. If I told you stories from those nights, you’d either be crying for us or you’d be on the floor laughing. We were all so deliriously tired.
Did any of your costars help with insight into Madeline’s character?
Being able to ask Nicole Kidman for acting advice was key to even deciding to do the part, because for a while I had a little trepidation about playing a character that I felt could be a little bit one-note. She really helped me. She said, “No, no, you have to, because [the show] needs to have a levity to it in order for us to all feel like we love these people so much that we don’t want anything bad to happen to them. And you create empathy through comedy.”
What scene are you proudest of?
I mean, the final sequence that ended the entire miniseries is what I’m most proud about, because there’s no dialogue. It’s all just score, music, imagery, and it dovetails beautifully into the characters’ journeys, as well as this idea that we, like nature, are ever-evolving. There’s an aspect of nature that is uncontrollable, and I think that it was a beautiful metaphor — all the visual imagery really came together so beautifully. I think that sequence is better than about 95 percent of other movies I’ve been in!
What about a scene that’s specific to Madeline?
The scene where she tells her daughter that she’s not perfect, that she’s had an affair. To me, it encapsulates what people love about the show, which is [that] deep female friendship starts from honesty. And that there are things that women know about each other that they will only share with each other. We hold each other’s confidence, and we hold each other’s hearts.
I think that Kathryn Newton is a beautiful actress who just really shone in that scene, in her entire performance, and I just connected with her, honestly. She and I got really close. That scene really meant a lot to me because it reminds me of how close I am with my own daughter.
How are you feeling about a possible season 2?
I don’t know! It’s hard to say. Liane Moriarty’s doing incredible work. She’s really thinking about the characters. I think if anything, it’s going to be the most thoughtful process. We want it to be as good or better, so it has a very high standard to hit.
What would you want to see Madeline explore further?
You know, I think Liane Moriarty is best to sort of prognosticate where these characters are. She has a deep understanding of what their next movements are, and how they’ll cope and handle the finale, everything that happened at the end of the show. There’s certainly a lot of storytelling left. I mean, there’s an open-ended murder case. And the secrets of the children’s lives can be revealed as well. I mean, Ziggy now has two brothers! It’s very interesting. And [for] Shailene and Nicole, the father of their children is the same person.
You and Nicole are teaming up again to adapt another Liane Moriarty book, Truly Madly Guilty. Do you know if that will be a movie or another miniseries yet?
We’re leaning toward a miniseries. We’re in talks about that process right now.