The star/EP and creator Liz Tigelaar break down the moment Elena and Mia become "warriors against each other."

By Sarah Rodman
August 27, 2020 at 07:09 PM EDT
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The scene is less than two minutes long. But in the span of one minute and 44 seconds, a fraught series of events comes to a head in the series finale of Little Fires Everywhere. Unconventional artist Mia (Kerry Washington) opens the door and says, "What?" There's a whole world in that one word. In the tense exchange that follows between Mia and tightly wound housewife Elena (Reese Witherspoon), the size of the titular blazes transforms into enormous emotional infernos.

Unsurprisingly, Hulu's gripping adaptation of Celeste Ng's best-seller received five Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Lead Actress for Washington, and Outstanding Directing for the late Lynn Shelton, who helmed the pilot and the finale.

EW caught up with star and executive producer Washington and executive producer Liz Tigelaar (Life UneXpected, Once Upon a Time) to break down that pivotal scene (which you can watch above), discuss Shelton's essential contributions, and reflect on those Emmy nominations. Of Tigelaar, Washington waxed particularly rhapsodic, noting, "Liz was both mother and nurse in bringing this story to life. She labored, and she held our hands while we labored through the birth of this project. It was just extraordinary. We all loved this book so much. And to be able to take material that is so beloved, and to extend it, and expand it, and dive into it, and reveal itself to it, in the way that Liz did, and in the way that she assembled a team that could do together — I mean, she was just, not only an incredible writer, but an incredible leader, and incredible cheerleader. Really, she created the world."

Little Fires Everywhere
Credit: Erin Simkin/Hulu

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Liz, this is your first Emmy nomination, correct?

LIZ TIGELAAR: Yeah, it is. Thank you.

KERRY WASHINGTON: So deserved and long overdue.

TIGELAAR: I was just so happy because when it's a show nomination, it includes every single person involved in the making of the show.

WASHINGTON: That nomination and the Lynn Shelton nomination. That was the one where I lost it. Just lost it.

TIGELAAR: Absolutely. All five of [the nominations] have so much meaning for so many different reasons, but there has been a lot of grief, and loss, and reckoning as the show has premiered and been out there, and so I think it was a really nice feeling amidst a lot of just hardship and grief.

Kerry, you were nominated for four separate awards: the acting nomination for Little Fires and then three nods as a producer for Little Fires, Outstanding Television movie for American Son, and Outstanding Variety Special (Live) for Live in Front of a Studio Audience: "All in the Family" and "Good Times". Clearly, that was a good morning!

WASHINGTON: I got all the news at the same time because I had really done a good job of not knowing that that was the morning. And I was deeply, deeply entrenched in the very distracting engagement of wiping down my groceries. So I really was like, "Why is my phone blowing up?" And it was blowing up from weird, random cross sections of people like Anthony Anderson, who's very involved in Live in Front of a Studio Audience. Like, "Why is he congratulating me?" I was super in a different world. And then my publicist called me and told me all the news, and I was really… I have such a complicated relationship to awards, and nominations, and this dance that we do, because I'm deeply, deeply grateful, but also, I have a hard time with my artistry being in a race.

I have spent, since the beginning of my career of being in the campaign for Ray, and The Last King of Scotland campaign — and even the fact that they're called campaigns, right? As involved as I am in politics, to have artistry be involved in a campaign is really interesting. And so, I have very complicated feelings. But on that morning, I'm with Liz. I was [thrilled] to have so many nominations be for the shows themselves, for these families that I've been blessed to be a part of in this last year. These families that I am so in love with, and deeply committed to, and have been through the fire of creating something together — no pun intended! — that was so meaningful. And then, to hear about Lynn's nomination was just… I mean literally, I was continuing to wipe off the produce, and then when I heard about [the directing nomination for] Lynn I just dropped it all and just wept, because I just felt for her, and for her family, and I could imagine her celebrating in the beyond with her brilliant laugh and her adorable hats.

And she was such an integral part of the show, setting up the bookends of tone with the pilot and the finale. Liz, why was it important to have her direct on the show?

TIGELAAR: I had worked with Lynn previously on a couple different projects, and I can remember where I was sitting in my car outside my house before the holidays, and she called me and said how much she loved this book, and how much she connected with it. When I had the opportunity to dissect it with her, I think that what was so moving about this story, and about what Celeste created, was that there were access points for so many of us as women, as mothers, as daughters, to connect with different elements of this book in a really deep way. And so, I think Lynn was the same, in the best way. In that way, as all of us, where we read it and we just connected so deeply. I mean, look, I think a lot of people want to be Mias and admit they are Elenas.

Or a legit combination of both, depending on what day it is. And this scene we're discussing is such a good example of these women coming up against each other in all those ways, as women, mothers, daughters, partners, and how there truly aren't villains in the piece but, like in real life, people trying to make it work the best they can, fighting their own flaws and tendencies. So, Kerry, how many times did you shoot that "What?" to get just the right tone of exasperation and anger?

WASHINGTON: I don't remember.

TIGELAAR: I'm guessing it was perfect the first time.

WASHINGTON: Although, we are producers who really like options. Liz, Reese, Lauren [Neustadter], Pilar [Savone], and I, we all like our options in the edits. So even if it was good the first time, we probably did it at least another three times, just so we had options in the edit.

This is an intense scene. She is evicting you, and at the beginning of this two-minute conversation you have until the end of the month, and at the end you have till the next morning. And it's nighttime already. Mia goes in on Elena with a quiet ferocity, and Reese shows so much emotion — shock, anger, vulnerability — while also trying to remain controlled. It is a really masterful two-hander. I'm imagining that must've been an intense moment.

WASHINGTON: Yeah, every second that I got to work with Reese was so exciting. It's what I imagine it feels like to be on one of these Olympic dream teams, you know? Where you get to show up for work, and you know you're working with the best of the best, and you know that you're going to make each other better, because if I don't run my fastest in the relay, the team doesn't win, and if she doesn't run her fastest in the relay, the team doesn't win. It's this cycle of really challenging each other. And it was so fun for us, too, because I mean, I don't think I could love her any more. If I loved Reese Witherspoon any more, my heart would explode. It's just not possible. And so, to be in a situation where we have to be so antagonistic, to be such warriors against each other, it was just fun. I don't know if that means that we're terrible people deep inside, but it was fun to grapple with each other.

Liz, what do you do to get them prepared to be in that space?

TIGELAAR: Well, I mean, with Reese and Kerry, absolutely nothing. With building Mia and Elena, there were some tweaks we made from the book in order to make this moment the moment that it was. And one of the things was talking about the abortion, and who had the abortion. And also, there was a domino effect that we created in the finale that wasn't in the book. The end of the book takes place over a couple weeks in terms of the court case, and what happens with May Ling, and the house burning down, even. But we had this very visceral, intrinsic feeling in the finale that everything had to happen like dominoes. Everything had to be a snowball gaining momentum that was unstoppable for all of this to be believable.

So for us, it was really setting up the dynamic with the Elena-Bill [Joshua Jackson] scene, which had proceeded it, where Elena was feeling like she was basically being called a bad mother, a bad wife, a bad human. And I think we feel sympathy — I did — in that moment, for her being misunderstood. That he couldn't understand where her actions had come from. And that all she could do was bring it over to Mia and unleash it all on Mia because she can't contain it in her own body. She has to put it on someone else.

But then, of course, that's juxtaposed with where Mia is. Mia has been hiding something the entire series that she finally, for better or worse, does not have to hide anymore, because her worst nightmare has happened. So the freedom that gives Mia in that moment with Elena is the freedom of a person who believes she's lost everything and has nothing left to lose, so that was the dynamic created for them to come into the scene.

This is the last time these characters will speak to each other. And it was just, I mean, this was one of my favorite scenes of the whole show, both to watch and to create. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.

Kerry, did you and Reese do much rehearsal?

WASHINGTON: Yeah, I want to reference something you talked about, the safety between us. There was a lot of safety, and I mean, what we did often was play off camera. So part of what you're seeing is that there was safety to really push each other, so when you see that transformation happen on Reese's face, I was not saying the things that you're hearing on screen. I was saying other things to try to help her drop into that moment.

And she would do the same for me. And you can only do that in really safe relationships and safe environments. I remember saying to Lexi Underwood's [who played Mia's daughter Pearl] mom, "I'm going to push her," and to Lexi, "I'm going to push you. I'm going to say things to you that are not in the script. We need a safety word. If it goes too far, if I've gone to a place that it's no longer okay, you need to let me know, but I'm going to take you outside your comfort zone, because these characters are not comfortable, and we're going to have to surprise each other with the capacity of what we're able to express."

Reese and I, we knew. We're both producers, so if it went beyond, we could say, "Thank you very much. No more." But we would play.

Obviously, this is a joyous moment, being nominated for Emmys. But it's interesting that the show came out with this backdrop of national unrest with themes that are incredibly, sadly, resonant to this moment. I'm curious where your thoughts are on that, with your art intersecting with the world discussion and mood.

TIGELAAR: When art is timely and resonant, it's wonderful, but you don't want this to be timely and resonant. You don't want this to be where we are in our culture in society and country. So I think about it, two and a half years ago when we were going into the writers' room and all reading White Fragility, now you can't buy a hard copy of White Fragility. Is that good or bad? It's everything.

WASHINGTON: I think in this moment where women's voices and women's ability to make decisions about our bodies when the stakes are so high in terms of protecting women's voices, and women's agency and power in the world, I think to center women's stories and women's journeys is a real honor and privilege, and a necessity. So I guess that is part of what I think about when I think about an Emmy nomination for our show — I think that it is an affirmation that women matter.

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Little Fires Everywhere (TV Show)

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