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Reese Witherspoon Made ‘Big Little Lies’ Because She Had Enough of Hollywood Reducing Women to ‘Wives and Girlfriends’

TCA: As a producer and star of HBO's upcoming limited series, Reese Witherspoon spoke about why she's motivated to find more parts and better roles for women in Hollywood during the network's TCA presentation Saturday morning.

Big Little Lies Reese Witherspoon

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

Big Little Lies” is about, on its surface, women who go to war with each other. But if you look deeper, you’ll see a meaningful bond between friends, insightful conversations about who we are and what we want, as well as — perhaps above all else — women fighting back, together.

“As much as there is conflict, this piece is about women supporting each other,” Nicole Kidman said.

“I love that it’s about women coming together and making something happen very quickly,” Reese Witherspoon added.

Starring Kidman, Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, and Zoe Kravitz (all of whom were on hand Sunday), the HBO adaptation of “Big Little Lies” is told from the perspective of three mothers: Jane (Woodley), a newcomer to Monterrey who moved there to provide a better life for her son, Madeline (Witherspoon), a take-charge, part-time worker, full-time mom who befriends Jane on the first day school, and Celeste (Kidman), a devoted mother (with a secret personal life) and long-time friend of Madeline.

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Yet even with three protagonists, the story is shared in flashback after a local murder puts the community’s passive aggressive disputes under police scrutiny. Who did it? Who died? The mystery goes on, as these women guide us through rising conflict.

“There are five great roles here [for women],” Kidman said. “It’s very, very rare.”

And that’s part of the reason Witherspoon got behind the project as a producer. Snagging Kidman first and then reaching out to Woodley, Kravitz, and Dern, Witherspoon was excited about the project for artistic and personal reasons.

“I was excited to come to women with parts that I’m excited about,” Witherspoon said. “All these talented women playing wives and girlfriends, I just had enough.”

Big Little Lies Nicole Kidman

Witherspoon enthusiastically and specifically targetted her “Wild” director, Jean-Marc Vallee, to steer the project. After initially hiring him to helm the first two episodes, both Kidman and Witherspoon “attacked him, begged him” to direct the rest of the limited series. And he did.

“To have someone step in to try to mimic his style and voice, it wouldn’t have worked,” Kidman said.

“He’s there with you,” Witherspoon said. “He’s not separate. He’s part of the performance. He doesn’t see race or gender. He’s the most compassionate human.”

Vallee encouraged the group to spend time together off camera to get to know each other better before shooting began.

“[Now] we’re very, very close friends, and we’re able to talk about anything,” Witherspoon said. “A lot of the conversation has been personal, and then we’d go to work. […] So when you get to the scene on the day, there’s an understanding that’s much deeper than character.

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This kind of experience was unique to Witherspoon for more than just the friendships she forged.

“For 25 years, I’ve been the only woman on set,” Witherspoon said. “They call it the Smurfette Syndrome: There’s 100 [male] smurfs around and only one woman. […] Here, I’d call Nicole and Laura, and we nurtured each other’s performances. It’s really a collective performance for all of us.”

Witherspoon has been a long-time activist and philanthropist. She’s the honorary chairperson of the Avon Foundation, which supports breast cancer research and domestic violence prevention, and she’s been growing more and more active as a producer (“Gone Girl,” “Wild,” and five other announced projects) in an effort to create better roles for women.

“I’m passionate because things have to change,” Witherspoon said. “We have to see women as they really are, and not just in movies with a tiny budget. […] We need to see these things because we as human beings learn from art, and what can we do if we never see that reflected?”

“Big Little Lies” premieres February 19 on HBO.

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