Cheryl Strayed on Making ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ for Hulu and the Secret to Good Adaptations

The celebrated author sat down with IndieWire and series showrunner Liz Tigelaar to discuss their ambitious new Hulu series.
Tiny Beautiful Things Kathryn Hahn Hulu series Cheryl Strayed
Kathryn Hahn in "Tiny Beautiful Things"
Courtesy of Jessica Brooks / Hulu

Cheryl Strayed likes getting to know people, so perhaps it shouldn’t have been all that surprising when she began our interview by directing questions at me. The vaunted author, screenwriter, columnist, and podcast host wrapped her preceding press assignment a few minutes early, and rather than enjoying some alone time during a busy day at Austin’s SXSW Festival — where she later co-led a featured talk with “Tiny Beautiful Things” showrunner Liz Tigelaar — Strayed invited me to her table. Pleasantries were exchanged, coffee ordered, and the weather commented upon, but before five minutes passed, the consummate conversationalist had me speaking openly about my parents, relationships, and career.

It’s a strange feeling to hear the topics you’ve been sent to elicit from someone else come tumbling out of your own mouth, but Strayed likely has a similar reaction when fielding questions from reporters. While no stranger to sharing — she’s perhaps best known for her memoir, “Wild,” and its 2014 film adaptation — the writer has long proven herself as inquisitive as she is introspective. From the “Dear Sugar” advice column that ran in the early 2010s to the ensuing New York Times podcasts inspired by those pieces, Strayed has long exhibited an earnest investment in people and their stories, one that helps forge her strong connection with subjects, readers, and listeners alike.

“I’ve had this experience where I’ve been in a grocery store or something, and somebody appears,” Strayed said. “They’ll be like, ‘I heard you talking! I was in the other aisle and I was like, ‘That’s Cheryl’s voice!'”

Liz Tigelaar felt a similar connection, long before she met the author. Our final lunch companion (who arrived on time, unlike this anxiously early reporter), said she first came across Strayed through “Wild,” but a friend recommended “Tiny Beautiful Things,” which in turn led to the “Sugar Calling” podcast. (“Cheryl told me to say [the friend’s name], so it was Michaela Watkins,” Tigelaar said, who was working on the Hulu series “Casual” at the time.) From that moment forward, Tigelaar would listen to episodes during her lengthy commute from Los Angeles to set, deep in the San Fernando valley.

“‘Dear Sugar’ saved me,” she said of those hours-long trips. “I listened to it every day driving out, every day driving back.”

“So you knew my voice?” Strayed said.

“I knew your voice and I felt like I knew you.”

Establishing such an intimate connection can be powerful, and Strayed has done it time and again across multiple mediums. But what happens when Hollywood wants to expand on that voice? How can an author who’s built such an inviolable bond with her fans trust new writers, producers, and studio executives to maintain it? How can a voice that’s known, not merely recognized, be authentically recreated onscreen?

The author said she considers herself “incredibly lucky” in how Hollywood has handled her work.

“I’ve worked with really good people,” she said. “When we were making ‘Wild,’ Reese [Witherspoon], Laura [Dern], Jean-Marc Vallée, and that whole team would be like, ‘Cheryl, this isn’t how it normally is.’ We became like family. We’re still friends to this day.”

Strayed remembered the late director sending her cut after cut of the film, seeking her input after every viewing.

“He would send the film and then he would say, ‘Watch it, and then let’s Skype,'” she said. “And then we would Skype for hours and he would want me to tell him everything I thought — seven fucking times.”

A trip to Telluride for the film’s premiere emphasized the rarity of such a collaboration.

“[A] famous director who I won’t name said to me, ‘I’ve adapted nine books to film and I’ve never once even talked to the author until the film’s premiere,'” Strayed said. “He couldn’t believe how collaborative and open Jean-Marc was — that Jean-Marc really, really cared what I thought.”

Tiny Beautiful Things -- “Pilot” - Episode 101 -- We meet Clare as her husband, Danny, has kicked her out of their home for giving her brother Lucas their daughter Rae’s college fund. But an old friend needs someone to take on his advice column Dear Sugar. And it might be exactly what Clare needs. Frankie (Merritt Wever) and Young Clare (Sarah Pidgeon), shown. (Photo by: Elizabeth Morris/Hulu)
Merritt Wever in “Tiny Beautiful Things”Courtesy of Elizabeth Morris / Hulu

Now, having seen “Wild” turned into an Oscar-nominated movie and “Tiny Beautiful Things” adapted into a stage show by Nia Vardalos, Strayed has one overarching rule for who can interpret her words.

“The one that covers everything is they can’t be an asshole, and that really matters,” she said. “But I can put it in terms that are less crass: What I mean is being able to trust that somebody has good intentions, trust that somebody is emotionally intelligent and evolved enough that they know how to be kind — they know how to be compassionate, they know how to listen, and also they know how to talk.”

Strayed said knowing how to have a conflict in a healthy way is key, which goes hand-in-hand with a person’s emotional intelligence, listening skills, and overall communication.

“I did a deep dive on Liz,” Strayed said about Tigelaar, when they were first introduced as possible colleagues. “I watched ‘Life Unexpected’–“

“Oh god, ‘Life Unexpected’?” Tigelaar said in astonishment.

“I just found everything by Liz and watched it,” Strayed said. “And then maybe a few months after that, I came to Los Angeles and Laura [Dern] and Reese [Witherspoon] said, ‘We’re going to have dinner and Liz is going to make an appearance.’ So we met, and immediately I felt that sense of kinship and sisterhood with her. She seemed like a really cool chick. And we said, ‘Let’s do this.’ That’s how it began.”

“It” is Hulu’s adaptation of “Tiny Beautiful Things.” Inspired by Strayed’s 2012 novel, the 10-episode series stars Kathryn Hahn as Clare, a struggling writer who’s working in an assisted living facility to pay the bills, trying to patch up her rocky marriage, and still reeling from her mother’s death. When she’s asked to take over the “Dear Sugar” advice column, the readers’ pleas for help send her combing through old memories and telling her own stories in order to better advise others. The story unfolds in two timelines: one, when Clare is an adult with her own daughter, and another when she’s in her late teens and still living with her mom (played by Merritt Wever).

Strayed was part of the adaptation from the start, joining her first writers’ room (over Zoom) and working on various drafts of the script. While Tigelaar said the author served as the team’s “North Star” in terms of the show’s creative direction, Strayed made sure not to be overly protective of her original story.

“I didn’t have an agenda,” Strayed said. “I went in saying, ‘Let’s just see what this can be.'”

Tiny Beautiful Things Michaela Watkins Hulu
Michaela Watkins in “Tiny Beautiful Things”Courtesy of Jessica Brooks / Hulu

“When we would get stuck or get twisted up [writing the episodes,] we were like, ‘Cheryl, can you just tell us what really happened one more time?'” Tigelaar said. “And she would tell us, but she might also tell us something we didn’t know before, like ‘Well, my mom used to take us out into this field of horses at summer solstice, and we would sleep under the stars on sleeping bags, and then the horses would be let into the field and they would come sniff our hair.’ And we’re like, ‘What?! Did that happen?!’ Obviously we’re writing that. You can’t make this up.”

“There were only two horses in the [actual] field of horses,” Strayed said, “but Liz was like, ‘This is television. This is Hollywood. We’re getting eight horses. We’re not having any two damn horses.'”

Tigelaar also cited a scene in the second episode where the younger version of Clare is trying to prepare for her mother’s funeral, only to be told by the mortician that they can’t bury anyone without underwear. So Clare has to leave the funeral, go to a local pharmacy, and buy whatever she can find for her deceased parent — a true story from Strayed’s own life.

“That’s not in the book, and that ends up on the TV show,” she said. “I’d never written about that. It was just a little story, and Liz is like, ‘Holy shit.'”

The trust Strayed had in her showrunner allowed for truths like these to enhance the adaptation, and the eagerness Tigelaar had to work with the author helped ensure the series would reflect the same honesty readers found in the book. Still, the question remains: Why bother with an adaptation to begin with? It’s clear from their collaboration that “Tiny Beautiful Things” has evolved from its original form, making it a rewarding endeavor for established fans and newcomers alike, but what’s the allure of films and television for an author like Strayed, who’s had such incredible success amplifying her voice on her own, via columns, books, and podcasts?

“My answer isn’t super deep. I delight in stories being told, and once you write a book, it’s done. It’s just this document. It’s really exciting to me as the person who did write that book to have all of these other creative minds tell a story based on it. And I don’t just mean Liz or Kathryn, I mean the amazing costume designer and musicians. At the end of the day, the reason I’m a writer is a very almost childlike impulse. I just like to make things. And it’s exciting to make things, to tell stories, and that’s what’s happening in this show. It’s essentially other people sharing their vision on this work that I made.”

Strayed has a unique connection with her fans. While other, more auteuristic storytellers may worry too many outside voices will drown out their singular words, she’s clamoring for more —  more stories, more points of view, more people to know, like so many have come to know her.

“Tiny Beautiful Things” premiered Friday, April 7 on Hulu. All eight episodes are available now.

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