When faced with a script filled with strong female characters, a director’s dream cast might well include Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz.
Not so long ago, the chances of getting even one such big-name Hollywood star to appear in a TV series were slim – now the floodgates are open and some of the biggest movie stars are increasingly splitting their time between big and small screens.
All they need is the right story, and the darkly comic Big Little Lies – which tarts tonight on OSN First Home of HBO – seems to tick all the right boxes for tour de force performances all around.
"We couldn't believe we got the women we got," says Kidman, who executive-produced the seven-hour mini-series with Witherspoon. "Reese called Laura. Laura called Shailene. And [director] Jean-Marc Vallée [Dallas Buyers Club, Wild] called Zoe."
Woodley, star of the Divergent movies and The Fault in Our Stars, takes up the story.
“Laura called me and she was like: ‘You better do this project because you are perfect for this role, and I’m going to do it and it’s going to be all us homegirls together’,” she says.
Even the star producers seem surprised with how everything came together.
"When Shailene signed on, [Nicole and I] looked at each other, screaming," says Witherspoon (Walk The Line, Wild). "We couldn't believe Shailene had joined the cast."
Based on Liane Moriarty's best-selling 2014 novel, Big Little Lies traces the viciously competitive lives of three mothers of young children in affluent Monterey, California, whose privileged world unravels after a murder at a school fundraiser.
In an intriguing twist, the victim, as well as the perpetrator, remains a mystery for most of the series.
“The tone of it is really interesting – it’s funny, yet it’s scary,” says Kidman. “Hopefully, it makes you emotionally attached to these women.”
The three key characters in this modern-day "whodunit-and-to-who" are: stay-at-home mum Madeline Mackenzie (Witherspoon), who is jealous of her ex's new, younger wife Bonnie (Divergent and Mad Max: Fury Road star Kravitz), a yoga teacher with a Zen attitude; Celeste Wright (Kidman), a former corporate lawyer with a seemingly perfect marriage to a younger man (True Blood star Alexander Skarsgård); and Jane Chapman (Woodley), a single mum with a dark past.
As parents and school staff offer up a Greek chorus of town gossip, conflict is stirred up by Madeline's archenemy, tech-executive Renata Klein (Jurassic Park and Enlightened star Dern). The story unspools over seven subversively funny episodes that reveal each of the women had something to hide in the run-up to that lethal night.
Taking on the job of adapting the book is David E Kelley, the iconic and prolific writer who cut his teeth on LA Law in the late 1980s, and in his '90s heyday turned out a script every two-to-four-days for his shows, including: Picket Fences (1992-1996), Chicago Hope (1994-2000), The Practice (1997-2004), Ally McBeal (1997-2002), Boston Public (2000-2004) and Boston Legal (2004-2008).
Witherspoon says she was drawn to Big Little Lies because she was sick of Hollywood reducing women to lightweight roles as wives and girlfriends, and wanted more and better roles for actresses.
“I was excited to come to women with parts that I’m excited about,” she says. “All these talented women playing wives and girlfriends – I just had enough.
“For 25 years, I’ve been the only woman on set. They call it Smurfette Syndrome, [as in] she’s the only woman around – who gave birth to all those Smurfs anyway? – so I had no one to talk to.
“We have to start seeing women how they actually are on film – we need to see real women’s experiences, whether that involves domestic violence, sexual assault, romance, infidelity or divorce. We, as human beings learn from art.”
“There are five great roles here [for women],” says Kidman who, like Witherspoon, has won an Oscar and Golden Globe. “It’s very, very rare.”
HBO was apparently excited, too, winning the rights to the project after a bidding war with Netflix.
Like Woodley’s character, Witherspoon was a mother at 22, and like her own character she divorced and remarried at 40.
“Reading the novel for the first time, I saw myself at different stages of motherhood through my life,” says Withespoon.
“It explores so many aspects that are relatable to the lives of women,” she says. “It wasn’t about them being good or bad – they showed every spectrum and every colour of women’s lives.”
• Big Little Lies begins on Monday, February 19, at 11pm on OSN First HD Home of HBO