“For 25 years, I’ve been the only woman on set so I had no one to talk to,” Reese Witherspoon said, as she sat with her many female co-stars of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” at the Television Critics Association winter press tour on Saturday.
“They call it the Smurfette syndrome,” the Oscar-winner joked of being the sole woman surrounded by many men. Then she quipped: “Who gave birth to all these Smurfs?”
Thanks to “Big Little Lies,” Witherspoon doesn’t have to worry about the “Smurfette syndrome.” But that’s only because she took action and shepherded the project herself, alongside her former producing partner Bruna Papandrea and co-star Nicole Kidman.
Based on Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel of the same name, Witherspoon and Kidman — who both serve as executive producers and star in the seven-part limited series — optioned the book rights through their separate production companies. The A-list duo became invested in the story because of its opportunity to put many diverse women on the screen.
“I think what was great about reading the novel for the first time is that I saw myself in different stages of motherhood all through my life. I was a mom at 22, I was a mom at 40… I’ve been divorced, I’ve been re-married.” Witherspoon said, speaking of the varying characters, played be herself, Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz and Laura Dern. “They showed every spectrum and color of a woman’s life. I thought it was incredible to have so many parts for women in one piece of material.”
“I’m passionate because things have to change,” Witherspoon said at the press event in Pasadena, Calif. “We have to start seeing women on film as they really are… We need to see real women’s experiences… The constant incredible talent of women playing wives and girlfriends, I had enough.”
Kidman said that when she read the book, she related to the female characters, though the comic drama adapted by David E. Kelley centers on a larger-than-life premise: three mothers of kindergartners whose apparently perfect lives unravel to the point of murder.
“This piece is about women helping each other and women supporting each other, which was very important to Reese and I,” Kidman noted. “I love that it’s about women coming together and making something happening very quickly, with friendship being the core of it.”
Kidman added, “We were excited to show the lives of these women in a very authentic way, and yet, entertaining.”
When asked how she spots projects that she wants to produce, Witherspoon responded, “I think the constant question for me is, how am I discovering something about a woman on film that I’ve never seen before? With this piece, I feel like it was such a unique opportunity to have women at every age, every color talking about motherhood. That is the common denominator. Motherhood is the great equalizer. Parenthood is a great equalizer.”
Kravitz also said that she was excited to play a mother — something that’s a stretch from real life for the actress.
“I hadn’t played a mother yet. And I’m not a mother yet, so it felt like new and beautifully interesting territory,” Kravitz said.
Both Witherspoon, 40, and Kidman, 49, complimented their co-stars Kravitz, 28, and Woodley, 25, with Witherspoon admitting that she was delightedly shocked that the budding actresses wanted to join the project.
“It’s a unique opportunity working with these two beautiful and amazing and incredibly talent young women,” Witherspoon said. “I couldn’t believe you signed on. We were really excited.”
The cast shared that director Jean-Marc Vallée, who’s at the helm all seven episodes, played a huge part in bringing the cast together. Witherspoon said he was less interested in rehearsal and more interested in getting everyone together for dinner — and yes, wine.
“We see each other as humans,” Witherspoon explained of the benefit of getting to know her co-stars outside of work. “We are on this journey as women. ”
Kidman echoed Witherspoon’s sentiment of women supporting other women on set.
“I’m at the stage in my life when I want to work with people that I really like,” Kidman said. “This is the perfect combination.”
“It’s so refreshing to spend time with all of these women,” Witherspoon added, giving a nod to her cast for the “collective performance,” going as far to say, “I really feel more strongly than anything I’ve ever done, and this is the greatest ensemble experience I’ve ever had.”
Witherspoon hopes that her stellar experience on the HBO series translates off screen into the high-powered offices in Hollywood. Stressing the importance of creating deeper and realistic roles for women, she said, “These are the kinds of things the shift consciousness.”