Guess which actress is the most “rigorous,” who’s a “ninja,” and who reliably keeps “old-lady candies” in her purse.
Big Little Lies is a Very Big Deal. It is an epic, insanely entertaining, tremendously acted hit. It features an ensemble of women, from longtime movie stars to burning younger talents who are each Big Deals on their own (oh, and coming up in Season 2, Meryl Streep). But it represents more than that. It is, frankly, a triumph for the ladies. BLL is great work done by great women, with respect and craft, the conscious sharing of opportunity, and, most significantly, very real friendships.
The lives of the cast — Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz — have overlapped in myriad ways. Nicole and Reese have a production partnership (Big Little Lies is their brainchild). Reese starred with Laura in Wild. Laura starred with Shailene in The Fault in Our Stars. Shailene starred with Zoë in Divergent. Nicole has known Zoë since she dated her father, Lenny Kravitz, 16 years ago. And so it goes. These women’s relationships run much deeper than “ensemble cast”; rather, they have influenced and enriched each other’s lives.
It’s quite the confluence: intense success, intense celebrity, intense friendship. But I wanted to talk to Nicole, Reese, Laura, Shailene, and Zoë about something else — ambition. Ambition remains, curiously, a loaded word, and in conversation, some embraced it more than others. Their answers are wildly different and often surprising, revealing a desire for success, sure, for visibility and political change, of course, but for love more than anything else.
Nicole Kidman: “[Working with these women has been] astounding because I’ve learned so much. We all come in with our own set of skills. There’s great listening and great contributing and great compromise, but actually, in the end, it’s just a great allegiance. The show itself is its own force. We were all like, ‘No, we’re done,’ and it pulled us back in. Reese and I just look at each other and go, ‘How did we get here?’ What a lovely thing to play the women we play and have people feel like they know them. I’ve never had that. I’m not used to that. It feels so good. Makes me feel very close to people.
“Other people are off doing things like having a girls’ weekend. I don’t have that because I go home. I want to be with my children and my husband [singer-songwriter Keith Urban]. I will sort of get lost in a character or whatever I’m doing, but I’m constantly working to keep that balance.”
Reese Witherspoon: “[Late-night on set] I like to make people laugh. Zoë tells jokes too. Nicole carries around a bag of snacks with rock-hard old-lady candies, giving out peppermints and butterscotches. Shai is just chill. And Laura gets delirious and starts making up musicals … It’s truly one of the greatest experiences of my career. I feel like a door opened, and I’ll never go back the other way. When I watch the episodes, I’m always texting them saying, ‘You blew me away.’ I’m in awe of their talent and our collective ability to express on such a deep level, have joy on such a high level, and celebrate each other. It’s the most fulfilling expression of the female experience I’ve ever had on film — particularly when Meryl Streep shows up. That’s when you’re like, ‘Oh, we are doing something right.'”
Zoë Kravitz: “I have amazing people in my life who support me — my friends, my family, my fiancé [actor Karl Glusman], and all the women on Big Little Lies. They have my back, and I know if I was doing some weird, crazy shit, someone would set me straight. They help whenever I have a moment of panic and confusion, which happens quite often. … I’ve known Shai for years now, and with all the ups and downs — life stuff, fame, films, love — she’s just constantly herself. So many people change depending on their environment, and Shailene Woodley does not, and I fucking love it. Life is Shailene Woodley’s bitch. And Laura has the best sense of humor. She makes me laugh so hard because she finds humor in really bizarre places. You see it in her acting too: What she does with her characters is always this weird tone of funny. Nicole can access her emotions in a crazy way, which is why she’s so wonderful at her job. She’s sensitive, and she’s open to feeling things no matter where she is or who she’s with, and I think that’s very brave, because I tend to protect myself.”
Laura Dern: “Our dinners are like 10-day vacations on a deserted island. Every dinner is three and a half hours minimum with food and wine. We break it all down. It’s how I think all of us feel when we get together with a group of women, particularly in the same field, like you’ve been crossing the desert for five days and you see water.
“‘Ambition’ was a dirty word for women when I was a little girl. Women who are ambitious are cold, calculating, and unsexy — that was the idea presented to my generation. To be sexy was to be demure, subservient even. … It’s been enough, I think, for Reese, Nicole, and me to be ambitious in our field. I was told growing up that to be an actress of quality you shouldn’t make money because serious actresses didn’t make money. Actors made money.”
Shailene Woodley: “I want to cry when I think about Reese, because that woman holds the weight of so many worlds on her shoulders yet manages to show up day in and day out with more ambition than anyone I’ve ever met. More drive, more care, more passion. Even if she disagrees with you, she will take the time to understand. Sometimes I get a mothering comfort from Reese, and other times I get a cool-big-sister vibe. I admire how she’s able to use humor to create the change she wishes to see. That is her superpower. She’s also a ninja.
“When I’m watching Big Little Lies, I feel as if I’m as much an audience member as anyone else. When I do films, I see myself in almost every shot, but with this project, I take up five minutes, so I get to see story lines unfold. I’m properly eating popcorn on the edge of my seat when I watch Big Little Lies.”
Nicole Kidman on Coming Home to Keith
“Other people are off doing things like having a girls’ weekend. I don’t have that because I go home. I want to be with my children and my husband.”
For our June cover, InStyle editor-in-chief Laura Brown sat down with the five stars of Big Little Lies to hear what they had to say about their hit series, their lives, and their relationships with each other. Each interview, like the show itself, touches on love, friendship, struggle, and ambition — which these women have in spades.
LAURA BROWN: I wanted to talk to all of you about ambition because you all metabolize it differently. How does it apply to you?
NICOLE KIDMAN: Gosh, I always align it with passion because if you’re passionate, then that’s the pull. I have an enormous passion for my art, and there’s a wonderful blossoming in terms of being able to produce as well. It’s just a beautiful thing to be in a position to say to someone, “There’s this great role here,” or “I read this book, and I think we can get this produced for you.” I love having my artistic path, and then my other passion is my family. That’s probably all I need in my life.
LB: That’s dedication.
NK: Other people are off doing things like having a girls’ weekend. I don’t have that because I go home. I want to be with my children and my husband [singer-songwriter Keith Urban]. I will sort of get lost in a character or whatever I’m doing, but I’m constantly working to keep that balance.
LB: How much sleep do you get a night?
NK: Eight hours. I go to bed early, and when I do go out [for work], I leave early.
LB: You leave early and go home?
NK: Yes. I’m an introvert, so my nature is very quiet, and I prefer being home. I love my work, and I can push through in different places and explore things, but if you look at my Myers-Briggs [personality] test, yes, I definitely qualify as an introvert. I’m deeply sensitive, so my ability to handle an enormous amount of exterior stress or toxicity … I know when I’m in the wrong place, and I go, and I leave. My home is very nourishing.
LB: What’s the first thing you do after an event?
NK: I go home to hug my kids. Literally, I’ll go in and snuggle them. They’ll always be waiting up. I’ll hug my husband too. The greatest thing our family priest told us very early on in our marriage was, “Always kiss hello and kiss goodbye.” It just keeps you connected.
LB: You guys are a very protective unit.
NK: Very. We love to have dinners with our friends or go to a brunch with our kids, but in terms of the work-versus-life part of it, there definitely is a sense of knowing what our real life is.
LB: You’re so driven. How do you make decisions on whether to take a job or not?
NK: I’ve passed on 90 percent of things.
LB: Yeah, because you’re offered 1,000 things.
NK: There have been times when I’ve been offered nothing, and there have been times when there is an enormous number of possibilities. But it’s always about balance. There’ll be people who are relying on me to do things for them, and — this is the other part of being a working mother — I can’t let them down. It becomes about how, as a family, does it work out for us to be in a good place? And right now the strength of our family is being together.
LB: How do you do it when you and Keith have careers that take you all over and you have two girls?
NK: We’re just a very close family. We put the time in, and there’s no taking that for granted. I’m constantly learning from them. They teach me about me. Parenting is about learning who they are, not making them what you want them to be, and letting them find their way and then supporting them. It’s rigorous — rigorous truth, rigorous consciousness. You’re constantly looking at yourself so you’re not placing these expectations on a child. But, I mean, I’m no parenting guru. I’m just walking the path of everyone else, but it is extraordinarily joyful to be able to do it.
LB: You don’t drink much, you take care of yourself, and you do have a real, yes, rigor. How does that help you?
NK: My dad would get us out of bed in the morning and go, “OK, 10 push-ups. Now you’re going to walk to school instead of catch the bus.” That sort of thing. And he would also say we’re all responsible for our own emotional health. I just know what I feel works for me, and maybe it doesn’t work for somebody else. I’m always trying not to go too far in because I can get to the point where I become more isolated. I’ve got to always be pushing out. I’ve got to get out more.
LB: How does physical activity or discipline help?
NK: It’s very important. I love the outdoors. The ocean for me is like a balm; I’d be in there every day if we lived near it. But we live in Nashville, and we love Nashville. We have no water, but we have lots of beautiful trees.
LB: On Big Little Lies, you’re working with women who are at different stages of their careers. What advice would you give to people who are just beginning?
NK: I suppose it’s all individual. Having worked with Shai and Zoë, I always say to them, “I’m here for you. I will answer your questions. I will be available to you for anything you need to know.” I really believe that we can help each other by answering questions and offering insight on whatever we’ve experienced. Take it or leave it. I love being able to do that. I have a lot of younger people around me, and a lot of family members. My sister has six children of different ages. She’s my best friend besides Keith, so I share the deepest parts of who we are and how we raise our children with her. She’s taught me so much.
LB: That’s so rare.
NK: I also have a bunch of girlfriends who have been in my life since I was 3. When I bond, I bond deeply. I get really attached. I have to work on detachment.
LB: How have those anchors helped you through challenges, both private and public?
NK: Oh my god, like, down-on-my-knees kissing-their-feet grateful. My girlfriends’ saving my life is literally true. Like, picking me up off the ground and just being there. When I’ve literally not known what to do, my girlfriends have stepped in, going, “This is what’s going to happen, and we’re organizing this.” I can’t even think, I can’t even operate, and I can’t stop crying, and they’re like, “Don’t worry. We’ve got it covered.” It makes me cry now with gratitude.
LB: What has been the value of having real friendships in your day-to-day workplace on Big Little Lies?
NK: Astounding because I’ve learned so much. We all come in with our own set of skills. There’s great listening and great contributing and great compromise, but actually, in the end, it’s just a great allegiance. The show itself is its own force. We were all like, “No, we’re done,” and it pulled us back in. Reese and I just look at each other and go, “How did we get here?” What a lovely thing to play the women we play and have people feel like they know them. I’ve never had that. I’m not used to that. It feels so good. Makes me feel very close to people.
LB: How wonderful to have something that came from a good place that is made well and then succeeds. Does that redouble your passion to keep doing this?
NK: Each process or artistic venture is unto its own, and the idea of trying to re-create or have an expectation, I think, is dangerous. So many times people can put everything they have into a project and, for whatever reason, it doesn’t end up as part of the zeitgeist. That’s way beyond our control. With Big Little Lies, instead of resisting or fighting it, we went, “OK. There seems to be something that’s just pulling us forward.” These women are great, and to watch their characters unfold even more this season is just fabulous.
LB: How proud are you?
NK: No, I shy away from the word “proud.” It’s not my job to be proud. It’s my job to give. I’m just a conduit for things to happen through. There’s very little of me in there. I’m just contributing to something that exists in its own way. I always try to keep me out of it.
LB: What are you most secure about in terms of your abilities and choices?
NK: My choices are so unusual a lot of the time, but I’m secure in them. I own that. At times people are like, “What?” But it’s been decades of that now for me. I’m probably least secure when there’s a massive expectation with something. That makes me nervous. I like jumping in and trying things. Who knows what will come of it, but when there’s an expectation, I start to wiggle. My choices, when I’m most successful, tend to be my most avant-garde, if that makes sense.
LB: I’ve asked all of you ladies this: What is something about each of your co-stars that you want the world to know? Let’s start with Reese.
NK: There is just an extraordinary amount of power within Reese. She’s very, very powerful and doesn’t have a lot of fear. I would also say loyal. And funny as all get-out. I know that’s what made her famous, but when you can have us all belly-laughing on the set at 1 in the morning, that’s funny.
LB: How about Zoë?
NK: She just exudes this confident sensuality that is beautiful to see. She’s very individual and very, very deep. She’s a thinker. She’s also got really good manners.
LB: And Laura?
NK: She’s lovely. Love-of-the-world kind of thing. She’s superpowerful, and she can get things done. She’s incredibly funny. Laura is also an amazing listener. She’s very much about giving back to the world. Generous.
LB: And Shailene?
NK: Shai is unbelievably real. She’s so warm and so forgiving. She’s of the heavens and of the earth. It feels so nice to be the recipient of their love. All of them.
LB: What would you like them to say about you?
NK: Oh, I don’t mind. I just hope they know how much I love them.