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'Little Fires Everywhere': How Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington Brought Their A-Game (Exclusive)

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Based on the best-selling novel by Celeste Ng, Hulu's Little Fires Everywhere doesn't waste any time getting into the action, kick-starting the drama by opening the eight-episode series with a flash-forward to a house up in flames. But, as the title suggests, it's the combustible relationships that provide much of the conflict and tension. 

For those unfamiliar with Ng's 2017 novel, the story roots itself in two main characters: Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon), a journalist and married mother of four with strict rules, and Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), a photographer and single mother of a teenage daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) who barely has a connection to the outside world. Their paths cross when Elena rents part of her rental home across town to Mia. Soon after, their lives become tangled in family turmoil, romantic love triangles and identity crises.

"The show is about who you think you are versus the circumstances life reveal yourself to be," executive producer and showrunner Liz Tigelaar tells ET. "What makes a good mother? Is it money? When people look at what good mothering is, is it having the money to have the luxury to provide certain things? All of these questions [are explored]." 

"I don't think the show is trying to make huge statements, but I think the show is trying to raise important questions," she adds. "We're hopefully bringing out the questions so the viewer can find their answer. About how we treat immigrants, race, white fragility. How people can perceive themselves as progressive and forward-thinking, but what does that really mean? We're not absent of bias and prejudice. All of those things." 

Earlier this year, ET sat down with Tigelaar on the monumental task of adapting the beloved novel to the small screen, working with Witherspoon and Washington and the biggest scene that gave her pause.

ET: In adapting Celeste Ng’s book to television, what was top of mind in bringing this story to life?

Liz Tigelaar: Honoring the book and using the book as our Bible and our spine, and knowing that this book is beloved. I wasn't looking to come in and make sweeping changes by any means. As elements were added to the project, like Kerry casting herself and by Mia being black, that brings the subject of race that was already there to the forefront of the story because it's not just between Bebe and Linda. It's between Elena and Mia. It was more getting to mine new elements and then looking for those seeds that were in the story where you could be like, "We could grow this into something.”

An example is Elena's ex-boyfriend from college, who is mentioned very quickly in the book. We were like, “She's got an ex-boyfriend, Jamie. Okay, who's that guy? Let's make this backstory. Let's make this an arc. Let's make this something bigger. Let's not have Bill just support the McCulloughs in court, let's have him be their lawyer.” 

Little Fires Everywhere

'Little Fires Everywhere'

Hulu

What elements from the book did you find were crucial in bringing this to life as these characters live and breathe on screen versus in text form?

I felt like Phoebe had to be moved up earlier. We had to get into that story much quicker because it's so much what the book is about. I felt like Mia needed to be potentially embedded in Elena's house by the end. We had to know what was coming by the end of the pilot to launch us into [the questions of] what is their dynamic, how are they going to be and how did it shift by the end. There were structural plot things that I was able to take a lot of elements in the first half of the book and move them up into the pilot.

That's the fun stuff to figure out. The things I wanted to amplify Izzy's exploration of her sexuality. That in turn went hand in hand with Mia's sexuality. Giving the kids more of an arc to feel like they really start somewhere and end up in a vastly different place. Fleshing out Bill and putting him more at the forefront of the story and also letting it be a story about [his] marriage [to Elena] and the dynamic of their marriage. What we give up in marriage, what one person gives up another can gain and how you negotiate that, and these resentments that build in the giving up of things you love. 

The Pauline Hawthorne photo that was hanging in the museum, what if it was in Mia's possession? What if there was a way to use that for more story propulsion that could impact her relationship with Bebe and really show her drive to help Bebe get what she wants? Where does it come from and how does it come from a place deep within her that maybe isn't even about Bebe at all?

You're working with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, who are also executive producers on the series. What kinds of conversations were they having with you that you felt added to the end result?

Everything. When I was in the writers' room, I was working with both their companies, getting notes. Once the scripts were written and we moved into prep, that was the time where now we could all sit down and really scrutinize everything and did. I would get comprehensive notes from both of them that were great. This is really, really true because it almost sounds untrue, but when writers get notes, you're terrified because people give one note and it pulls a thread and the whole thing unravels. And actor notes can be particularly scary because you can't go on if the actors aren't happy. What was so incredible with them is that their notes never felt like an obstacle I had to overcome. Their notes felt so vital, but I felt like until I had their notes, I was so far from done because I needed their perspective.

I needed to know what Reese thought Elena would do. I needed to know what Reese thought of Mia, and vice versa. Kerry digging into Mia and looking at Pearl, and just being the keeper of these characters. But also as producers, being the keeper wholistically of the show. We constantly were going in and fine-tuning, and that was the work that we got to do together and it felt so satisfying. The great thing about it was when I showed up on set and we were all working together, we all knew that the story worked and we were on board for it because we had all taken the time to have all the conversations you can have. Even collaborating as creative people, as women, as mothers, there was respect. I trusted them because they put so much trust in me and it felt really good.

What did you see in Reese and Kerry's performances that surprised you in terms of their portrayals of Elena and Mia? Or maybe that you didn't quite expect when you were writing the scripts?

I loved how Kerry, as Mia, sets such a clear boundary for herself. I loved that she never as the character fell into a trope. This came from the room and this came from Kerry, of a black woman who comes into the story to make white people's lives better at her own expense. Then she leaves and they're all better for knowing her. We talked a lot about this idea that it can't just be Mia being willing to give and give and give to people. And this idea that someone's working in your house because they just love you and love the work, you know what I mean? They have to do this. They have to care for your children. It's like, no. That was an element I loved and I felt like Kerry's version of Mia was such an aspirational example of how a black woman operates in the world, but also how women operate in the world.

We are so conditioned to make everything okay for everybody. Some guy's creepy. Okay, you're like, "It's fine." You let it go. You make it okay. You try not to make things awkward. If someone digs themselves into a hole, you help them out to make them feel better about it and reassure them that the hole wasn't that bad. That's what we do as women. What I love about Mia is she doesn't do that. That is strength. I think people might watch and feel uncomfortable that she's not doing that. This little rich white girl shows up at your house in a crisis after she's done horrible things to your daughter. You're not comforting her and giving her tea and being her mother, and stroking her hair and making her feel better? It's like, nope. That came out of these conversations in the room and this deep collaboration with Kerry.

Then with Elena, I love where she starts. She starts in a flash-forward, so we meet her in this amassed place and then we go back. She does something that is so human, which is you try to do something nice and in your mind you don't have an agenda. But we all have an agenda. When someone doesn't appreciate something we've done, instead of just being, "I'm happy to have done it because it made me feel good," you have to demonize them for not appreciating it. Then it sends you into a blind rage. I feel like the spiral Mia created in Elena seems to have everything to do with Mia, but really has everything to do with Elena. The point that she gets to at the end is this version of Reese that I feel like I haven't seen before in a wonderful way. It's a version we all could get to in our dark moments, so unmasked and raw, and there's no facade left; you almost feel hollow.

Kerry Washington, Celeste Ng and Reese Witherspoon

Kerry Washington, 'Little Fires Everywhere' author Celeste Ng and Reese Witherspoon

Hulu

What was a scene that you circled as tricky ones to get right? 

There are a lot of things towards the end of the book that could feel like it's one little sentence here, but for us it's a whole episode. Those were our biggest challenges. As we worked our way toward episode eight, we always knew where we were going. We would be like, "And then somehow the house burns down." We didn't even want to think about it because how on Earth are we going to do this? That was probably our biggest circle that we tried not to think about until we had to, but was always in the back of our minds. When we did the table read for the finale and when we got halfway through episode eight, I don't know what happened to me, but tears start falling out of my face. Not only was I moved by the story, which felt very genuine, it was deep, deep relief that it was working. I'm hearing it. Everybody's listening. The actors are reading it out loud and it's working.

Are you sticking strictly with the book or are you taking creative liberties at all?

I think there are. Look, I feel like we've honored the book so much, but I think people who are fans of the book, they will see the book in this adaptation. But also for people who are fans of the book, it's fun to get to the same places in different ways. There will be twists and turns. I watched the ending and I feel like there's both an open-endedness and a resolution. It feels very final to me, but it doesn't feel wrapped up in a bow or like you have all the answers or that you know all the answers. You don't necessarily know what's going to happen, which is same as the book I think. But to me there's real closure.

What emotions will viewers feel as they're watching this story unfold?

We tried not to have a point of view or to be on any character's side. We tried to show characters' experiences. For example, the montage of Bebe struggling as a mom and then juxtaposing that. We did an Elena montage that was meant to mirror the Bebe montage. Both of those women are at the lowest points as mothers, but even their lowest points look so vastly different. There is commenting, but there's not judging.

For more on Little Fires Everywhere, watch ET's interview below.

The first three episodes of Little Fires Everywhere is streaming now on Hulu, with subsequent episodes dropping Wednesdays.

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