For Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington and their production partners, Little Fires Everywhere was — first and last — a passion project, sparking ardent confessions up and down the call sheet.
Kerry Washington was getting in touch with her inner pyromaniac last fall, and it was... fun.
Washington was on the set of Little Fires Everywhere, the new Hulu limited series in which she stars with Reese Witherspoon, and her character, an artist named Mia Warren, wielding dual lighters, was creating new art from the ruin of past art — setting fire to a big, ripped-up photo of Witherspoon's character, a tightly-wound mom named Elena Richardson.
"It was a cool moment," Washington says. "Everybody wanted to watch the shooting of this scene. But we could only have a few people there, for safety reasons, and most of those people were firemen, who were giving us lectures about the fastest way off the lot."
Fortunately, Washington didn't burn the lot down, but her presence in the series is incendiary.
Author Celeste Ng got the idea for a Little Fires adaptation in early 2017, while watching the first season of HBO's Big Little Lies. Turning to her husband, she said, "Wouldn't it be amazing if Reese Witherspoon read my book and wanted to option it, and then wanted to star in the adaptation?"
Ng's second novel hadn't been published yet, but she was sure that Witherspoon would be right for the role of Elena Richardson, the perfectionist mom whose house burns down. "She had the ability to show a character with blind spots slowly becoming aware of those blind spots."
In a bold moment, Ng sent an advance copy of her book to Witherspoon's newly formed media company, Hello Sunshine, where a new hire, executive producer Lauren Levy Neustadter, read it and really liked it, and she turned Witherspoon on to it as well.
"It was one of the first books we found, and we fell in love with it," Neustadter says. "It's a really beautiful exploration of humanity, of race, of class and of interpersonal relationships, seen through the lens of the '90s. It's incredibly relevant to the world that we live in today.
"Big Little Lies is an example of a show that really was one thing on the surface, but as you watched the episodes, it was so much more, and it made people think and have thoughtful conversations. We really hope that this show will do the very same thing."
Little Fires Everywhere examines various sorts of emotional ownership, from actual parenthood — biological, surrogate, adoptive, aborted — to replacement parental figures.
The book also considers the experience of people who are "adopted" into a group or community — provided with a home, work or friends — and what the cost of that benevolence can be.
"It's so difficult to articulate what motherhood means, and there are so many passages in the novel that did," Witherspoon says. She recites one: "It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all."
"It's such a vivid way to describe the loss of your children as they grow up," she adds. "My daughter was applying for college back then, so it hit me like an arrow in the heart."
Ng set her story in her hometown, Shaker Heights, Ohio, a progressive yet conformist suburb much concerned with appearances (lawn-mowing is mandatory). Elena Richardson, a mother of four who is all about following the rules, is right at home.
When nomadic Mia arrives in town with her teenage daughter Pearl, the two families become entangled, threatening to burn down Elena's world, both literally and metaphorically.
"At first," Witherspoon says, "I thought Mia was a terrible mother and Elena was a terrible mother, too. We learn to have more empathy for them and for ourselves as we go along."
Months before publication, Witherspoon and Neustadter agreed that Little Fires Everywhere would make a great entry for Reese's Book Club on Instagram (which has 1.5 million followers) as well as a great limited series.
Hello Sunshine's instincts and track record in this arena are noteworthy — with adaptations placed at HBO (Big Little Lies), Apple+ (The Morning Show), Netflix (From Scratch) and Amazon (Daisy Jones & The Six), the company hit streaming bingo with Little Fires at Hulu.
"I think we are pretty much working with everybody now!" Neustadter says with a laugh.
Little Fires Everywhere became the September 2017 pick for Witherspoon's book club and an instant bestseller, with sales to date of 2 million copies across all formats. And with production moving quickly, the Hulu series wrapped just two years after the release of the book. Says Ng, "This just may be the only thing that's ever made me believe in manifesting things into the universe, speaking them into existence!"
Ng approaches race sideways in the novel, addressing systemic inequities and unconscious bias via an explosive transracial custody case between Asian and white characters.
Since the character of Mia is not specified as black, Washington's casting created an opportunity to deepen the story's themes — and it confirmed the author's delight in the collaboration.
"I had initially wanted Mia to be a woman of color," Ng says. "I just didn't feel like I was the right person to try and write a black woman's experience. [Lauren and Reese's] idea to cast Kerry told me they were looking at the book in exactly the right way."
Washington was hooked at first read. "Reese sent the book to me while I was still filming Scandal," she says. "And that book owned me."
She had to hide in the bathroom to keep turning pages. "My poor kids were like, 'Where are you?!'" Throughout, she kept texting her Simpson Street producing partner, Pilar Savone, who was keeping pace with her. "We were like, 'We have to do this,'" Savone recalls.
Witherspoon recognized that certain scenes — such as the one in which Elena offers Mia a housekeeping job — would take on new meaning.
"There is a lot of nuance and balance," explains executive producer–director Lynn Shelton, "of Elena being oblivious to her offensiveness, of how much Mia outwardly shows of her disdain, her strength, and then Elena's sense of white fragility. What Kerry brought to the table here in terms of her own experience was absolutely essential."
Washington loved that Mia was so unlike Olivia Pope — an artist, and decidedly bohemian. The actress did a deep dive into Mia's creative world, studying photography at the School of Light in downtown Los Angeles, shadowing artists such as Lorna Simpson and Alexandra Hedison and working with Connie Martin, who created Mia's Little Fires artwork.
"A certain kind of person gravitates towards visual art," Washington says. "I enjoyed figuring out that orientation — how an artist's mind works, how a person can create something out of nothing. It was so different from anything I've ever done before."
Washington's Mia is also rather different from the one in the book — more guarded, less giving. That shift happened when Washington and Witherspoon realized that, having been teenagers in the '90s and now playing adults of that period, they were turning into their mothers.
"I don't know why it never occurred to us until we were almost into production," Witherspoon says. "I was like, 'I'm playing [my mother] Betty!'"
The actresses then incorporated some of their moms' idiosyncrasies. For Washington, that meant creating room for discomfort. Her mother Valerie has three very different answers to "Where are you from?": "I'm from New York," "I'm from the Bronx" or "I'm from the South Bronx."
Washington recalls: "It was interesting to see how people tried to make sense of this incredibly smart, articulate, accomplished professor saying she was from the South Bronx." This helped her "unlock" the character of Mia.
Witherspoon, for her part, was determined to chart Elena's family dynamics. She and Joshua Jackson, who plays Elena's husband Bill, decided together what the Richardsons believe.
"We had to agree," she says. "Are we Republicans? Are we Democrats? Are we church-going Christians? Does our Christianity allow homosexuality? These things are never verbalized in the show," she adds, "but they underline a lot of the scene work that we do."
Witherspoon and Jackson also took the actors playing their children — Jade Pettyjohn (Lexie), Jordan Elsass (Trip), Gavin Lewis (Moody) and Megan Stott (Izzy) — out to "family" dinners.
"We would be like, 'You wouldn't say, 'white privilege' back in the '90s," Witherspoon explains. "We would say, 'We don't see color.' People thought, 'If you pretend that race isn't part of someone's identity, then you've equalized everyone.'"
As executive producers of the series (along with showrunner Liz Tigelaar, Neustadter, Savone and Shelton), Witherspoon and Washington also recruited cast. Washington asked Jesse Williams and Sarita Choudhury to join, while Witherspoon went after AnnaSophia Robb to play a younger Elena.
"She looks so much like me!" Witherspoon says. "At first, sharing the character was a struggle. I can't tell you how I create characters — it's private, very internal. So I had to learn to externalize it and articulate it."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2020
Go behind the scenes of emmy's cover shoot with Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon at TelevisionAcademy.com/cover.