Domestic abuse. The hardships and blessings of motherhood.Psychological damage as a result of sexual violence. This is just a sampling of the heavy, real-life topics explored throughout HBO’s TV phenomenon Big Little Lies.
An adaptation of Australian author Liane Moriarty’s 2014 bestselling book of the same name, the award-winning dark comedy-drama is set in the affluent oceanside town of Monterey, California, and revolves around five mothers struggling with ethical and emotional issues. The women suddenly find themselves right at the centre of a murder investigation that rocks the quaint, but rather toxic, beachfront community.
Peppered throughout with scenes that flash back and forward, the murder-mystery narrative of season one—which premiered in 2017— pulsates constantly with secrets, parenting insecurities, and competitive streaks between working, stay-at-home, and tiger moms. All these elements have become Big Little Lies’ indispensable pleasures, making it a tale that has left viewers disturbed and hooked on the seven-hour whodunit quest to the season’s finale.
But engrossing rivalries and feuds aside, there is more surrounding Monterey’s grudge-holding club of mothers. The show, which was created by American writer and producer David E. Kelley and directed by Montreal’s Jean-Marc Vallée, also turned out to be a powerful onscreen depiction of female strength, compassion, and, most importantly, solidarity.
“I love that we have the opportunity to explore the psychological relationships between women, because often we see [the] presentation of females as being either completely for or against one another,” says Shailene Woodley. The American actor stars as one of the leading characters, alongside Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman (Witherspoon and Kidman executive produce in addition to starring), Laura Dern, and Zoë Kravitz. “In this show, you really get to explore the inner dynamics of jealousy, insecurity, comparison, real friendship, forced friendship, and loneliness. All the aspects that make up real-life relationships are at the core of this show.”
Within this California beachfront community, the husbands rank on amateur levels compared to the wives, and show viewers eventually see the five main Monterey female protagonists put aside their bad-mouthing ways to come together—looking after one another instead of taking each other down. “You don’t have to agree with someone. You don’t have to understand someone. But it is important to sometimes listen to someone and show up for them despite your differences,” voices Woodley. “I think by the end of season one, you really are brought to that conclusion through the stories of these women.”
The 27-year-old plays Jane Chapman in the star-studded suspense story. Jane is a young, struggling single mother who recently moved to Monterey in the hopes of building a new life for herself and her son, Ziggy. The difference in Jane’s life and economic background compared to the privileged local women (who boast multimillion-dollar mega-mansions) is immediately evident.
Through her storyline, show watchers discover that Jane’s five-year-old is the product of a violent one-night stand. Eventually, at the series’ nail-biting cliffhanger, we learn that it was the abusive husband of Nicole Kidman’s character (played by Alexander Skarsgård) who raped Jane.
As for what drew Woodley to the complex role of Jane—a loving mother who is doing her utmost to offer her son the best life possible, but is unable to shake the nightmarish events that led to his existence: “I actually have a family member who had a very similar story. It was something that I knew very well through my experience with that person,” reveals Woodley. “Also, I don’t know any man or woman on this planet who doesn’t either have a story themselves, or know someone in their close circle of family and friends who has faced some sort of sexual violence or domestic abuse,” she adds.
And while Woodley doesn’t have any children of her own, she says she fed off the performance of her young co-star Iain Armitage, who plays Ziggy Chapman, to master the motherly character of Jane. “One of the biggest things in Jane’s storyline is her relationship with Ziggy, and the beautiful thing about working with kids is that they are so completely present and available emotionally for you, because they are just so raw and real in the moment,” she shares. “That is something that I took with me as far as technique or building off [Jane]. Just to be truly as present as possible with Iain, and then react off of his intuition.”
With Big Little Lies’ season finale having ended on a very open note, and with no follow-up novel by Moriarty to reference, there are many head-scratching assumptions about what’s in store next for the Monterey five; the highly anticipated sophomore season is airing this June. It’s been reported, however, that Moriarty did write a novella as a template for creator Kelley, and that Andrea Arnold (who helmed American Honey, Fish Tank, and several episodes of Transparent) has taken over for Vallée as director.
Another big announcement about the upcoming season is the addition of veteran actress Meryl Streep, who stars as a mother demanding answers following her son’s climactic death while looking after her grandchildren. “The addition of Meryl Streep is very exciting, not only for us, but for the people who get to watch the show,” says Woodley.
What about the goings-on for Woodley’s own character come summer? “In the second season we see the healing side of trauma, and how you can never erase the traumatic event that happened, but how one person, Jane specifically, can move through certain motions in order to create a little more space in her life surrounded with traumatic memory,” she discloses.
Since her leading role in the television series The Secret Life of the American Teenager (2008–2013), Woodley has steadily built an impressive Hollywood CV. She found incredible breakthrough success and critical acclaim playing George Clooney’s troubled daughter in The Descendants (2014); was cast in the headline role opposite Ansel Elgort and current BLL co-star Laura Dern in the film adaption of John Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars (2014); played Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s love interest in the thriller Snowden (2016); and starred in and produced the gruelling survival drama Adrift last year, to name a few.
For Woodley, having been approached to be a part of BLL’s take-notice, A-list cast was a pinch-me moment. Not to mention she’s a fan of director Vallée and had wanted to work with the Canadian filmmaker since his Matthew McConaughey–starring motion picture, Dallas Buyers Club (2013), she dishes. “I was very fortunate, and obviously the cast attached was incredible and truly dynamic—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
So, what’s it like being on set among so many other serious big-time actors? “The beautiful thing about all of these women is that every single person is still incredibly passionate about acting, and feels incredibly humbled and grateful for what they do,” shares Woodley. “Despite their level of success or the notoriety that they’ve achieved, their main focus and goal is still the craft and the final product.”
The relationships built off-screen between the women have been incredibly rewarding as well. “We’re very fortunate to have taken away deep, truthful friendships from the experience.”
During the filming of season one, Woodley explains, the cast and crew actually spent only a few weeks on the Northern California coast, a considerable visual part of the series. The rest of the time, BLL used L.A. locations and sets to double as a sunset-saturated Monterey. It was especially during those weeks on location where beautiful bonds grew. “It felt a little bit like camp. Everyone was up there, and any time you get to go away and film something, it brings you closer, in a sense,” expresses Woodley. “Some of my favourite memories are just the dinners we would have while we were up there.”
Off-screen, Woodley is a dedicated, vocal champion for the environment. And although she has long been determined to protect the earth and inspire others to do the same, she became somewhat of a Hollywood fixture for advocacy back in 2016 when she was arrested for trespassing while protesting alongside the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the development of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.
“The only real comment that’s important to make is, why did it take a white, non-Indigenous woman getting arrested after hundreds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies were arrested to bring a certain level of media attention to a protest that had been happening for months and months and months?” stresses Woodley. “That’s the question I think deserves a little meditation and reflection on.”
As for what the actress thinks of the naysayers who believe that celebrities shouldn’t use their clout to express their opinions on political issues? “The thing about star status, it’s not something that you create; it’s something others feel like dictating for you. So, fortunately, that’s not something I have to worry about, because that’s not in my control anyway,” voices Woodley. “There’s no difference between being on a movie set creatively expressing and having a peaceful conversation or a heated political debate with someone else. Speaking about things that I’m passionate about is like breathing in air, the same as going to auditions or wanting to participate in certain films. [They’re] all a part of my world.”