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Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies.

Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman star in and produce HBO’s Big Little Lies

Adultery, divorce, sexual assault and the stresses of motherhood are the focus in a TV series based on Australian author Liane Moriarty’s book, now available in Hong Kong from HBO on Demand

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She had learned not to get excited. Australian author Liane Moriarty had gone through the process of having a book optioned for a movie or TV series before and had endured the realities of it getting lost in Hollywood development purgatory.

Moriarty, though, had never done business with Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.

“When I met with Nicole, she was like, ‘No, no, no. If we option it, get excited. We don’t option things just for the sake of it. We don’t have time for that,’” Moriarty says, recalling her midmorning coffee meeting with Kidman in a Sydney suburb about 18 months ago.

“She kept her word.”

Moriarty’s 2014 bestseller Big Little Lies is now a seven-episode limited series on HBO on Demand in Hong Kong, boasting the Oscar-winning actresses as leads and executive producers.

It continues in the HBO tradition of drawing marquee film stars to the small screen. And it serves as a bit of an antidote to the premium network’s recent tent-pole show, Westworld, and the unusual religious drama The Young Pope.

“Not since Big Love have we had a drama that is this female-centric,” says Casey Bloys, HBO’s president of programming. “The issues they get into on the show are things people deal with in life, and it was nice to have this framework to put these stories forward.”

The drama features five women – Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz, in addition to Witherspoon and Kidman – as mothers of first-graders in a wealthy Northern California community. It’s a setting that lends itself to social satire, replete with fake smiles and a heavy helping of passive aggressiveness in the battle for power and status. There’s even a murder mystery that stitches the story together.

But underneath the melodrama and moments of acerbic humour are women dealing with private angst, running the gamut of adultery, divorce, volatile marriages, sexual assault and the stresses of motherhood. Beneath all that, too, is a sense of sisterhood when intense situations call for it.

(From left) Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley in Big Little Lies.

“It really delved into a lot of issues that women are dealing with daily that we don’t often see on-screen in this way,” says Witherspoon, 40. “And it’s not black and white. These aren’t women who are good or bad. We wanted to show the rainbow of the female experience, which I think is sort of absent in Hollywood in a lot of ways.”

Kidman affirms the dearth of nuanced roles for women and says it is symptomatic of a larger systemic issue. “We need great roles,” the 49-year-old actress says. “Our stories are relevant; people do want to hear them. But our stories often get brushed off. Seeing five women front a project is not common – and it shouldn’t be that way.”

(From left) Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.

Big Little Lies went from book club page-turner to star-studded TV series all because Witherspoon and Kidman had been looking for a project on which to collaborate. The actresses knew each other through Australian film producer Bruna Papandrea, who had known Kidman since the two were teenagers.

Witherspoon and Papandrea were sent a copy of Moriarty’s novel, and it wasn’t long before the latter called Kidman. The actress read it that day.

It just so happened that Kidman was leaving the next day for Australia, and while there, she met Moriarty for that coffee.

“We chatted about our kids, we talked about the book,” Kidman says. “I didn’t have to make this big sales pitch. We were just two women talking. And I just told her we would get it made. And then Reese and I set out on our mission.”

That mission included finding the project’s writer and director. Witherspoon says consideration had been given to carrying over the project’s female-empowered sensibility behind the scenes. Kidman had asked Moriarty at their initial meeting if she wanted to write the screenplay; the author declined.

(From left) Liane Moriarty, David E. Kelley and Bruna Papandrea. Photo: AFP

Circumstances and familiarity ultimately resulted in the selection of veteran TV scribe David E. Kelley to write the script and Witherspoon’s Wild director, Jean-Marc Vallée, to bring it to life on the screen.

Kelley, 60, had just been signed to Creative Artists Agency, which represents both actresses along with their producing banners, so he was proposed as a possible candidate for the job. But it was his knack for balancing drama with humour, more than a business connection, that closed the deal.

“The thing is, [David] is so deft,” Witherspoon says. “He wrote the scenes for Nicole so beautifully – he understood the complexity of her character’s experience, but he also writes hysterical comedic dialogue for my character. To find somebody who does that very well is threading a needle.”

Kelley says the biggest challenge of the mini-series was servicing all the characters. In addition to the women, the drama stars Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Scott and James Tupper.

“It’s incumbent upon us to get to know these people in order for the stories to be as rich as they can be,” Kelley says. “That was the biggest challenge, a lot of spinning plates. But the architecture of the book was so sure-footed – that made my job easier.”

Vallée, meanwhile, had been tapped to direct the first episode almost since the project’s inception. But with a series, it’s common for each episode to have a different director. Witherspoon says they had approached – and were close to signing – two female directors for other episodes, but ultimately asked Vallée to do the whole series for the sake of continuity.

“It’s a marathon,” says Vallée. The 53-year-old director is gearing up next to shoot all the episodes of HBO’s upcoming Amy Adams drama, Sharp Objects.

“I learned how to train mentally, emotionally and physically, because you’ve got to be Superman. It was basically shooting a very long feature film.”

The director was central in bringing the cast together, encouraging the actors to get to know each other outside of work. Witherspoon says they’d often go out to dinner or socialise at her house on the weekends.

“Everyone was able to connect,” Kravitz says of the bonding sessions. “With Reese and Nicole also being producers, they spent a lot of time with us and were very warm and really wanted our opinion.”

The conversations were less about finding their characters, Kidman says, and more about how to shift the female narrative.

“There was enormous love and loyalty and friendship,” she says. “And I think you’ll find that’s the greatest thing about the series.”

Big Little Lies is showing on HBO on Demand

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: unusualsuspects