Kerry Washington as Mia Warren, Reese Witherspoon as Elena Richardson. Picture: PA Photo/Hulu/ Erin Simkin
The Amazon Prime Video series, currently streaming, sees Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington team up for what is a powerful performance all around.
Reese Witherspoon is talking about how much power there is in partnership – specifically between women.
And frankly, it couldn’t be a more apt conversation to be having.
The actress, 44, and another Hollywood power hitter, Kerry Washington, have teamed up to star in and produce Little Fires Everywhere, the Amazon Prime Video series based on author Celeste Ng’s acclaimed 2017 novel.
Like the book, the TV adaption is set in the late 1990s in the quiet Ohio town of Shaker Heights, where author Ng grew up.
It begins with the home of Witherspoon’s character, Elena Richardson, burning down in a suspected arson, one of several small fires sparking a story that explores class, race, privilege and motherhood.
Scandal star Washington, 43, stars as mysterious artist Mia Warren, whose world collides with the ordered Shaker Heights existence in much the same way a painter’s oils mix with water.
“I think the themes of motherhood drew me to the material and the idea of getting to explore different kinds of mothering in one piece was really appealing,” explains Witherspoon virtually via a Zoom interview.
Washington is also on the video call, and the chemistry between the two is quite palpable – if ever there was a dynamic partnership to be forged in the entertainment world, this is it.
“Also getting to work with Kerry on this project was really a beautiful experience to be able to – just, thinking about being able to have conversations about things that are part of our everyday life that we are now making art about. I feel very grateful to have a partner like Kerry, to be able to have discussions and conversations,” Witherspoon explains.
“One thing Kerry said to me in the very beginning of our creative journey together was, we have to be able to have difficult conversations with each other. And I think about how little that is possible when people stop talking and get quiet. And it was a beautiful time, to have this group of diverse women all having conversations in a safe, soft place”.
The matter of “tough conversations” is something Washington also addresses openly.
She says: “One thing we learned early on was that in order for us to be able to have tough conversations, it meant that we had to be willing to say the wrong things at times, that we weren’t going to do it perfectly. And I think that’s one of the things I really love about this material, these characters are very imperfect.
“And often saying what we can from our judgmental standpoints think of as the wrong thing – as mothers, as neighbours, as friends – they often are saying or doing the wrong thing, but to have it out in the open means we get to talk about it and process it and acknowledge it and that feels more important than staying in our closed little closets of fear.”
Throughout their careers, both have always championed female empowerment.
So asked if they think it is finally the right “moment” to talk about real women with real issues – they are unequivocal in their yes.
“I think there should never have been a moment where we were forced into a false identity as women,” says Washington.
“We’ve spent so much time historically being told what women are supposed to look like and how we’re supposed to act, how we’re supposed to behave.
“We’ve been taught to be good and to be nice as opposed to being taught to be authentic and real. And so whenever we now as producers – for Reese and I – to have the opportunity to tell stories about women’s authenticity, not what we’re supposed to look like, but who we really are and what we’re really going through, it’s so liberating because we can reject these false ideas that are put on us”.
As a mother-of-three, Witherspoon reflects on the conversations she’s had with her 20-year-old daughter, Ava.
“I think it’s important we are telling stories that our daughters and other people’s daughters are going to grow up and see a better, more accurate reflection of what the female experience is,” she says emphatically.
“I was just talking to my daughter this morning about what she sees on film and how she sees more female storytellers, female directors and female screenwriters and that she feels emboldened to speak up because she’s hearing women finally being honest about their experiences. And that if we don’t have that real genuine expression of the female experience, women will continue to be silenced, will not live into their full potential and full power.
“You hope by creating television shows that see women as flawed and real but they are still, their lives matter, every single person who has their story told, all the different perspectives that are represented in our work, people who watch it realise ‘Oh that is a moment in time for me to walk in those people’s shoes and feel something I would have never felt, never experienced’. I think of it as gifts to another generation.”
Their upcoming peer group will also have the Time’s Up and Me Too movements – both global movement against sexual harassment in the entertainment industry – as a frame of reference.
Asked if they’ve seen the changes sparked by these global movements, Washington says it was the dispelling of myths about women that were perpetuated that were finally broken.
She explains: “So many of us had been previously silo-ed. We were often the only women, the only actress in a film on a project, on a set, and we were often told things about each other – that one’s difficult, that one’s crazy, don’t spend time with that one she really has a temper.
“Whatever these myths we were told about each other, the Me Too and Time’s Up Movements allowed us to come together as a community of women and those myths started to dissolve. And we started to realise that we actually really liked each other, and many of us wanted to work together, and to build power together and to tell stories, narratives”.
Her co-star and producing partner is in agreement.