Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman behind new female-centric TV drama Big Little Lies

Tired of women playing supporting roles in films, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman produced an HBO series, Big Little Lies, which puts the spotlight on women leads

Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman are tired of women being under-represented and consigned to supporting roles on screen.

So the two Oscar-winners teamed up to make a female-centric television drama, Big Little Lies, and threw their star power behind the project to ensure it was handled right.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles recently, Witherspoon, 40, says: "Nicole and I were reflecting on this during the shooting.

"For 25 years, I have been the only woman on set, so I had no other women to talk to. It's like the Smurfette syndrome, where you've got 100 Smurfs around but she's the only girl."

Then, cheekily, she says of the popular cartoon: "And who gave birth to all these Smurfs anyway?"

The winner of the Best Actress Oscar for the biopic Walk The Line (2005) adds: "The constant of women of incredible talent playing wives and girlfriends with thankless parts, I just had enough."

For 25 years, I have been the only woman on set, so I had no other women to talk to. It's like the Smurfette syndrome, where you've got 100 Smurfs around but she's the only girl. And who gave birth to all these Smurfs anyway?

REESE WITHERSPOON on how women are under-represented on the big screen

Through their respective production companies, she and Kidman, 49, bought the screen rights to Liane Moriarty's 2014 bestseller Big Little Lies, a complex social drama revolving around five mothers in a wealthy seaside town where intricate social dynamics eventually culminate in a murder.

The result is a star-studded prestige title featuring Witherspoon and Kidman as well as Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Zoe Kravitz.

Rich talent is also found behind the camera: The seven-part limited series is directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, Oscar nominee for Dallas Buyers Club (2013), and penned by Emmy-winning TV scribe David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, 1997-2002).

It debuts on Monday on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601).

Witherspoon and Kidman double as executive producers, drawn by the series' unique perspective on "female friendship, the camaraderie of women and the power of women when they unite and protect one another", says Kidman, who won the Best Actress Oscar for literary drama The Hours (2002).

In addition, it deals with "so many topical issues, like bullying, sexual assault, domestic violence, single motherhood, divorce and how do you parent when you've got a teenage daughter with another man and a small child with your new husband".

Witherspoon and Kidman, who is up for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the drama Lion (2016) later this month, and Witherspoon point out that it is unusual to see a script tackle all these topics, much less with fully fleshed-out female characters front and centre.

Witherspoon says: "The first time I read it, I thought it was electric - it had this mystery and murder at the very beginning and all these interesting parenting dynamics. And then it slowly opened up - it became this very dense, complex exploration of the female experience - motherhood and female friendship."

Kidman says: "It's rare that you read something that has such good female characters - not just one but five of them - and obviously, the complexities of the women."

Her co-star agrees, saying: "We have to start seeing women as they really are on film.

"We need to see real women's experience, whether it involves domestic violence, sexual assault, motherhood or romance or infidelity or divorce."

It is not always easy getting projects such as these off the ground, but "the star power helps", Witherspoon adds.

"Yes, we united forces, didn't we?" says Kidman.

"It was the power of both of us signing on to do it.

"We were very strategic about it because we also wanted it to be marketed the right way, spoken about the right way, and we wanted our artistic integrity and the integrity of the director protected."

But Witherspoon believes there has been progress in terms of more balanced representation on screen.

"The conversations are shifting and audiences are demanding to see themselves reflected, whether it's diversity or gender.

"They're saying 'I don't want to see the same 10 white guys in a movie, I want to see different stuff.'

"And I think it really enhances storytelling all around," she says.

Big Little Lies also deals with the myriad complexities of the parentchild relationship.

The drama is set in motion when young single mother Jane (Woodley) moves to town; her son is accused of bullying another child, which pits the parents at the school against one another.

Witherspoon - who has two children aged 13 and 17 with actor and ex-husband Ryan Phillippe, 42, as well as a four-year-old with her current husband, talent agent Jim Toth, 46 - says she related instantly to the story.

"It is one of those things that you can't even anticipate your reaction to, either when your child is being bullied or is accused of something.

"I had a thing with one of my children where they were accused of cheating, and I got so angry - I had no idea what was inside of me.

"You fight so hard to find the truth but also to defend your child.

"And an interesting thing we deal with in the show is you don't know who your children are. It's sort of the big mystery of parenthood."

Asked if she and Kidman could also identify with how the five women are constantly judged and gossiped about, the pair laugh.

"Are you kidding?" Witherspoon exclaims. "We're actresses in Hollywood - have I ever not felt judged?"

She and Kidman have learnt to cope with this in different ways.

Witherspoon has simply developed a thicker skin. She says: "As you get older, you start to become more impervious.

"It really bothered me when I was young and now, not to say that I'm not vulnerable - I'm very vulnerable, particularly to very close friends - but you turn 40 and you're like, 'I don't care who likes me - this is all I got and this is what I'm doing.'

"I'm not going to twist myself into a pretzel to make somebody else happy."

Nodding, Kidman says she is less judgmental herself, and is keen to impart this to her children - her two daughters, aged six and eight, with husband and country singer Keith Urban, 49, and the two 20something children she adopted with ex-husband, actor Tom Cruise, 54.

"I feel the way in which you handle judgment is by not doing it, and by trying to always teach your children that we don't want to judge.

"So much of it is raising the next generation not to do that and to put kindness, compassion and empathy into the world.

"And that comes from travelling, it comes from allowing many different cultures to be around you and absorbing those cultures, and being open-minded and generous."

• Big Little Lies debuts in Singapore on Monday on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) at 10am, with an encore telecast at 9pm. It is also available on HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602) and StarHub Go.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2017, with the headline 'I am woman, hear me roar'. Print Edition | Subscribe