Saturday 20 July 2019

'Women can be pretty f***ing toxic too...' - Meryl Streep talks joining Big Little Lies

Meryl Streep on joining the cast of hit drama 'Big Little Lies', a show that she says has managed to get men to live through a female protagonist

Screen icon: Streep jumped at the chance to join the cast for season two
Screen icon: Streep jumped at the chance to join the cast for season two

Jane Mulkerrins

How do you follow up a television show that became an instant and enormous success, scored a raft of Emmys and Golden Globes, dominated water-cooler chat for the entirety of its seven-week run, pre-empted the explosion of the MeToo movement by a matter of months with its themes of sexual assault and female solidarity, and featured an unprecedentedly starry cast for TV of five Hollywood big hitters, namely: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz - but was never intended to run beyond one season?

Answer: give in to public demand, create a second season and add in the biggest Hollywood hitter of them all, Meryl Streep.

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That's the solution Kidman and Witherspoon, also producers of the series, came up with after HBO/Sky Atlantic's Big Little Lies became a smash hit. First, they commissioned Liane Moriarty, who had written the original novel that screenwriter David E Kelley had adapted for the small screen, to write a follow-up novella that Kelley could adapt.

Then Moriarty deliberately named the new character - the mother of murdered wife-beater and rapist Perry (played by Alexander Skarsgård) - Mary Louise, in an attempt to lure Streep into joining the cast (Mary Louise is Meryl's real name).

She need not have tried so hard. Streep was already a fan.

"It was the greatest thing on TV, it really was, that first season," Streep (69) says. "Who wouldn't sign up to be on that?" When asked to join the cast, she agreed without having even read the script.

Set in a wealthy neighbourhood in the Californian town of Monterey, the second season, which kicked off this week, looks set to prod away at many of the same issues as the first, from domestic abuse to middle-class status anxiety. But the central plot will be driven by Streep's character, who arrives ostensibly to help out her late son's widow, Celeste (Kidman), now a single mother with her and Perry's twin boys.

But, as she quickly admits, Mary Louise has also come to Monterey for answers. There is, she believes, a great deal more to the death of Perry - who was pushed down a flight of stairs by Zoë Kravitz's character Bonnie at the end of season one, but whose murder has been covered up by the five women - than she has been told, and she sets out to find out what with a series of cutting one-liners.

"I'm so grateful that I've found a profession that gives me a place to put all the really horrible parts of my personality," Streep says wryly of the role. "I don't have to visit them upon my children and my friends - I can put them into my work."

The actress feels strongly that Big Little Lies has been a game changer, in getting men to identify with women's viewpoints.

"We've spent all our lives living through male protagonists," she said. "I grew up reading Tom Sawyer, reading Peter Pan, and then there was Wendy and Tink [Tinker Bell], and I didn't want to be either one of those. I wanted to be Peter Pan." But, "the hardest thing is to get men to live through a protagonist who's female. It's almost an impenetrable act of imagination for many men, and this one crossed over."

Dern, who plays the ambitious Renata in the series, says she felt similarly: "In my narrow-minded, and perhaps cellular perception that comes with some sexism, I thought, 'Well, women will watch the show'. But men also loved the show. Frat boys loved the show. Teenagers loved the show. Because we all want authentic human stories, we all want to see brokenness and humanity."

Streep makes the point that the series even has a post-MeToo message. We should not only focus on toxic masculinity, she warns, "because women can be pretty f***ing toxic. It's toxic people."

The success of Big Little Lies, she believes, is in its multi-layered and multi-faceted characters, not least Celeste, whose feelings towards the abusive Perry see-sawed between love and hate.

"For a long time, in movies and television, women would be singular and extraordinary and they would represent something - the love interest, for example. Part of the appetite for the second season had to do with the fact that we were seeing people who were not emblematic. You're not standing in for every woman that's abused. Your abuse is singular."

Front and centre of the series is also the experience of motherhood, now given something of a sinister but none the less empathetic iteration in the figure of Mary Louise, a woman who would never believe ill of her golden son, Perry.

Herself a mother of three adult daughters, Louisa (27), Grace (33) and Mamie (35), and a son, Henry (39), Streep talks of "the special myopia that motherhood imposes on you, where you sometimes only see your own child's importance in the world and what you want for them".

Streep says: "In your life, before you have children, you're warring with yourself, but then [after you have children], you're warring with yourself and what you hope for your children. What you see them struggling with, and the challenges of trying to help them, but not to clear a path. Trying to make things possible, but not just give them stuff.

"In playing the character that I play, where my son is dead - I, thank God, don't have that experience - but just going into the dark place of imagining that, your feeling of protecting him, even though he's gone, is still there. Motherhood never stops."

Along with its willingness to depict the complexity of women on screen, Big Little Lies is helping change Hollywood and TV on the inside too, Streep believes. She praises the tenacity of Witherspoon and Kidman - who bought the rights to Moriarty's novel from an early galley copy; Witherspoon having already had great acclaim with her production company's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's blockbuster Gone Girl and Cheryl Strayed's bestselling memoir Wild.

"I am of a generation that waited to be asked to dance, and I think I still am in that position," says Streep. "But I'm so admiring of [Witherspoon and Kidman] for getting up in front of stuff, for being on the balls of your feet and looking for material."

And, now, she says, for also keeping up the momentum. "This thing [season one] met its moment in this amazing way, but you had nothing for the second season. You just thought, 'Let's go ahead and invent this thing that never existed'. That's the biggest leap of all. That's inventing your reason for being," she says. "The hardest thing is to absolutely believe that you can self-generate work, and that people will want to see it, especially when the expectation is so high."

Perhaps Big Little Lies can rewrite the rule book. Its most garlanded star seems to think so.

Big Little Lies continues on Sky Atlantic on Monday night

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