The actress recently told us that she looked to her mother while taking on her maternal role of Mia Warren in the new Hulu series. In the eight-episode limited series, the Big Little Lies alum portrays Elena Richardson, a wealthy and perfectionist mother of four thriving in the cookie-cutter community of Shaker Heights, OH.
Her life changes completely when she gets entangled with Washington's Mia Warren, an artist and black single mother working multiple jobs to make ends meet. In Little Fires' '90s-era, predominantly white suburbia, Mia and her daughter Pearl experience microaggressions and witness racial tensions that remind Washington of her own mother's life.
Q: Did you feel you were playing your mother?
A: Absolutely, it never occurred to me until we were almost into production and I realized that I was playing my mother. It was interesting to see how people would try to make sense of this incredibly smart, articulate, accomplished professor saying she was from the South Bronx. When people asked her where she was from, her answer could be New York City, the Bronx, or the South Bronx. She could control your perception of her, and her comfort level with these Upper East Side mothers, by how she answered that question.
Q: You are also a producer in the show?
A: I’m so excited to tell you that Reese Witherspoon and I will be bringing Little Fires Everywhere to the screen together. I love this beautiful book about motherhood, and I can’t wait to finally collaborate with one of my favorite actresses. We are gal-pals and we filmed the drama based on the book by Celeste Ng (who also serves as an executive producer). Ng’s novel was at the top of the NY Times Bestseller List for almost a year. Little Fires Everywhere follows the intertwined fates of two families. The seemingly perfect Richardson family and an enigmatic transient mother and daughter who upend their lives. The story explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, the ferocious pull of motherhood, and the danger in believing that following the rules can avert disaster.
Q: Are you a big reader?
A: Absolutely. I’m a big reader. Love to read women authors.
Q: Any Spanish author has crossed your path?
A: In the States the millennium has brought a new trend of literature in Spanish within the United States. In the last few years, a certain tendency has been noted toward the opening of independent publishers dedicated exclusively to publishing texts written in Spanish in this country. I like to read poetry and I found some poems from the Argentinean author Olga Orozco that are beautiful
Q: Can you Speak Spanish?
A: Well, not much. But I can say some words and read some words. I would love to speak better Spanish, is a language that is part of the United States already
Q: You seem very feisty in favor of women
R: The show starts with a house burning to the ground, and a surprising story unfolds from there as Elena (Witherspoon) and Mia (Washington) are combustible as suburban mothers from very different worlds who must face some ugly truths. At one point in the drama Witherspoon’s Elena character says: -A good mother makes good choices. - Washington’s Mia fires back: -You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices. - That line completely embodies the theme of the series, and it sparked this reporter to ask Reese about her good choices with her roles and producing projects. With the confluence of deciding to start a company and the emergence of streaming, I guess I was psychic or something. I had no idea the whole world would open up for us, but it has changed my life. The ability to work with different kinds of storytellers, to be able to option books and partner with other people I respect and admire, who also have a perspective that is not my own but is just as valuable, has changed my entire experience.
Q: Do you planned to keep producing your own work
A: I don’t know. I would love to. Choices used to be made for me a lot. I made a conscious decision about eight years ago to start my own company because I wasn’t happy with the choices that were being made for me, and I didn’t see a place for me to exist in the industry that we have. One of the extraordinary impacts of the Time's Up movement is that so many of us came together to try to champion the cause of equity and safety in the workplace. But when we came together we were no longer siloed. In that sisterhood, we got to ask each other how we can get together to create."
Q: What you found in the book that you like so much?
A: I think from the beginning; the book really delves into class and sociopolitical differences and cultural differences. And I think adding race into that and stepping away from the binary idea of race in this country. It’s a lot too unpack. It’s wonderful because all of these issues are present, but they’re really embodied in these really complex women. Women in Hollywood were often separated from each other. An unintentional benefit of the anti-sexual-harassment Time's Up movement has been bringing women together, allowing them to collaborate on more and different projects
Q: Do you feel truly are breaking barriers within the industry.
A: It’s hard for me to not say ‘Scandal’ because there was so much attention when ‘Scandal’ first premiered that there hadn’t been a woman of color as a lead in a network drama in almost forty years. I think it will be exciting when the only firsts we are talking about are the innovations in our creative endeavors rather than the identity and the politics of the work we’re making.
Q: How is your character?
R: Well, you know, I love to read about flawed characters because the reality is that we are all flawed. There’s not a single perfect human being alive, although many of us like to pretend that we are. So, when I find people who are three dimensional, fully realized human beings, that is a joy for any actor, because so often we are having to create the three dimensionalities of a character. So, I really love playing a complicated woman, looking for the good in the character.
Q: Is there much difference between shooting a movie or a tv show?
R: Well, one thing that’s really different about working in TV is that you have a different director every week, so you’re working together to maintain who you are. it’s not about kind of loyalty to any one person, but it’s loyalty to the world of this show that is helmed by these incredible women. We all so adore this material and adore this show that we put in so much time outside of the already rigorous TV hours
Q: You do a lot of things. You’ve got the series. You work in movies. You’ve been a political activist. I’m wondering how you’re able to put it all in, to just get it all to work.
R: That, to me, is a hilarious question as I’m sitting side by side with Reese Witherspoon, who do so much every single day. So, I think I’m really lucky, and have been in my life really lucky, to be surrounded by women who are great multitaskers who believe in being of service on many levels. So, I mean, that’s the best way to answer that. But trust me, these women are doing a lot more than I am on any given day. I am tremendously inspired by Reese. I think, even though I just said we’re not all serving one person, I will say, as a cast, we do feel so indebted to them for this opportunity because we just love being a part of this show. And I feel like we’re all learning so much every day from each other on so many levels. I feel like every day I come to work on this show is like a master class where I’m watching my fellow actors and stealing stuff for my own toolbox, but also learning things about strategic ways of thinking, about multitasking, about history. It’s just this show is so enriching for us. Our biggest hope and dream for the show is that people will have as much fun watching it as we’re having making it because it’s the dream job.
Q: What about setting it in the political world with Scandal?
R: One of the things that’s so cool about crisis management is that you never know what’s going to walk into your door. So, setting the show in Washington, D.C., is exciting because D.C. is the nexus of power for so many different industries and so many different fields. But from show to show who walks in our office is completely unpredictable, whether it’s somebody in the military, whether it’s a politician, whether it’s somebody in the corporate world, whether it’s somebody in the labor movement, whether it’s a celebrity, whether it’s a sports figure. I mean, you just never know who is going to walk in the door. So, Washington is an exciting context for the show, but it’s not a political show
Q: Kerry, you diversify your career by working in film and television and also taking care of your family.
R: As a woman we all have a complicated life and I also accelerate and stop depending on the day. I am equal to everyone with defects and virtues. I consider myself lucky to be able to do so many things, to live surrounded by women who, like me, distribute their time in various fields. I live at the service of my work and my ideals.
Q: Would you ever consider getting into politics?
A: No. Not for an instant. I'm not interested. I enjoy participating in events for which I feel identified as a citizen. I like the electoral process and I support the democratic process, but I am a non-political actress.