HBO’s Big Little Lies ended Sunday with an idyllic scene: the show’s gorgeous stars Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz relaxing on a beach, recently fused in sisterhood—surrounded by sun, cavorting children, and lapping waves. And last Friday afternoon—months after filming that picturesque scene—stars Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon realized they had subconsciously recreated that striking visual.
“Reese and I actually are on vacation together right now with our children, and it’s amazing,” Dern told Vanity Fair by phone, hours after the actresses posted photos of themselves on a beach at sunset—matching white wine bottles in hand—on social media. Unlike Witherspoon and Dern’s formerly warring Big Little Lies characters Renata and Madeline, though, Dern and Witherspoon have considered each other family since enacting the powerful mother-daughter love story of 2014’s Wild—so much so that the New York Times recently published a piece about their close bond. And though Dern and Witherspoon meant for this trip to be a peaceful retreat from the press responsibilities of Big Little Lies, both actresses found themselves so moved by the outpouring of support for the series that they ended up doing an impromptu Instagram live about the series Friday. Later that afternoon, Dern kindly obliged V.F.’s request for an interview, phoning us from a golf cart—where she was sitting next to Witherspoon, being shuttled from some exotic point A to point B.
“We just did a little Instagram live thing because so many people have written in wanting to process the last episode and talk about the show,” Dern explained. “It’s so generous and sweet, and everybody is like, ‘No, it can’t end!’ We just get slightly quiet when people ask about the last episode, because we’re terrified of giving anything away.’” Ahead, our conversation with Dern—complete with a cameo by Witherspoon—about the show’s shock ending, its powerful implication about female friendships, and the potential for a sequel.
Vanity Fair: I saw that Instagram of you two together on the beach with your white wine, and I thought that photo is so perfect and poignant, considering the final scene in Big Little Lies.
Laura Dern: I know! You’re the first person I’ve gotten to talk to about the last episode. I find it really poignant, and I think it will be quite shocking ultimately for people in terms of the who-did-it aspect, and the idea of these women banding together.
I want to back up and talk about this incredibly lavish P.T.A. party in the finale. Can you talk a little about that amazing fairytale-in-the-forest atmosphere?
That was incredible, just in terms of finding the location, making it work, and [director Jean-Marc Vallée’s] incredible patience and diligence in honoring every single character in this thoughtful, complicated wrap-up that addressed all the different dynamics and relationships. And to do that with just one camera—which is all that he uses—requires an unbelievable amount of patience and time, especially considering the hundreds of extras, music, costumes, and the enormous amount of land he had to cover.
I think the complicated beauty of each of these women is that just when you thought you had them pegged, you realize that they are all relatable. Sometimes, as we were filming, I would think that in some way all of the ladies actually made up one woman—filled with complicated-ness and control, openness, sexuality, and fear. I feel like we have all of those aspects, so I like how they all sort of come together as one in this rather moving way.
What was it like to film the scene at the top of the steps, where all of the characters come together in this beautiful, tragic way and confront Alexander Skarsgård’s character? I read the book and wasn’t sure how Jean-Marc would frame the scene, but it works so well.
Most of the show was like a traditional movie in that each scene was focused on one person’s experience. I think what became so intimate about that moment is that everyone together had a common experience, even though all the characters handled it differently. So it was very unifying and intimate for us because we were in it together, the characters and the actresses supporting each other.
By the way, I’m pausing so much because I’m afraid I’m giving something away. . .but now we have a problem. We have a severe issue, which is that I’m in a golf cart with Reese and our friend Chad, who hasn’t seen the last episode. So if I have to say something that gives away the ending, I’ll stop the cart and get out.
Oh, I’m sorry!
No, no. I just want everyone to experience the episode without spoilers. [Laughs]. Another thing that amazes me is how many different kinds of people seem to be watching the show and are so excited about it. It reminds me of when Twin Peaks first came on and people would have gatherings around the episode.
What are you and Reese going to do Sunday for the episode?
I wish everybody was together. Yesterday, we were texting with the other girls. We FaceTimed with Shailene yesterday. We all remain close, and I can’t believe our very good fortune in finding each other and forming this friendship. Between filming and all of the press afterward, it feels like these actresses and I have spent two and a half years together. And we’re now getting to be together with our families, our children, on holiday while we happen to be watching the finale.
Speaking of family: I found it so funny when you told the New York Times that your mom, the actress Diane Ladd, is so friendly with Reese that she was mad your character was so mean to hers. Has your mom come around to Renata with these last few episodes?
I just have to say I’ve played some complicated people—and this speaks to my mom’s obsession with Reese as her other daughter. My mom has never been mad at me for doing anything as a character, but being bitchy to Reese seems to be the worst thing I’ve ever done in a movie, which is amazing to me. My mother has been ruthless in movies! So it’s like, “Girl, what are you doing judging me?”
Let’s take a moment to discuss Renata’s My Fair Lady costume.
Oh my god, you are the first person I’ve gotten to talk to about this too. . . was that not the most brilliant costume ever? Our costume designer Alix Friedberg—who I also worked with on the second season of Enlightened— is amazing. She was always so inventive and funny and brave, but that was costume was show-stopping. That was a show-stopping experience.
Did you know from the start that Renata would be wearing that?
No, she had all these ideas. I also love Reese’s costume—that Breakfast at Tiffany’s look, with the sleep mask and the shirt, so brilliant.
I want to ask you about the murder. Is Chad right there? I don’t want to spoil anything.
[Speaking to whoever is driving] Oh, you know what? Pause for one moment. . .I have to answer something you can’t hear. [Back to us] Okay I’m walking away now. Let’s talk.
The murder is done so well. I’m curious what it was like filming. It was so strangely cathartic to watch as an audience member, because we get so protective of Nicole’s character.
That’s what I loved—the experience of rallying around one woman to protect her, and what a moment of assault it is. It was an incredible thing, and it took us a number of nights to film, actually. [My character Renata] was in his face because of what she had witnessed coming into the party—seeing Celeste and Perry fighting in the car—and he knew I was the first chain of protector command and setting a boundary. Obviously he is a man, and to treat any woman like that is unacceptable. It was this amazing catharsis—especially right now in our culture, to see women standing together and refusing to accept bullies, let alone anyone who would attack, sexually assault, verbally assault another woman. It was an extraordinary experience emotionally. Seeing his violence towards me, and Nicole, and Reese—and then to witness his character’s realization, and all of our characters’ realization [that it was Perry who raped Jane], and all of us sort of getting it within that moment. . .
People assume there will be this cold-blooded murder, certainly not these women band[ing] together in a moment of self-defense. Alexander [Skarsgård]’s job was to go for it, and he was incredible—he’s lovely, generous, and protective as a person. But what he had to do was violent, and all of us as women have a friend, or a relative, or have gone through [some kind of abuse] ourselves. There are all of these playful sort of comments on Big Little Lies about women’s manipulation or women’s dirty secrets, but in fact the biggest little lie is how we carry shame about what men have done. We have to learn to use our voice to protect ourself and each other, because there is no shame in what another person has done to us, and it’s time to defend ourselves and demand to be treated with respect. That’s such a profound thought—I just felt privileged to be a part of that story.
Was the scene carefully choreographed?
Well, there was prep for Jean-Marc and the camera, but he really likes things being raw and he wanted us to experience things as we were shooting. O.K., I’m back on the cart, so I can’t say anything [spoiler-y] in front of Chad. We didn’t have much prep ourselves for the final moment, did we, Reese?
Reese Witherspoon: We didn’t have much prep. I think what Jean-Marc does really well is trust his actors and believe that people should get together, have wine, and do your lines, so that way we became sort of bonded.
Dern: That was Reese.
How did you guys decompress after that shoot—after summoning all of that emotion for such a dramatic scene?
Those were all night shoots, so I think we just tried to recover for a few hours to go back in the next day. I think the most amazing thing about going through that together was the bonding, the sharing, just the whole experience, for Reese and I particularly. I think this [vacation] is our first actual wind-down in a while. I was like, “Oh! We actually get to be with our kids and breathe for a minute.” We’ve had a whirlwind couple of years of having these amazing projects and emotional experiences. They have, I think, driven both of us not only toward our longing for connection as women, but also inspired us to step forward and create art and content for women. Reese has been such a champion in that way and continues to inspire me, and I think we care deeply about how we can inspire other women to support each other and create art for fellow women.
I think that was the takeaway from all of this. These are pretty incredible, artistically brilliant, fierce women. I’ve been thinking about each of them. Nicole, Shailene, Zoë—they are all so different but brilliant in remarkable ways. It was quite an amazing group to get to be in the company of. There was definitely chocolate and a few other things in the middle of the night on that last night that helped get us through as well. [Laughs]
So you and Reese have played mother and daughter in Wild, now bitchy frenemies in Big Little Lies. What are you going to play opposite each other next?
I don’t know. We told the New York Times how our mothers got so mad because we had fallen so in love and had such a beautiful experience making Wild, and when they saw Big Little Lies, they were so mad at us at first for being so rude to each other. But we had the time of our lives making this. People are asking us a lot if there is room for a Season 2 of this, and I know there is a lot of discussion, so. . . whatever it is, we will come up with something really fun for sure.
Thanks so much for taking time on your vacation to talk. I really appreciate it.
Thank you for bearing with us. We got delayed by an hour and you were very patient, and then we had a little thing of getting the kids off our boat. It’s been a little bit crazy, but I loved talking to you. Thank you for helping me so that Chad did not hear the ending.