Based on Celeste Ng’s 2017 bestselling book, the plot explores race, identity, the burden of keeping secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood in the idyllic Ohio suburb of Shaker Heights in the late 1990s. Sparks fly when the ordered life of status-obsessed Elena (Reese Witherspoon) is disrupted when free-spirited artist Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) moves to town. With their children’s lives overlapping and the class-based society imploding around them, the little fires of their lives cause a life-changing physical and metaphorical fire.
Get seriously excited as and Kerry Washington are landing on with their latest show, Little Fires Everywhere.
In today’s special edition of GLAMOUR UNFILTERED, to coincide with the release of Little Fires Everywhere on Amazon Prime Video, Reese and Kerry join GLAMOUR’s Josh Smith to talk about the societal pressures to be a good mother, how far they feel gender and race equality has come since the late ’90s, and the little fires in their own lives that became big, empowering blazes…
Little Fires Everywhere raises many discussions in a late ’90s context that we need to be having today – especially around the idea of what it means to be a woman. What does that mean to you, sat here in 2020?
Reese: Well, I think about the lack of storytelling about motherhood in general. That is just hundreds of years of lost storytelling, because we didn’t really see it on film when narratives were being decided by people who had never been mothers. It’s such a rich piece of material, the book, Little Fires Everywhere, and it talks about motherhood in so many different ways and shows there are so many different types of mothering. I think it really broadens the spectrum of what we think of mothers to be. There’s not quintessential ‘good mothers’ or ‘bad mothers,’ but this whole spectrum of behaviour that really promotes a lot of discussion.
This concept of what constitutes a ‘good mother’ is seen throughout the entire narrative of Little Fires Everywhere and there’s so many pressures in society even today to play up to this idea. How has that played out in your own lives?
Kerry: Well, I think it’s so important to talk about it. I think sometimes because it’s come down through society and history, it’s a codified idea of what makes you a good mother. Different cultures have different ideas, but we just believe it. We just buy into the story and think, I have to follow this checklist to be considered good or bad or otherwise. I love that we created this project where we actually get to step back, think about it and talk about it. It has made me think more about having a little bit more compassion for myself, even as a mom. Especially in this time where there’s so many different questions. Right now, we’re being asked to run companies, run households, be teachers or teacher’s assistants. There’s so much, we can’t do it all perfectly. We actually literally cannot do it all perfectly, re-examining that message that we’re even supposed to be perfect, is really freeing and exciting.
Little Fires Everywhere also deals with the concept of ‘the working mother,’ and the characters constantly question, ‘am I giving enough to my career? Am I giving enough to my family?’ Has that been difficult for you guys?
Reese: I think it’s no more complex than any working mother. I think that’s my personal experience. I balance childcare. I balance whether or not I can travel for work and it’s so innate to so many people. It’s just part of the world of being a working mom.
Kerry: I’ll start to get really excited, Josh, when you start to ask the dads in your interviews about work life balances or what it’s like to be a working dad. We don’t even use the terminology, ‘working dad,’ and I think that undervalues the role that men play in the home, to just assume men are supposed to work and that they also don’t have pressures. It’s different, but they also don’t have pressure. I’ll be excited in your next interview to watch when you’re interviewing a dad about what his work life balance is. I’ve been thinking a lot that what my job is, is to really just do the things that I feel called to do, meant to do and to set that example for my kids. Guilting myself, not chasing my dreams or making myself feel bad would be detrimental to my role as a mom. Part of being a mom is also being gentle and kind and loving to myself, so that my kids see that’s the example of what we’re supposed to be and strive for.
You are so right we never talk about the idea of ‘working dads.’ With Little Fires Everywhere set in 1997, as you revisited that time, how far do you think we have come in terms of equality and how much further do you think we still need to go? Or did you realise, we haven’t come as far as you thought?
Reese: A little bit. We talked about the ‘Mad Men‘ paradigm, like, what happens when you look at our world through a lens of seeing it then and comparing it now? If you just look through a ’90s lens, there were some things that were much more progressive, but then there were other aspects that we talked about race and class in a way that wasn’t as thoughtful or even acknowledging the kind of disparity between people’s lives or the way that they were treated. That was fascinating. We had to spend a lot of time actually going, “No, no, no people didn’t say that then.” There were expressions that people used, like people saying, “I’m colourblind,” which we now know is very insensitive to deny somebody part of who they are. Kerry and I grew up in the ’90s, we were actually teenagers in the ’90s. We were able to help with that aspect of the writing as well.
If you could sit the you down, from 1997, on this Zoom call – what would you want to say to them?
Kerry: Oh my God. When you asked me that all I want to do is hug her and say, ‘It’s going to be OK. It really is going to be OK!’ I think I would tell her to stay with herself. I think on the journey through life, I’ve noticed times when I’ve abandoned myself to be a pleaser or trying to live up to somebody else’s idea of who I’m supposed be. I would really invite her to try to stay with herself as much as possible.
Reese: I would tell her not to worry so much. I think that I spent a lot of time worrying about things that really didn’t matter but it’s not entirely my fault. Culture told young women they had to worry about things. What we value about women then is very different than what we value about women now. I would say, ‘hold on sister, it’s about to get a lot better!’ I stuck it out. I endured a lot of really yucky conversations and bad situations to get where I am. Also, I have a million wonderful adventures that brought me to this place. I’m an accumulation of all those ups and downs. I feel really, really strong at 44 years old. I’ve been through a lot and I’ve got a lot more to go!
What kind of things would you worry about then?
Reese: About body image, not being enough or being too much for people. My ambition was too big. My ideas were too strong. I was a little too loud, too friendly, too upbeat, too emotional.
Kerry: It’s about not being not so worried about taking up space, right? With my body, with my attitude, with my influence. Don’t worry about being ‘big’. It’s OK to be big, loud and bold. Even to make really big mistakes, take big risks, learn big stuff, have big tears, just do it, just go for it. This one, precious life is all you got.
In society today we constantly attach the idea of being ‘too much,’ especially to women…
Kerry: It’s true! And it has been exciting for me to do this, it’s so special because there really is so much power in partnership with women. To be working with a woman like Reese, who is not afraid to take up space, who’s not afraid for the other women around her to take up just as much space and to have a voice as loud as hers and instincts and input that’s welcome. It’s just really so wonderful to be in an environment where there’s not unlimited slice of the pie. There’s room for all of us and all of our bigness. That’s how we cook up these exciting, creative adventures together – by not playing small.
You are both rewriting the rules in your industry by setting up your own companies, as your characters tried to do in Shaker Heights as well. What do you think is the turning point for you setting your own rules and what is the rule that you will continue to live by from here on in?
Reese: I think that a lot of things are shifting and changing in our business. We’re seeing a lot of different ways that people are consuming media. With the big powerful industry titans that were so important when Kerry and I first started, it’s just not the same. Everything is shifting and that there’s room for different voices and different perspectives. I would just say that it’s an incredible time to be an artist, a writer, an actor, a director. I would encourage more people who have felt like they were other or didn’t have an opportunity to really dive in because it’s going to be one of the busiest times in our business. I think the doors are more open than they ever have been
Kerry: That’s a really good question. I feel like now particularly in this pandemic moment, we’re really all realising how little power and control we have because there’s so much unknown. I think my one rule that I keep coming back to is to just really stay present and be in truth. Things are changing every day, but if it we can just stay present with each other, openhearted and honest I feel we have a shot to make it through each day. Maybe we will move a little closer to who we want to be as people, as a culture, as a society, as a world.
Little Fires Everywhere really shines a light on how we need to be better allies to other communities. Why is that such an important message for you?
Reese: I think about that a lot. I think it’s so important to me that young women feel supported, mentored in every business, but particularly our business where media is so pervasive, and it can be very influential in young people’s lives. I want to create spaces where people can tell their stories, feel seen and valued. It’s really important to me that idea of partnership. Female partnership, as Kerry said so beautifully is so important to me because for so many years, we were told to sort of think about it as a competitive space, that there was scarcity. I just don’t think that’s a winning principle either. I think abundance is what I kind of meditate on. Creativity is infinite when we partner with each other, particularly with people who have been told not to partner with each other.
Kerry: Reese alluded to this earlier, but I really think there’s something so special about this show now living on a global stage, particularly in terms of how we explore the idea of race. Afua Hirsch has a beautiful book, Brit-ish, that I love that’s all about belonging and racial identity in the UK. I think similar to in the US in the ’90s, there’s this sense that it’s better to not talk about it. It’s more polite if we just avoid the topic and only talk about the special ways that we come together and overcome, but not dig into the deeper themes of identity and belonging. I’m really excited that those kinds of conversations are going to be able to be had globally because it’s not an issue solely in the United States. It’s really exciting to know that folks all over the world are going to be able to dive in.
Reese: I would also say it’s a great show to watch with your teenage kids, because it does talk about race, sexuality and class. If you’re not talking with your children about those things, they’re talking to somebody else and getting ideas from somebody else. It’s a great conversation starter. Sometimes it’s easier to watch a show than have that conversation about real life.
Kerry: My mom used to do that, every week she used to watch 90210 with me. I was like, “Oh, I have the coolest mom ever.” But she shared recently that it meant we could talk about drinking, drugs and sex and it wasn’t about me and my friends. It was about those characters on TV, which was such a smart parenting approach on her part.
Will you be using Little Fires Everywhere in the same way?
Reese: I watch it with my teenage kids – even though I have a 20-year-old, almost 21, and then I have a 16-year-old. We definitely watch shows, discuss it and talk about their friends. It’s great. With my seven-year-old however all we watch is Survivor or Amazing Grace. I’ve seen every episode, every season of Amazing Grace this quarantine!
Kerry: Trolls World Tour is totally memorised in my house. I can perform the whole thing for you backwards and forwards!
This show is all about little fires culminating and creating big, blazing fires. Is there a little negative fire that happened in your lives, that has actually become a very big, empowering fire?
Reese: Oh, sure. I’ve had a million of those where I have said, ‘This isn’t right. What is going on here?’ I read a terrible script and it made me start my production company because it was so poorly written, it was just terrible that I thought women deserve so much better like better roles and better opportunities in our business. That script lit a fire inside of me. Who knows why it was that script that moment but I knew if I didn’t start doing producing myself, this is just going to get worse and worse for the girls that come after me.
Kerry: I feel like the Time’s Up movement has been that as well. There were these tiny little fires – not tiny in each of our individual lives, they were these cataclysmic fires – but we made them tiny by not sharing them with each other or the world made them tiny by ignoring us or quieting us. As we came together as women all over the world and across industries, we’ve been able to say Time’s Up together and be part of a movement.
Little Fires Everywhere is all about bridging divisions in communities and even though we are more disconnected than ever right now, it’s still possible to build bridges isn’t it?
Kerry: What’s interesting is we have to choose connection now. We can’t take our connections for granted. Now we have to really choose to spend time and not necessarily space, but emotional space. We’re connected, it’s just different.