Kerry Washington, Reese Witherspoon delve into race, class in 'Little Fires'

Kerry Washington stars in Little Fires Everywhere on Hulu. File Photo by Chris Chew/UPI

 






Both the book and the Hulu adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere begin with Elena Richardson's (Reese Witherspoon) house burning down.
Little Fires Everywhere flashes back from the fire to when Elena met Mia Warren (Kerry Washington). Mia was living in her car with her daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), so Elena rented her guest house to them.
"We were representing completely different kinds of women and different kinds of mothering, but both with dignity and respect," Witherspoon said on a Television Critics Association panel. "It was just a great partnership."
Author Celeste Ng did not describe the Warrens as black. By casting Washington and Underwood, the show added another level of friction between Mia and Elena.
"The book really does delve into class and kind of sociopolitical differences and cultural differences," Washington said. "I think adding the layer of race to that really enriches the storytelling."
Washington said race already was a component of the book. Ng's parents came from Hong Kong, and Chinese characters, such as Mia's coworkers at a Chinese restaurant, are included.
"The book also deals with race, and I think does a beautiful job of stepping away from this binary idea we have of race in this country -- of black and white," Washington said. "We're also dealing with Asian identity and immigrant identity and, again, class."
Class friction develops when Elena offers Mia work cleaning her house to supplement Mia's income as an artist. Mia resents the implication that she needs Elena's charity.
As the friction builds, Elena judges Mia's choices as a mother. Mia replies, "You didn't make good choices. You had good choices," insinuating that Elena was privileged to have more opportunity than the Warrens.
Witherspoon reflected on the nature of choices and determined she related more to Mia. She co-founded the production company Pacific Standard in 2012 and Hello Sunshine in 2014 to take more control over the choices she had as an actor.
"Choices used to be made for me a lot," Witherspoon said. "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. I didn't see a place to exist within the industry that we had."
Witherspoon had success as an actor for hire in films like Election, Legally Blonde and Walk the Line, for which she won an Oscar. Currently, she rarely stars in a film or show she does not produce.
"Now, I primarily generate everything that I do," Witherspoon said. "I have the gift of having companies like Hulu let me be this woman in this leadership position, which wasn't possible eight years ago."
Her costars and co-producers in shows like Big Little Lies and The Morning Show agree that a shift in the industry has occurred. They all shared experiences of being undervalued just a decade earlier.
"Whether it's Nicole Kidman or it's Jennifer Aniston, we all remark about how much things have changed," Witherspoon said. "We are put in a position of respect for our ideas and that is a new world for us."
Washington, who also executive produces Little Fires Everywhere, said the #MeToo and Time's Up movements improved opportunities for women behind the scenes. In addition to improving safety and equity in the workplace, women coming forward allowed them to unite, Washington said.
"In doing so, we came together, and we were no longer siloed," Washington said. "For so much of my career, I had been told that so-and-so actress was crazy, so-and-so actress was difficult, this other actress is bad news. When we were all gathered in a room together, we got to know each other."
Witherspoon and Washington came together to tell the story of two women who very much do not come together. Mia is a suspect in the fire, and fire is a component of her modern art.
The fire might be a metaphor for the volatility of their relationship. For Washington, the fire is very literal on the set.
"When you watch the scene, it's like Mia alone in her studio, lighting her work on fire," Washington said. "In real life, it was like me and 17 firemen standing just off-camera all giving me lectures on how much time I had before I was gonna burn down the whole lot."
Little Fires Everywhere premieres Wednesday on Hulu.
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March 19, 2020
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