The untold truth of Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere starring Kerry Washington, Reese Witherspoon, and a stellar supporting cast debuted on March 18, 2020. The series explores issues of class, race, and family in a suburban America setting. Although the show may be set in the ’90s, you can watch it in a very 2020 way: right from your living room. Unlike the characters in the series, you aren’t limited to watching whatever happens to be on a handful of television channels. Yes, times have certainly changed and, thankfully, Little Fires Everywhere is a Hulu series, which means it’s available to stream. 

Of course, there are a ton of quality shows from which to choose in this golden age of streaming content, but Little Fires Everywhere has secured itself as one the most-anticipated additions in the lineup. And, from casting decisions to source material, there’s a ton of background information to know about this incredible series. This is the untold truth of Little Fires Everywhere.

Little Fires Everywhere is based on a novel by Celeste Ng

Author Celeste Ng is riding quite the wave. Her first book, Everything I Never Told You, was critically lauded by The New York Times as well as named by Amazon as the number one book of the year, as noted on Ng’s website. Her second novel entitled Little Fires Everywhere was similarly praised after its 2017 publication, assuring Ng’s position as quite the fiction superstar.

So anticipated was Ng’s sophomore release that Reese Witherspoon and her production company, Hello Sunshine, snagged the film rights before the novel was even published, according to Deadline. “At Hello Sunshine, we strive to shine a light on female-driven stories that are rooted in inspiration, emotion and truth — all of which form the bedrock of Celeste Ng’s ingenious work,” Witherspoon told the outlet. That’s some seriously high praise!

Both Witherspoon and Kerry Washington are executive producers of the project, as is Ng, according to IMDb. Ng was also in the writer’s room for all eight episodes, so fans of the book will be happy to know she had a heavy hand in the adaptation.

The streaming adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere differs from the novel

One of the challenges of adapting a best-selling novel into a film or television series is ensuring that book lovers will be satisfied with it. If it doesn’t meet the expectations of readers, it then gets relegated to the “book was better” pile on the cutting room floor, which is, of course, not an ideal situation.

Fortunately, as Kerry Washington tells it, the series version of Little Fires Everywhere isn’t going to make the mistakes that would cause that to happen. And while there are some surprises in store for loyal readers, the series has a life of its own while honoring the source material. “Celeste [Ng] said something really beautiful and generous to us in the process of making the show,” Washington told The Hollywood Reporter. “She said, ‘The best covers of songs are the ones that really make it their own.'” Hey, if the author is happy with the adaptation, that bodes well for everyone else!

The writers' room for Little Fires everywhere was very diverse

One of the primary reasons Reese Witherspoon created Hello Sunshine was to put women’s stories front and center in film and television, especially in a Hollywood that’s overwhelmingly male-dominated. Showrunner Liz Tigelaar took that a step further, too, in ensuring that the writers’ room for Little Fires Everywhere was just right.

“In terms of racial landscape, I knew that the writers room needed to match the races of the mothers whose stories we were telling in the book,” she divulged to BuzzFeed News. To that end, they hired writers raised by single parents, writers with immigrant parents, and writers who had spouses from a different race at the table. “And we had one father,” Tigelaar added.

With such a perfect mix of people working on the script together, Tigelaar said the chemistry in the room was spot-on, which allowed beautiful ideas to manifest themselves. “People challenged each other and were willing to be challenged,” she continued. “And that’s what made the show great.”

On set, Little Fires Everywhere was predominantly women

Little Fires Everywhere is intentionally inclusive both on-screen and behind the scenes — something that didn’t escape the notice of former Dawson’s Creek actor Joshua Jackson, who plays Reese Witherspoon’s husband in the series. “You add on top of that this layer of the entire power structure of the show being all female, all women [including Washington, Witherspoon and showrunner Liz Tigelaar at the top of the pyramid],” he revealed in an interview with Variety. “I thought that was an interesting take on it too because it’s important to have different perspectives telling stories.” That’s certainly a deviation from the norm in Hollywood.

That balance makes sense in this situation especially, given what Ng’s novel focuses on at heart. “When I read the book, I just thought it was a beautiful exploration about different kinds of mothering,” Witherspoon added. And there was no shortage of mothers on set, either.

There are parallels between Little Fires Everywhere and Big Little Lies

Not unlike Big Little LiesLittle Fires Everywhere explores the complexities of motherhood. Both shows also feature Reese Witherspoon on-screen and is produced by Witherspoon’s production company. As Witherspoon sees it, there’s so much material out there on the subject of motherhood that’s ripe for exploration and she’s happy to be one of the ones bringing some of it to the surface. “We’re dealing with hundreds of years of storytelling about mothers,” she revealed to The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re just barely scratching the surface of stories that tell the spectrum of female behavior.” 

Additionally, it’s not just one parent-child relationship that is examined in Little Fires Everywhere that allows the series to show the range of maternal relationships out there, said Witherspoon. “I think just exploring four different ones in this, actually five with my character’s mother, it just informs you so much about parenting,” she added.

Shaker Heights in Little Fires Everywhere is a real place

Little Fires Everywhere, both the novel and the streaming adaptation, are set in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Shaker Heights isn’t a creation of Celeste Ng’s imagination — it’s a very real place. In fact, it’s exactly where the novelist lived from 1990 through 1998, according to The Guardian.

As Ng tells it, Shaker Heights was a progressive and relatively prosperous community, with a lot to love about it. “It was a lovely place to grow up,” she told the publication. “The houses are beautiful and the schools are excellent. You walked under a canopy of green.” That does sound idyllic!

While Shaker Heights did put in the work to be inclusive and it was truly advanced for its time, Ng says it wasn’t as perfect as it hoped to be. “What I remember about race relations in the 1990s is that you showed your awareness by saying you didn’t see race, that you were colour-blind,” she continued. She added that our understanding of race has evolved since then, becoming more nuanced.

You will spot author Celeste Ng in cameos in Little Fires Everywhere

While Celeste Ng is definitely more of a novelist than an aspiring actress, she did get super excited when she was asked to appear in Little Fires Everywhere in cameo roles. “I just love that they asked me to do it,” she gushed in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “Because I had this hard sell about why I wanted to, and that I was happy to just be a waitress in the background, and I could definitely do it, definitely pretend.” But she never had to make her pitch, as they offered the opportunity before she could.

In order to prepare for her silver screen debut, Ng picked up a book that broke down exactly what happens on set and what language is used in that context. “I wanted to know what was going on,” she continued. “I’m just generally interested in how people do their jobs.” So, when the day came to fire up the lights and cameras, Ng knew everything that was going on — and felt pretty darn good about it, too.

Reese Witherspoon's character in Little Fires Everywhere was a new challenge for her

Reese Witherspoon has been in the business of acting for decades. From Election to Legally Blonde to Walk the Line, Witherspoon has done it all, playing a wide variety of characters throughout her long and successful career. 

Nevertheless, the role of Elena Richardson in Little Fires Everywhere gave Witherspoon a lot to chew on, thanks to the complexities and pitfalls of her personality. “Creating that character was a new challenge for me,” she explained to Vanity Fair. “Despite her intelligence and social grooming, she has a deeply embedded lack of awareness of her privilege.” 

Indeed Elena Richardson possesses some frustrating characteristics, which Witherspoon honed in on during production. “She’s constructed a life that’s impervious to the world she lives in,” she continued. “She’s so comfortable in her social standing and her wealth that she feels entitled to analyze anyone outside her sphere but never takes a hard look at her own shortcomings.”

Little Fires Everywhere author Celeste Ng knew Reese Witherspoon was a good casting choice

One thing that Celeste Ng is super excited about concerning the adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere is the fact that Reese Witherspoon is playing the role of Elena Richardson. “I love that Reese, one of America’s sweethearts, is like, ‘I’m going to let you watch me do something really terrible, and then work through whether or not you’re going to root for me,'” she shared in an interview with BuzzFeed News

Additionally, Ng pointed out that our own racial biases will be challenged by Witherspoon’s performance. “Many of us are predisposed to give the benefit of the doubt to well-intentioned white ladies,” she continued. “And they’re used to getting that benefit of the doubt.” She added that she hopes people respond to the fact that Witherspoon is confronting viewers with this reality and that they digest the lesson in that.

That doesn’t mean that Witherspoon’s character is a total villain, however. As Ng puts it, she probably just wants to speak with your manager.

In the book Little Fires Everywhere, Mia was never given a race

When it came time to cast the role of Mia Warren in the streaming adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere, Reese Witherspoon knew right away who would be perfect for the part. “I thought nobody would be a better scene partner or partner at behind the scenes actually, truthfully, than Kerry [Washington],” she mused in a chat with Variety. “She’s known as such an incredibly professional person, but she’s also a lot of fun.” Plus, she’s an incredibly talented actress, as anyone who’s watched Scandal can attest. 

Washington may just be the perfect casting choice for Mia, but the character wasn’t actually depicted as being of any particular race in the novel, Washington told the publication. “It is interesting though because a lot of people when they read the book put race onto Mia,” she added. “Like people decided what race she was, even though Celeste has been really clear that she did not have a race in the book.”

Kerry Washington says Little Fires Everywhere deals with race head on

In making the decision to cast Kerry Washington as Mia Warren in Little Fires Everywhere, the production team opened things up to discussions of race and race relations. That’s a good thing, according to Washington, as a lot can be learned from this nuanced choice. “We knew that the novel was so much about identity and how identity impacts relationships, how you think about yourself, your sexuality, your class, your geography, how those things impact how you parent, how you make friends, how you work in the world,” she explained to Variety. “So, I think adding a layer to that complexity with race is really powerful.”

Washington is also interested in seeing how people react to her playing Mia and how people will respond to the character. “I know they feel like it affirms their idea, or complicates their idea, or is in opposition to their idea of who she is supposed to be,” she continued.

Showrunner Liz Tigelaar says every character has a point of view in Little Fires Everywhere

While every character in Little Fires Everywhere has flaws and may exercise bad judgment at times, no one person in the show is meant to be wholly good or bad — nor completely unlikable. Rather, showrunner Liz Tigelaar wants viewers to understand each character’s unique perspective. “We tried not to have a point of view or to be on any character’s side,” she explained in an interview with Entertainment Tonight. “We tried to show characters’ experiences.”

So when viewers see one mother struggling to make the right decision, for example, it’s juxtaposed with another maternal figure trying to do what’s best for everyone involved. “There is commenting, but there’s not judging,” Tigelaar continued.

As to how things fall into place at the end of the series, sans spoilers, Tigelaar is pleased with where the chips landed. “It feels very final to me, but it doesn’t feel wrapped up in a bow or like you have all the answers,” she added. “To me there’s real closure.”

These are the challenges the young actors face in Little Fires Everywhere

In addition to powerhouse actors like Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon, several up-and-coming actors joined the cast of Little Fires Everywhere. Lexi Underwood plays Pearl, Mia Warren’s daughter, while Jordan Elsass has stepped into the role of Elena Richardson’s son Tripp. Additionally, Gavin Lewis was cast as Moody Richardson, Tripp’s younger brother.

So, what challenges do these young actors find in store for their characters? “I believe that Tripp has a good heart, and that he has had many labels placed on him, you know: player, jock, dumb …” Elsass revealed to Black Girl Nerds. “There is some truth to that, but he has to shatter that.” Lewis added that by contrast, Moody’s biggest challenge is the way his family treats him, as he feels he’s constantly compared to his siblings.

As for Pearl, her challenges are quite different, as meeting the Richardsons changed the way she sees her mother. “I think Pearl is just honestly just trying to find her voice and trying to see where she fits in and where she belongs,” she shared.

Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington hope Little Fires Everywhere brings people comfort

It’s not lost on either Kerry Washington or Reese Witherspoon that Little Fires Everywhere dropped in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, during a time when everyone likely feels on edge. “It feels a little odd to be here talking about a television show,” Witherspoon shared in a chat with The Hollywood Reporter on March 12, 2020. “If we have an opportunity to distract or entertain, I feel very lucky to be part of a community that’s helping [do that].” Given that many people have been confined to their homes during the pandemic, certainly people are looking for something to watch.

Washington also weighed in on the topic and believes that tuning into Little Fires Everywhere might be a balm for folks in need. “Figuring out how to have moments of respite and calm and joy even in these times is really important because our stress level impacts our immunity,” she explained.

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