Big Little Lies’ Darby Camp on Playing a ‘Sassy’ Character and Getting Acting Tips From Reese Witherspoon

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The first time Darby Camp appeared on HBO, she was in an episode of The Leftovers in which Justin Theroux pushed her down a well while his character was doing some time in purgatory. These days, the 9-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, can be seen more regularly, in a non-purgatory setting, on the network’s Big Little Lies, in which she plays Chloe, the music-obsessed daughter of Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline.

Camp, who was in Los Angeles shooting a couple of episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, recently got on the phone with Vulture for a conversation in which she was never at a loss for words: about BLL, hanging out at the homes of Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, and her appreciation of Hall & Oates. Oh, and her pets. She had a lot to say about her pets, too.

Before we talk about Big Little Lies, I wanted to ask you about The Leftovers, which was the first thing in which I saw you. Can you tell me what it was like shooting that episode?
It was very fun filming it, and the scene where I get pushed in a well — I was sitting on the edge of the well and there was this fake rock that looked so realistic … and I sat on it, so when I got pushed the rock wouldn’t fall on me. When I got pushed in the well, the well is supposed to be really very long in the show but it was actually like four-feet or ten-feet tall or something around that. When I fell, I fell on a big old foam mattress and I actually liked the mattress. It was very comfortable.

The interesting thing about that episode is that it’s supposed to be taking place in purgatory. Did you understand all of that while you were shooting it?
When I was in the middle of seeing it, I thought it was kind of weird, like, what’s going on? But towards the end of it, my mom, she told me what was going on and I kind of understood more of it. A little.

Let’s talk about Big Little Lies. This show has some pretty famous actresses in it, including Reese Witherspoon, who plays your mom. Do you remember what it was like to meet her the first time?
When I met her the first time, I didn’t really know who she was. So I told my mom, like, “What is she famous for?” and then she told me like all the stuff that she’s been in, and so then me and my mom and my sister, I think, watched Hot Pursuit and Legally Blonde. That was really cool, working with her. She was very nice. She gave me a few tips on acting. Most of them are just like, “You’re doing really good. Do it just like you’re doing, but do it just a little more this way or a little more that way.” But she was very nice about saying that. She wasn’t being mean about, like, “You’re not doing it right.” She was just very professional.

One of the things I like about your character is that she seems a little more grown-up in some ways than the grown-ups who are supposed to be raising her. She’s got a bit of a smart mouth and sometimes she says some bad words. Was that fun to play?
It was. I thought it was really fun to call Reese “woman.” That seemed really sassy. I’m not usually sassy to my parents, but it was kind of cool to play this sassy character.

In what ways do you think you and Chloe are alike and in what ways do you think you’re different?
I think we’re only different because I’m not that sassy to my parents, like I said, and I don’t usually talk about the kind of stuff that she talks about. But I love the music she plays. Like, I love ’80s and ’90s music, like David Bowie and Johnny Cash and all of those good singers. I love all the music that she listens to. I’m more of — the artists I like are Hall & Oates and Michael Jackson. I only know one song by Hall & Oates, but it’s so good.

Which one?
“Maneater.”

That’s a good song.
There’s a scene in another episode where me, [Skye], and Ziggy are having a play date and we’re running around in the house, chasing each other, and most of it was all improv because we love playing with each other. [Iain Armitage, who plays Ziggy] is in L.A. right now, too. I saw him today. We ate breakfast with him and I went over to his apartment and we played with stuffed animals and we played make-believe and we made some fake snow. It was really cool.

I like how Chloe has a lot of friends and she’s really popular at school, like the scene where Reese is just like, “Walking in with Chloe is like walking in with a golden ticket.” That’s similar to me. Whenever I go to L.A., all my friends are like, “No, you’re leaving again. When are you coming back? I’m gonna miss you.” And I miss them so much, too, but luckily I’m only going to be here for like, two or three weeks now.

When I was filming Big Little Lies, I was gone for five months and I missed my friends very much. I have one dog [at home] named Marty McFly. He’s a shih tzu and when we were in L.A. I missed him really much, so much. There was this little shelter called Adopt-and-Stop where you can go see dogs and cats and meet them and play with them … When we came in, my mom was just like, “What about that dog?” and that dog was a white, fluffy, cute little doggy so we went to meet and greet him, and then I left the room to go pick out another animal and when I left, he started whining. So I came back and he stopped whining. I thought that was very unusual, so my mom was like, “I guess we should just adopt him.”

His name at the shelter was Mater and I thought that was an odd name so we renamed him Ziggy Stardust, like Ziggy in Big Little Lies. All of our pets are named after TV shows or something. We had a Griswold, and we have a kitten right now who is six months old … she’s very loving and very nice and we were going to name her Katniss from the Hunger Games because she’s a cat. But then we ended up naming her Penny, short for Penelope, like [Vanellope] from Wreck-It Ralph and Penny from Bolt.

You mentioned earlier that you like a lot of the music your character listens to on Big Little Lies. Did you know that music before you did the show, or did the show expose you to it?
I knew some of the music, not a lot of it. Some of the songs I liked in Big Little Lies were “Cold Little Heart,” it’s like the beginning main song of every episode. I liked “River,” by Leon Bridges. And I love listening to Janis Joplin. My character loved Janis Joplin and she wore clothes that Janis Joplin would wear and all the jewelry.

It sounds like you and the other kids on the show got along pretty well.
We did. I spent the night at Chloe’s house, who plays Skye. And I slept over at Ivy’s house, who plays Amabella, one time when we came to L.A. and we didn’t have anywhere to stay. And we stayed at the twin’s house overnight once, Nicholas and Cameron. Yeah, we made fast friends with all of them.

Here’s something else I was going to say — working with Nicole Kidman was really fun. She was very loving and nice. One time she let all the kids get on her lap and she wore a wig in the show and she’s like, “Oh, guys, do you want to play with my wig or something?” So we were all testing her wig and playing with it. My mom’s just like, “Put down the Nicole Kidman. Don’t touch the Nicole Kidman.” And Nicole Kidman, she brought Keith Urban and her children to set one day and I made friends with Faith and Sunday, which were her kids, and then Faith and Sunday invited me to the Kidman-Urban house and I thought that was really cool, not just because famous people live there but because I got to go to my friends’ house and they were very nice. Faith is the youngest, she is 6, and Sunday is the oldest and she’s 8.

What did you guys do when you went over there?
We watched movies on Friday when we came over. And they have a pool in their backyard so we swam in the pool a few times. They have a play set in their backyard so we played on the play set and played outside. Like they have a big yard and their view out of their backyard is beautiful. It is wonderful. It is magnificent.

So later when we came home, Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman emailed us and said, “Hey, Keith is having a concert in Charlotte. If you guys want to come, we can get you free meet and greet tickets.” So we got to do the meet and greet and we met him — that was really fun.

During the concert, I went on my dad’s shoulders and I was like pointing at him and dancing with my arms and then, I was yelling to him and then he did a shout-out to me, like in the middle of a song. He just did this — “Darby!” — and pointed at me. I thought that was really cool.

Are you able to watch all of Big Little Lies? Because there are parts of the show that are more adult. Have you just seen some of your parts and not the whole thing?
My parents watch it and I lay down with them, and then when — they’re just like, “No, you have to go,” and then I sit outside of their door and then they say, “Okay, you can come in, Darby.” I saw all the kid parts. I saw all the parts that were appropriate.

Obviously you’re still very young, but do you feel like you might want to be an actor for a living?
I want to be an actor when I get older. Yes, I do. I think Reese said, “Don’t do the main character in big TV shows, like every single episode, every single season. Don’t be started on that.” She started on movies and drama and that kind of stuff. She said that’s how she started out, and that would be better for a child.

She started very young, too, so I guess she can give you some good advice about that.
Yes, she did. So we had to do a piano solo — you saw it probably. So when we practiced it, Reese said, “You know what? Just come over to my house. I have a piano at my house. You can just come over.” So the piano teacher went, I went, my mom — we went to her house and the piano teacher kept on sneezing so Reese was like, “Oh I’m sorry, it’s probably my dogs. Let me just open the door to get some fresh air.”

The door is wide open and so me and Reese were playing the piano and then my mom was on her phone being like, “Can things ever be better than this, because this is awesome.” She’s like, “I’m sitting in Reese Witherspoon’s living room right now, listening to her playing the piano with my own child.” Then my mom heard a voice that said, “Excuse me ladies, y’all mind if I come in here?” It was Matthew McConaughey and my mom was literally just like: “Ahh!”

What was he doing there?
Reese’s husband is actually his agent so he went there to see his agent.

That makes sense.
Then about 20 minutes later, his wife came in. I think her name is Camila or something like that. And she came in too, and my mom was just like, “Wow. Just wow.”

Before we were done, my mom was just like, “I’m so sorry, Reese. I never do that,” and she’s just like, “Oh, it’s okay. It probably happens to him all the time. Trust me, Katy Perry will not be coming in as soon as you leave.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Big Little Lies’ Darby Camp on Reese Witherspoon