The houses are spectacular, the people are gorgeous, and the views are splendid. But when it comes to the show’s therapy scenes, Big Little Lies couldn’t be any more discomforting. Born from the imagination of series creator David E. Kelley — and not the Liane Moriarty book he adapted for HBO — the marriage-counseling sessions between Dr. Amanda Reisman (Robin Weigert) and Celeste and Perry Wright (Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård) are so realistic they’re draining. In last night’s pivotal episode, Dr. Reisman gets Celeste to admit she’s afraid she might die because of her husband’s violent abuse. Vulture spoke to Weigert about what it was like to film those intimate scenes, Jean-Marc Vallée’s unique directorial style, and working with Kidman and Skarsgård.
Why did you want to play this part? Had you read the book?
I read the book after I got the part and I loved the book. The therapist is not as much a figure in the book; she’s very much a figure in the mind of Celeste. The fully elaborated character is more in the script by David Kelly, so it’s very interesting to see what he made of her. They’re very believable therapy sessions to me — I thought she was very well-conceived. I have an interesting relationship to the profession of psychotherapy just because I come from a line of therapists. My father was one and my grandmother was one too, so it was super-interesting to step into those shoes.
What kind of sense did you get about Dr. Reisman that gave you the instinct as to how to play her?
Well, because the scenes were so well-written, I could feel that she was present in a “feeling-ful” way, not just in an intellectual way. She isn’t one of those tabula rasa kinds of therapists who just sits as if on a safe perch and observes, you know? She’s not just an agent of an emotional experience for the patient — she’s also risking being emotionally engaged herself. That’s part of what made me fall in love with the part.
Did you research therapists or did you rely more on your family experience?
It’s not based on research, but I say in all humility that I feel like I have a lot of experience of this because of the whole milieu that I grew up in. In fact, I have a wonderful therapist who I used to see quite a lot and now I just check in with every so often. Not that I’m cured! I would love to give a shout-out to Florence Falk because she was quite instrumental in my own kind of growing. My grandmother has one published book of essays, which are a little bit of a dry read — they’re in translation from German — but the content is very profound. It’s called The Courage to Love, and it’s very much about what I’m talking to you about.
How did you find working with Jean-Marc and his unique directorial style? He doesn’t rehearse and he shoots with handheld cameras.
He’s much the way that I’m describing this therapist: somewhat untraditional in terms of allowing herself to be vulnerable and be present. I would say he is that way as a director. He’s very feeling-ful. It’s not uncommon that, after a take, he’ll come toward us with tears in his eyes because something has really caught him in that place. He’s present in a very animal sense, and you can feel it by the way he moves about the room.
The other actors I’ve talked to say they like working with him because there’s no waiting around — you arrive, you’re in character, and you go.
He’s in pursuit of something very organic, and I think you see that in the final product. There isn’t allowed that kind of time that can sterilize the moment by making everything so self-conscious. It’s a little bit like, “Let’s tumble in and see what we find.” There’s a therapy scene we did where there’s a scene, a cutaway, and then we’re back in. It’s fully expected that you would shoot that as two scenes. But he just let it roll. Without even a cue in advance that we’d be pulling in the second half of that therapy session, we just continued. The surprise of it all is great, because that degree of uncertainty actually helps cut off a certain part of your brain that isn’t necessarily helpful to you as an actor — where you’re trying to make something overwrought by overthinking it.
What was the most challenging part for you? It’s a tough role. A lot of it is in facial expressions and gestures.
Well, I’m not thinking about facial expressions or I’d be in trouble! That would be really quite bad to look at. I realize that my face is a pretty expressive one, but that’s not because I’m sitting there making facial expressions. That’s what I was sort of born with, so that’s just what I got. In this situation, the real acting challenge was to be open and available to whatever might be happening and to not be afraid to be affected by it, even though my character is there in a professional capacity.
She just sits there and listens and maintains eye contact. She doesn’t even scribble in a notepad.
The props department was wonderful in providing every single thing that a therapist might use. Pretty early on, Jean-Marc was like, “Yeah, I don’t think you take notes.” And I wasn’t inclined to do it, either.
Let’s talk about the scenes more specifically. The first time we see Dr. Reisman is in the third episode, when Celeste and Perry go to therapy together. Celeste tries to protect him, but he ends up confessing to the violence in the relationship, which was surprising.
Yes, I thought so too. Alex [Skarsgård] is really, really great there.
What was filming that scene like? You want to think he’s a jerk, but then you kind of feel for him. You realize he’s tortured.
It was very moving, but I have to say often villains are tortured. I can think of a few that we know about right now who are probably pretty tortured also. But I’m not going to get into that! [Laughs.]
Funny! But you know what I mean. Are you saying he played us?
He is an incredibly convincing actor, and I mean Perry. Also Alex, but I am talking about Perry. His sociopathy is partly evident in how well he can perform the role he knows she wants him to play. There’s something about the way he bestows these lavish gifts of flowers and necklaces and stuff, and adorns her bruised body with these trinkets. What woman wouldn’t want to hear every single one of the things that he’s able to say, especially one who feels like, Oh, gosh, I have this younger man who adores the ground I walk on and, actually, the root of all of this is that he’s afraid of losing me? He’s giving her exactly what she would most want to hear. While Dr. Reisman is moved by that to a degree, I think she’s also canny enough to perceive that there might be something manipulative in it.
How long did it take to shoot that scene?
We did all the therapy scenes in two days. They were scheduled to go on much longer, but that’s the way we were working. We were working in a highly intuitive, highly efficient way. We did everything in order. Nothing was out of sequence, which is also very helpful. We were really just right in there, you know?
What was it like working on such a deep and personal scene with Nicole Kidman and Alex Skarsgård?
It was just a very good experience. When you work with a certain caliber of actor, there’s this gift, because you don’t have to do a lot to create that suspension of disbelief. It’s just the truth and it’s so palpable. It’s like your own truth is bestowed upon you by the fact that the other in the scene feels so absolutely present. I felt that when I acted with Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a very rare quality. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what that is — when somebody’s truth takes over, and you’re not thinking about much else besides relating to what’s in the room.
In the next three episodes, Celeste returns to therapy by herself. The first time, she asks for advice on how to tell Perry she wants to work again. What do you remember about filming that scene?
It’s a very delicate dance, because you don’t want to go so far that the patient becomes defensive and loses trust in you or suspects that you have an agenda. It has to be handled with great care, even if you begin to sense that there’s something lurking under there that needs prying out. I was experiencing it very much as if I was a therapist; I remember feeling that I had to exercise a great deal of care, even as I was bringing certain things to her or raising certain questions for her. She had to be handled somewhat gently so she wouldn’t pull away.
When Celeste returns to therapy in tonight’s episode, it goes much further. Dr. Reisman gets her to admit she does fear for her life.
The therapy session in episode five is the one where she finally breaks through Celeste’s defenses. Both patient and doctor are super-intelligent women — one with an agenda to bury the truth, the other with an agenda to unearth it. A lot of the beats of the scene could almost be read as if the two of them are in a contest of wits. The “gotcha” beats in the scene, as we played them, began to feel like waves on the ocean, and underneath them was just this tremendous, still reservoir of empathy.
Have you ever seen the story of domestic violence told this way before in TV or film? The show gets into it in such a different way.
These are members of an extremely rarified class. They’re very privileged, very wealthy people, living lives that, from the outside, look so enviable. I think that, most often, depictions of abuse go to situations that are rough-and-tumble and treat the abuse as if it’s just endemic to that way of life — like, that guy hits his wife because he never had anything. So right from the get-go, the idea that this level of abuse could exist within such a totally bucolic setting — that’s novel in terms of depictions I’ve seen.
The way Nicole is playing the character, just when she’s out in public, there’s this sort of veil of sadness or mystery that other people might read as part of her mystique. You don’t realize what pain is there. The idea that somebody can be so visible and so the object of envy and harbor secrets like this, is also important. It gives us a way to recognize the potential for this to be anywhere. In a world where appearances seem to be everything, the dirtiest part of the secret for her is her addiction to it, her pleasure in it, her inability to get rid of her desire to be desired in that way. Even rescuing her children would come at the cost of this almost idolatrous love that Perry showers her with when he’s apologizing. All those things are so addictive. The shame in not being able to break free is partly because she’s so hooked on it herself.