“The mothers are coming, the mothers are coming!” Crystal Fox says of Big Little Lies’ second season. While Meryl Streep and her fake incisors are sniffing around for answers about her son’s untimely death, Elizabeth, the mother of Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) is trying to figure out what the hell is going on with her daughter’s “mopey-dopey shit.”
Fox is one of Big Little Lies’ biggest and best additions in season two: Elizabeth is fiery and defiant, making a fuss about a lot of realities the Monterey Five — and especially Bonnie — would rather ignore. Elizabeth is less obsessed with finding out what happened the night of the school fundraiser, and more concerned with why no one is acknowledging their trauma. “When I came to work, I thought I had this loving, lighthearted relationship with my daughter,” Fox says, laughing. After she read the scripts, her understanding of the story quickly changed. Fox talked to Vulture about Amabella’s disco birthday, why Bonnie resents her mom, and whether Bonnie’s mom could take Perry’s mom in a fight.
What kinds of initial conversations did you have with showrunner Andrea Arnold, or other people on the team, about Elizabeth?
I didn’t. That was the challenge. I only got my script and my words. I developed a character in my head and in my mind, but I did not get to talk to anybody about who she was.
I read that you imagined Elizabeth as a Berkeley professor. Can you tell me more about that?
Yes, yes. I thought she was probably a Berkeley professor of African-American studies or women’s rights. I think she was cool and hip.
I also read that you didn’t meet Zoë until your first scene.
The very first thing I shot the back porch scene where I witness Bonnie and her husband [having] an argument. Sometimes, you have to bond immediately. All I had to do was stand there and watch the exchange, and then touch her. That was my first day of work.
And you two initially bonded over your aunt, Nina Simone, right?
Yes. I did a little research before and found out Zoë was into music. I figured she would be, because her father is. She’d mentioned that she loved Nina Simone’s music and she liked it. I thought, Oh that’s awesome, that’s my aunt. I will share that with her.
Can you tell me more about your relationship with your aunt? Were you two close, as artists?
We were very close. My family is musical and we went to church a lot because my grandmother was a minister. My cousins played the piano. Aunt Nina played the piano. We used to stay with her when I was little, in the summers. I was very little and we always had a bond, from what she told me. Later I realized that it had to have been the art.
I’m obsessed with Amabella’s disco birthday. What can you tell me about your costume and filming those scenes?
The clothes were fun. It took three days to film that scene! You’ve got adults, you’ve got kids, you’ve got these costumes — it was just hysterical. I feel like my look was kind of Donna Summers, that’s what we were going for with the hair and the gogo outfit. I loved it.
Do you listen to a lot of disco?
No. [Laughs.] I like disco as a period piece now. You know what I mean?
Yeah. It’s funny that this eight-year-old is having such an elaborate disco theme, a time period she obviously has no reference for herself.
[Laughs] Exactly right. It’s a party for an eight-year-old, thrown by her mom.
At the top of that scene when Elizabeth meets Renata for the first time, your whole composure just changes. Can you tell me what’s happening between you and Laura Dern there?
Elizabeth is sensitive and intuitive. She feels something, she senses something. She has sight. She saw something, just from touching her. Now it’s like, How do [these women] have this experience and act like something didn’t happen? I don’t think Elizabeth can shake that. It put her on guard to be more aware of the surroundings and watchful.
What does Elizabeth think of these Monterey women?
She’s checking each of them out individually. It’s, Who are these people that my daughter has surrounded herself with? Are they good to her? Are they really her friends?
That seems really key to a moment from the second episode, when Elizabeth and Bonnie are hiking. You really press her on why she’s living in this place where no one looks like her. Can you tell me about shooting that?
It was great. When I first got there, one of the main things that was important to Zoë was to cover the racial difference. It had not been brought up. One of the things that was very important to her was talking about color, talking about the fact that she’s the only one, talking about the fact that there’s no other person of color around. I said I understand, and I asked if I could try something.
So that was an ad-lib on the day?
Yeah. I wanted to capture the idea and the importance of what Zoë wanted. The director [Andrea Arnold] was okay with it, Zoë was okay with it, and I think it captured it.
You’re the second person to ask me about it. I’m glad about that, because that means it landed the way we wanted it to. Her mom’s question is, Are you here hiding, or are you okay with being the only one? And if that’s the case, then why?
Do you think that Bonnie is hiding?
I don’t know. But Elizabeth believes that even Bonnie’s choice of husband [is suspect]. Something feels missing, you know what I mean? And now, it’s like, Wait a minute, what’s going on your life?
Do you think that a part of Bonnie resents Elizabeth?
Yes. When people have strong parents and put on such a strong front themselves, usually they’re going to clash somewhere with the person that they gained this from. You love your parents, we love our mothers, but you’re going to have some place that you bump heads.
I have to say that if there’s a showdown between you and Meryl Sreep, my money is on you.
Oh my God! I don’t want to be that person, don’t make me that person!
I’m serious! That dinner scene with Bonnie and Nathan was great, where you tell her “all this mopey dopey shit” isn’t working. That felt verbatim from my own mom.
See, you know! The older people get, the less time — and excuse my language — they have for the bullshit! They can’t afford it. I can’t afford to miss my daughter. No! No one is telling the truth! Everyone is hem-hawing. We’re not talking about this death, we’re not talking about any of that. What the heck is going on?
You sound just like my mom right now. This is a conversation she and I have had so many times.
I feel like the regular way of doing things in Monterrey is more [fakes super high, perky voice] “No problem, everything’s great!” But everything is not great!
Tell me more about Elizabeth’s spirituality. Is she practicing voodoo?
We took a moment to really think about voodoo. In different films that I’ve seen, or in the public perception, voodoo has been shown as a dark force. I read about it myself and there’s some dark stuff, but there’s a white practice, meaning that it’s healing. It’s not just putting spells on people and wishing them evil. There are practices for healing. That’s what I wanted to bring to it.
I don’t even call it voodoo. I have it in my mind that Elizabeth may have a Hatiaian background, and in that practice, it can be very healing. From a mom to a daughter, all I wanted to do was bring that healing to her. I think Bonnie has the ability to see and intuit as well, but she doesn’t want to use it, which is fine. I don’t think [Elizabeth] overuses it, but she is grounded in it. It’s the basis of her faith.
What do you think of the flashback scenes with Bonnie and Elizabeth? Some people have described the flashback where Elizabeth shoves Bonnie underwater to teach her to swim as abusive. What did you make of it?
As I’m seeing it, I’m like Wow. To me, when you know better, you do better. That’s the first thought that comes to my mind when I see [the swimming scene]. If what that mother is trying to do with her daughter is misconstrued as abusive or hurtful, hurt people hurt people. You teach what you were taught. As you grow up, if you continue to stay open and aware and learning, you get better. You do better. That’s what I feel like Elizabeth is hoping for.
Has your perspective on Elizabeth and Bonnie’s relationship changed as you’re watching the show?
A little bit. Let me say this: When I was first coming into the show, who I thought I was, and how I thought our relationship was, was so different. What I read for my audition was different than what they wanted it to be once I got there. I didn’t know that until Andrea greeted me. She told me how happy they were that I was there, and that the decision for me to be cast was unanimous in the room. And then she said, “And I’m sorry you’re going to have to be such a bitch!” After seeing how the scripts unfold, I understand what [Andrea] meant. But it changed how I thought Elizabeth would be. It’s so hard to explain, because it was complicated and challenging, but real relationships are like that anyway.
Especially between a mother and a daughter.
That’s exactly right. A mom and a daughter? It would be way different if it were between a mother and her son. A mom is helping grow another woman. That’s gonna be complicated.
Next question: Which of the Monterey Five — Renata, Jane, Madeline, Bonnie, Celeste — is closest to your own personality?
Oh my gosh! [Laughs.] I would hope that it would be Shailene’s character, but I don’t have children. I think I could be a blend of all of them, except Nicole. Nicole is the coolest. I think I’d be a blend of all of the others. Fiery like Renata, at times. Definitely Earthy like Bonnie, at times. Reese’s character, oh my gosh, I don’t know what description to give her. Very outspoken, very high energy. But Shailene, because I like listening to folks. I like the way she listens to people.
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask: Will Elizabeth make it out of this coma? Will she be okay?
[Extended, devilish cackle] Now thaaaaaaat’s one question, Hunter, that I cannot answer. Let me ask you: Would you want her to?