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‘Little Fires Everywhere’ Team Talks Adapting Themes of Motherhood and Race, Importance of Inclusive Writers’ Room

When Reese Witherspoon first read Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel “Little Fires Everywhere,” she was struck by the very many complex themes around motherhood and womanhood, as well as race and class portrayed within the pages. In wanting to adapt it for the screen through her Hello Sunshine banner, she knew she needd a true partner with whom she could have “many conversations” and would “actually…show up and do the work,” she said at the Television Critics Assn. press tour panel for the Hulu limited series Friday.

In looking for someone who would share “equal parts and equal responsibility and leadership” entered Kerry Washington. Both women star in the adaptation and also executive produce.

“As producers we get to employ hundreds and hundreds of artists and activisits and we can do that in environments that are safe and embody our values,” Washington noted.

Added Witherspoon: “Choices used to be made for me a lot. About eight years ago, she “wasn’t happy with the choices that were ebeing made for me and I didn’t see a place to exist within the industry that we had. There just wasn’t a spectrum of storytelling for women that was reflective the world that we walked through.” That inspired her to launch her first company, Type A Films. Hello Sunshine followed, in 2016. “I had no idea the world would open up for us.”

Little Fires Everywhere” centers on Witherspoon’s Elena, a wealthy wife, mother and reporter who also dabbles in rental properties — including to Washington’s Mia, a single mother and artist who moves around a lot and has a secret in her past. While the novel deals in the aforementioned themes of class and race, especially as Mia helps an immigrant try to find the infant daughter she regrets giving up and Elena’s lawyer husband (played by Joshua Jackson) gets involved in that custody case, Washington’s casting pushed race further into the forefront of the story.

“It does complicate, but it also enriches, I think,” Washington said. “The book really does delve into class and sociopolitical differences and cultural differences, so I think adding the level of race to that really enriches the storytelling. We are stepping away from this binary idea we have of race in this country — of black and white — because we’re also dealing with Asian American identity and immigrant identity.”

All of this, she continued, is “embodied in these very rich women — these women you know or you love or you hate or they make you feel closer to them because you are them or make you feel like you have no idea how they got to who they are.”

In order to adapt this story, Liz Tigelaar (“Life Unexpected,” “Casual”) was brought in to showrun. Tigelaar met with Ng and kicked around some ideas, including wanting to amplify Elena’s daughter Izzy’s (Megan Stott) story to include more of an exploration about her sexuality.

“When I read that character and relating to that charcter, although I probably wasn’t as much as a rebel as I thought I was, it just seemed so obvious to me that she could be a girl in this town at this time, at this age, with this mother who could be living in a world that feels like such a facade,” Tigelaar said.

When she pitched Ng the idea that Izzy would be struggling with identity and her sexuality, the response was excitement and that Ng “totally thought that for Izzy [but] just thought there wasn’t room in the book.” With eight episodes for the Hulu limited series, Tigelaar knew they had the real estate to get into it. But furthermore, she loved how that story would then open up more ways in which Izzy bonds with Mia.

“I loved the different things that she could teach Mia about herself,” she explained. In turn, Mia could be an example for Izzy to “grow up to be your own person and find your own place and don’t have to live in a cookie cutter version of your mother and feel like you’re failing all of the time.”

In adapting Ng’s novel, Tigelaar said she “really felt like she was passing me this baton with permission to run with it.” Ng came into the writers’ room as they were about halfway through breaking the series, she continued, to teach them about the real Shaker Heights. Additonally, Ng was sent every script so she could take a “Shaker Heights pass” on it for authenticity.

“She wrote the song, but we were writing the cover,” Tigelaar said.

In the big ways, though, the show will follow the book, Tigelaar noted, especially in how Mia and Elena “hold a mirror up to each other.” They may “mother very differently, they live their lives very differently,” but “there are similarities between them that get set off by coming into each others’ lives,” she said. “We are getting to the core of how we operate as mothers and how we operate as humans in the world.”

A key line that embodies the series, Tigelaar said, is one that says Mia “didn’t make choices, she had choices.” This was written by Attica Locke and is one example of why the series’s writers’ room was the place she was most proud of in the show.

In assembling the room, Tigelaar wanted to make sure to “match the racial landscape of the book” with voices behind-the-scenes.

“What was amazing about the room and is why it moves me so much, [is that] everybody had these multiple connectivity points for the show. I can’t necessarily write Mia’s character because that wasn’t my exprience,” Tigelaar admitted. “And the parts I couldn’t write to, what was so great was I got to bring in seven other people who could write to those parts and then write to parts I didn’t even know [would exist].”

As an adopted daughter, biological mother, bisexual woman and woman who was raised in the 1990s, Tigelaar noted that Izzy was a character who came easily to her: “I can write to those longings and those wishes and those fantasies.” The room as a whole, Tigelaar shared, was made up of “mostly mothers” with one lone father, and many people who were adopted and/or in different versions of foster care growing up, as well as many people who were raised by single parents and who were in biracial relationships now.

“One lived on the border of Shaker Heights, that was a real score,” she laughed.

But more seriously, she added, “No one was there for one thing or to be the voice of one race or one anything. Everyone was there to bring their whole experience to it and to have really hard, challenging conversations about what mattered to them.”

“Little Fires Everywhere” premieres Mar. 18 on Hulu.

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