Little Fires Everywhere pits two formidable Hollywood actresses against each other in a tale embracing motherhood, race and class. Donal O’Donoghue talks to Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon.

The night I spoke with the stars of Little Fires Everywhere, the US was burning. It was two days after the killing of African-American George Floyd by a white police officer. But in a Zoom interview with Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon, the producers and stars of the TV adaptation of Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel, the issue of race was barely mentioned by journalist or the actors. Instead, the talk was of motherhood in all its shades and colours, a significant theme of the show, alongside race and class.

Later, Kerry Washington would pay tribute to George Floyd and other black lives on her Instagram account and Reese Witherspoon would post how she tried to explain the killing and the protests to her seven-year-old son.

Over the years, Witherspoon has forged a reputation as an activist, fighting for greater representation in Hollywood for people of colour, as well as the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities. Her media company, Hello Sunshine, which produced two of the biggest TV series of recent years, Big Little Lies and The Morning Show, has a finger in many pies including podcasts, a mentorship programme for aspiring female film-makers, a YouTube channel and a subscription channel.

She has also published a memoir of sorts (lots of recipes and etiquette tips amid the biographical details), Whiskey in a Teacup: What Growing Up in the South Taught Me About Life, Love, and Baking Biscuits.

In other words, that can-do attitude of her character Elle Woods from Legally Blonde, is not very far off the mark. "I remember being a young actress and not knowing the stories I wanted to tell," she says from her home in LA. "I was a little bit lost. But now I feel very clear about the deficit of storytelling for women and how we are making up for hundreds of years of lost stories because we were not the storytellers. So I do feel a responsibility to make impactful work."

Shortly after Ng’s novel, Little Fires Everywhere, was published in 2017, Witherspoon, an avid reader, bought the rights. She had previously negotiated page-to-screen adaptations of the thriller Gone Girl and Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild (her portrayal of Strayed won her an Oscar nomination). But for Little Fires Everywhere she needed a like-minded partner, on screen as well as in the engine room.

Kerry Washington was raised in the Bronx, a few blocks from the projects, to a college professor mother and a father who worked in real estate. She knew from early on that show-business would be her business. But like Witherspoon, she branched beyond acting, into TV production and activism, a founding member of Time’s Up, an initiative to combat sexual harassment in the entertainment industry and beyond.

"The strange reality of being a woman in this business, and particularly a woman of colour, is that because our heroes looked a certain way, when you bring women and their stories to the centre of the story that in itself becomes a political act," she says of Little Fires Everywhere.

Washington and Witherspoon developed Little Fires Everywhere in equal partnership through their respective production companies, Simpson Street and Hello Sunshine. They hadn’t worked together before. "I met my match," says Witherspoon of her co-star.

"No one works harder or cares more. It was long hours, lots of thought and really pushing the conversation." The conversation’s focus was on class and race and motherhood and being a woman. "I learned that a lot of Reese’s power comes from her authenticity," says Washington. "It’s very easy in life to fall into certain roles but every day, Reese is full of joy and life and that is for real. When you ask her, ‘How are you?’ she’s really going to tell you exactly how she feels."

Little Fires Everywhere is set in the ‘Stepford Wives’ suburb of Shaker Heights in 1990s Ohio. Talking in 2017, Ng, who grew up in the Cleveland suburb, said that her novel’s narrative was still vividly relevant, a story in which nothing was black and white. The TV adaptation ups the race element by rewriting the central character of Mia Warren as an African-American (in the novel Ng has envisioned her as white). In the opening episode, Witherspoon’s character alerts the police to Mia, who is apparently living out of her car with her daughter. Cue flashing lights and a grim-faced Mia being ‘moved on’.

But in truth this mini-series, with its Babel of themes and issues, is propelled by its leading women. Little Fires Everywhere sees two powerhouse actors go toe-to-toe, with Witherspoon’s prim and proper Queen Bee, Elena, wrestling with Washington’s mysterious Mia. The privileged WASP creation Elena is what we have come expect from Witherspoon in recent years (Big Little Lies) even if there are a few twists in a tale: Elena watches her palatial home burn to the ground in the opening episode, before the story rewinds to tell its tale.

And if Washington’s Mia gives little away, her loaded looks tell a lot. The actor has said of the role that it was a "coming of age" for her, pushing her beyond anything she had done before, even her celebrated part as Olivia Pope in Shonda Rhimes’ watercooler drama, Scandal. Little Fires Everywhere’s central thrust, as noted previously, is motherhood. Washington said on a recent Ellen Show that when she and Witherspoon were in wardrobe, trying on their characters’ clothes, it struck them that they were playing elements of their own mothers and were getting to walk in their shoes.

It was a nice TV chat-show line, in tune with the show’s theme of maternal influence being negative as well as positive. "We explore motherhood through the eyes of so many different kinds of mother," says Witherspoon. "There’s a Chinese immigrant mother, a black mother, a woman who cannot have her own children and has to adopt and a white privileged mother who doesn’t see her own privilege."

So long framed as America’s Sweetheart, there’s always been a steel in Reese Witherspoon, someone intent on putting women in the centre of the picture. "It’s so powerful to be able to explore motherhood from so many different perspectives," she says (Witherspoon has two children with her first husband Ryan Philippe and a son, Tennessee, with her second husband, Jim Toth.

"We have to shake off the idea that there is only one way to be a good mom. And Little Fires Everywhere allows us to explore the nuances of motherhood in a way that isn’t an assassination. There are all kinds of different mothers. Some you agree with their parenting and some you don’t. The reality is that there are some not great moms in the world that are putting a lot of negativity and bad ideas into their children’s minds."

There are ‘not great’ moms in Little Fires Everywhere but they have their reasons. "We peel back over the course of eight episodes to see why Elena makes these choices and why Mia treats people the way she does," says Washington of the arc of the show from incendiary opening to the finale’s revelation of the mystery arsonist. "This toxic motherhood comes from somewhere."

In its own way, the TV show, entertainment aside, peels back the myths of motherhood, as it hopes to ignite little fires in its audience. "It’s almost impossible for us to be actors and producers on a project like this and not be making a statement just because of the world around us," adds Washington, as the nation burns.