WARNING: Little Fires Everywhere spoilers ahead.
This week on Little Fires Everywhere, a flashback episode sent us back to the ’80s when Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) were just two young women figuring out their lives.
Young Mia, played by Tiffany Boone (The Chi), goes off to college to study art in New York and encounters an intriguing professor who later becomes a mentor and, deviating from the book, a lover. Meanwhile, young Elena, portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb (The Carrie Diaries), is juggling three kids and a budding journalism career when she discovers she and her husband, Bill, have another baby on the way.
Struggling to pay for her tuition, Mia takes up a suspect offer to be a surrogate for a wealthy couple yearning for a child. But when her brother, with whom she is very close, passes away, she fulfills his wishes of keeping the baby for herself. After being shunned from his funeral by her own parents, she steals away in his car and starts a nomadic life, traveling from city to city, even after the child, her daughter, Pearl, is born.
Over in Shaker, Elena is an exhausted young mother of four. In one scene, her children are crying and the water has just run out; in another, she agonizes over her youngest not being able to breastfeed. With Bill off at work, she’s shouldering the caretaking responsibilities on her own. One night, after an especially stressful day, she meets up with ex-boyfriend Jamie for what almost turns out to be a one-night-stand.
The episode is about finding these women in a period of becoming, building who they are when we meet them in the present day in the series. Elena’s being overwhelmed with her responsibilities explains why she so rigidly plans and follows every rule, while Mia’s close bond with her late brother explains why she’s so protective of Pearl. Here, Boone and Robb discuss why it’s important for viewers to see Mia and Elena evolve as characters, and what they as actresses learned about motherhood through their roles.
I love how you both capture young Elena and young Mia so well. How were you approached for the role, and were you familiar with the book beforehand?
Tiffany Boone: I wasn’t familiar with the book before, but I just got a call from my reps and they said that they were looking for someone to play young Mia, and they were kind of having a hard time, because I was cast right before we started shooting. I FaceTimed with the casting director, David Rubin, and he showed me some clips of Kerry and said, “Okay, try to capture that.” I self-taped in my apartment in New York, and the rest is history.
AnnaSophia Robb: I had a very similar experience. Same thing, my reps contacted me. And David Rubin was just the absolute best. They had already started filming, so he sent over some of the scenes, and I had never had that experience before. So it was just really generous and really kind. I felt like I understood what they were going for. But I was familiar with the book. I had read the book and was a fan of it.
And then I put myself on tape, and I was cast pretty early on. So once I found out that I was cast, I came out to L.A. to try and shadow Reese as much as possible because they said that they were really open to that.
I was actually interested to see if either or both of you spent any time with Kerry or Reese to learn about their characters and their portrayals.
AR: Both of us that had the opportunity to shadow, which was so generous of Reese and Kerry and the producers. I wanted to get it right. I was so excited about the script and about the story. Reese was such an open book, and I had lots of questions for her. I would come and watch the scenes, and we could talk about them. The showrunner, Liz Tigelaar, was so collaborative, and they had such a strong vision for the characters, and also for the episode, that I didn’t feel alone. It was so nice to be able to share this experience with Tiffany and know that we both were going through it. We’d pass each other a couple of times on set and knew that we’re both going through this very bizarre experience. But I felt so supported by the producers, and the writers, and Reese and Kerry, and it was just a very motivating experience. It was really creatively fulfilling.
TB: I was able to shadow as well. Like I said, I was cast kind of late, and so I only had a couple of weeks to kind of shadow and get on board and understand what was going on. But I took full advantage of that, going to set whenever I could to watch Kerry work and got to chat with her about how she was approaching the character and how she was researching certain things, and she shared that with me. Just like AnnaSophia said, the whole production team was so welcoming and so supportive, and they really wanted it to be a really great episode. So they just made sure that we had everything that we needed and access to Reese and Kerry and Liz.
I don’t know if she did this to you, AnnaSophia, I just remembered this earlier, but I got, like, a mini page breakdown of the character for every single scene Liz sent to me towards the beginning.
TB: It’s crazy. I’ve never had a showrunner do that before, and literally every scene she wrote a paragraph at least about what she was thinking and the vibe that I should be going for and what I should be thinking about going into the scenes. We were just so well equipped to get started.
In this flashback, there were some deviations from what was in the book, especially Mia’s relationship with her professor, Pauline. Tiffany, what did you discuss with Liz or with director Nzingha Stewart about showing that relationship or the general changes to Mia’s storyline?
TB: I had a brief conversation with Liz about the changes that she was making from the book. I told her that I thought every change that she made was really well done and only made it better, which is not something that happens regularly. I didn’t read the book until after I got the role, but a lot of times you’re so disappointed when these books come to life. I feel like the changes that were made really served the project.
I talked with Kerry and Liz and Nzingha a lot about what I think is the major change is that Mia is a Black woman. That changes so many of the dynamics from the book. It complicates things even further. So a lot of the conversations, especially with Nzingha and I, because she is a Black woman as well, was about how a young Black girl in the ’80s would be feeling in certain situations and coming into this world that’s so different than her own. That most of the time she looked at it as being kind of a white world, and then her first teacher is this beautiful Black woman and how important that is to her. And her connections with her Caribbean family are really strict and how every choice she makes, especially having a relationship with a woman and getting pregnant and all of that, how much pressure is on her.
Obviously the relationship with Pauline, which is so important and beautiful the way that Nzingha wanted us to portray it, because even with our sex scene, she was like, “Look, this is not porn. I do not want this to be overly sexualized. I want it to really be about them falling in love and taking your time and being very tender with each other.” Because I think a lot of times when we see lesbian relationships on TV or film, they are very sensationalized and respect isn’t necessarily given to the depth of the relationship.
AnnaSophia, I thought the contrast between Elena’s first few years of motherhood versus how we first see her on the show is so interesting because Reese’s version of the character seems to have it all under control, but in this flashback, we realize that she did kind of struggle with motherhood at first.
AR: Yeah, we just got off a phone conversation with Nzingha, and she was talking about the episode as a process of “becoming,” the characters “becoming,” and I think that that was really a helpful frame when building upon the foundation that Kerry and Reese helped me create.
I’ve never been a mother, but it was a really enriching and eye-opening experience to speak with Reese, among other mothers and women, about their postpartum experiences and the sort of feeling like your body is no longer your own. And feeling this sort of exhaustion and making irrational decisions and snapping, and just feeling completely untethered. In preparation, I spoke with Reese about what her experience had been, and then I spoke to other friends who’ve also had babies about just what it feels like in your body and how your brain just sort of disconnects between your brain and your body and your instinct, and what your life was before and what your life was after. I felt like I had a lot of room to play and shape the scenes, because there are a lot of emotional … she’s just sort of spiraling out of control.
She’s the absolute opposite of the Elena character that we meet in the beginning who’s so tightly wound. It’s a process of just unwinding and sort of spiraling. We talked a lot about control and trying to make the right decision and the things falling apart, but then at the very end, how to structure the Elena that we need in the rest of the series. What are the decisions, and what are the truths that she has to hold on to in order to build her worldview back up and set herself in this structure of justifying her decisions and justifying her experiences?
I thought it was also interesting when amid her confusion before she has Izzy, that she has a conversation with her mother about maybe not wanting to have a fourth child and her mom says that’s “not for people like us," and literally one or two episodes before, her oldest daughter gets an abortion.
AR: Totally. I think that when you meet young Elena and young Mia, I think they’re a lot more similar than they are when they’re older, but we get to meet these versions of them deciding who they’re going to be. I think that’s a really valuable scene. I’m curious to seeing how mothers and daughters and families and friends and people talk about it, because it’s a choice. Obviously, it sets up the contentious relationship between Izzy and Elena. I mean, it totally broke my heart, there was one day where we had nine babies on set, and I felt like my brain was melting.
I was just like, “Oh, my gosh,” but this scene that we started out with was when Elena’s trying to breastfeed and she’s not able to express her milk and the baby isn’t latching, and just as a woman, as a person, I had never imagined what would it be like to have this beautiful, gorgeous baby and your body is not allowing you to feed it, even though it’s naturally saying that you’re the sole provider for this child that you didn’t want but is now this beautiful, gorgeous, healthy baby. That inner turmoil is so complicated, so challenging, and it just really made me feel. And Elena’s not exactly the most likable character, but it really gave me pause. I feel like I’m looking at mothers very differently now.
Definitely. And Tiffany, this episode sheds light on Mia’s relationship with her brother, Warren, who we hadn’t seen in previous episodes. For you, portraying this character, what did he mean to Mia, and what does it mean for her when he passes away?
TB: I think it’s in a book where it’s more clear that they were attached at the hip growing up, right? He was her everything, because she had this really complicated relationship with her parents, especially her mother. And you can see that a little bit. The opening scene with the family around the table and they don’t understand her. He’s the favorite son. He’s a football player, he’s the golden child, and she’s getting a degree in art? What is that? Who is this weird child, right? She only has him. She doesn’t feel the love from her mother, her father doesn’t understand her, and he truly sees her and sees her potential in a way maybe that she can’t even yet.
That’s why I think that relationship is just so important and for you to see the loss of that relationship. The loss of him, and then the loss of Pauline, just shows you why she’s so fiercely protective over Pearl, because literally she’s all that she has left in the world. She lost the people who believed that her, she lost the people who truly loved her, and she will fight to keep this beautiful thing she created whole and protect it. Mia says other times in the show, “She’s mine. She’s mine. She’s mine.” And you understand why she holds on so tight to her, because seeing her relationship with her brother and Pauline.
From the time when you’re portraying your characters as younger women to the show’s present day, there are a lot of changes and evolutions, but is there anything that’s still at their core?
TB: For Mia, something you see from the beginning until she’s older is just her complete passion for her art. She’s kind of willing to sacrifice everything to still be able to create this art, and she loves it so deeply and she has to be able to get that out. And I think that’s the same. Because she is more innocent and less jaded, it’s less there [when she’s younger]. But I still thought of the way that Kerry was explaining it to me is that she doesn’t fill in the awkward moments for people. If you’re uncomfortable, she’s going to let you be uncomfortable or she’s just going to be like, “Okay, well it’s uncomfortable for you. All right.”
I feel that’s a personality trait that somebody had to be raised with. You have to grow up being fine being uncomfortable, and I tried to find moments where young Mia also has that. Even when you see she’s in that argument with her brother, she’s like, “Okay, you’re unhappy. That’s your problem. I’m not going to fix this for you.” So those are two things I think are kind of the same about her.
AR: I think Elena always has a plan in place. There’s always a structure in her mind and this decisiveness of what is right and what is wrong. She doesn’t have gray in her mind, she has black and white, which is usually her way and not her way. Even when I’m talking about it, I start going in the cadence of the character. [Laughs] But early on, Reese and I talked about her voice, and Reese was saying, “I think it’s very deferential to men,” when Elena’s speaking to a man.
Reese based this character obviously on a book, but also somebody she had known from back home who’d grown up in this—they had the same house that their mother had and their grandparents before them, and they had four children. I think young Elena, even though she says, “Oh, we're going to work for The New York Times,” her plan for Paris was to not have a plan, and that’s the only time she’s never had anything planned.
It says this in the book, there’s just a right and a wrong way to do things, and I think that just dictates every single decision that she has made. It’s somebody else’s standard. It’s never even if it is her own internalized standard that she’d actually be making these decisions from, she thinks that there’s a hierarchy of rules out there somewhere and that she’s obeying them. I think that is her sort of MO from the time when she was young, which we see in her conversation with her mother, and we see in her conversations with Jamie, to when she’s older. She’s lived by these sets of rules of what you’re supposed to do. It blows up, ultimately, because she loses her daughter. I think that’s when it shreds apart, because Mia represents the absolute opposite of living by her own standards, making her own rules.
Do you see any similarities between your characters in their youth and their children now?
AR: Yeah, definitely. It says this in the book, but Izzy’s supposed to be that spark that Elena suppressed. I think, having had four different children, Izzy is this sort of, like, wild side that Elena feeds on a daily basis and refuses to acknowledge, and so she started refusing her child. Obviously, the rest of the children are different reflections of their parents, but Izzy is the one whose most the younger version of Elena, the wildness.
And Lexie is definitely a prototype of young Elena to a T. I mean, there’s so much that’s problematic with Lexie’s character and her blindness to certain things and the way she uses people like Elena does, with just an insane amount of privilege. But I think the beauty in also is, I do believe that Lexie will make different decisions than her mother. My hope is that with each generation, they learn from the sins of their parents and see what is wrong, what is problematic with that certain perspective or those blind spots. They see their parents’ blind spots, and then learn from them. I think that’s something Pearl definitely does, Izzy definitely does. All of the kids. I love that they are reflections of their parents, but are maturing, hopefully, past them.
TB: I think with Pearl, it’s that thing with Mia. At the end of the day, she’s just going to do what she wants to do. Pearl keeps going to that house and keeps talking to those kids. She’s like, “This is who I am, and you’re going to have to explain to me why I shouldn’t do this.” She’s very strong-willed like Mia is. It’s so weird watching the episode, because there’s moments when I’m like, “Now I feel like I’m doing Pearl.” Which is so interesting, because I also think that Lexi Underwood, who plays Pearl, picked up some of Kerry’s mannerisms as well and wanted you to be able to see her mom in her.
And finally, what do you hope viewers get from these little windows into Mia’s and Elena's pasts?
TB: Like, what AnnaSophia said, Elena is not the most likable character, and I don’t think Mia’s the most likable character either. They can be difficult people to love, you know? But in playing the younger version of Mia, I wanted people to, if they hadn’t already, have a lot of empathy for, because you see her just being really hard and blunt with people and not having a whole lot of compassion for some of the characters. Even sometimes you understand where she’s coming from, like with a lot of the microaggressions, you’re like, “Yeah, I totally get why you’re pissed, but why are you always pissed? Why don’t you loosen up a little?”
If you can see the innocence and the joy that she has at the beginning, this wide-eyed girl who really was just doing her best with what she had, you can learn to have empathy for her when she gets older and see why she made the decision she made, and see why she’s so fiercely protective of her daughter and see why she doesn’t trust this family.
AR: I 100 percent echo what Tiffany has said. As I watched this show, and when I was reading the script and when I was on set, I thought it’s so unique to watch these female characters that aren’t likable necessarily. That’s not the first word that you would [use]. Both of these mothers in a show about motherhood, they’re not maternal figures necessarily. They feel like women. Like full, complex, individual people. I hope that in these episodes you get an understanding of these women becoming who they are, and you get to see these choices, these junctures in their lives, and then choosing who they want to be.
Like Tiffany said, having that empathy, having more compassion, and then bringing that into conversations about the show. I think one of the great things about it being based on a book and then becoming a TV show is that so many different people have eyes on it, and it talks about so many different levels of race and class and microaggressions and abortion and motherhood and all of these different, difficult subjects and in a very empathetic way. I found myself relating to characters that I didn’t necessarily anticipate empathizing with or finding similarities to. I hope that this flashback helps reframe some of these characters and helps reframe some of the conversations in thinking about why people are the way they are.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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