If you’re missing “Big Little Lies,” Reese Witherspoon is here to help.
The actress and producer, featured in two seasons of the addictive HBO drama, is back behind the camera as executive producer of Apple TV+’s “Surface” (first three episodes streaming Friday, then weekly).
Created by Veronica West (Hulu’s “High Fidelity”), the sumptuous psychological thriller follows a San Francisco woman named Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who suffers a traumatic head injury after falling off a boat in an apparent suicide attempt. With support from her therapist from her (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and attentive from her husband from her James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Sophie attempts to heal and piece her memories back together.
But with the arrival of a mysterious man from her past (Stephan James), she begins to realize that she’s not being told the full truth of what happened to her – or even who she is.
“It reminded me of ‘Big Little Lies,'” Witherspoon, 46, says of the script. “It’s this very affluent community, but there’s this mystery lying underneath it all. It’s unsettling, and as an audience member, you don’t know who to trust. At the end of every episode, there’s a moment where you’re like, ‘Oh my god, that is completely not what I expected.’ ”
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The project reunites Witherspoon and Mbatha-Raw, who co-starred in Ava DuVernay’s 2018 sci-fi adventure “A Wrinkle in Time” and, a year later, Season 1 of Apple’s “The Morning Show.” the British actress was drawn to the challenge of playing a character like Sophie who’s essentially a “clean slate,” with a backstory that only becomes more apparent as the eight-episode first season progresses.
“It was an interesting place to start, to feel like I was building Sophie as the audience was experiencing her too,” Mbatha-Raw says. “One of the essential questions of the show that I found fascinating was, ‘Is it generous to protect people from the murky things about their history, or is it actually a selfish act?’ There were lots to chew on.”
Although Mbatha-Raw, 39, has acted professionally for 17 years in movies such as “Fast Color” and “Beyond the Lights,” “Surface” marks her first time producing. She credits Ella’s Witherspoon and her production company, Hello Sunshine, for inviting her to the table.
Witherspoon “certainly walks the talk, in terms of empowering women,” Mbatha-Raw says. “I’ve been working for a bit now and have picked up so much along the way, so this was really a chance to develop my voice.”
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Frustrated with the roles she was being offered after her Oscar-winning performance in 2005’s “Walk the Line,” Witherspoon turbocharged her career nearly a decade ago as a producer, shepherding female-centric projects. Since then, she’s partnered with A-listers such as Jennifer Aniston (“The Morning Show”), Nicole Kidman (“Big Little Lies”) and Kerry Washington (Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere”) for hit streaming series they also produced.
“We’re just making up for lost time,” Witherspoon says. “There were so many times in my career (when) I wasn’t invited into the decision-making process; I was told where to be, how to be and what the end result would be.”
A turning point was the 2014 drama “Wild,” for which she earned her second best actress Oscar nomination, playing writer Cheryl Strayed. Strayed sent Witherspoon an advance copy of her 2012 memoir of her, which the actress shopped around to studios.
“I said, ‘I’m not changing a word. I want her full spectrum of a female experience to be on film, and I don’t want it neutered,’ ” Witherspoon says. “It’s a movie that changed my life: Developing the film, having it actually happen and then watching audiences receive it was one of the most important, formative experiences of my career.”
Along with “Surface,” Witherspoon also produced the murder mystery “Where the Crawdads Sing,” released earlier this month, which has surpassed box-office expectations with $44 million so far. Although she does not appear in the film, “Crawdads” has been a longtime passion project for Witherspoon, who selected Ella’s Delia Owens’ 2018 novel for her Hello Sunshine Book Club just weeks after its release.
That movie’s success “makes me feel like people are hungry for genuine, authentic storytelling with women at the center,” Witherspoon says. “I mean, we’re 50% of the population, but not represented in as many films. And it’s a good message to our industry, too, to make more films like this.”
Looking ahead, Witherspoon has more than a dozen projects in various stages of development as a producer and actress, including one she says she “can’t really talk about,” in which she’s “reprising a character I played a long time ago.” There’s also a third “Legally Blonde” movie on tap, co-written by Mindy Kaling and Dan Goor.
“I’m still hoping that ‘Legally Blonde 3’ is gonna come together in the right way,” Witherspoon says. “It’s just like ‘Top Gun’: They waited a long time to make another version of that movie, and I loved the nostalgia piece they incorporated in it. So definitely that gave us a lot of inspiration about what we would want to do with Elle Woods and make sure that we had all those same touchstones that mattered to people (back) then.
“I feel like these characters are my friends, so I safeguard them. I would never make the subpar, mediocre version of their story.”
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