‘Big Little Lies’: Alexander Skarsgard Talks “Emotionally Draining” Domestic Violence Scenes
The HBO drama from writer David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallee came to a finish Sunday and finally explained who died and how.
After it was first revealed that one of Celeste’s twin boys had actually hit Renata’s (Laura Dern) daughter Amabella, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) finally appeared ready to leave her abusive husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) for good. Unfortunately, right before the big school fundraiser, Perry was stunned when he accidentally found out about her other apartment.
Although Celeste tried to keep her distance from him at the function, he eventually discovered her just as she went to talk to Jane (Shailene Woodley) and Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), who was crying about her extramarital affair. As an angered Perry approached the group, Jane finally realized that it was in fact Perry who raped her.
Perry then struck Celeste once again, and Jane, Madeline and Renata teamed up to take him down. Like in Liane Moriarty’s book of the same name, it was Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) who stepped in to help the other Monterey women. Bonnie ultimately pushed Perry off the ledge and to his death.
It was a rather fitting end for the man who had caused his wife so much physical and emotional pain throughout the series’ seven-episode run. After all, the finale opened with Celeste lying on the floor after being beaten yet again by Perry.
“It’s obviously a huge problem in our society,” Skarsgard tells The Hollywood Reporter about the domestic violence storyline.
Skarsgard spoke further with THR about the importance of exploring Perry and Celeste’s relationship, the violent and “emotionally draining scenes” they shared and his character’s “brilliant” demise.
The show explores the real-life issue and severity of domestic abuse, violence and rape. Your character, Perry, is the abuser in these cases. Going into the role, what was your thought process on how to tackle these stories and portray this character?
I thought it was such a rich script and the tone felt very unique. It felt like such an emotional roller coaster that I thought was brilliantly written. In terms of the character, I saw it as an opportunity to play an abusive husband who wasn’t this stereotypical abusive husband. It was such a well-fleshed out relationship and the dynamic between Perry and Celeste was fascinating to me. I saw it as an opportunity to find a character where you see him struggle with his demons as opposed to being the traditional wife-beater.
What makes him not the stereotypical abusive husband?
She fell in love with this innocent kid that he’s got within him. In a way, he is like his sons. He’s a very social, outgoing guy and loves to have fun. In those moments, those demons are hidden far within him and then they come out. You do see that he’s struggling with it. He can’t control it. They just take over and consume him. What I thought was interesting about their relationship is it ties in with their sexuality as well and that makes it more difficult to leave him. She blames herself and says, “I’m an accomplice. I’m part of this.” When we have sex, it is very violent and I love that, but then she [thinks] “Maybe I push him too far.” Which she doesn’t, but she blames herself for it and feels that, deep down, he’s a good guy and a great dad and loves her and [she] can fix him and that he just has to deal with those demons. But he can’t. That’s what’s killing him inside. He can’t control it.
The abuse scenes are very violent. How difficult were those for you to shoot?
They were really tough to shoot. Jean-Marc works in a way where it’s more like shooting a play than shooting a movie. It’s not traditional filmmaking in the sense where you have the master and two-shot and then you move in for coverage. There are no tape marks on the floor. It’s all existing lights and a handheld camera that roams around which is a great opportunity as an actor to explore this space and play around and find new things. One take can be very different from the previous. That really helped those scenes.
Nicole and I got to know each other really well before we started the project and spent time together and worked on our relationship. We just got to know each other. We both felt it was very important that when we step into that room and shoot those scenes, you have to get to a place of 100 percent trust. The scenes were emotionally and physically so draining. They’re incredibly hard to shoot. It was more about getting to know each other and spending time together and working on that trust. And talking about their relationship and figuring out the nice part about these characters and how they connect and why they fell in love, what’s holding them together. We wanted to find that. We played the whole scene from beginning to end. We weren’t restricted by any tape marks on the floor or any technical issues. It was very primal in a way and some of the toughest scenes I’ve ever had to shoot. It was completely emotionally draining.
Nicole has spoken about how physically and emotionally draining they were for her. Have you spoken with her about that?
It was important every day after shooting a scene like that to check in with each other and make sure that we would reconnect and talk about how we felt about it and what we went through. We both knew that jumping in your car and going home after a scene like that is very tough. You need to share that connection with the person you just went through that with. I had the best partner in the world with Nicole in doing that. She’s not only an extraordinary actress, but such a warm and generous person. That made it be even more difficult.
How important is it to tell this story of domestic abuse on television?
It’s very important. It’s obviously a huge problem in our society. It’s stigmatized. [Wives] are protective of their husbands and in certain cases they blame themselves and say, “It takes two to tango. I’m partly responsible for this.” They don’t really see themselves as victims sometimes. It’s not until you talk to someone outside that you can get an outside perspective and you realize then, “This is an abusive relationship that I shouldn’t be in.” It’s important to reach out and to have someone help you and talk to someone who can get you out of it. It’s not your responsibility to change another person.
Perry is obviously dead. What’s your take on the ending for your character?
I love that they all gang up on him and kill him, in a way, together. It gets very primal and they’re all over him and kill him together in order to protect Celeste. It felt like something out of a nature documentary where you see a predator being attacked by smaller predators and by the sheer force of numbers they take him down. That’s what I had in my head where I was physically stronger than them as individuals, but together they brought me down. (Laughs.) I thought it was brilliant.
What was filming that scene like?
It was tough. It’s a very physical moment. But it was exciting and fun because we were all together. Up until that point, it had been a lot of separate stories. Those ladies are amazing women and so much fun to be around. So it was a fun two weeks of night shoots with all of them. We were all excited about the ending and how it all comes together.
What were the conversations with Jean-Marc like about who Perry is and how he reaches his fate in the end?
I liked that the introduction to the family was dream like. It’s exactly what you want. They have beautiful kids, an amazing house, a great job, everything is perfect and then you crack the surface and see there’s a lot of darkness there. We were both excited about an opportunity to play this character who can be charming and a great dad, but there’s a switch and the lights go out and he’s not himself.
With the camera watching the women in the very last scene, it leaves the ending open-ended.
It’s Perry in his Elvis outfit, but with a broken neck up on the beach watching them. (Laughs.) It’s payback time. He’s back from the dead and it’s time for revenge. Season two will just be him killing them all off. (Laughs.)
Could there be more episodes?
It was set up as a miniseries. That was always the intention to leave it with them on the beach and living with this secret and accepting that and moving on with their lives. It leaves it open-ended in a way, but there’s no cliffhanger for another season or anything.
Did you see this ending coming? Do you want more episodes of Big Little Lies? Chat about it in the comments section below.