While we have a number of favorite performers at Brief Take, there is one in particular that stands out for us. She is an actor in the powerful Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere (based on the book by Celeste Ng and adapted by Reese Witherspoon and her Hello Sunshine production company) and her name is Jade Pettyjohn. While we interviewed Pettyjohn previously about a pair of projects (Destroyer and Trial by Fire), we were eager to speak with her about this award-worthy series (which we binge watched in a day).
Jade Pettyjohn plays Lexie Richardson, the daughter of Reese Witherspoon’s picture perfect Elena, and features a performance arc that we cannot recall in any program of the like. In the current climate of social distancing and quarantines, Little Fires Everywhere commands as much attention as possible, and Pettyjohn’s performance is a major part of a powerful burn of a series.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our fun and candid phone interview with Jade Pettyjohn. (*Major spoilers ahead*)
Brief Take: We’re such big fans of your work on the series and of the show in general! For someone who is unfamiliar, what is the show about?
Jade Pettyjohn: Little Fires Everywhere is based off of Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel Little Fires Everywhere [chuckles], and it’s a really beautiful and important story about motherhood and the idea of chasing perfection and how far one will go in order to achieve this certain standard of Shaker Heights (Ohio), in the 90’s. My character Lexie is a very complex character – you look at her on the surface and she’s popular and everyone loves her and she’s the perfect daughter. You look at her and you’re like: “Oh, I know who that person is”, she’s that girl, she’s not necessarily malicious, but she is a little bit ignorant. Then as the show progresses, you see that there’s more to her, and as life hits her and as she creates certain effects on others, this buffer that she had around her, this idea that she thought that she was, comes crumbling down and you see who she really is as the series continues and progresses. It was a very fun piece to take on because there’s so much to her and her arc and it was a lot of fun.
BT: When you were initially crafting your portrayal of Lexie, did you look to the book for research? What helped you get into her mindset and worldview?
JP: I was familiar with the book, but as the audition process was progressing, that book became like a bible to me. [laughs] I was constantly reading it and looking at it from the lens or scope of Lexie and her character. And I just fell in love with the book and there’s so much truth in it, and that’s what I love about it, is that no matter who you are, there’s something from it with which you take and it really helped me craft and curate Lexie’s mind and her thoughts and views and motives. It was that book as well as extensive conversations with our showrunner, Liz Tigelaar, and Reese (Witherspoon) and Kerry (Washington) on building up who is Lexie and why does she do what she does, because as a character she is very morally grey. [laughs] So as an actor, I have to make sure that I never judge my character, right, I have to find what it is that makes her do the things that she does and why she can’t see others and why she can see things and all of that, so it was a beautiful process.
BT: What did you like best about working with your fellow members of the Richardson family – Reese, Joshua Jackson, Megan Stott, Gavin Lewis and Jordan Elsass?
JP: Ah! They’re such incredible human beings and artists. It was really amazing, because it’s your job as an artist and as an actor to have chemistry with your cast mates, and it’s really great that we all have that and it did not take a lot of work to develop it. And what was really great was that before filming, we were able to have dinners with Reese and Josh in the soundstage in which we would have those family dinners. By the time that we started filming, the whole dynamic felt lived-in, which was incredible.
BT: The dynamic between the siblings was readily apparent. Even in the one scene later in the season in which everyone watches television together silently, you can feel a sense of history.
JP: I’m so glad that you felt that – it’s really great. All of the kids are so talented and it was really great that we were able to have the scenes as straightforward as the one you expressed, in which we are sitting and watching tv, but we are all in our own worlds, experiencing everything that every character recently experienced and that isolation and solitude within the sibling world was really interesting to discover.
BT: What did you enjoy most about working with real-life Lexi, actress Lexi Underwood?
JP: Lexi is one of the sweetest individuals. It was really funny because our characters, I wouldn’t necessarily call them friends, they have a really interesting dynamic, but in real life, Lexi and I love each other and it was so great. It was definitely a treat to carry that relationship and really have these interesting discussions on what is it that both of us are trying to get from each other as characters. She was a great partner in that sense with which to build that whole dynamic.
BT: What was it like to shoot the (**spoiler alert!**) abortion scene and its aftermath?
JP: We had extensive conversations with Liz and Lynn (Shelton) and me on how to make the experience feel as raw and as truthful as possible. And seeing what does it feel like as someone who grew up in a family that puts so much emphasis on being the perfect, ideal person of Shaker Heights. With my character Lexie, she is that to the family, she is the reflection of her mother, so there’s so much pressure on Lexie as an individual, and she’s doing it alone, which is also really scary. We definitely had a lot of conversations on why she chose to do it the way that she did and what it would feel like physically, and afterward and the heightened nature of the process, to all that she loved and why she did that. It’s something that so many women go through and it’s such a delicate subject. Our job as artists is to represent it in the most truthful way that we can and I did a lot of research and tried to make it as truthful as I could possibly make it, and it was a lot easier to do that when you have such a supportive group of women, like Liz and Lynn and all of our producers, and it was actually a very free space to be vulnerable.
BT: Your confrontation with Kerry Washington afterwards is palpably tense and a definite turning point for Lexie. What was it like to play that scene opposite Kerry?
JP: That was such a beautiful…for people who read the book, that’s one of the differences in the book. In the book, Mia is a little more sympathetic towards Lexie, and in the show, not so much, and I think that was such a beautiful change because Lexi is…yes, she went through something very hard and any abortion for any individual is complicated and rough, but it doesn’t change the fact that she still used Pearl and operates from the lens of thinking through herself and she has this lost empathy. Mia’s words are what lights the spark for Lexie in terms of: “Well, maybe I am not who I think that I am” and really, tough love is one of the greatest kindnesses that the character of Mia could have given Lexie. It wasn’t until later on, the discussion with Lexie and somebody that she loves very much, that she realizes that what Mia said was true and that this confrontation creates a really good storm.
BT: We see a pattern starting to develop, that you’re playing the daughters of the Monterey Five from Big Little Lies. (Laura Dern in Trial By Fire, Nicole Kidman in Destroyer and Reese Witherspoon in Little Fires Everywhere). What have each of them taught you?
JP: Oh my gosh, I’ve learned so much from those women. They’re all incredible in their own ways and they’re very different human beings, but the common thread between them is that they’re very kind and they treat everyone with so much respect and so much love. They look at you and you feel so much warmth and acceptance, and they’re hardworking and they’re dedicated and love their craft, and it made me feel safe to explore the scene and the story, especially as I’m working with…you know, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, these women are a big reason as to why I am an actress. It can feel intimidating to be like: “Okay, I can be in a scene with you and this is intense!” They create so much warmth and safety, and you’re like: “Oh my God, this is amazing!” and I love all of them to pieces.
BT: I really enjoyed watching your #BlogHer20 conference on Hollywood on Health. Did you learn a lot from participating?
JP: It was a beautiful panel of women. (Jade alongside Kelly McCreary, Lauren Ash, Ryan Michelle Bathe and Rachel Matthews) They are so powerful and so funny and strong and intelligent, and I learned a lot. I mean women go through so many different things [giggles] and it was quite enlightening to look at what other individuals go through, whether that’s an eating disorder or being shamed for your natural hair, it’s really interesting. One of the other panelists said this during the panel, that it is very rare to find a time for women to be women and talk about what women go through. So I completely agree with that and I think that #BlogHer’s entire purpose is so beautiful. I felt understood and I felt like I could learn so much more, and it brought more of a connection to other women for me and I really enjoyed that. It was definitely an absolute treat to be a part of that.
BT: Do you feel like the pressure in the industry is still there as in the 90’s to have to look a certain way?
JP: Oh, of course! It’s unfortunately a pressure that’s very prevalent and there are some differences from the 90’s- we have some really amazing pioneers in this generation: Jameela Jamil, Lizzo, we’ve got some beautiful, amazing freedom fighters, but it’s something that I think all women go through, in the industry or not. It’s really interesting to draw a parallel between what my character Lexie goes through and how it’s such a cyclical trend of that. But imagine the power that would come from a woman being able to recognize herself as a woman and not just as her flaws or as her body or what she looks like, but really her mind and her thoughts and her actions. If women were able to place emphasis on that, we would have so much beautiful change, because we all know that women are pretty powerful!
BT: Who are some of your role models?
JP: My mom is definitely a role model for me, because I mean, she’s just the epitome of a kind human being. Her tenacity in which to help other people is unmatched in anyone else I know, that is inspiring in the sense that I am constantly thinking about how I can help other people and because my mom has such a beautiful way of expressing that, so I would say that she’s definitely a role model for me. But there’s also so many other people out there in the world doing amazing things- Reese is such a great example, Kerry is such a great example, Greta Thunberg is inspiring, Billie Eilish, you have artists and activists and good people in general that change the way I look at things and I love that.
BT: In your Backstage op-ed, you wrote that “by telling stories, we change the world”. In the next few years, how would you like the world to change?
JP: Oh my goodness! That’s a great question. Well, one of my favourite things about Little Fires Everywhere is that I hope that it impacts one’s ability to look at themselves and look at others as they really are and without the rose-colored glasses, which is really hard to do. But in order to create any kind of change, the first step is to really acknowledge every part of ourselves, the good and the bad and the rest, is how human beings are. In the future for the world, I hope that we’re able to not only look at ourselves and others and really acknowledge our plus points and our downfalls, but also be able to elevate it, like: “Okay, where do we go from here?” and know that really anything is possible. Creating the new world, creating the new reality, that’s also really beautiful, and I think that storytelling is a big way of doing that- whether you’re an actress or a musician or a writer or a dancer, you’re creating a new world, and that world can be reflected in our culture. That’s something which I really hope to see happening in the future.
The first three episodes of Little Fires Everywhere are now available on Hulu. New episodes will be streaming weekly each Wednesday.