In the opening scene of the final episode of HBO’s Big Little Lies, viewers hear, but do see the brutal beating of Celeste Wright, an elegant former attorney turned stay-at-home mom whose seemingly dreamy husband is secretly abusive.
The muffled screams of Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman, seep through an air vent in the couple’s basement, where their twin sons were watching TV. Then the camera is suddenly at ground level with a gasping and shaking Celeste, whose curtain of red hair shields her face as she lies in a heap on the bathroom floor.
“Get up,” says her husband, Perry, as he touches her nearly-naked body. “Celeste, you’re fine. Hey, you just got the wind knocked out of you.”
He leaves the room and returns, but Celeste is still cowering. He apologizes, she weeps.
Of all the scenes of domestic violence between Perry and Celeste in the popular HBO series, this one was perhaps the most chilling – not just for the viewer, but for the actress.
Kidman recalled the overwhelming emotion of that scene and internalizing the pain of her character’s experiences during a recent discussion with other actresses hosted by the Hollywood Reporter.
“I remember lying on the floor in the last episode, being in my underwear and having just been really thrown around,” Kidman said, according to the Hollywood Reporter. “I just lay on the floor. I couldn’t get up. I didn’t want to get up.”
She said she chose to participate in nearly all the violent scenes herself, rather than relying on a stunt double, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The actress described the director, Jean-Marc Vallée, draping a towel over her between takes.
“I just felt completely humiliated and devastated,” Kidman said of the domestic violence scenes. “And angry inside.”
So angry, Kidman recalled, that she “went home and threw a rock through a glass door” at her hotel because she couldn’t get inside, according the Hollywood Reporter.
Kidman’s co-star and co-producer in Big Little Lies, Reese Witherspoon, also participated in the discussion and described getting a phone call that night from her friend.
Kidman told Witherspoon she had “just done the craziest thing,” then described the incident, according to the Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t do stuff like that,” Witherspoon recalled her saying.
“I was obviously holding all that rage and what had been done,” Kidman said.
Though the tension in the show’s seven episodes is structured around a murder investigation, the series (and book it was adopted from) evolves into what the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum described as a “reflection on trauma.”
Celeste silently suffers through escalating domestic abuse. Jane, a young, single mom played by Shailene Woodley, grapples with raising a son she loves who was also the product of her violent date rape. The daughter of another “career mommy” is bullied at school. And viewers eventually learn that Perry’s destructive behavior rubbed off on his impressionable sons.
Many think pieces were written as the series unfolded week by week this spring, and most applauded the writers and producers for taking on such a sensitive but important topic.
“I think one of the lessons to learn is that we don’t ever really know what domestic violence looks like from the outside,” Marium Durrani, public policy attorney at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told the Huffington Post in March.
“People don’t think that someone rich and beautiful in a seemingly idyllic life would be facing something like this,” she said. “There’s a really dark cloud over her that isn’t visible.”