AnnaSophia Robb plays the younger version of Reese Witherspoon’s Elena in ‘Little Fires Everywhere.’ HL spoke with the actress about unraveling Elena Richardson.
Episode 6 of Little Fires Everywhere, titled “The Uncanny,” follows young Elena and Mia as they try to navigate their lives in 1981. Young Mia is studying in New York City and makes a decision that changes her life forever. Meanwhile, young Elena is trying to adjust to life with four children in Ohio and begins to question her life choices when everything doesn’t go exactly according to plan. In a moment of frustration, Elena calls her ex-boyfriend, Jamie, who is working his way up in the journalism world. Elena and Jamie meet up and nearly spend the night together, but Elena realizes what she’s about to do and walks away.
HollywoodLife talked EXCLUSIVELY with AnnaSophia Robb about the episode, which peeled back so many layers of the tightly-wound Elena Richardson. The actress discussed Elena’s awakening in episode 6 and why Elena sticks to such a “rigid” plan. She also admitted that she studied Reese Witherspoon’s voice leading up to filming and her work paid off. AnnaSophia sounds just like Reese. Read our Q&A below.
Did you ever talk with Reese beforehand because you sound just like her? Even down to the inflection.
AnnaSophia Robb: I spent a lot of time working on her voice. Before I auditioned, I listened to her book, Whiskey in a Teacup, just to get some of the inflections. During production and reads, everyone was so generous in letting me shadow and she was super open to conversations and any questions I had she welcomed. I came to set often and watched her scenes. I had a couple of her scenes that they had sent to me, so I would watch those and watch her mannerisms to get into the head of the character. I was familiar with the book. I’d read the book before. I think the book was really a foundation in terms of creating that character, and then she built this character and brought it to life. Knowing where this character ends is really helpful in terms of knowing where I had to end up. l also have watched Reese my entire life. I’ve grown up with all of her movies. She’s been such a hero of mine, so it was a really huge honor to be able to portray one of the characters. We get to see this character so tightly wound up and then completely unraveled.
In the present day, Elena is very much she sticks her to her plan. In the flashback, we see where and when she started building that foundation for herself. She’s so set on a very strict plan, even though she has so many opportunities at her fingertips. Why do you think she was so set on a certain way of living her life at such a young age?
AnnaSophia Robb: I don’t know if you’ve read the book, but the book really dives into it. I think what they sort of get to in the show — and I think a lot of people can relate to this — is that there’s a certainty if you try and plan your life. I think for people who are more privileged than most, if you do that planning, it works up to a certain point and it becomes unraveled and so on. I think in her mind, there’s safety in knowing what comes next. These are the “right ways” to live your life. That’s one of the reasons for Mia and Elena. They are foils of each other. Mia lives life more on the edge and from place to place, whereas Elena has everything mapped out and planned. That’s just an unrealistic way of living. It’s rigid. We see that sort of fall apart. It’s heartbreaking because in this episode, she’s wondering what would have happened if she had made a different plan. What if she had opened her narrow view of the world and what she wanted her life to look like? What if he had expanded that? Where could she have gone? That reality, the thinking of other possibilities, is just impossible for her to embrace. Because that means her perspective of the world is wrong, and she can’t stand the idea of her being wrong.
Elena does go back to work after three kids, but then she finds out that she is pregnant with Izzy. Do you think her not wanting that fourth child initially made her resent Izzy? Because they clearly have a very tense relationship in the present day.
AnnaSophia Robb: In the book, it’s a little bit different in that she wasn’t planning on getting pregnant but when Izzy’s a baby she’s really sick, and Elena is really hyper-vigilant and nervous about her. There’s this great quote in the book where it’s like the spark that was in young Elena is sort of transferred to Izzy, and that scares her. I think the parts of herself that she doesn’t want to let out she sees in her child, and that’s also one of the main reasons for their confrontations. I definitely think that’s alluded to throughout the season. Elena obviously loves her daughter, but she had planned her life and having this other kid wasn’t something that she necessarily planned. To have that child be the difficult one, it’s just a complicated topic.
In episode 6, Elena has got four kids, and she’s overwhelmed. She calls Jamie and they meet up. The scene in motel was so heartbreaking and devastating. Talk me through that scene when she had the opportunity to step outside of her plan, even just for a moment, but she quickly backs out.
AnnaSophia Robb: It’s a massive moment that I think older Elena probably goes back to time and time again, where she just lets herself go. She’s on her fourth baby and she’s been talking about mastitis. The whole idea is that her whole body is rejecting her. She’s supposed to be able to feed her baby and her body won’t let her feed her own child, which is what so many women go through. Izzy isn’t latching, so it’s a whole mess. I think to be touched and be in her body again and to feel like her body is her own is a sensational feeling. To feel that youth again and then to suddenly have that realization that your body is a mother. Your job right now is to feed your child. That’s the job that you’re supposed to be doing, so she’s just wracked with guilt. There are just so many complexities. I’m not a mother, so this was a particularly challenging role. Reese was so helpful. She had mastitis with one of her children and I talked to her about what that felt like. What do your hormones feel like? What is that process like? Also, speaking with Liz Tigelaar, our showrunner, there were a lot of conversations about the journey of the character and the journey of the episode and what points we were trying to hit with each scene. I think a lot of people who are mothers watch this and know exactly that feeling, so we really wanted to hit those notes. By the time I walk out of the bathroom, I have that realization that I’ve got to feed my kids. I’ve got to get back to my family. This isn’t real life. I made my choice. It’s Elena rationalizing her behavior. It can never be her fault. She can never be in the wrong. Her way, her life, her decisions have to be in the right. That’s kind of her fatal flaw.
I feel like Elena, as rigid as she is, is a relatable person because I know so many women who think you have to live your life by that kind of plan.
AnnaSophia Robb: There’s an expectation. I think like Lexie really shows that in the next generation. There’s a certain expectation. Elena is the type of person where she has that expectation and runs with it. She sets the precedent and then I think Lexie feels like she’s supposed to be following suit, but is really battling in the shadow of her mother. Young Elena as well is at that juncture in her life. We see that conversation with her mom where they fought for women’s liberation and the right to choose, but the expectation is, if you can afford it, that’s not a choice you have.
You also have a new Quibi project coming out. What can you tease about Expecting?
AnnaSophia Robb: I’m not sure when Expecting is coming out, but I play a mother in that as well, which is strange. I play a very different mother. I would describe it as Rosemary’s Baby meets Stranger Things. It’s a lot darker than Little Fires. It’s a body horror thriller about pregnancy and mental health amongst other things that shall not be named. I loved working with Mary Harron and it was just sort of rough and tumble. It felt like an indie movie. The only thing that really felt different was we had a vertical and horizontal frame so our frame was bigger. We had to set that up but it felt pretty much like a regular film.
You are also going to be in the Dr. Death series too, right?
AnnaSophia Robb: Yes. I’m so excited for it. It’s on hold, like all the other productions right now. So I’m eagerly awaiting when this is over to get back to work and be with the crews and be with the cast. Production started shutting down before quarantine started happening, so it’s felt like this has been going on for a while. I really feel for all the crew members and people. It’s such a huge community on set, so I’m looking forward to getting back to work for sure.