It is two powerhouse leading women that anchor Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, but the performances of Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington are enhanced by a stellar ensemble that brings to screen the fears, histories and hopes of Celeste Ng’s characters. Award-winning casting director David Rubin found a group of young actors who help fill Liz Tigelaar’s adaptation of Ng’s bestselling novel with what he calls “real emotional truth.”
“Many of the Little Fires Everywhere actors are discoveries in their own ways, and it makes me feel a sense of paternalistic pride in what they achieved,” says Rubin, a two-time Emmy winner (Game Change, Big Little Lies), five-time Casting Society of America winner and the current president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
The eight-part series takes place in 1997 in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a pristine, planned suburban enclave in which Elena Richardson (Witherspoon) and her four teenage children intersect with nomadic artist Mia Warren (Washington) and her teenage daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), with unexpected consequences. To find Mia’s 15-year-old daughter and Elena’s four teenage children, Rubin cast his net wide for talent on the rise.
“I often like to cast young people who are relative unknowns,” Rubin says. “They can connect with the emotionalism and playfulness in a role. The camera detects their naturalism.”
Prior to her casting in the show, 16-year-old Underwood’s work had primarily been on stage. “The nuance that Lexi brought from her first audition was extraordinary,” says Rubin. “She had a tremendous amount on her shoulders in playing this role, and it was daunting, and she handled it beautifully.”
While in Ng’s novel, Mia and Pearl have a much quieter and passive relationship, the series presents a far more contentious relationship between the mother and daughter as they emotionally diverge over Mia’s secrets. “Some of Mia’s toughness and resilience is mirrored in Pearl, but there’s still an openness and a sensitivity in Pearl, and that’s one of the great achievements of Lexi’s performance,” explains Rubin.
Jade Pettyjohn locates an aspirational urgency as Elena’s eldest daughter Lexie, while Megan Stott plays the youngest Richardson sibling Izzy, with a multilayered wariness. “Izzy has a clear-eyed cynicism about her family and the pressures they exert. Knowing how complicated that character’s arc is, when we met Megan, we knew she had it in her. She was so in sync with the character, it was organic,” Rubin says. “Jade, as Lexie Richardson, elegantly handles not just the raw emotional scenes, but also then tamps that down to show Lexie as the overachieving daughter. So when her other complexities reveal themselves, they’re all the more moving.”
For the Richardson brothers, Jordan Elsass, who plays the athletic Trip and Gavin Lewis, who portrays studious Moody, convey brotherly differences tinged with a telescoped understanding. “Gavin gets across how Moody seems to see the often-disappointing realities of life, which is very different from Trip’s ‘golden ticket’ as an athletic alpha kid,” notes Rubin. “Jordan and Gavin are such wonderful contrasts, and wonderful actors, and they each connected with the specific qualities of their roles.”
Stevonte Hart plays Lexie’s high-achieving boyfriend Brian, a character that was “a difficult needle to thread” says Rubin. “Brian is kind of a trophy boyfriend, and Lexie and Elena embrace him into the family, though not quite because of himself — [his relationship with Lexie] is more of an emblem to Elena, and Brian sees that for what it is. The character needed to have a sort of heroic aspect, and we were thrilled when Stevonte walked through the door.”
Aside from finding the teens of Little Fires Everywhere, Rubin also needed to cast the right actors to portray a young Mia and young Elena in the flashback sequences for episode 6, “The Uncanny.” Luckily, AnnaSophia Robb (Soul Surfer; The Way, Way Back) – whom Witherspoon herself had suggested – and Tiffany Boone (The Chi) and were up for the challenge.
“I was able to show two or three scenes of Reese’s and Kerry’s performances to the leading candidates and let them marinate in those performances, so that they then could reach their own conclusions about how they’d embody these women in a younger form,” says Rubin. “Yet AnnaSophia and Tiffany had the challenge of not strictly playing versions of what Kerry and Reese were playing.”
In the episode, Boone plays Mia as a struggling art student in New York City, who is presented an opportunity that will change her life forever. Meanwhile, Robb plays Elena as a student on a semester abroad in Paris, where she also makes a crucial decision that changes the trajectory of her life.
Robb’s interpretation shows how the emotional armor Elena wears as a wife and mother approaching 40 is a kind of calcification of the sadness and frustration she knew in her twenties.
“In playing Elena circa 1983, AnnaSophia needed to capture a sunny disposition that is only an outward layer,” says Rubin. “Just as essential was the way the character manifests her familial pressures to succeed, and the lack of self-determination that comes from growing up in such a pressurized environment. AnnaSophia plays both of those on parallel tracks.”
Boone, meanwhile, “created a version of Mia [in 1981] that’s very different from the Mia we see as an adult,” Rubin explains. “There’s a sense of exploration and freedom to Mia in the flashback; she’s not yet buffeted by circumstances. We see in wonderful ways from Tiffany Boone how Mia’s experiences impacted her, including from people who didn’t understand her self-expression. We also see the different ways each of these women relates to their family: While Elena leans into her background, Mia rebels against hers. Tiffany and AnnaSophia’s performances give a deeper understanding of how different from each other these two people will become.”
The most challenging role for Rubin — whose four-decade career includes Oscar winners (The English Patient, Cold Mountain, Gravity) — was casting Bebe Chow, the Chinese immigrant whose courtroom custody battle for her child underscores the plot of Little Fires Everywhere. Knowing that it was essential that the actor playing the role be authentic, Rubin undertook an international search for Bebe and in stepped Chinese actress Huang Lu, whose heartbreaking yet steely performance anchors those tense and emotional scenes.
“Because of the dramatic demands of Bebe’s storyline, and the degree that we were intent on capturing the authenticity of an illegal immigrant who had known nothing but struggle, we wanted to get that right, and we were rewarded by the arrival of Huang Lu,” says Rubin.
“We hired Lulu — as Huang Lu is affectionately known in her native China — from Beijing, where she is rightly recognized as a well-respected actress in Chinese independent cinema. Lulu had all of the emotional resources to capture the despair of Bebe Chow. The strength of her performance is the key to those trial scenes.”
For Rubin, Little Fires Everywhere echoes a familial sentiment that resonates with him through the casting process. “I’m the only child of a single parent, and family stories are endlessly fascinating and exotic to me,” says Rubin. “The competitiveness, the fundamental love, the essential drama of it all; to be able to explore that with this cast is really a treat.”