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Witherspoon, Kidman on why Hollywood is crazy for Quebec's Jean-Marc Vallee

Last Updated Feb 17, 2017 at 1:40 pm MDT

Their series is called “Big Little Lies” but here’s the truth: Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman are crazy about the show’s French Canadian director.

“It’s hard for him to talk about how incredibly genius and amazing he is,” says Witherspoon about Jean-Marc Vallee, “but I’ve never worked with a director who felt the performances, who will sit and cry with you about what your character is feeling, is there with you.”

Montreal-born Vallee directed Witherspoon to an Oscar nomination in the 2014 film “Wild.” Kidman had never worked with him before “Big Little Lies,” but she, too, came away a big fan.

“He is an auteur,” says Kidman. “To have somebody else step in and try to mimic his style and his voice, it wouldn’t have worked, so we were very lucky.”

Based on the bestseller from Liane Moriarty, “Big Little Lies” is set in the trendy, seaside town of Monterey, Calif. It is the story of three mothers: Madeline (Witherspoon), Celeste (Kidman) and Jane (Shailene Woodley from “Snowden”). Their worlds seem perfect at first, but scratch the surface with a well-manicured nail and up pop those big little lies.

Every relationship in town seems at risk. Beyond all the gossip lies death, perhaps even murder.

Adapted for television by David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal”), the series also stars Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Scott, Zoe Kravitz and Nova Scotia native James Tupper as Witherspoon’s character’s ex-husband, Nathan.

At first, Vallee was only signed on to direct one or two episodes, “and then we all attacked him and begged him to do more,” says Witherspoon, “because it just became clear, it was in him. These characters were part of a story he needed to tell, which is real.”

In 1995, Vallee directed and co-wrote one of the most successful Quebec films ever, “C.R.A.Z.Y.” Three films later, he directed Matthew McConaughey to a best actor Oscar in “Dallas Buyers Club.”

His move to premium TV continues with his next project, “Sharp Objects.” The eight-episode series is also at HBO, with another A-List actress, Amy Adams, in the lead.

Why is Vallee, 53, so in demand with top Hollywood stars? Those Oscar nominations haven’t hurt, but he’s also prized for his warm and compassionate working style.

On “Big Little Lies,” according to Witherspoon, he encouraged the main cast members “to have dinner and drink wine and talk about our lives and become real friends and actually share each other’s experience so that when you get to the actual scene on the day, there’s an understanding of each other that’s so much deeper than character.”

The result had the lead actresses feeling more like girlfriends than cast members. This helped them on the set of the series, says Witherspoon.

“I saw myself in different stages of motherhood all through my life,” says the actress, who has three children of her own. “I was a mom at 22, like Jane; and then I was a mom who was 40, like Madeline. I’ve been divorced, I’ve been remarried.”

Kidman, who turns 50 in June, has four children of her own. Sure, these mothers are overprotective, but they all seem very real to her, “and I’ve met many women that feel the same way when they read the book.”

Vallee says he feels “privileged and blessed” to work with actresses “who want to push themselves to serve a story that is meaningful to them, to us.” Simply put, he says, “I love actors, and I want to capture them.”

The seven-part series premieres Sunday on HBO Canada.

— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.