How Reese Witherspoon, Kathryn Hahn and Others Turned Tom Perrotta’s Characters into Iconic Roles
By Stacy Lambe
MTV Productions / New Line Cinema / HBO / HBO
Author Tom Perrotta is no stranger to seeing his books adapted for the screen. Over the past two decades, several of his most standout and bestselling novels have received the film or TV treatment. Each time, a female star has stepped into the lead role -- Reese Witherspoon in Election, Kate Winslet in Little Children and Carrie Coon on The Leftovers -- bringing Perrotta’s fictional creations to life with a mix of vivacity, humor and charm. Notably, all of those portrayals have been met with praise and accolades, making them each one of their actresses’ most iconic roles as well as easily rewatchable performances.
The most recent example is Mrs. Fletcher, the 2017 novel about a divorced woman who finds herself exploring her sexuality after her son leaves for college turned into the limited HBO series starring Kathryn Hahn. A formidable actress, Hahn’s been described as “wolfishly perfect” and “revelatory” in the role, making Eve another unforgettable character.
“You can feel it on set when something magical is happening with an actor,” Perrotta says. “That’s something that’s happened over all these adaptations.”
Speaking with ET by phone, the author and showrunner looks back on his growing canon of screen adaptations and how each actress transformed his characters into standout performances.
Reese Witherspoon in Election (1999)
Released in 1999, the dark comedy about a teacher who attempts to sabotage an eager and overly ambitious female student’s campaign to become her high school’s president was the first of Perrotta’s novels to be optioned for the screen. Alexander Payne co-wrote and directed the movie adaptation starring Witherspoon as Tracy Flick opposite Matthew Broderick’s beloved high school teacher, Jim McAllister. While the film was considered a box office dud when it was first released, it garnered considerable praise of the actress, who also appeared in that year’s Pleasantville and Cruel Intentions. “She hits her full stride in Election as an aggressive, manipulative vixen who informs a teacher she hopes they can work together ‘harmoniously’ in the coming school year,” Roger Ebert wrote at the time. The role of Flick ultimately earned Witherspoon her first Golden Globe and Film Independent Spirit Award nominations.
While not directly involved in the adaptation, the author was in regular contact with production. “I remember hearing from producers on set being like, ‘Oh, something’s happening here. She’s really bringing it,’” says Perrotta, who recalls being invited on set to watch her film a “fairly simple scene” where Flick is voting in the student body election. “There was just that amazing way she carried herself -- she just snapped into motion. You had to laugh when you watched it because it was just so strange and vivid, and so explosive.”
Ultimately happy with the final product (“I just knew it was a great thing when I saw it in the theater for the first time,” he remembers), Perrotta says that the character is the most different in the transformation from book to screen. “Tracy is played as an empowered, young feminist woman in the book, and I think Alexander Payne and Reese came up with a much more girlish and less sexual Tracy.” That said, he could see what was amazing about the performance and “now, when I read Election, I just see Reese.”
Kate Winslet in Little Children (2006)
Perrotta’s fourth novel tells interweaving narratives about seven people living in the same Boston suburb whose lives becoming increasingly more complicated as their stories come together. One of them is Sarah, a put-upon married mother of one who finds herself in an affair with a stay-at-home dad dubbed the Prom King by the other moms.
After taking on more screenwriting opportunities, Perrotta attached himself to the 2006 film, which he ended up co-writing with director Todd Field. The two, he says, wrote a fairly faithful adaptation, which received critical praise and numerous accolades, including an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Perrotta and Field and a Best Actress nomination for Kate Winslet, who starred as Sarah opposite Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Connelly. In one review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote that “Winslet, as fine an actress as any working in movies today, registers every flicker of Sarah’s pride, self-doubt and desire, inspiring a mixture of recognition, pity and concern that amounts, by the end of the movie, to something like love. That Ms. Winslet is so lovable makes the deficit of love in Sarah’s life all the more painful.”
While there’s no doubting Winslet’s portrayal of Sarah, Perrotta remembers wondering how the studio was so sure it would be able to get a star in the lead role. “Sarah sees herself as a plain woman,” he says, thinking that not many actresses would want to embody that onscreen. Once her name came up, however, “everyone knew she’s the one,” he adds, noting that after watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he could see her disappearing into the part. And getting to observe her on set was further proof they landed the right star. The author remembers how she could seamlessly slip in and out of an American accent and her real one in between takes.
Similarly to Witherspoon, Perrotta now sees Winslet when he reads things from the book. “She has also kind of occupied that role,” he says, adding that “when I actually read certain scenes out loud, I find myself unconsciously kind of matching her inflection during certain lines.” One such scene is when Sarah approaches Brad (Wilson) at the playground to get his number in front of the other moms. “The way that she lowers her voice and creates this conspiracy with him, it's an amazing scene,” he notes.
Carrie Coon on The Leftovers (2014)
In one of his more ambitious projects to date, Perrotta teamed up with Damon Lindelof to co-create an HBO series adapted from his 2011 novel about life on Earth after an unexplained event called the “Sudden Departure” takes some and leaves others behind. While a global event, his book focused on the intersecting lives of one family in a small Ohio town.
The series, which ultimately garnered critical praise and adoration, lasted three seasons, with the latter two departing completely from the source text. In fact, as the series got further away from the novel, it saw Nora Durst (Coon) -- a grief-stricken woman whose entire family disappeared -- grow into the emotional center of the series as one of the two leads alongside Kevin Garvey played by Justin Theroux. (The two would become the only ones to last the entire run.)
While a complete unknown to film and TV at the time, Coon made a lasting impression. “I still remember that day we saw her videotape of her auditioning. It was so different from the other auditions that we’d seen for the role,” Perrotta recalls. She played it very in control compared to the other actors who came in for the part and soon they found themselves developing Nora, which was already a complete departure from the book, around her performance. And when it comes to his favorite scene with Nora, he says it’s during the series finale when she delivers the monologue to Kevin about her own disappearance. “Everyone who was there that day felt like they’ve seen one of the great performances of TV,” he recalls. “It was extraordinary.” Each take, he says, Coon would work on a different element, a different emotion, or hit a certain tone so that when they were all edited together, it was seamless in delivery.
Since starring on The Leftovers, Coon has fleshed out her screen credits with The Sinner and Fargo, with the latter earning the actress her first Emmy nomination.
Kathryn Hahn in Mrs. Fletcher (2019)
Based on the 2017 novel, Mrs. Fletcher is a limited series about the coming-of-age story of both Eve (Hahn) and her son, Brendan (Jackson White). After her son leaves for college, Eve finds herself experiencing a sexual reawakening and fulfillment that’s eluded her in recent years.
This time around, Perrotta not only adapted the story for HBO but also served as showrunner of the series, which Rotten Tomatoeshas declared “is an empathetic and poignant -- if at times incomplete -- character study that proves the perfect showcase for the luminous Kathryn Hahn.” A longtime character actress, Hahn gets the rare opportunity to step into the lead, which she takes full advantage of here.
While sex is certainly part of the series, Perrotta says it’s more of an internal journey about someone creating a space to allow themselves to embrace a new identity. And he was very aware of that when trying to find an actor who could be engaging even when she’s alone and be able to play moments of silence. “I really don’t think anyone does it better than Kathryn,” he says, crediting Hahn for not wanting Eve’s experiences played for laughs. “She felt it was a serious and emotional journey.” Where the humor ultimately comes from is the humanity in her performance, he adds. “It’s funny, but funny in that deepest, most human way.”
“It's hard for me to think about who Mrs. Fletcher was in my mind,” Perrotta says now, but he says that in praise of the deliberate choices and decisions Hahn made along the way to bring Eve to life onscreen.
Mrs. Fletcher airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO and is now streaming on HBO GO/NOW.