Taken from the winter 2019 issue of Dazed. You can pre-order a copy of our latest issue here.
When she was younger, Saoirse Ronan fell for Little Women; specifically, she fell hard for Jo March. Louisa May Alcott’s book, loved by every generation since its publication in 1868 – both Simone de Beauvoir and Patti Smith have professed their adoration – has Jo, the ardent, wild tomboy heroine at its heart. It was on set for Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird that Ronan first heard the director was plotting a film adaptation of the book. Straight away, she did something audacious. “I was like, I need to play Jo,” Ronan remembers on an October afternoon during a long and breathless phone conversation with her co-star, Laura Dern, who plays her mother in Little Women. Ronan had never done this before with a director. “There’s no one else I understand as fully as I did Jo. She needed to be a tornado, this bloody twister coming into the room and messing everything up a bit.”
That description – a tornado, a bloody twister – might also hold for the energetically talented Ronan herself. Like Jo, the 25-year-old actress has proved herself to be a young woman of principle. Bronx-born but County Carlow-bred, she was forthright about her feminist convictions ahead of Ireland’s abortion referendum last year, appearing in a video for a national campaign to remove the eighth amendment, which outlawed women from seeking an abortion, from the constitution. As she told the Irish writer Sally Rooney last year, “The older I get, the more in touch I am with what activists are doing – and the more I want to help them.”
Little Women stars Emma Watson (Meg), Florence Pugh (Amy), and Eliza Scanlen (Beth) as the other March sisters, and Meryl Streep in the role of their aunt. It also reunites Ronan with her Lady Bird co-star, 23-year-old American actor Timothée Chalamet, cast here as the mischievous March-courting neighbour Laurie. Dern says that Gerwig saw much of herself in her and Ronan: “We all have this way we talk with our hands and long dangly arms. All three of us have the spirit of Jo.”
On set, Dern and Ronan bonded on runs together at Orchard House, Alcott’s historic home in Concord, Massachusetts, now open to the public as a museum. The actresses have a warm relationship and their intimacy is surely grounded in their shared experience of growing up around adults within fictional, emotionally fraught worlds. “I had my 16th birthday on Blue Velvet,” Dern tells Ronan. “I relate to your experience on Atonement.” (Ronan was just 13 when Joe Wright’s 2007 drama was released.)
Ronan grew up on the sets of period pieces. She was bringing characters from popular adult novels to life at roughly the same age her schoolmates were being assigned Little Women, starting with Atonement, an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel for which she received a best supporting actress nomination at the Academy Awards. She went on to garner two more Oscar nominations: for Brooklyn (2015), based on Irish author Colm Tóibín’s novel, and 2018’s Lady Bird, Gerwig’s directorial debut. Now, as with Winona Ryder and Katharine Hepburn before her, Ronan will be remembered as the Jo March of her generation.
Hello, I’m calling in from rainy Brooklyn... My family is actually named after Alcott’s heroines. My mum is Jo and my sisters are Amy and Beth.
Saoirse Ronan: Oh my God.
Laura Dern: No... That’s amazing.
When did each of you first read Little Women?
Laura Dern: My grandmother, who read it as a young girl, was the person who first wanted me to read it. I felt the connection to Jo, but I didn’t necessarily connect with or understand the (other) girls. I deeply understood Jo, but I didn’t know why until we got inside of it for the film and started breaking it open. I really understood all that was obviously there for me and inspiring me as an 11-year-old when I first read it.
Saoirse Ronan: When you’re young, there’s a trace (of inspiration) that comes out of what you respond to naturally or what you’re drawn to. I was the same. I remember when I read Louisa describing all the different characters and she gets to Jo, who she describes as this comical, awkward girl who loves to run and write. It was that instant feeling of being drawn towards someone.
Laura Dern: It was the pleasure of my life watching you pull the essence of Louisa May Alcott through Jo. You feel that in the film in a way we haven’t seen (before). I haven’t played a lot of moms in films; it’s sort of newer in my journey as an actor, but this was the first time I really felt like I do with my own daughter. What I hadn’t seen in (other adaptations) that I felt so much from the book was this mother who knew she was Jo, that she had all of that in her, and she was watching her daughter become (that person).
Saoirse Ronan: I’ve told you many times that the impact you’ve had on me is something I’ll never forget. We get each other. I do think there’s something about people who started off acting when they were very young and continued to do it. We both had these careers very early on where we were the young people in more adult films. We had these experiences of growing up on set and our relationship with our mother was the thing that anchored us. Being able to honour our very unusual situation was so lovely. Even though (the Alcotts) didn’t have a lot of money and Louisa had to sew and became a nurse on the side, there was something else going on that I think her father didn’t recognise, or couldn’t appreciate, but her mother really could. Because, as you said, she had it in her as well. I experienced that with my mother, even though she never became an actor. She has all this character and passion in her. It was the first time I played a part in a mother-daughter relationship where it was so tender. In Lady Bird, they are at each other’s throats the whole time, but this is a love affair between the mother and the daughter. It felt the most like my relationship with my mum that I’ve ever experienced on a film set.
“There’s no one else I understand as fully as I did Jo. She needed to be a tornado, this bloody twister coming into the room and messing everything up a bit” – Saoirse Ronan
Laura Dern: I’m stunned by how Greta captured it. You find love stories as you go on this journey. Not on every movie, we both know that. I think you are an extraordinary, pure, raw, brave, vulnerable, radical talent and you’ll go anywhere and do any of (the things) you want. For me, (acting) has been a gift of a lifetime and the emphasis is on empathy. We got our education on how to consider human beings and what they go through. You and I would walk and talk when we were in Concord, that was such a big deal for me.
Saoirse Ronan: That we got to do that where Louisa grew up and returned after she’d had such massive success with the book does add this layer, there’s an energy there. You feel that these people are still with you – I think we all felt that way. We went to Orchard House a week before we started and we all walked around and saw the little drawings that the real-life girls did on the wall. These beautiful sketches of Grecian goddesses and the costumes that (Louisa) used to dress up in, incredible. It was all real. What I love about Greta’s film is that we’ve sort of merged these two worlds together. There is Little Women, which is Louisa’s creation, and then there’s Louisa’s real life. To be able to honour her with our movie is special. And also, to really give Marmee her due. I remember reading (Eve LaPlante’s 2011 biography) Marmee and Louisa and realising how much of a champion this woman (Abigail, Alcott’s mother) was for all of her daughters, and her husband and her brother. They were abolitionists, feminists, they were trailblazing ahead. If it wasn’t for Abigail, Louisa wouldn’t have written the book. Little Women wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for her mother.
Laura Dern: It was interesting to watch Greta be an incredibly clear visionary in terms of what she wanted. She was very precise – there were moments where I was watching her micromanage every detail, and moments where I would watch her with you where she wasn’t saying anything. I’m playing your mum so I was locked in to watching you at every moment to make sure you were OK. What I was witnessing, and you can see it in the movie, is how one million per cent of Greta’s soul trusts every move you make. I’m sure it was built on Lady Bird, but I wondered if you felt the level of trust?
Saoirse Ronan: I did, which I’m so happy about. Because I try to put into words how much I look up to her and it’s never really good enough. I just totally idolise her and that respect and admiration has grown with the few films we’ve done together. Greta loves actors so much. She has so much admiration for actors because she knows what it’s like to be in the head of an actor as well. Even though she was shooting on film and we couldn’t go over by one day, I never felt any pressure to hurry things along or just go with the take we had because it was good enough. The dialogue and the rhythm and musicality of the text is very central for Greta when it comes to knowing if a scene has worked. Sometimes she doesn’t even need to look at it. It was very specific, the way that a lot of those group scenes were written, but within the structure of that, we could mess it up. And I found that really incredible, that trust she gave us. She just handed it over to us at a certain point.
Laura Dern: I have a memory that will forever be one of my top memories of my life as an actor, which is you and I doing the scene in the attic (where Jo says, “I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all that a woman is fit for...”).
Saoirse Ronan: Yeah, I knew you were going to say that.
Laura Dern: Unlike any scene in any movie I’ve ever done, I don’t remember that there were other people there. It’s the weirdest, most wonderful memory.
Saoirse Ronan: I couldn’t even see the camera or anything, it had totally vanished. I was looking at you and I remember this was actually one of those moments where I think we needed to keep moving in order to make the day, and you were just like, ‘Fucking do it, go for it.’ This sounds so wanky but it felt like were like rock stars or something. There was so much that was allowed to be brought to the surface with you and I’ve never experienced that before on any film. You really encouraged me and the girls to just fucking go for it. And Greta was there to guide us all and facilitate all of that. It was amazing.
Laura Dern: It’s the fever of these two women talking to each other about how they should be allowed to live their lives. It was like being in one of those deep conversations you’ve had in your life about who we should be and what we should let ourselves be. That’s my memory, your face and your eyes, and I can’t remember where the camera was, or the crew or Greta. I just remember being alone in an attic with you, having one of the deep conversations of my life and that is amazing. Was there anything there in terms of the physicality of the movie or the dancing or the choreography that you want to share?
Saoirse Ronan: I’ve always found, with most of the roles that I’ve taken on, that physicality has just naturally played a massive part in who that person was. Even if they aren’t very energetic, there’s a certain movement in their voice that I need to find in order to unlock them. Jo has this force and energy that’s sort of unstoppable, and (it was great) having choreographers there to work with that energy – especially (with) Timothée, because Timmy’s the same, he’s such a fidgeter and he’s got a specific way of moving, and we do that with one another. The way Laurie and Jo exist around and with and within one another was very important to capture and understand for the two of us. We worked on more structured choreography for that scene when Emma (Watson, playing Meg) is at the party and we’re outside; what Greta wanted was not to have us do a sort of formal dance. I mean, it was all choreographed, but it was also very impulsive and it did feel quite modern, in the sense that it wasn’t stiff and staged like it would be in a lot of those ballroom dances that we’ve seen before. We wanted to have the contrast between what was going on inside of what you would usually see in a movie that’s set in this time and also outside of this boundary of the room. We both swapped roles of man and woman – who led, who followed – and that was really important for our dynamic.
Laura Dern: I mean, how heartbroken are we every time the camera leaves you and Timmy? It’s the most delicious. I just want to watch the two of you together forever. It’s the way the two of you really dance, emotionally and physically.
Saoirse Ronan: He’s so exciting to watch. We all spoke about it. Me and the girls, as soon as we met, we just clicked. It was incredible! I remember Florence (Pugh) was finishing another job, (but) when she arrived, it was like the final piece of the puzzle. I think you just get a bit hyper when she is around. The way we all were with each other, we were like boys. (laughs) Wrestling all the time. No, actually – we were like girls because that’s exactly what girls do, but we wrestled all the time. And we were always telling these filthy jokes – and winding you up, and you took it so well. It was just this amazing energy that existed between all of us straight away. Physically we were all really comfortable with each other, we would sit on each other, wrap ourselves around one another. One of the things I like about acting is the relationships you can form when you’re working, especially between actors. You could meet someone on the Monday and by Wednesday you’ll have kissed them, you’ll have hugged them, you’ll have danced with them, they’ll have seen you in a corset or an underdress or a pair of boxer shorts. Any insecurities you had just go out the window because they have to. I think that was even more extreme on this job because we were in a group of girls and I think that’s very unusual.
“(Saoirse) and I doing the scene in the attic will forever be one of my top memories of my life as an actor. It’s the fever of these two women talking to each other about how they should be allowed to live their lives” – Laura Dern
Laura Dern: Most of the time it was us and Greta, and Amy (Pascal), our producer. Even in the rehearsal process, it was just all of us together at Amy’s house. Feeling the physicality of the relationships was everything. The way that each of you, in relationship to me, physically behave are the dynamics of the family.
Saoirse Ronan: Greta wrote that into the script. There was a lot of movement in almost everything. She’s so, so good at playing with space and knowing when to give silence or stillness, like a sheet of music. The beat never really drops in the films that she makes. For the Christmas scene, she specifically wrote, ‘Jo flops on to the floor and throws the cushion at Meg, and Amy is dancing about with her fairy wings.’ The movement was written into the script from the beginning. The girls are just half a step ahead of you all the time, which I love.
Do you ever keep a journal on set, or write to get into character?
Saoirse Ronan: The thing that I had to practise was... when Louisa wrote, she would write for so long that her right hand would start to cramp up, and whenever it did that, she was so desperate to keep going that she actually taught herself how to write with her left hand. There’s a couple of moments in the film, especially later on when she begins to write Little Women, (where) we see her swap from one hand to the other. I practised that.
Laura Dern: And you practised with your quill. I loved how you always had ink stains on your hand.
Saoirse Ronan: It’s really messy!
Laura Dern: I do journal sometimes, while I’m trying to figure out the character, but not to keep the memory of the experience, which would have been a good idea. (laughs)
Saoirse Ronan: I’ll write in a diary at the end of the day. So I’ll go home and be like, ‘Oh my God, Laura was so great in this scene,’ something like that. (laughs)
Laura Dern: When I remember to do that at night, it’s amazing.
Saoirse Ronan: It’s so hard! My best mate got me a journal a few years ago, when I was heading off to do the one and only play I’ve ever done. (Ronan appeared in a Broadway adaptation of The Crucible in 2016.) Brooklyn was coming out that year and I did Lady Bird as well. At the start of the year (my friend) was like, ‘I think this is going to be a big year for you so I want you to take this and write everything down.’ So that’s what I did, and I think the fact that it was a gift which had been given to me by someone who knows me so well and I love so much – you know, Jo says this, you have to write for someone else sometimes. I’ll sometimes go a few weeks without writing in it but it’s really lovely to look back and be like, ‘I was so wrapped up in this,’ or ‘I was so worried about that.’
The film spans several Christmases for the March family – what are your favourite holiday films and traditions?
Saoirse Ronan: The only tradition we had was to stay in our pyjamas all day! My best friend, Christopher, who we used to live close to, would come and visit us in the morning with his parents. Then they would go off and visit their relatives and that was sort of all we did. It was just the three of us and so it was always kind of intimate at Christmas.
Laura Dern: Same for me, mine was very intimate. As an only child, it was very small but always really sweet and about celebrating each other, whether with a handmade gift or a letter that we’d written. A movie was always part of Christmas for us. Usually on Christmas Eve we would watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Going to the movies on Christmas Day was a big one for my family so I’m so excited that (Little Women) is coming out then. (The film is out on Boxing Day in the UK.) Finding a film that the whole family can go and watch together is quite a beautiful ritual.
Saoirse Ronan: We loved It’s a Wonderful Life too. Also Meet Me in St Louis. When Judy (Garland) sings ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ it’s so beautiful. And Gone With the Wind. But Gone With the Wind is so long that whenever it played on TV we’d always come in halfway through, so up until last year, I hadn’t had seen the start of the film, ever. (laughs)
Laura Dern: We would watch it, too!
How often are you both still reading scripts with love and marriage as the ending for the heroine?
Laura Dern: I think it’s exciting, even within a romantic story or a beautiful happy ending, when the characters that drive the story, whether they are male or female, are given room to be complicated and raw and funny and damaged and angry and that’s OK. I mean, this isn’t rocket science and we didn’t invent it. Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck were playing these kinds of complicated women in the 40s. The film business goes through its own stages. In the 70s, Barbra Streisand was producing her own films so she could play complicated characters in film.
Saoirse Ronan: I still like it when people end up together, I think that’s great. That’s why Richard Curtis will always be adored. We need a bit of both. But I think that people are terrified to put that in films now. (laughs) ‘How dare you.’
Laura Dern: How dare you!
Little Women is in UK cinemas from December 26
Hair Malcolm Edwards at LGA Management, make-up Lauren Parsons at Art Partner using Gucci Beauty, nails Ama Quashie at Streeters using Gucci Beauty, photographic assistants Clara Belleville, Chiara Vittorini, styling assistants Ogun Gortan, Met Kilinc, Delali Ayivi, hair assistant Lewis Stanford, make-up assistant Anastasia Hess, digital operator Tomas Hein, production Creative Blood, executive talent consultant Greg Krelenstein, special thanks Spring Studios