Saoirse Ronan: Playing Jo March In 'Little Women' Was A Confidence Boost

Dec 24, 2019
Originally published on December 24, 2019 10:45 am

As she played the role of Jo March in the new film adaptation of Little Women, Saoirse Ronan started to appreciate just how much the story is about memory and childhood.

Louisa May Alcott's novel follows four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, growing up during the Civil War. Their father has gone off to fight for the Union Army and they're at home with their mother, Marmee.

Little Women is "shining a light on childhood memories and how we are so desperate to hold onto them," Ronan says. "And I think that there's a sort of sadness that comes with getting older and leaving that behind."

The story is also about pursuing one's destiny; Jo refuses to act "like a lady," she wears pants instead of dresses, she doesn't want to get married. She wants to make a living as a writer, which is a tough thing to pull off in a time where women don't really earn their own money.

But Ronan believes that themes of family and memory help this 150-year-old story feel timeless.

"There's moments near the end of the movie where they realize that lovely little bubble that they were in for years that Marmee created for them kind of isn't there anymore — and that's just kind of part of life," Ronan says.


Interview Highlights

On how playing Jo helped her loosen up

I really am a perfectionist and just physically to be able to sort of mess up this character a bit was really great for me — to be so animated, to gesticulate as much as I did, to shout, to make, like, sort of odd facial expressions and be as expressive as I wanted to and not worry about it. I don't think I really had the confidence to do that before.

On the myth of girls being "put together" and "poised"

They're so similar to the way boys are, I think, when they're in this sort of pack. That's the way I've always been with my girlfriends. And so that's a very natural dynamic, I think, for girls to have, especially when they're sisters.

On Amy wanting to create art and marry rich, and Jo not wanting to marry at all

[Amy] says, "I want to be the best or I want to be nothing." But she's like, this is something that I have to consider: Any material that I produce, any children that I produce, they don't belong to me. So I need to marry well. ...

What I love about Little Women and what I love about all the girls is that, especially with Amy and Meg, they take control of their destiny and in a different way. ... I think Jo is obviously a very relatable woman to people now: There's a lot of girls out there that are very similar to Jo March. But I think it's also just as empowering and just as interesting to see a character like Amy that's like, no, I'm going to marry and I'm going to make it work for me.

On women working, then and now

In this day and age, for men and women, there is a lot of pressure to not only get a job like our parents did, but find your career and, like, really figure out who you are and to be your authentic self 100 percent of the time. But I also think that what has come with that is agency and independence. And [young women] can flourish, maybe in a way that women weren't given the opportunity to back then.

I'd imagine, for someone like Louisa, there must have been so much frustration that ... there's so many battles that you have to face as well as just doing your job, you know? And I think that's something that people still face now.

Victoria Whitley-Berry and Denise Couture produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Louisa May Alcott's book "Little Women" is 150 years old. It should feel ancient, but somehow it doesn't. Somehow, it holds up. There have been many adaptations, and now there's a new movie version out on Christmas Day directed by Greta Gerwig. The book is about four sisters - Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy - who are growing up during the Civil War. Their father has gone off to fight for the Union Army, and they're at home with their mother, Marmee.

One of his sisters, Jo, refuses to conform. She refuses to act like a lady. She wears pants instead of dresses. She doesn't want to get married. She wants to make a living as a writer, which is a tough thing to pull off in a time where women don't really earn their own money. The Irish actress Saoirse Ronan plays Jo in the movie, and she says that playing Jo taught her to loosen up a little.

SAOIRSE RONAN: I really am a perfectionist. And just physically to be able to sort of mess up this character a bit was really great for me to be so sort of animated, to gesticulate as much as I did, to shout, to make, like, sort of odd facial expressions and be as expressive as I wanted to and not worry about it. I don't think I really had the confidence to do that before.

KING: I was struck when I was watching this movie by how physical it is. Jo is always running someplace. She's always jumping on someone. People are, like, thrusting themselves into each other's arms.

RONAN: (Laughter) Or wrestling.

KING: Yes. Oh, my goodness. And, like you say, making funny faces and, like, throwing their hands around in the air. In the book, were the girls that physical? Or did you say they were girls and we know that they were very close, and so there would have been all of this running and hugging and all of that? Where did that come from?

RONAN: See, this is the myth, which is - it's great we're kind of getting rid of it - is that girls are not sort of poised or put together or anything like that. They're so similar to the way boys are, I think, when they're in this sort of pack. And that's the way I've always been with my girlfriends. And so that's a very natural dynamic, I think, for girls to have, especially when they're sisters.

KING: We don't necessarily think of "Little Women" this way, but a lot of this book, it is about money. And it is about the way that women operate in the world 150 years ago, when they could not, for the most, part go out and make their own money. They're totally dependent on whomever they marry or their fathers.

RONAN: Yeah. And it's amazing the speech that Flo has, that amazing speech where she says...

KING: Oh, can we talk about this? This is Jo's sister, Amy. Jo is baffled by why Amy wants to marry rich. Jo wants to go out and be a writer. And she thinks of Amy as this weird creature who just seems concerned with being pretty and standing up straight and painting. So talk about that moment in the movie. It's extraordinary.

RONAN: Yeah. Well, there's this scene that she has. And she talks about how, no matter how great she wants to be as an artist - and she does want to be the best, I love that she has that line where she says I want to be the best or I want to be nothing. But she's like, I - this is something that I have to consider. You know, any material that I produce, any children that I produce, they don't belong to me. So I need to marry well.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE WOMEN")

FLORENCE PUGH: (As character) And as a woman, there's no way for me to make my own money, not enough to earn a living or to support my family. And if I had my own money, which I don't, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property. So don't sit there and tell me that marriage isn't an economic proposition because it is.

RONAN: What I love about "Little Women," and what I love about all the girls is that, especially with Amy and Meg, they take control of their destiny in a different way to Jo. And I - you know, I think Jo is obviously a very relatable woman to people now.

KING: Yeah.

RONAN: And there's a lot of girls out there that are very similar to Jo March. But I think it's also just as empowering and just as interesting to see a character like Amy that's like, no, I'm going to marry. And I'm going to make it work for me. But I'm also going to do all these other things, too.

KING: Do you think about that in your own life at all? I mean, you're 25.

RONAN: Yeah.

KING: So you came of age at a time, really, when it seemed like women could do anything. When you look back at these characters and think of the extraordinarily small odds of a woman being able to take care of herself, being able to make a living, what goes through your mind? Do you feel bad for them? Do you think, well, maybe it was easier back then?

RONAN: I don't think so. I think the only people that I really envy, I think, are kids...

(LAUGHTER)

RONAN: ...Because they, like, they have the best of everything. They don't have any responsibilities yet. And they can just be silly all the time. But I think, you know, in this day and age for men and women, there is a lot of pressure to not only, like, get a job like our parents did but, like, find your career and, like, really figure out who you are and to be your authentic self 100% of the time. But I also think that what has come with that is agency and independence. And they can flourish, you know, maybe in a way that women weren't given the opportunity to back then.

You know, I'd imagine, like, for someone like Louisa, there must have been so much frustration that they were like, I know I can be really great, but I just need - there's so many battles that you sort of have to face as well as just doing your job, you know. And I think that's something that people still face now, definitely.

KING: How do you figure that a book that's 150 years old still feels completely resonant in 2019? Was it Louisa May Alcott being that good a writer? Or is there something eternal about what she was writing?

RONAN: Yeah. I think there was something very timeless about what she wrote about, which is somebody's pursuit of their destiny. And I think on top of that as well, like, this is a story about art and commerce, but it's also really sort of shining a light on childhood memories and how we kind of are so desperate to hold onto them. And I think that there's, you know, there is a sort of sadness that comes with getting older and leaving that behind.

And I think with "Little Women," this is - it's a story about so many things. But certainly for Jo and the girls, there's moments near the end of the movie where they realize that, like, that lovely little bubble that they were in for years that Marmee created for them kind of isn't there anymore. And that's just kind of part of life.

KING: Saoirse Ronan, thank you so much for taking the time today. We really appreciate it.

RONAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.