As the U.S. recovered from a savage Civil War, Louisa May Alcott published the perfect balm: a tale of four sisters, different yet devoted. Now, in an era that many find divisive, Masterpiece unveils a new Little Women.
It was a simpler time.
Young people didn't stare, slump-necked, into their phones. They spent their free moments dancing or sharing cherished poems and books with each other. And that was just on set.
To hear them tell it, the cast and crew of the latest adaptation of Little Women were as devoted to each other as they were to the material. Creating that affection was so crucial for director Vanessa Caswill that she held two weeks of rehearsals before filming began in Ireland last summer. "By the end of it, they felt like family," Caswill notes, speaking by phone from London. "There was intimacy, truth and history between them."
Very little time was spent working on the script, however. "It was less about rehearsing the scenes and more about creating a family dynamic and ways of being with each other," says Willa Fitzgerald, who plays Meg, the oldest of the four March daughters.
To that end, they improvised, performed theatrical exercises and danced. Extensively. "They did it for hours," says Caswill, who goes by the nickname Ness, "so by the end of it they were completely in tune with each other, and yet they moved as individuals."
Recalls Maya Hawke, who plays the second daughter, aspriring writer Jo: "We spent time staring into each other's eyes and telling stories about our childhoods." She adds that she and Jonah Hauer-King, who portrays Laurie Laurence — the rich but unpretentious boy next door — danced like monsters for two hours.
"We shared everything about our lives," says Annes Elwy, who plays daughter number three, the sweet but ailing Beth. "It was really important that we knew each other inside out before we started, and we really did." During a day of interviews with cast and crew in various nooks around the stately Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, Elwy and Fitzgerald sit side by side on a couch, as comfortable as old friends. Or sisters.
Working with such iconic material, Caswill knew casting was critical. Searching beyond talent, she sought women "with integrity and depth and understanding, that really answered the themes of the story."
The trials of the March family have captivated young, predominantly female imaginations since Louisa May Alcott's novel was first published in 1868, and screen adaptations stretch back to the silent-film era. The latest Masterpiece–BBC coproduction is three hours long; the first hour airs on PBS on Mother's Day (May 13); the final two hours will air a week later.
Executive producer Colin Callender, principal of Playground Entertainment, had heard the BBC was looking for a treat for Christmas. It rarely adapts American books, but made an exception in this case. "British women know the book, British men don't," says Callender, who used to read the novel to his daughters. "But as it happens, the head of drama at the BBC, a man called Piers Wenger, knew it very well, and he loved the idea."
Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton caught wind of the production early and, in her own words, "pestered" Callender for it. "Every now and then a project comes along which is dead obvious: Yes ," she says. The BBC greenlit the series in January 2017, and Callender quickly tapped Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) to adapt the material so that production could begin that summer.
Thomas — also an executive producer, with Callender, Eaton, Sophie Gardiner and Lucy Richer — relates that the material presented unusual challenges. "You're not just taking in people's knowledge and love of the novel," she says. "You're taking in people's faint misremembrance of the novel. And you will be judged against that as much as you'll be judged against the actual text." In response, she hewed closely to the book. "I realized that I didn't just love it, I respected it."
She saw the characters with fresh eyes. Meg is usually considered the virtuous sister, "but one of the things I found very attractive in rereading it, and what I wanted to put on screen, is she begins the story in a place of profound discontent." That complexity made her much more interesting to write.
And to play. "I always found Meg a very comical character because she takes herself very seriously," Fitzgerald says. "And also very moving when she finally found what she was looking for." The actress tracked down the homemaking manuals Meg studies in the novel, which she found highly entertaining. She also started a journal as Meg. "Both of those things were helpful in getting into the world in which your sister [accidentally] burning your hair off before a party is catastrophic."
The book also surprised Thomas when it came to conveying the shy, retiring Beth. "I was very much struck by the number of attempts Beth made to get to Mr. Laurence's house, because in actual fact it isn't that she doesn't want to go, it's that she can't go." Nowadays, Beth would probably be diagnosed with social anxiety or agoraphobia, she says, "but what I really homed in on was, Louisa May Alcott actually says the family was well aware of Beth's infirmity."
Growing up in Wales, Elwy never knew about the novel, so the script was her first exposure to it. When she read the book, she related to Beth and Jo in equal measure. "As an actress, I obviously have different sides to me, too, but there definitely is a side that's shy and quiet," she says. "To be allowed to be that person for a few months felt very easy."
Hawke, on the other hand, knew the story intimately. Barely contained by a chair at the Langham, she wears jeans, a black jacket and sneakers — a look that would probably earn the approval of free-thinking Jo.
A fan of the Transcendentalist movement and its practitioners (which included Alcott, her father, Bronson, and their friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau), Hawke had visited the Alcotts' Concord home, the Orchard House, as a child. The daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, she resembles her mother in look and voice. Jo is her first role, and, like millions of women before her, she identifies strongly with the character.
"She is so passionate," Hawke says. "She loves language and storytelling and adventure, and she wants more from this world and from life. She's hungry, and that kind of hunger is something I can really relate to."
Writer Thomas brought forth qualities in Jo that hadn't been as evident in previous incarnations. "People tease her; people think she's different and weird," Hawke says. "I wanted to expose what she would be mocked about, which is the quirkiness and silliness and someone who makes mistakes and fumbles." She plays the role with a coltish energy, all gangly limbs and flyaway hair.
In contrast, youngest sister Amy, played by Kathryn Newton, has perfect curls and pretty manners — until she doesn't get her way. Newton could relate. "She was my favorite girl when I read the book a long time ago," she says, speaking by phone from a film set in England. "I liked that she wanted everything to be her way, and kind of got it in the end."
For all the actresses, studying the Marches' world and its constrictions — from corset to travel — helped shape their portrayals. "There's something that happens when you're on the set and you're in the [family] living room and look around," Newton says. "You kind of get there. Today we're constantly on our phones and entertained — back then, you had to entertain yourself. It's a completely different way of thinking. A much less selfish way of thinking."
The actresses followed suit, making their own fun together rather than turning first to their phones. Along with Hauer-King, they held impromptu dance parties every day during their lunch break, read poetry to each other, had dinner together nightly and, back at their hotel, spent the evenings drawing, painting, playing guitar and writing songs with each other.
"It was a very creative, stimulating community that we forged," Elwy notes. Or, as Hauer-King puts it, "It was a bit of a hippie camp."
The young actors are relatively unknown to audiences, and predominantly American, while the mature roles went to British royalty. Michael Gambon plays Mr. Laurence (grandfather to Laurie), Angela Lansbury is the formidable Aunt March and Emily Watson was everyone's first choice for the March girls' mother, Marmee.
"Emily has a profound sense of humanity that's in her every pore," says Callender, who had worked with Watson before. "Yet there's a twinkle and a mischief that makes it fun, and a gravitas that holds center stage."
Thomas remembers identifying with Jo as a child. "And of course now I'm way old enough to be Jo's mother, and I think the character that unfolded the most for me is Marmee."
That's Watson's take, too. "I was Jo. Now I'm Marmee. How did that happen?" She appreciated Thomas's exploration of Marmee's anger, which is in the book but feels thoroughly modern — as are many of the themes, even though the story takes place during the Civil War.
"There are so many echoes for now; we find ourselves very divided and polarized, and it's making people stand up for decency across the board in so many ways," Watson says quietly. "The first thing we see the [Marches] do is give their Christmas breakfast to a family of German immigrants, and the irony is not lost."
Most of the production, cast and crew, were female. Fitzgerald recalls looking around the room at the read-through and noticing that, other than the actors, Callender was the only man present. Even before that, she knew this would be a unique set.
"Four weeks before we started shooting, I got an email from Ness and Susie Liggat, the producer, in a very long-winded and funny way asking if it would be okay if I didn't shave my armpits for the next four weeks and through filming, because they wanted to make it authentic." She and Elwy laugh at the recollection. "I was like, this is the best email I have ever received from a producer in my professional life. That is something that I don't think a male producer would even think of."
Elwy says: "It set the tone."
Caswill agrees. "It was a very female environment, and it was a kind and generous one. We knew each other very well, very quickly." She then hastens to add: "We had incredible men on this project as well!"
One of them, Hauer-King, grew up in a house full of women, so he was used to that experience. But he was new to the book — like most boys, he had never read it as a child. "And I think it's a shame. So I really hope that a lot of boys and men watch this and it inspires them to read the book. I got so much out of it, and saw so much of myself in each of the four girls in different ways. And why wouldn't I? They're humans."
Despite her decades in the industry, Lansbury found the experience of working with a female director highly unusual. "She didn't make large pronouncements on the set of what she was looking for," says the 18-time Emmy nominee. "She would come and literally whisper in your ear what she was hoping to achieve in that given moment of the script."
Lansbury also discovered that Aunt March was a tough role to crack. "If you're playing a whole character, you can't try to woo the audience into thinking, 'Oh, I'm a nice old person after all. Love me a little.' I've never done that." She found glimmers of humor in the role nonetheless.
"It kind of was a scary thing to work with Angela Lansbury," Caswill admits. "But she was so approachable and lovely." Inspiring, even. Says Elwy: "It was interesting to see how someone else is making this career work, as they grow from being Emily to being Angela."
Lansbury believes the next generation will no longer have time for the March sisters. "'The world is too much with us,' as Wordsworth said. 'Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.' Indeed, we do. Today's world is fast receding from what's coming up ahead of us."
But for this generation's cast, the experience still resonates. "We kind of all fell in love with each other," Newton says. "It could have been just another movie, but new friendships were grown." Even a sisterhood.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2018