Saoirse Ronan may not be the youngest Oscar nominee, but she can lay claim to being in that rare club of actors who have been nominated three times before their 30th birthday. And with another five years to go before that particular milestone, there’s plenty of time for a fourth. Could it be for her turn this year in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which casts Ronan as Jo March? Certainly, she says, it was the hardest she ever fought for a job, petitioning Gerwig as soon as she heard the project was on the table. It reunites Ronan—as well as castmates Timothee Chalamet and Tracy Letts—with Gerwig after the director’s triumphant debut with Lady Bird, and delivers a modern take on Louisa May Alcott’s classic prose, which channels the progressive power of the book in ways few other filmed adaptations of Little Women have managed.
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How did this project come to you?
She had been writing it even before she made Lady Bird. She’d pitched the idea to Sony. They had the rights to it because [Columbia] had made the one in the 90s, where Amy Pascal was at the time. Amy’s named after Amy March. Little Women is her passion project.
So I think Greta went in, she got a meeting with them because either she heard they were going to make it or she wanted to make it, and she was like, “It needs to be and I’ll write it, but I also want to direct it.” And she was technically unproven at this stage. Nobody knew how incredible she was.
She went off, she made Lady Bird, and then came back to it as soon as all the press for Lady Bird was finished; started writing a new draft. I had heard, I think from her or my agent, that this was a thing she was going to do, and so straight away I was just, “I have to be Jo.” Because it was her and because it was Jo… there was no way I could have seen her direct anyone else’s Jo March. And even she even told me, “The fact that you’ve been directed by other people is weird to me,” because we’re just very close.
I really did just go up to her at an awards show and say, “I know you’re going to do this thing. I want to be in it, and I really think the only part I can play is Jo March. So, if you want me to be in it, this is what I’m willing to offer you.” It was the most ballsy I’ve ever been. She said that she would think about it, which wasn’t quite the reaction that I was hoping for, but OK [laughs]. And then she emailed me a week later. She said, “You’re right, you’re Jo.” So, she let me do it. I’ve never done that before. I’ve never pursued a role in that way.
Was it just the draw of Greta, or was there something special for you about Little Women?
I think it was Greta and Jo. I think it was Greta and specifically Jo March and the character being such a huge inspiration and a heroine. She’s a character that so many people love. And not that I knew this at the time, but the reason why Patti Smith writes is because of Louise May Alcott and Jo March. If there’s any girl out there that’s looking to go into the world of writing and they read about Jo, I think they can see themselves in it. It has obviously given a lot of people the courage to just go for it.
But I just always just loved her as a character. I loved that she was the one that was different. I liked that she was the one that made statements like, “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”
Still, if it had been anyone else, I wouldn’t necessarily be interested in doing Little Women. It was the fact that it was Greta doing Little Women.
Obviously, we were all coming to it as adults, and her in particular. She’s grown up with this book and she’s grown up with the movies. She’s in her 30s and she’s had this successful film. She says you feel like you spend so much of your young adult life, at least, with your childhood self walking along beside you, and you refer to them and go, “Is that what I would’ve done back then?” or, “Is this what you would think?” or whatever. I think there was something really effective in her script about the reminder of where the girls had come from, and then to cut back to them when they’re older and they’re on their own, and they’ve gone down either a path that they’ve chosen or a one that hasn’t quite gone the way they expected it to, but they’re trying to find their way within it. And I just also think from a cinematic point of view, the pacing of it. Allowing you to have this fullness and this joyfulness in the childhood scenes and then to cut to reality, and solitary solitude is really effective for an audience to watch.
If you’re going to do Little Women again, do something different with it. There’s no point in starting on Christmas Day again. You have to do something different with it.
Did you feel the pressure of taking on a literary icon?
I don’t want this to sound arrogant, because it’s not me saying, “What do I have to feel nervous about?” but I just didn’t. I was so excited to do it. I was so ready to have fun doing it.
Having done Lady Bird and Brooklyn in quick succession—two films that were bringing me back into doing leads again, and as a young woman as opposed to a child— I was very scared doing them. I overthought both of them. And thankfully that worked for the characters because they are also in a state of like finding themselves, so that’s fine, but it was scary for me in the first few years of my 20s.
I did them and I did the play [The Crucible] and I had this crazy year of just doing lots of work. And then I went into this project Mary Queen of Scots that I’d been meaning to do for years and years and years. There was something about going onto that where I really started to feel the wind beneath behind the sails and I felt so connected to it. I felt like I was very much involved in the whole process of the film being put together. That was the first time I had that and I think I’ve come to love it. I have this whole new grateful experience where I was allowed to be involved in a way that hadn’t been before.
I started to push myself a bit on that. I think because I had had this crazy year of being ill-prepared and working maybe a little bit much but doing it anyway. So after Mary, by the time Little Women came around, that I knew how I needed to do it. I was like, right, I’m ready. I took six months off, between the two, and I was so ready to get back onto a film set, and getting to do it with Greta.
It wasn’t that there weren’t nerves, because there always is, but there wasn’t the anxiety. I was just ready to take it on and let it be whatever it was going to be, and I had never felt that to that extent before. Letting go of all that a little bit was the most amazing feeling.
Where do you think that fear came from?
I hadn’t led anything in a while. It happens to a lot of people in their early 20s where you’re just all over the place and everything is change. You’re leaving home and you’re in relationships or you’re not in relationships or, everything is just bouncing off the walls. I think I’m so susceptible to everything around me. I wouldn’t really block anything out necessarily. So, I was feeling it all.
I also think that with Brooklyn in particular, because it was an Irish film, I felt massive pressure on that. I put that on myself, but I felt huge pressure to not fuck that up, because I knew all of Ireland would be watching, and I wanted it to be a proud moment for us. And thankfully it was.
With Lady Bird, it was the lead thing, I think. It was the fact that it was Greta and I really looked up to her, and it was somewhat more of a comedy and I loved comedy, and I was doing it in a different accent and all that stuff. So, it was a number of things. But it was brilliant to do something that really made me quite scared and come out the other side of that, and I was like, all right, OK, bring it on [laughs].
There is the theory that the fear is the very thing that makes you do something well.
Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve found this as you’ve gotten older and more experienced in writing and stuff, but there’s something amazing about never feeling like you’re all that and always going into something like, “What if I forget how to do it?” I’ve always worried that I’ve forgotten how to act, and definitely never felt like I am the best at the thing that fuels me. But there’s also something really brilliant about getting to the stage where you’re like, “Oh, I have this.”
As an actor, it’s like an instrument now. It becomes like an instrument that you know how to use a little bit more, and you’re constantly learning how to refine it, and adjust it and tweak it, and that’s really cool. When you start to have this natural instinct of awareness of how it all works. But I think you’re right, if you felt like you were just brilliant all the time, then you wouldn’t bother questioning yourself, and it’s that nervous energy that you live off of.
The difference between confidence and arrogance.
Right. Over the last few years I’ve gotten to know a few dancers, and dancers are so brave of being like, “I was shit on stage last night.” Or, “I killed last night.” They have this more athletic mindset where they’re not big-headed or boasting if they say they were good. They’ve just been doing it since they were six and they’re professional and experienced enough now to be able to go, “Yeah, it was good last time.” It’s just going, “No, I can accept about myself that I’m good at what I do, and it doesn’t mean I can’t be better.” And that’s been quite an interesting thing.
How do external things like Oscar nominations affect that?
They don’t get in the way. I do think it has to be something that—this sounds so cheesy—but it does have to be something that comes from within you, I think. You just find the confidence in if you’ve done a thing and you didn’t expect to go as well as it did, and it really did go great.
There’s a scene in Little Women where Friedrich tells her that he doesn’t like her work and that was one of the best days I’ve ever had on any films. Greta made us feel like we had all the time in world. We had this 10-page scene or whatever, and it really had the room to ebb and flow. Louis [Garrel] and I were able to spar with each other in the way that Timmy [Chalamet] and I were as well. There was something about it where, I only said it to Greta the other day, it wasn’t me going, “I’m nailing this.” But we were both in a place where we had found this sweet spot and we could just settle into the scene.
I remember I would go away in between takes and I would sit on the stairs and I just felt so calm. It wasn’t cockiness, it was I was settled into the feeling of the scene and I was very open to it taking me wherever It wanted to take me.
I think that’s something that also comes with age. There’s a great Scottish actor called Douglas Henshall, who’s in Shetland. My friend and I were watching it recently and we just said, “He just says the lines and he never does too much. He just lets it happen. How does he do that?” I was looking at it, and it was like he’s been doing it for so long that he’s probably at the stage now where he feels he’s proved that he’s a great actor or whatever and he’s just going to enjoy it. I think that’s sometimes when people do their best work.
The way you describe that scene, it sounds like a jazz band letting the music just arrive. It’s not often we think of that as being something applicable to acting. We often focus on the technical.
I think with anything that anyone is learning how to do, it’s just practice, and the more and more you do it, the more you’re able to just let go of the rules that you needed when you were starting out. With anything though, whenever you’re learning a new skill, you need to have that structure and boundaries. I’m somebody who, I like rules. “What am I needed for, what mark do you need me to hit?” You do that for so many years that you just start to go, “Let me just ease up on this thing a bit.”
I follow recipes all the time. I did a cooking course over the summer and I’ve found since then I’m like, “I’m going to add little bit more of this in, or I’m going to maybe throw some garlic in because I think that might be interesting. I might like it.” I mean it’s the same with acting. You just follow your rules and you find the thing that works—for me anyway—and you try and hit that as much as you can, and then as you’ve done that for like 15 years, you’re like, “I want to just be a little bit selfish here for a second and try this thing,” and it’s lovely. It’s lovely.
You can’t be afraid to play a bum note. “It’s all right, I’ll bring it back.” I think that’s why that happened with the director that I love and I trust. I know she loves me because when I was with her, I was able to do things and I didn’t have that crippling fear that I would usually have. Like, “What if it isn’t right? What if it’s not the right thing?” If it didn’t work, it didn’t work and we tried a different thing and I didn’t feel, Oh, she’s never going to put me in a film again.
Do you think the fact she’s an actor too makes her more sensitive to those fears?
Absolutely. I think the mind of an actor is a bloody maze. It’s so sensitive. It’s where this contradiction of being very confident and very insecure at the same time comes from. We need to be very vulnerable, but also have some control over what we’re doing, and be able to manage it in order to give the scene what it needs. I think she really appreciates that and has been there herself and knows how it is to be in the head of an actor. Just even by her allowing us to feel like we had all the time in the world when we really didn’t, she knew that would have an effect on what you’re doing.
There’s things that even I’ve started to do on set that maybe a director who wasn’t an actor wouldn’t know. I’d say, “Let’s take 30 seconds before we do this to just calm down,” and the other actors would say afterwards, “I’m so glad we had a minute to do this.”
Sometimes if the director hasn’t been in a position themselves, they still know how important it is to set the tone, either play music or have no sound at all let the actors just sit with each other for a second before you go straight into taping. It can have a big impact on your performance.
I think I knew ultimately that Greta would just always understand what we needed, and we were all so different. There are some directors that you work that haven’t acted, and they do think of the actor as a puppet or a doll that says the lines they’ve written, and they’re like, “Just do the thing that I need you to do.” Whereas Greta knows it’s not as simple as that and it would be a much, much more lovely experience for everyone if you have an understanding where the other was coming from. I mean to me it makes so much sense that an actor who thinks in the way she does, eventually does become a director in the way like a football player would become a manager for a team. It’s just natural progression of picking up so much from other creators and their ideas and their styles and then really wanting to utilize that and put it to good use. She has a very delicate touch and I think that comes from her being an actor for sure.
Many people think actors are precious and mollycoddled. Do you think people on film sets that don’t act struggle to understand the job?
Actors are expected to do a lot of things emotionally and mentally, and it’s such a task to change that up from one job to the next, one day to the next.
They can be mollycoddled. It’s mad to think that sometimes when you want a cup of tea one will just show up for you. You’re picked up for work. There are friends of mine that drive themselves to work and think, Oh, that must be so great.
You can definitely see the difference in the theatre, too, because you don’t get a lot of those perks. I remember when I did The Crucible, turning up on the first day, and when we broke for lunch, saying to the stage manager, “Where’s the sandwiches?” She looked at me, like, “You’ve got to go out and get your own lunch around here.” Honestly, you can turn into such a privileged crap if you’re careful.
The work itself is draining. It is draining. But you only feel that at the end. And it can be tricky sometimes when maybe everyone is not on the same page. It can be very frustrating when people at the top on set don’t seem to have that connection to the work as much as you do.
I grew up on a film sets, because I didn’t start out on stage. So, I love the chaos of it and I love that everyone just stops what they’re doing for a take, and we’d go. It’s been nice over the last few years to know what you need, and if I need it quiet I’ll ask for it, or if I want music playing on set—like on Mary, because me and the girls were together all the time—I was just like, “Can we play Katy Perry through the speakers please before we do this scene?” It’s exciting, even if you’re not directing yet as an actor, to be able to incorporate a little bit of what you want onto the set.
Not that I’m like taking over. I don’t want it to sound like that. It is important to set the right tone, and it’s a hard job, but it’s a great job. It’s so fun, and the type of people that do it, they’re tailormade to do this kind of work.
You said “yet” there. Do you think you will direct someday?
I think I’ve always wanted to. When I think about when I was younger and I would do press for films, they would always ask me, “What was it like to work with all the famous people?” I’d be like, “It was great.” But the director is who I always loved the most, and they were the one that I wanted to, make happy and I wanted to be close to them.
It’s something that I would absolutely love to do and yeah, it’s just because I’ve picked up so many things from other directors that I’ve worked with. Watching Greta, and seeing what she’s done over the last few years, has been a massive motivation for me to give it a go.
There’s so many actors that I’ve worked with that I would absolutely love to direct. Timmy said he’d be in a film that I’d direct so that’s good. If I can get Timothée Chalamet I’m sorted [laughs].
Have you written anything?
I’m trying to write, and I’ve realized it takes a lot of discipline to write. So, I need to give myself a bit of a kick up the arse and do that.
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