The “Women” behind Jo and Amy: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh play the sisters in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the Louisa Alcott novel.
Playing Jo and Amy, Ronan and Pugh share defiant spirit
Florence Pugh is rapidly swiping her index finger across her iPhone, searching for Pam.
“Hang on, hang on,” she says. “I’m going to get it. Where’s Pam? Oh, this is killing me.”
Pam is the name that Pugh assigned to her costar, Saoirse Ronan, on the set of Greta Gerwig’s upcoming “Little Women” adaptation, which opens on Christmas.
Pugh bestowed the alterego upon Ronan after shooting one of the most memorable scenes from Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel: when Jo March (Ronan) reveals she has cut off her long tresses. Her three sisters are horrified — “Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one true beauty!” cries Amy (Pugh), the youngest — even though Jo sacrificed to earn money for their ailing father’s recovery.
Enter Pam. When she started filming, Ronan had lustrous blond locks that curled nearly to her waist. Post-haircut, however, she was forced to don an unsightly wig: almost a mullet but more of a shag.
“And that’s when Flo came up with this character called Pam,” recalls Ronan, 25. “Pam is from Australia, and Pam’s got a lot of opinions about what’s going on.”
“She knits in between takes,” Pugh, 23, says, suddenly sounding as if she’s from Melbourne instead of Oxfordshire. “Saoirse would sit with her Ugg slippers twiddling her foot between takes with this ridiculous look, and it was wild.”
This is the seventh feature film version of Alcott’s 1868 novel. Gerwig — who wrote and directed — has taken a nonlinear approach, viewing the March sisters’ formative childhood days through the lens of adulthood.
While all four sisters follow decidedly distinct paths — Jo wishes to defy societal conventions by remaining unmarried; Meg wants nothing more than a husband and children — Gerwig’s adaptation treats all their choices with respect.
Ronan first met Gerwig when she starred in Gerwig’s directorial debut, “Lady Bird.” She loves that “Little Women” was directed “not only by a filmmaker who’s already become so important for our generation but a lady and one who was pregnant at the time.”
“The four girls who lead this story are all very, very different, and they all allow a young girl to see themselves,” continues Ronan, who is joined by Emma Watson (Meg) and Eliza Scanlen (Beth) in the film. “‘Little Women’ gives you the opportunity to relate to aspects of all the girls, because they’re all different ages and want different things.”
It’s easy to understand why Gerwig cast the actresses in their respective roles. Ronan has been preternaturally mature since she was a girl, earning an Academy Award nod at 13 for one of her first movie roles, in 2007’s “Atonement.”
Pugh is a newcomer in
Hollywood. Her starring role in a 2016 British adaptation of “Lady Macbeth” earned her a BAFTA nomination, and she was about to shoot “Midsommar” when Gerwig was putting together “Little Women.”
“I moved the shoot because I wanted her to be in it so badly,” Gerwig says.
Ronan says she “grew up” on 1994 Gillian Armstrong version of “Little Women,” but Pugh was more familiar with Alcott’s book. Her grandmother would read it to her every weekend.
“She hated Amy,” Pugh says. “She’d always say, ‘What a wicked, wicked girl!’ It’s so easy to love Jo, because she represents everything that we want to be. She has a voice, and she goes out there and she doesn’t really give no (craps). But coming to the book later on in my life, I realized that every single thing Amy says is perfect. I love a naughty person in a book. It’s my most favorite thing to see someone create havoc. We all want to be Jo, but realistically, I definitely think there are probably more pieces of me in Amy.”
Amy, Gerwig theorizes, has long gotten “short shrift” by the public, which has often focused on her vanity. As a girl, Amy tries to mold her nose so that it will have another shape, and she is open about her desire to marry a rich man and have nice things. Jo, meanwhile, infamously turns down a marriage proposal from a handsome, wealthy suitor — Laurie, played now by Timothee Chalamet — and is more interested in becoming a great writer than centering her life around a man.
“I think Amy is so much more profound than people give her credit for,” Gerwig says. “And in terms of femininity, neither one of them are feminine in the sense of having it merge with their identity. Both of them are masculine. Jo wants to be a boy, and Amy performs femininity because it’s expedient for them to get what they want.”
Gerwig’s take on Jo evolved for 2019 too. She and Ronan had discussions about how the character was a mix of both Jo and Alcott, and the actress read “Marmee & Louisa,” a biography that offered insight into Alcott’s mind.
“It talks a lot about Louisa’s dad,” Ronan says. “...
When she started to do well, he was always very, very hard on her. He was great with the other girls but not with her, I think because she was sort of this asexual or bisexual tomboy girl who wrote about murderers.
“I think it’s quite powerful ... that an author who wrote a beautiful, romanticized American classic could have potentially been at least bisexual. She married off her sisters and her lead character to a man, and the fact that the woman behind all of that wasn’t necessarily interested in men? I think for her own spirit, she needed to paint her life in this sort of light, as opposed to what it was actually like. And that’s kind of heartbreaking, you know?”
Ronan adds: “Amy and Jo are quite similar, actually. … They’re both very defiant in spirit.”
“They both have very stubborn personalities,” Pugh says. “But I don’t think they’re enemies or rivals.”
“I think they’re both as feminist as each other,” Ronan says, “because they both know what they want and stand by that.”
Florence Pugh, from left, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in director-writer Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women.”