Saoirse Ronan (‘Little Women’) on how all artists can relate to Jo March’s journey [Complete Interview Transcript]

Saoirse Ronan just earned her fourth Golden Globe nomination for playing Jo March in “Little Women,” the new Greta Gerwig adaptation of Louisa May Alcott‘s classic book. Ronan has already amassed three Oscar nominations, for “Atonement,” “Brooklyn” and “Lady Bird” and might just add a fourth in a few weeks.

Ronan recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum about how she got involved with “Little Women,” working with people like Gerwig and Timothée Chalamet and why the film isn’t just for women. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Saoirse Ronan, before we talk “Little Women,” congratulations on your fourth Golden Globe nomination. What was it like getting that news a week ago?

Saoirse Ronan: It’s always lovely. It’s always been a lovely treat. I think with any project you’re involved with but certainly with “Little Women” and doing it with Greta again, the performance was as much hers as it was mine and we worked on it so closely together in the month leading up to the shoot. It’s great and I think it’s just a lovely thing that even after 150 years, we still keep returning to this story and it’s still relevant and people can recognize the special quality that it has.

GD: When Greta told you this idea, did she wait until she had the screenplay done or did she tell you about it early on?

SR: She actually had been working on “Little Women” before we made “Lady Bird,” so she had pitched the idea to Sony I think about five years ago and she was gonna write it then but she was not onboard to direct. And then she went away, made “Lady Bird” with me, went straight back to “Little Women” as soon as all the “Lady Bird” press was done and I heard about it ‘cause we were still doing award shows and things like that and I just tapped her on the shoulder one day and said, “I know that you’re doing “Little Women” and I just wanna let you know that I’m doing it too, and I’m gonna be Jo.” That was kind of it, and she took some time to think about it and I was like, “All right.” And a week or two later she emailed me and said that I could be her Jo. It all kind of started the beginning of last year, I suppose.

GD: That was a very Jo thing of you to do to blurt out exactly what you wanted, the fact that you were gonna play the role.

SR: I know! I’ve never done that before in my life. I’ve always been very Irish about how I’ve pursued work, by just going, “If you want me, I’m here, but don’t worry if you don’t.” And I think it was the same for Greta. When she pitched the idea to Sony all those years ago, she told them that she should direct it, that it was for her to direct. She was not the director of “Lady Bird” yet so there was clearly a spirit of Louisa’s that was in us when each of us decided it was the project for us.

GD: From “Lady Bird” to “Little Women,” that was her first feature as a solo director and then “Little Women” as her second, how had she changed as a director?

SR: One of the things that she said to us when we started “Little Women,” for myself and Timothée who worked with her on the other movie, is that she knew we had a lot more bells and whistles now, we had a bit for money, because we needed it for the scale of the film, bigger cast, much bigger expectations. But she still wanted it to feel like the indies that we’ve all grown up making and she still wanted it to have the same spirit as “Lady Bird,” and it really did. I think for her to have the confidence to do that with such a big studio film, it really says a lot to who she is as a filmmaker and a person anyway. But also, how much she, it sounds patronizing to say grown, but how much she’s evolving as a filmmaker even in the last few years and she said it herself that she’s gone through this massive growth spurt from the first movie to the second movie and they’ve both been big projects for her to take on and have really been a total labor of love. So really not that much has changed when it comes to her and her spirit but I think we had to be incredibly focused on what the thing was, because it was an adaption, it was somebody else’s work originally and there was a lot of discussion between all of us and between Greta and I about what we wanted to do with this and to see her be so involved with us and the other heads of department was amazing to see but she has in no way lost that spirit that she had on “Lady Bird” where she was just so excited to be there every day.

GD: We’ve seen other adaptations over the years, film and television, but we’ve never seen one like this going back and forth on the timeline. What did you think about that idea when you heard that that’s how it was gonna be approached?

SR: I think it’s terrific because if you’re gonna do “Little Women” again, it has to be something fresh. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing another adaption of a book that everybody knows so well and has been done eight times in cinema. I think what Greta’s talked about is she returned to the book as an adult and found such an interest in who the girls were when they were out on their own and then to revisit who they were as children and figure out why that informed the decisions that it did when they were younger was a really interesting way to play it and I think from a filmmaking point of view to have the singular moments that have existed in the past and then take you into the present or vice versa, just as an audience member I think you’re on a ride. You’re not just being spoon-fed the story. People have to be engaged in it and really pay attention to what’s going on and everyone who I’ve spoken to watches it and they say, “I wanna go see it again straight away,” and I felt the same thing. I think for the people who have seen it two or three times, they’ve said, “There’s certain sequences in it and I know what’s coming up and when I see a quick cut to the future or the past, it hits me so much more.” I think it’s one of those films that is so exciting to watch the first time and then you just wanna go straight back in again so you can soak it all up even more.

GD: Tell us about Jo. How would you describe her if you were telling a story to a friend? How did you play her differently as the younger version as opposed to the one a few years later?

SR: I think Jo is somebody who very much goes to the beat of her own drum. I think her sisters are her whole life. She’s grown up around mainly women really championing each other, so for her that is the norm. One of the things that I found interesting that you see flashes of in the film is this real need that she has to please her father. In real life, Louisa and her father’s relationship was kind of complex and initially he wasn’t very supportive of Louisa. So I found it really interesting to try and incorporate that need for parent approval into her spirit a little bit and her work and I think she’s one of the few people who found something when she was very young that she’s very good at, regardless of the time period that she’s living in. She fights through it all and she’s willing to fight through it all to get what she wants. I think that’s idealistic as well when she’s a kid and you see her when she’s older and obviously tragedy strikes, it hits the family, people start to get married and everyone leaves. She goes through a period of at least melancholy, maybe depression, where she doesn’t really have anything anymore and she does start to doubt whether this was the right choice after all. I found that so amazing to be playing this very famous heroine and well-known protagonist in film and literature who, in our adaption of the film, has a lot of self-doubt and that appears throughout the movie, especially when she’s older in the way it does when you go into your 20s and maybe your 30s as well, I don’t know, but definitely your 20s. So getting to do scenes where she says to Friedrich, “No one will ever forget Jo March,” but she’s got so much doubt and insecurity across her face but she still says it, and then says later on, “I’m desperately lonely even though I believe in all these things and I believe that women should have all these things,” it was such a great thing for me to play because it just made her this really complex, well-rounded character. Her writing and her relationship with her writing and then with romance and loneliness and marriage and all this other stuff has been given attention in a way that it wasn’t, I don’t think, before.

GD: I wanna ask you about a couple of your cast members here. We just interviewed Tracy Letts last week and he said he would do a Greta Gerwig movie, TV show, play, anything with her for the rest of his life if she would let him and the two of you were both in “Lady Bird,” he was your father, and here it’s a whole other dynamic. I love the way you play off of each other in this movie because it’s so dialogue-friendly and he doesn’t like the idea of you writing for him at all. Tell us about working with him.

SR: He’s one of my favorite people on the planet. He’s the smartest person and he loves Greta and I love him. I remember doing “Lady Bird” with him and I just instantly felt comfortable around him. I didn’t feel like I needed to put on a show. He just takes you as you are, ‘cause he just comes as he is. I don’t know, I feel very close to him and I always have done, so to get to work with him on top of that just makes it so lovely. He’s been so supportive and lovely towards me as well so I think whenever we’ve done anything together, I always felt like he had my back. He comes from the theater and he comes from words and dialogue and text and I think he has such an appreciation for Greta’s talent for that.

GD: Our New York staff can’t wait for his new play to open on Broadway in a few months.

SR: I know, it sounds great. He just did one, didn’t he, that closed a month ago?

GD: He did one that’s been off at another city, maybe Chicago or somewhere doing tryouts and they’re gonna bring it to Broadway for the spring.

SR: Oh, great. He’s always doing something, Tracy.

GD: He’s always doing something. You mentioned Timothée earlier. Now you’ve worked together a couple times. Why do you and he work off of each other so well?

SR: I think for the same reasons that we did instantly feel comfortable around one another. I also think we’re very different actors. We bring a very different energy to a scene and even the way we work, our energy is quite different. He’s very frenetic and there’s a wildness there, which I find really exciting to work with and he’s brilliant. He’s a brilliant, brilliant actor and he has so much soul to him. I just love not knowing what he’s gonna do next. It’s like a game of tennis where I’ll throw something at him and he can take it and he throws something back at me and I’m like, “All right, bring it on.” It feels like a real team when we’re together. I think over the last few years just with him doing all the stuff with “Call Me by Your Name” with awards and the same with me for “Lady Bird,” going through that kind of experience together which is such a surreal thing anyway, it does bring you together. So definitely after that experience and then going into “Little Women,” it made us even closer, really.

GD: I want to, as we wrap up, ask you just a couple awards question. We’re an awards website. I mentioned your fourth Globe nomination. You know, every time you’ve gotten in at the Globes, you’ve also gotten in at the Oscars. So we will see here in just two or three weeks if that’s the case this year. I hope it is. When did you start voting on the Oscars? When did you get invited to join?

SR: Interestingly, I got invited to join… I feel like it was after “Hanna.” “Hanna” wasn’t something that got awards attention but it was a real hit and people really liked it. I don’t know if I had anything to do with that but I think I got invited around that time. I love it. I love the responsibility of it. It’s kind of like your duty as a member to sit down every year and you have the pleasure of watching all these amazing films that come out and I think it’s so helpful now this year that there’s streaming. While I’ve been doing press for the film I’ve been able to log on and watch movies as I’ve been traveling from place to place. It’s such an incredible company to be a part of. Laura Dern obviously is a massive ambassador for the Academy as well. They’re good guys (laughs).

GD: In all the years that you’ve been voting, other than your own projects, do you remember a performance or a movie that you just loved so much and couldn’t wait to mark it on your ballot?

SR: I loved “The Shape of Water” a couple years ago. I just thought I’d never seen anything like it. I love Sally Hawkins. I love Guillermo del Toro. Nobody makes films like him. They’re so beautiful and dark and she’s such a ray of sunshine and I was like, “What is this? I’ve never seen a film like this.” And that year in particular, being a part of the circuit as well, it was such an exciting year and so inspiring for all of us that were there and I think for the filmmakers as well. The variation of the work was so evident. “Get Out” and “Three Billboards” and “I, Tonya,” they were all so completely different and it was such an exciting thing to be a part of. Of course everybody would like an Oscar, but no matter who would’ve won, you were like, “We’re all so different that it’s great whoever wins.” But yeah, I remember watching that a few years ago and I just absolutely loved it.

GD: As we wrap up, “Little Women” is opening in theaters now. It’s not just for women and girls. It’s probably one of my two or three favorite movies of the whole year. Why would men and boys want to go see it just as much as women and girls?

SR: Because this is a story that everybody goes through, and especially people in the arts, especially people who are gonna be voting over the next few weeks. The whole journey that we go through as artists and as people who have an idea of what they wanna create or who they wanna be in this industry, and then there’s the industry, and you’ve got to try and balance what you bring to it and also still be successful. That’s something that we’re following with Jo March in this film but it’s something that any person in the film industry, any person in the music industry, anyone in the arts or any industry at all can relate to. Also, we have the finest male actors in this film. There’s brilliant actresses and there are brilliant actors like Tracy Letts, Timothée Chalamet, Chris Cooper, James Norton, Louis Garrel, and the guys are being allowed to do something that we just don’t see in many films. They’re allowed to be vulnerable. I think as actors, it’s so great for them that they don’t just have to be this two-dimensional strong guy. It’s not interesting to watch that. It’s interesting to watch men and women have these private moments on their own where they can really feel everything they wanna feel and we have that with all of these characters. It’s not just the girls. Everyone brings something to it and it’s a very rich story and a very bold film because of that. And it’s also just a brilliantly made film. From a technical point of view, Greta Gerwig has done something very fresh, very interesting, very romantic, just really beautiful with this film.

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