Saoirse Ronan greets you with the sweetest smile this side of paradise. Her Irish lilt is beyond intoxicating and she now speaks with an added sense of confidence and conviction. She’s recognised as one of the top young actors in the business with her work in films such as Lady Bird and Mary Queen of Scots and now she’s appearing in what could well turn out to be the most important role of her career to date.
Ronan headlines an all-star cast in Greta Gerwig’s superb new film, Little Women, the highly anticipated screen adaptation of the celebrated and much beloved Louisa May Alcott novel set in New England in the years following the end of the American Civil War. Playing the key role of Jo March, Ronan is following in the footsteps of Winona Ryder who earned an Oscar nomination in the 1994 Gillian Armstrong version, and the legendary Katherine Hepburn who played Jo in the 1934 screen classic.
“It’s mad lucky to play her,” Ronan says. “You read the book and you watch the other film versions and you realise that she’s an amazing character. There’s so much you can do with her and I think there’s a lot that we explore that hasn’t been explored as much before. It’s been such a treat to delve into all the nooks and crannies of this character – she’s essentially Louisa May Alcott – and learning about Alcott’s life really helped.”
Directed and written by Gerwig, Little Women co-stars Emma Watson and Florence Pugh as Jo’s sisters Meg and Amy respectively, while Meryl Streep plays Aunt March and Laura Dern takes on the role of Aunt Marmee March. Occupying the key role of Jo’s suitor, Laurie, is Timothée Chalamet, who previously worked with Ronan in Lady Bird.
A captivating study of the three young March sisters in various stages of rebellion and self-discovery, the film has been nominated for an Oscar and is already finding its way onto critics’ Ten Best Films of the year lists.
For her role in Little Women, Ronan has earned her fourth Oscar nomination, following previous nominations for Atonement (as Best Supporting Actress at age nine), and as Best Actress for Brooklyn and Lady Bird.
It was Gerwig who cast Ronan as the rebellious teenage title character in her 2017 film Lady Bird and she has helped give the Irish star an even more compelling role in Little Women.
Saoirse Ronan was born in the Bronx neighbourhood of New York City and was only three when her family returned to Ireland where she grew up in County Carlow and Dublin. Her mother Monica worked as a nanny while her father Paul is an actor.
When not away on a distant film set, Ronan divides her time between homes in New York, Los Angeles, and Greystones, County Wicklow. She recently put up her five-bedroom house in Greystones for sale, two years after buying it.
Saoirse, describe your feelings about your work in Little Women and what this role and film represents for you?
SAOIRSE RONAN: I felt that this was an important film for me. I was much more confident going into this project than I was on Lady Bird, for example, where I was constantly worried about ruining things. But after things turned out so well on that film and then after playing in Mary Queen of Scots I gained a lot more belief in myself and that made it much easier for me working on Little Women. I was really looking forward to playing Jo and I wasn’t anxious about my work. It was a really great experience.
Apparently you actively sought the part of Jo March as opposed to one of the other sister roles?
SR: When I heard Greta was going to be making Little Women, I knew right away that I wanted to be a part of it. I had grown up with the novel and although I would have been happy being part of the film in any way, I had made up my mind that I had to play Jo.
So I just went up to her backstage at The Independent Spirit Awards, tapped her on the shoulder, and I pretty aggressively said to her, “I know you’re doing Little Women and I just want to let you know that I’m going to be Jo March.” She won’t admit it, but she said, “I’ll think about it.” So, she took about a week to think about it and then she emailed me and said. “OK, you can be Jo.”
And it turned out that it was a part that I loved playing.
“A story like Little Women will inspire young women everywhere”
Were you excited about having Greta Gerwig direct you in Little Women?
SR: It was so good to work with Greta again. She’s inspired me in so many ways and I have so much respect and admiration for what she’s accomplished and how she’s progressed from actress to director. We had had such an interesting experience working on Lady Bird because we were both doing something neither of us had done before. I had never played that kind of role and carried that kind of responsibility for a film until Lady Bird and Greta had never directed before. It was a great challenge for both of us and it turned out to be a very successful experience.
With Little Women it felt very different – we were both surer of ourselves and I think that made it less stressful. I’m proud that Little Women was directed by Greta who is both a woman and one of the most important filmmakers for our generation.
What was the atmosphere and friendship like between you and your fellow female cast members on the set of Little Women?
SR: There was this very energetic, spirited atmosphere. We would eat together, drink together, and have so much fun together telling dirty jokes and sharing a lot of our personal feelings about things. It couldn’t have been any better and we became very close. We also relied so much on each other and supported each other while spending three months working on this film.
Florence Pugh has been quoted as saying that she asked you to slap her in one scene?
SR: It was this scene where Florence and I were fighting and wrestling the whole day doing it. I was very nervous about it; it was the end of the day and we were doing this last shot and I was wondering if I missed or that I hit her too hard. And then when it was time and I did slap her almost immediately her face started to swell but Florence was fine about it, although I felt awful!
You also got to work with Meryl Streep in the film?
SR: Meryl Streep plays the aunt. I only got to do one scene with her, but that was the most exciting day of the entire shoot for me. Looking at her and getting to work with her… it’s incredible, she has this magic inside of her, a way of working that is hers alone. It was hard for me to relax because I was struck by how special that moment was.
Your mother has been constantly at your side during the course of your career up until the time you made Grand Hotel Budapest. Has that been important to you?
SR: I had a beautiful childhood, also thanks to my mother. We’ve remained close all this time and she’s still my best friend. We’ve always had a good relationship and that meant a lot to me when I would be travelling all the time and spend a lot of time in different cities working on different films. I couldn’t have done that without her support.
“I love stories where you see women working together and finding support in each other.”
Obviously your relationship with her is different from that between the mother and your daughter character in Lady Bird?
SR: [Laughs] I’ve never argued with my mom that way. My mom and I only argue when we’re driving because I’m always telling her what gear she should be in when she’s driving and she’s really bad when it comes to giving me directions when I’m driving.
But even when we do have arguments we’ll be like: “You really annoy me when you say things like that.” And then we feel so bad about the situation that it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes of not speaking to each other that one of us will speak up and apologise to the other. We’re so close and such good friends that we can’t stand the idea of being angry with each other or leaving the other one feeling hurt by anything we’ve said.
We have a very close mother-daughter relationship and we’re more like best friends. Nothing is complicated between us.
One of the themes of Little Women is the idea of female friendship and togetherness even if there will always be friction. Do you think it’s important that more stories about women are being told these days in the movies?
SR: I love stories where you see women working together and finding support in each other. We have to show how strong we can be if we stick by each other. We need films that show how we can be as proactive, creative and forward-looking as men. A story like Little Women will inspire young women everywhere who can identify with one or more of the March sisters and the kinds of struggles and issues we go through in life that are just as relevant today as they were back then.
Although you have an apartment in London and also spend a lot of time living in New York and Los Angeles, is Ireland still home for you?
SR: Yes, and it will always be, even if I like to live between one place and another. I was born in New York but then when I was very young my family left for Dublin and for 12 years the Irish countryside opened its arms to me. I like being with my family and Ireland is a place where you can still enjoy the silence of the countryside and that feeling of space.
Do you still keep in touch with your childhood friends in Ireland?
SR: It’s inevitable that you lose contact with people when you leave home or take different paths in life. But I still have some friends from when I was a child and fortunately, I’ve also made friends in the course of my work.