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LITTLE WOMEN

About The Production
Across disparate countries and radically different eras, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women has come to life in a million different ways. It is a book that is unsparing in its depiction of the way the world is hard on ambitious girls, but also offers a comfort: that ambition - a vibrant inner life that breaks the bonds of the world - is its own reward. It is a book that we first encounter as children, when the world's possibilities are wide open and there is nothing in the world that can hold us back; we return as young adults, when the constraints of adulthood and society begin to shape who we are; and we return again, as older readers, with the bittersweet nostalgia of what it meant to be young and bold, joined with the exciting joy of seeing a new generation experience that daring for themselves. The insistent power of the book is its distinctly individual call to grapple with life's many clashing lures-with family, art, money, love, freedom, and the hope of being 100% who you are, creating your own unique story.

This deeply personal, fiercely alive idea of Little Women is the one writer-director Greta Gerwig wanted to transport to the screen. Gerwig approached the material with a determination to capture the sweeping, epic nature of the story that captures the enormity of what Alcott created, but also an honest, disarming emotional intimacy that brings the characters to life. As every reader brings her own personal interpretation and meaning to the story, Gerwig puts her own stamp on the story. The novel was originally published in two halves, the first focusing on the March sisters in auspicious girlhood, and the second covering the stark realities of adulthood. Gerwig pulls apart the novel, switchbacking between the two halves, with Jo's story of determination and spirit providing the natural through-line and reconstruction between its parts. With its fluid approach to time, the film immerses the audience in the memories, moments, accidents of fate and acts of will that form the March sisters-ink-stained, defiantly independent writer Jo; nurturing, principled, would-be actor Meg; fragile, open-hearted musician Beth; clever, aspirational painter Amy-into their full, complicated adult selves, each so different but united in an unswerving sisterhood.

The picture that emerges is of four women looking back with affection at how they became who they are. It is also one of a world where the dailiness of women's lives-their discoveries, sacrifices and anger, their financial, artistic and domestic concerns-deeply matters. What does it mean to take the reins of your life when so much that happens, from a crack in the ice to a mistimed letter, is out of your control? And how does that look to four sisters with four divergent dreams?

These are the questions Gerwig brings to the fore in a visually ravishing film with a look inspired by the bold artists who were changing the way people saw the world in Alcott's time. The questions feel modern, yet it was Alcott who latched onto these oppositions that still stop us in our tracks: money vs. art, love vs. personal satisfaction, ideals vs. real life, caring for family vs. finding your own voice.

Even before Gerwig demonstrated her powerful voice with Lady Bird, she told producer Amy Pascal she believed she was the right person to adapt Little Women. "I flung myself at it with everything I had," says Gerwig. "I had a very specific idea of what it was about: it's about women as artists and it's about women and money. That is all there in the text, but it's an aspect of the story that hasn't been delved into before. For me, it was something that felt really, really close to the surface and even now, this movie feels more autobiographical than anything I've made."

Gerwig read Little Women so many times as a child, she doesn't remember the first time. Like a long list of fellow writers and artists, she felt such an intense identification with Jo March-tomboy, misfit and would-be novelist struggling against the status quo to become the woman she imagines-that Jo felt less like a made-up person and more like a charismatic mentor. She was the girl who knew what she wanted. To be freer. To create. To transcend all that was not allowed and yet to give of herself fully to her loved ones. That's part of why Gerwig wanted to plunge audiences into the fabric of Jo's world-its emotional oscillations and personal dynamics-in the most visceral way she could.

"Little Women has been part of who I am for as long as I can remember," Gerwig notes. "There was never a time when I didn't know who Jo March was, and she was always my girl, the person I wanted to be and the person who I hoped I was."

While Gerwig stays true to Alcott's original voice, she reconstructs the novel in an inherently cinematic way, unmooring the story from linear time, transforming the March's most unforgettable events into the stuff of memories and creative inspiration. This invites audiences to engage with the March sisters as something new: as adults looking back, and as the living source for Jo's writing.

"Every time I read the book, it became something different," observes Gerwig. "I first knew it in the coziness of childhood, and then as I got older, new parts of it jumped out at me. As I began writing the screenplay, the part of it that was in clear relief was how the sisters' lives as adults are so poignant and fascinating, because they're trying to figure out how to honor the fearless youth they had as grown-ups."

Gerwig also went deep into research, reading Alcott's letters and papers, to draw on aspects of Alcott's real life to give her adaptation a formidable, modern voice. For example, the real Alcott wrote, "I had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales"; in the film, Marmee says, "I'm angry nearly every day of my life."

In drawing early inspiration from Little Women, Gerwig has a lot of company. The late sci-fi master Ursula K. Le Guin called Alcott "close as a sister." Novelist Erica Jong said Little Women sparked a belief that "women could become writers, intellects-and still have rich personal lives." The heroines of Elena Ferrante's masterwork My Brilliant Friend bond over a tattered copy of Alcott's book, vowing to write their own. Poet Gail Mazur thanked Alcott for helping writers "to live with, knowing we're not alone, the conflict between the writer's need for solitude and self-absorption and the yearning for the warmth of love." Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling said of Jo March: "It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer."

For women, carving out any individualistic path, particularly an artistic life, has been perilous in any era. But that's also why Jo hit home so hard with Gerwig. "There's a rebel spirit contained in Jo, and a hope for a life beyond what your gender dictates that is completely exciting to us still," says Gerwig. "She's this girl with a boy's name who wants to write, and she's ambitious and she's angry and she's so many different things that we identify with. It's like she allowed us to be free."

Gerwig also wanted to pay homage to Alcott's unsung story of financial success. She wanted to highlight how Alcott's time, rife as they were with war and inequality, were also lit up with new ideas, free-thinkers and the energy of change. In this atmosphere, Alcott crashed through social barriers and carved her own path to thriving self-sufficiency, taking control of her copyrights like the J.K. Rowling of her day and building then largely unheard-of name recognition outside of marriage or inheritance.

"These are things that are still coming up right now," observes Gerwig, "which you see in Taylor Swift deciding to re-record her back catalogue so that she can own it."

To Gerwig, Alcott clearly chose the scarcity of money and freedom as the unavoidable organizing fact of the March sister's lives. At the same time, she wanted to celebrate the unapologetic domesticity of this story of four sisters and a devoted mother transforming a household into an indelible world unto itself. "An interesting analysis I read is that Little Women is one of the few books about childhood that isn't about escape. There is bravery, but it's a hero's journey contained inside the home," Gerwig says.

All of this magnetized an extraordinary group of women who shepherded the film to the screen, including Gerwig, producers Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi and Robin Swicord and an ensemble led by Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep.

For the film's multi-generational cast, the draw to this Little Women went beyond their private experiences with the book. What made it special was how of-this-moment Gerwig's loving approach felt.

"I think the story feels more relevant than ever right now," says Ronan, who plays Jo, "because it explores young women finding the confidence to take their own paths. It also is a story that changes depending on where you are in life. You could be an Amy for a few years, then suddenly you're a Jo, then a Meg, then you're a Marmee and maybe back to a Beth. You can find yourself in each one."

"It's a story about identity and there's nothing more modern than that," adds Dern, who plays Marmee. "We still struggle today with how to ask, 'who am I, and how, despite everyone else's opinion, am I going to stand true to that in my life?'-yet that's what Louisa May Alcott wrote about 150 years ago. Part of the beauty of what Alcott did is that she established strength as independence, as art, as ambition but also as marriage and parenting, and Greta invites the audience to engage with all of that."

Eliza Scanlen, who plays Beth, offers another take on the story's continued resonance. "It affirms that the emotions you experience in childhood are just as complicated and important as the ones you experience later on in life, which has not often been done."

Indeed, Gerwig approached the film as both a faithful retelling, drawing as much from the text as possible, and a postmodern one. She shakes up the story, telling it in two separate timelines, with the characters' lives as adults living alongside the story of their childhoods. "I structured the film to begin the narrative when they are adults, and to enter into the story of childhood as we all do, which is as memory, as a yearning, as a key to understanding who you are and where you are going," says Gerwig. "We are always walking beside our younger selves. I wanted there to be a tension - is that what happened, or is that how you remember it? Is that what happened, or is that how you wrote it?"

Perhaps what most exhilarated the women participating the film was that this Little Women is unabashedly a story in which boys and men are certainly part of the picture-at times alluring, at times enervating to the sisters-but never at the center of the world. "What is so wonderful about what Alcott did is that these girls aren't there to serve anyone's stories other than their own and each other's, and that idea comes through so strongly in Greta's script," say producer Amy Pascal.

"It's the perfect time for this movie because women are talking more than ever about choices, about how to be, about money, about what power is and about how we get along with men," Pascal continues. "Greta bring all this into the film by staying true to Alcott. She said, 'I want to make a movie unlike any other. I want to make a movie from the book and if you go back to the book, it's more controversial, funnier and darker than you think, and I want to make a movie that feels that real.'"

ADAPTING ALCOTT

One of the fundamental truths of Little Women is that Louisa May Alcott almost didn't write the book at all. She never saw herself as a writer of "girl's stories," at the time almost entirely dismissed as unimportant and certainly not economically viable. But when it was posed to her by her publisher, she could not resist the idea of attempting to rival the adventure tales for boys that were often significant bestsellers--and also considerable influences on their searching young readers.

Alcott noted that she never really knew any girls except her three sisters and mother. As it turned out, her own family held out incredible raw material. And in re-envisioning her family life as fiction, Alcott found herself expressing things about growing up as a girl with limited options but ceaseless aspiration that no one had said so clearly or with such relatability before.

Like the March family she would create, the Alcotts were a close-knit group. Their parents, the educator Bronson Alcott and the activist and social worker Abigail May, were idealists and Transcendentalists-members of the 19th Century movement that became the forerunner of the counterculture with its calls for self-reliance, civil disobedience, deep engagement with the arts, respect for the natural world, and being true to oneself as the basis of a happy life. Believers in equality and learning, the elder Alcotts encouraged Louisa and her siblings to pursue the things that mattered to them.

For Louisa, it was always writing. Coming of an age in an intellectually stimulating, if monetarily strapped, environment-her schoolteacher was Henry David Thoreau and her neighbor was Ralph Waldo Emerson-Louisa began writing at a young age. Yet, economics forced Alcott to work as a teacher, seamstress and governess even as she was writing her first book, Flower Fables, published when she was just 17. She would go on to write for The Atlantic Monthly, to publish a memoir of her time as a Civil War nurse (Hospital Sketches) and to pen action-packed spy stories under the pseudonym A.M. Bernard (which she sold for $50 a piece, money it might take a year to earn doing seamstress work.)

There was a presumption when Little Women was published that men alone wrote enduring works of literature. With rare exceptions, books by women, and books about women, were light and passing entertainment, or so the theory went. But from the day it hit the shelves, Little Women was an instant smash hit, selling out its initial run in days. It soon became clear that women and girls had been thirsting for authentic, honest, emotional stories about their everyday lives. The first 23 chapters were so popular that Alcott's publisher implored her to write more, which led to the 47-chapter book that became the beloved classic. Since its release, Little Women has never been out of print and has been translated into at least 55 languages. It's been adapted for stage, television and movies, even as an opera and an anime.

Gerwig paid little attention to all that has come before and aimed to get back to the breathing soul of the book as she saw it. Re-reading the novel as an adult, she was especially struck by the very modern way Alcott so deftly captured the free-form, informal language of family.

"It was so clear that the language was fresh and exciting and needed almost nothing from me. I tried to make the script have as much word-for-word from the book as possible."

She could hear it unspooling in her head, which led in turn to her directorial approach. "I wanted the actors to say it all at the speed of life. I wanted them to run through the dialogue quickly and irreverently because that's how I heard it," Gerwig explains.

Gerwig continues: "So that's why I had the idea to start with them as adults, and then allow their childhoods to live alongside them not as flashbacks but as two separate timelines. It captures the reality that when we walk down the street, we're always walking with the younger versions of ourselves. We're always integrating the person we thought we were going to be with the person we are now. I was looking at constructing a narrative that incorporates what a whole life is."

Part of that narrative of a life is certainly romance, always a factor in Little Women's appeal. But here, Gerwig explores the idea that each March sister aims not just for love but her own version of love among equals. Readers have debated long and hard over Jo's choice of husband-or if it was right for her to have chosen a husband at all. Making things more complicated is that fact that Alcott, otherwise so much like Jo, took the opposite path of her character, remaining unmarried even after attaining fame. Gerwig took an unusual approach to the question in the climactic moments of Little Women.

"If Jo was the hero of my girlhood, Louisa May Alcott is the hero of my womanhood. So, it was important to me that she did not want to have Jo get married but did it because her publisher told her Jo had to marry. There's a letter she wrote where she said, 'I have made Jo a funny match out of spite.' So, I wanted to give her an ending she would like, the ending maybe she wanted, that celebrates the choice she wanted to make. I wanted to give us that rom-com moment at the end that Louisa gave us. But as it's happening, I also wanted to ask, 'Why do we want that? Why do we need Jo to have that moment?'"

Gerwig's naturalistic, overlapping dialogue especially excited the cast. "Greta allows the girls to talk over one another and bounce off each other, so it truly feels like four or five people in a room together," says Saoirse Ronan. "We had to work extra hard to make the dialogue really, really tight in these scenes. But I haven't worked with another director who works like Greta does. She always knows when something is right by how it sounds. The rhythm and pace of the scenes makes the feeling so unique in her films. It feels like Greta is inviting you into the secret inner world of the March family."

Gerwig explains: "I didn't want the overlapping dialogue to feel like a cacophony, I wanted it to be very specifically overlapped, so it was almost like conducting an orchestra. We rehearsed for a couple of weeks, and, which was pretty essential because the script was so precise. I wanted it to feel like they were tumbling over each other with excitement, and I wanted it to sound like how sisters talk. I didn't want it sound like everybody waiting their turn, because that's not my experience of how a bunch of sisters are when they're together. Having such great actors, I could trust them because they make the language even more alive and deeper."

Capturing that full breadth of sisterhood-its beauty and unity but also its driving tensions-was key to Gerwig. "I saw each of the sisters as artists and I wanted to take each of their artistic pursuits seriously because they do. Between them is a lot of love and a deep bond, but they're also really competitive and can get under each other's skin. They can be mean and cutting and they can be loving and kind, and I just wanted to get all of that in the soup because to me that is what makes what happens to them that much more powerful. They are real people whose relationships are messy and wild."

The script also brought the book into fresh focus for Pascal, another accomplished woman who has had a lifelong relationship with Little Women, which even ties back to her given name, Amy Beth. "It's a film about the way you remember childhood, it's about the passage of time, it's about being an artist," she says. "But it's also a movie about becoming fiercely independent."

THE WOMEN

Jo/Saoirse Ronan:
Jo March stands as Louisa May Alcott's most influential creation-the rare fictional character who became a real-world heroine, inspiring generations of young dreamers aiming for lives of adventure and artistic expression. Lurking behind the character has always been the specter of Alcott herself. She was, like Jo, freed in large part by the expansiveness of her imagination, by her unmitigated workflow. Her writing became a path to attaining a vanishingly rare financial independence as a solo woman, and equally a way to capture in amber the free-spirited childhood that gave her the strength to defy the odds.

The role as envisioned by Gerwig needed an actor of near-supernatural transparency, and Gerwig already knew exactly who had that quality. Having seen Ronan utterly embody the adolescent tornado of emotions at the center of Lady Bird, Gerwig knew Ronan could let the audience into Jo's moods, her spirit, her thinking-and especially her "vortex of creativity" as Alcott called Jo's daily bouts of writing.

"I can't really talk about Saoirse," Gerwig demurs, "because she's just such a genius. I don't know how she does it exactly. But feel very blessed that she's worked with me twice."

Says Pascal: "Saoirse is unparalleled. Watching her perform, you are gob-smacked constantly. She's the most naturalistic, intelligent and emotionally nuanced actor."

Ronan says that stepping into a role so beloved and so personal to every reader was a thrill-and a serious challenge. The hard part was trying to get beyond a mere sketch of Jo's iconic feistiness and bring to life a palpably real person as full of real doubts and confusion as she is of talent, independence and the hunger for change. That meant thinking of Jo as a contemporary, a woman verging on modernity before anyone understood how complex identities would become in the turbid century about to unfold.

"Jo to me is similar to girls that you would see in this day and age," says Ronan. "And Greta felt she needed to be more modern than all the other girls that we see in the film in the way she moves and especially the way she speaks. Finding the way someone speaks, that's my doorway into who the character is, and what we've done with Jo's voice has a relaxed modernity to it."

If there is any place where tradition moves Jo, it is in her inviolable devotion to family. The very impetus for her creative life is her desire to help ease the family's financial woes by publishing stories. "Jo lives and dies by her family. Her sisters and her mother are her whole world, literally-they've created a sort of nest for themselves in their house-so they are her universe," Ronan explains. "When she's with them, she's self-assured, outgoing and creative. When she's with people she doesn't know as well, she's more reserved. Two things bring out her inner fire: writing and her sisters."

Ronan especially enjoyed working the puzzle of how to play a writer whose most vividly felt joys, disappointments and breakthroughs often occur in the private space of her head. "Apart from her family, writing is the only way Jo makes sense out of the world," Ronan observes. "She feels the need to write day and night. And even if she doesn't necessarily see it as a career choice-because that just wouldn't have been a reality for most girls like her-it's something that is a huge part of who she is and that she always carries with her. It's in writing where Jo finds her confidence."

Creating the ambiance of the March household with her cast mates was another inspiration for Ronan. "I love that the Marches lead such a bohemian lifestyle, where they're encouraged to create and be expressive in their work and with each other. They're so incredibly open with each other," she muses.

The insular beauty and unity of that time when it was just the four sisters and Marmee becomes something Jo realizes she will never replace as she begins her adult life. Jo's oft-debated choice in love- between the besotted boy-next-door Laurie who has been her closest male friend, and the headier and colder professor Friedrich Bhaer- was also deliberated by Ronan.

"Jo's got a very complicated relationship with love and romance," Ronan notes. "With Laurie, I think what she most wants is just to stay forever in this very pure, platonic relationship they had created for themselves as children. Friedrich represents something else to her: a new life and acceptance into an intellectual world. Yet I don't think Jo even thinks about having romantic feelings for Friedrich until after she returns home when Beth gets sick. Jo always vowed to never get married, to never give any part of herself up. We're reminded that today we can celebrate that in a way you couldn't in Jo's time."

Still, Ronan concludes: "I think really the greatest love story of all that Jo is a part of is the one she has with her sisters and her mother. The heartbeat of the story is these young women finding their way in the world, doing what we've always done as humans, trying to connect."

Meg/Emma Watson:
The eldest of the March sisters, Meg may be the most traditionally maternal of the sisters, but she also is a headstrong perfectionist who knows exactly who she is and what she wants. That's what excited Emma Watson about the role. The English actress who came to the fore as Hermione in the Harry Potter series, Watson was most recently seen in the live-action Beauty and The Beast.

"What was really important to me about playing Meg is that I think her desire to be a mother and a wife is a feminist choice," Watson explains. "There's this idea that in order to be a feminist you need to reject marriage. But a union with a spouse is what Meg wants most in her heart. As she says to Jo on her wedding day: just because my dreams are not the same as yours does not make them unimportant."

Adds Gerwig: "Meg wants to get married and have children, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have second thoughts about not marrying someone rich. Meg figuring out how to make her life choices work is something that really struck me in re-reading the book."

Having the chance to go beyond Meg's joyful nuptials with the hard-working tutor John Brooke was especially intriguing for Watson. "We're used to seeing women get married and that's where the story stops, so to actually see Meg navigate as a mother and wife, trying to figure out how you keep a relationship together under so many stresses, was refreshing," says Watson. "The realities push Meg to her edge. They push her to ask: was everything I believed in real? Do happy endings exist? Can love last forever? You see her fight for her dream because good things in life have to be earned."

Practical as she is, Watson sees Meg as being drawn to John's more ineffable side-his generosity and compassion. "John continually steps into the breach when there is a crisis, doing the jobs that are unglamorous, and that's what earns Meg's respect. She chooses a man who is going to show up."

James Norton, who plays Brooke, recalls how he and Watson bonded. "Greta was keen to excavate this marriage further than it has been before," he says. "We decided collectively it would be a good idea to write our own wedding vows. It was exposing in the best possible way."

Says Watson of her vows: "Meg's reasons for why she wants to marry John are all about how he cared for her father when he was wounded and how he treats her mother and sisters as though they are his own. Those are things that truly matter to her and while Jo might look at John as dull, the way he is there for the family on a daily basis has an incredible value that Meg sees clearly."

Beth/Eliza Scanlen:
Beth March may be the most inward and perilously fragile of the March sisters-a gently passionate musician whose life is forever changed by a bout with Scarlet Fever-but she leaves a deep mark on everyone who has ever read Little Women. Taking the role somewhere new is Eliza Scanlen, the young Australian who recently came to the fore as imperiled Amma Crelin on HBO's Sharp Objects.

Says Gerwig: "Beth has a hard life, but she's just as ambitious as the rest of them. Why wouldn't she be? She's a March sister. She has her own dreams of grandeur, and I wanted that to feel big. Beth to me has always been a very Emily Dickinson-like character, someone who comes to deeply understand things about the fabric of the world without ever leaving home."

"Beth is a very complex character," notes Scanlen. "Compared to her sisters, she's shy, but she has this quiet energy and power about her that I can really relate to. I think we can all be a mixture of introvert and extrovert, and hopefully this film will allow people to appreciate the introverts as having something to say. Nowadays we live in a very extroverted world where we reward being gregarious, loud and exciting. So, to be able to find strength in quietness, kindness and deep thought was exciting."

Scanlen credits Gerwig for bringing the cast so deeply into the March's lives. "Greta has a deep love for theatre that she used to create a very candid feeling of a family-one that includes fighting, shouting and getting angry. She has a respect for how childhood has informed the lives of these sisters and she isn't afraid to show the meanness sisters can have at times, even as they inspire each other."

One of the most stirring aspects of Beth's short life is that she brings the family back together in adulthood. "There's always a certain sadness about growing up and it's hard to see the March sisters go their own ways," says Scanlen "But it's also beautiful to see how sisterhood brings them back together again. I have a twin sister-my love for her is infinite and that's what I feel the March sisters have."

Amy/Florence Pugh:
The youngest March sister, Amy, has always been controversial among readers. Strident and at times mischievous, she gets her way far more than any other March, often eclipsing Jo. But notes Amy Pascal: "In this film, you see a very different portrait of Amy. You see her as someone certain of what she wants, who has the hope of being a great artist but has to reconcile with the idea that she's merely a good one. This Amy is still very head strong but also very smart and admirable."

Painting this more candid portrait of Amy is Florence Pugh-the rapidly rising star who has come to the fore with diverse roles in Park Chan Wook's The Little Drummer Girl, David Mackenzie's The Outlaw King and Ari Aster's Midsommar. Pugh found Amy alluring and psychologically complex.

"Amy is usually known merely as the spoiled youngster because she's cheeky and she fantasizes about love and riches," acknowledges Pugh. "But what interested me is that this Amy is an artist who is incredibly passionate about being the best version of herself-or she won't do it at all. What I fell in love with straight away with in Greta's script is that here you get to see Amy's quest for brilliance, and also how human she is in her failures. Perhaps we are all actually a lot more like Amy than Jo."

Amy's relationship with Jo is tinged with competitiveness and envy. But it also comes to involve a tricky a love triangle, as Amy falls in love with Laurie, who has always been smitten with Jo. Pugh notes that Amy's longing for Laurie is utterly authentic. "We've all felt the pain of being in love with someone who doesn't know it, and that's Amy with Laurie. Marrying the man who loved her sister is definitely confusing and complicated-but maybe it's also the right thing."

It is this real and unconditional love that matures Laurie. His early infatuation with and proposal to Jo are the love of a child; his later relationship Amy is the love of an adult who has learned to love himself. The Laurie who returns from Europe is a different man from the boy who left.

The deepest draw for Pugh was, as for her cast mates, the sisterhood that endures through the eruptions of conflict. "The sisterly bond is everything in this story. At times the sisters support each other and at others they despise each other, but it all feels real," says Pugh.

For Ronan, Pugh's take on Amy changed the way she saw the character. "Florence has done something with Amy that I don't think anyone has done before-she's given her bite," she describes. "She's not simply a girly girl, she's got this fire to her that is very, very exciting."

Marmee/Laura Dern:
The March matriarch, known to her children affectionately as Marmee, is unquestionably one of the most admired women in all of literature-a mother who, alone in wartime, gifted her daughters with something often missing from girls' lives: absolute trust and respect. Marmee has sometimes been read as an emblem of self-sacrificing domesticity. But Alcott actually modelled the character on her own notoriously activist and fiercely spirited mother, Abby May, who led the precise opposite of a quiet, accommodating life. An impassioned suffragette, abolitionist, reformer, and one of America's first social workers, Abby was a steadfast rebel who became for Louisa not only a mentor but a creative muse.

Abby infused her daughter with a thirst for ideas, with a confidence and a love for the world. But Abby also had no patience with the unfairness she saw around her or with the limitations placed on women. She wrote in her journal: "A woman may perform the most disinterested duties. She may 'die daily' in the cause of truth and righteousness. She lives neglected, dies forgotten. But a man who never performed in his whole life one self-denying act, but who has accidental gifts of genius, is celebrated."

Gerwig wanted to see that kind of driving fire simmering in Marmee, an anger and urge for change kept just under the surface but that also deeply informs the way she gives her daughters so much freedom to explore. That's why she turned to Laura Dern-whose depth and range have earned two Oscar nominations-to create Marmee with a three-dimensional inner life.

"I always thought of the Marches as a family of geniuses, and it was Marmee who enabled that," Gerwig describes. "She gives her daughters this safe space to enact all their beautiful chaos. But I also knew the sainted character of Marmee was inspired by Abby May, who was a bit more complicated and had a much harder life, and so I wanted to give that kind of interiority to Marmee. We tend to think of Marmee as making the magic for these four girls, but I wanted to show the cost to that magic as well."

Dern's kinship with the character began in her own girlhood. "I was probably 13 when I read the book," she recalls. "I deeply remember Marmee's advice to Jo about honoring your anger- that really stayed with me. I'd read so many stories about shutting out things that weren't pretty. But Alcott wrote about embracing the messiness of life. She created a maternal character whose advice was radical. It felt radical to me even in the 1980s! So, I think Little Women is about something people of all generations still need to hear: that you can be your true, deep self-and don't let anyone talk you out of your sass, your anger, vulnerability, sensuality, humor or grace. That's who you are."

To grow even closer to Marmee, Dern focused on the remarkable life of Abby May. "It would be easy to read Marmee as having a compliant Victorian sensibility, but we show that while she is of her times, she is also a rule breaker," says Dern.

Dern's research sparked an even stronger appreciation of the story. "Reading the letters between Louisa and her mother, I sometimes thought, my God, it would be amazing for a mother and daughter even now to speak with such openness about what it is to be a woman and about one's goals in life. It was an incredible education to discover that this candidness was their real relationship."

Working closely with Gerwig, she loved how the director kept pushing to make every moment ever more dynamic and alive. "For example, in the scene by the fire when Marmee is giving Jo advice," Dern recalls, "Greta directed us to just be two equal women talking. You never see Marmee speak down to her children even when they fail. Being raised in that kind of energy is why Louisa had the boldness to become the writer she did, and Greta captures how that started with Marmee's respect."

For Ronan, the many shadings of Dern's performance were a constant pleasure. "Laura brings out in Marmee something incredibly maternal but she's also very much her own strong woman. There are moments you see in the film when Marmee is at the breaking point, about to fall apart but then she pulls it together and puts a smile on her face for her girls-and Laura has such incredible skill as an actor that she's able to show that entire emotional journey in a couple of seconds on screen."

Aunt March/Meryl Streep:
As the March sisters grow up, they have a chance to see what wealth can bring to a woman-in the form of their paternal Aunt March, a widow whose riches have allowed her to avoid remarrying and just as importantly, to unreservedly and ceaselessly speak her mind.

Says Gerwig: "While Marmee is trying to create a kind of utopia for her family, Aunt March lives in the world. She is not a dreamer like Marmee is a dreamer. She's the one saying to the girls, 'you better figure out how to live in this world because it's hard and nobody cares about you.' Aunt March is right that the world can be different from how we want it to be and you have to figure out how to maneuver through it in a practical way but Marmee is also right than you can also try to change it."

Taking the role, tinged with both comedy and power, is screen legend Meryl Streep. "I just adore Meryl Streep as she is the queen of all and watching her articulate these ideas in this role was kind of the thrill of my life," Gerwig says. "She was so smart about how Aunt March functions as a ballast in the family. The character gained a lot more weight than I think I'd even known when I started writing it. She showed me how much Aunt March has a very valid position."

Much like Aunt March, Streep made a big impact on the young cast. "It was very cool to be able to work with Meryl, and it meant so much to us to have her there," says Ronan. "I had one scene alone with her that was just surreal for me. I just wanted to enjoy it and not mess it up for either of us."

"Meryl is hysterical as Aunt March," notes Emma Watson, "a comedic turn that you just don't want to miss. She is unfiltered to the point of hilarity, which Meryl does brilliantly."

Hannah/Jayne Houdyshell:
The March's long-time housekeeper Hannah is as much a friend to the sisters as a caretaker. Taking the role is Jayne Houdyshell, renown as a multiple Tony Award-nominated star of the stage. She, too, felt a very personal connection to the novel, which she first read at 10. "I grew up in a family of four girls, so to be introduced to this extraordinary family of sisters was very exciting," she says. "I also lost a sister when I was 12 and the challenge of that kind of loss is so poignantly portrayed in the book."

Houdyshell felt a connection with Hannah as well. "Hannah has been with the March family since the birth of all these wonderful girls and has seen them through all the challenges their lives," notes Houdyshell. "She brings a different perspective to them than anyone else."

"We rarely see the heroism of the women who've raised us," notes Laura Dern. "It's not an employee relationship between Marmee and Hannah. It's two women in this home raising the girls. And it was such an amazing gift that Greta cast Jayne who is so pure, honest and hilarious. Her Hannah has a sass and a grace to her and a directness that holds the family together at the most painful moments."

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