Cinematic Sisterhood Was Simple For Annes Elwy and Willa Fitzgerald

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Annes Elwy and Willa Fitzgerald play two of the four beloved March sisters at the heart of the latest MASTERPIECE adaptation of Little Women, and their familial closeness echoes throughout our interview with the young actors. The on-screen sisters describe how they and the rest of the series’ cast bonded behind the scenes, and how their classic characters were granted a modern sense of discovery in writer Heidi Thomas’ elegant version of Louisa May Alcott’s charmed family.

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Transcript

Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

Beth dies. The heartbreaking moment in Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women, is perhaps the scene that readers remember the most. Still, it’s stunning to see the emotional depth on the screen this week when actor Annes Elwy’s Beth March finally does die.

CLIP

Marmee: Beth dear? You’re going to have to go on a journey. And you musn’t be afraid. You were always braver than you knew.

Jace: The March sisters in this adaptation feel both remarkably modern and earnestly authentic, lending the series an almost timeless feeling. The relationships between the four March sisters underline that dichotomy.

CLIP

Meg: It’s all going to be so elegant!

Amy: Would you like to be engaged?

Meg: Well, I’d like to be married one day.

Amy: Well, you won’t catch many husbands in this shabby old tarlatan.

Jace: The four women at the heart of this adaptation created a real family on the set while filming, spending time in an unscripted dance every morning on set and learning to read each other’s moods both on- and off-camera. Willa Fitzgerald — who plays Meg in this adaptation — came to appreciate the bonds she and her on-screen sisters created.

CLIP

Willa Fitzgerald:  I’ve always wanted siblings and I’ve always wanted sisters and so it was such a joy, actually, to get to have surrogate siblings.

Jace: Fitzgerald and Elwy joined us in a lively conversation about sisterhood, death, and the merits of salted butter, among much else.

Jace: And we are joined now by Little Women stars Annes Elwy and Willa Fitzgerald, welcome.

Annes Elwy: Hi.

Willa: Hi.

Jace: For both of you, how familiar were you with Louisa May Alcott’s novel before this project?

Annes: I had heard about it, but I hadn’t read it. I think over here, basically everybody has read it but I don’t think that’s quite the case for my generation at home. Most of my friends haven’t. So my first introduction to it properly was reading Heidi’s adaptation. And I instantly connected with it, and loved it, ike other people have, to the book. So then I went off and read the book after that, and just to gain more detail and fill in the blanks.

Willa: I, I had read it as a child as soon as I was reading on my own. And I read it again when I was a little older, and then I read it for a third time in college, when I took a children’s literature course and that was one of the books that we were talking about. And then read Heidi script, and had a re-read after I had read Heidi’s script to take some additional fun anecdotes and thoughts from the book. It’s such a joy when you get to have a book adaptation, because then you have this whole bible that you can refer to you gives you so much extra stuff.

Jace: Now Willa, as an only child, what do you make of the intense sibling bond that the Marches share?

Willa: Oh, I’ve always wanted siblings, and I’ve always wanted sisters, and so it was such a joy, actually, to get to have surrogate siblings, because really I think over the course of our three months in Ireland, and really after the first couple of weeks, we felt like a family. We were so close, we had shared so much with each other, and I think it was a really special shooting experience, because we were also open and receptive to each other and we really just kind of fell in love with each other.

Jace: Now from that opening scene with the scissors, until the very end of the series there’s a beautiful, lived-in quality to the March girls. How did you work to create that bond and familiarity? And I heard there was something — a dance that you would do every day together. Can you tell us more about that?

Annes: We had two weeks just before we started filming to get to know each other properly and just become this family. And so part of that — we did have a dance. We would play a song, which ended up being the opening song in the program, and we’d play it every few days to various different people, and we’d stand in a diamond formation and someone would take the lead and start improvising a dance to the song, and then someone else would take the lead and take over, and we would all take all of their traits and embed them in our bodies. And it was just a really nice way of tuning into each other’s habits, and finding how their habits can fit into us as a family. It was just a really nice way to start the day, and yeah, to listen to each other and take from each other.

Jace: And how did that sort of bond sort of evolve outside of rehearsal? How did you get that sort of intimacy with each other?

Willa: I think that when you’re all not at home when you’re all shooting on location, and you’re also in the same hotel together, I think it automatically is very conducive for spending all of your time with each other. But I think it was also, we were all really drawn to each other, from the very first day that we met. I think everyone felt, ‘Oh, we’re in good company.’ And it really just started as soon as we got there — we started having dinner every day together, lunch every day together

Annes: Yeah.

Willa: And spending literally all of our waking time with each other in a way that I think is bound to create a bond that lasts and something that translates to your performances and your characters.

Annes: And I think Ness, the director she really set the tone for I think off they stayed together as part of that rehearsal time. We ended up telling each other things that we hadn’t told anybody in our life before and so we started off from that point and only grew so they ended up knowing so much more about me than anybody else, any of my friends from primary school, even. And so they just know me so fully and I think it was the same for all of us. And I think when you have that trust, that they know every inch of your life so far, and they all took it on board and were fine with all of it. And so that created a bond so, so strong and leaving Ireland after that whole time of being totally in each other’s pockets was so emotional and so scary leaving each other, because obviously, they all flew back to America. But, you know, we ended up talking every day, and I went over to see them and now Kathryn’s filming in London. So I get to see her. So I think it’s a bond that will last.

Jace: It takes place in Civil War-torn America. But why does Little Women still feel so palpably relevant in 2018?

Willa: Well I think because it’s essentially a story of coming of age, and becoming a woman. And I think that those are still in some way large questions that remain relevant to know whether a contemporary audience or the audience when Louisa May Alcott wrote it, and I think that she wrote in such a way that because there were these four girls who are so different from each other, there are so many different things to latch on to for any potential audience. And I think that that’s what’s made it such as a universal classic and loved book through the generations. And I think Heidi’s adaptation also does a really good job of making everything much more immediate and much more contemporary. And I think that there’s a real intensity and even darkness, at times, in this interpretation and adaptation of the story that I think kind of also takes it away from maybe that’s something that’s more lighthearted and more just like a children’s book, and makes it more immediately relevant to audiences of all ages. And I think that that was a really kind of smart decision. I think it also puts the front and center the ideas of transcendentalism which inspired Louisa May Alcott. And you know her kind of very nascent ideas of feminism, which you know was not a term that she had at the time. But I think that there are a lot of things about the novel that are feminist. And I think that this adaptation brings all of those things to the surface

Jace: I mean, who do you think that Meg and Beth would be today?

Annes: I think Beth probably would have been given support. Because so many people suffer with anxiety, it’s a very, very, very normal thing. And so she probably would have been given help in how to deal with those things, and she would have forced a career of some sort. I’m sure she would have been totally fine. But it’s hard to know what she would have gone into.

Willa: I think that Meg probably would have felt more capable of pursuing her interests outside of the home, because I think that she still lives in a time in which the choice was was more either homebound or kind of being a spinster who had things that she did outside of the home. And I think that you know, Meg is a very creative character, she has a lot of theatrical impulses, she loves being an actress. I think that there are things that she would have been able to pursue that in the time that she lived just weren’t as accessible. And also you know, her real life kind of counterpart, Anna Alcott, ended up being largely a caretaker for Louisa and the rest of the Alcott family. And I think that you know there now is more support.

Jace: Now this was shot in Ireland in the summertime, but much of the action takes place in the midst of a New England winter. What was it like setting foot on to this magical multi-season set?

Willa: So fun. The landscape and the gardeners were constantly, like, planting different things outside of the house for the different seasons. So every day, you kind of showed up at work it was an entirely different season

Annes: And to see snow, the snow was obviously mainly salt and foam. But I’d never seen snow in real life like it, and it was so magical, it just looked beautiful but it was totally jarring ‘cause you were sweating under layers of, layers of petticoats and corsets trying to act freezing and shivering.

Willa: Luckily an Irish summer, though, isn’t too warm.

Jace: Was there a sense that there was sisterhood of sorts on this production, between having so many women both in front of and behind the camera? And in terms of having a female director on this. I mean you both have talked about Ness?

Willa: I think having a female-lead production really in all aspects. We a lot of female producers, almost all female producers, female writer, female director. I think it was amazing to get to be looking at the lives and the growth of these women through the lens of a female perspective, which is something that, you know, oftentimes isn’t the case. And I think my favorite moment was the email that I received before we got to Ireland, asking me to not shave for the next three weeks and through the production period. Which I think is like, a uniquely, a unique request and one that would’ve only happened under female direction, because there was a desire to show femininity and womanhood in all of its forms. And for all of its different characteristics and traits I think that you know stems from that. That started with that and then went through the way that we approach pregnancy and childbirth and all of those larger scenes.

Annes: And it’s a very emotional piece that we filmed and has quite a lot of challenging moments in it, and I think we felt totally able to feel the pain, not just as the character but because when you’re acting, you have to also apply it to your real life. And that’s how you get into the right frame of mind, is to make that real for you. And so it was an emotional situation to be in, but we never felt that we weren’t allowed to be genuinely upset as a person, not just a character. And also to have that support. And I don’t know whether it would have been the same without so many women around us, discussing real-life, women situations.

Jace: Now Annes, you’ve mentioned that this adaptation delves into the quote “ugliness” of these characters more than any other adaptation. What did you mean by that?

Annes: I think that it’s not that this adaptation doesn’t just show the veneered side, in the same way that we had to grow our armpit hair because they would have done. It’s just the real truth of the situation and the truth of these characters, and their faults and flaws, as well as their beauties and good traits. And I just hope that this adaptation shows them as real people. And I think it does.

Jace: How much of yourself do you see in your respective character here? Are you at all similar to Beth and Meg?

Annes: Yes, I think I definitely have a Beth within me. Whether I live my life day to day as Beth is a  different thing. I think I’m probably a combination of Beth and Jo really. Well actually all of the sisters, on different days can be each of them. But there is definitely a Beth within me that’s very accessible and it was quite nice to spend time just being that person for a while.

Willa: I always have to develop a kinship with whatever character I’m playing. And I always really fall in love with whatever character I’m playing. And I think that it now would be hard not to identify with Meg. Prior to shooting, I don’t think I would have said Meg. I don’t really know who I would have said, I think I identified with different characters over the years that I’ve revisited the story based on, like, where I was in my life, I think it’s hard for me to not see myself in a character and see a character in myself if I’m playing them because you know they’re part of you for those three months.

Jace: Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…

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Jace: Now Willa, Meg exists in a state of genteel poverty, which seems at time to sort of cause her to strain against her class status, most notably with the other women at the Moffett’s ball.

CLIP

Belle: You would look so adorable in a brand new gown, with French heels to match it, and maybe one of those flowers in a little silver holder.

Meg: But I don’t have any of those things, and I can’t complain or apologize because that’s just the way things are.

Annie: Well, not necessarily.

Jace: I mean is that, and Meg’s materialism itself, a reaction to her parents and the wealth her family once had?

Willa: Certainly. And I think it’s also I think that growing up with wealth and growing up with social access and having this, you know, group of friends who are all very, you know, socially well-heeled from a time when she also was. I think that’s a difficult social position to be in. And I think that Meg also feels — not from her mother, but maybe more from society, from Aunt March — the insinuation that should she marry up, it would be easier on her family. And so I think you also get to see kind of like, the wonderful struggle that she goes through of wanting that material ease and that world of the Moffett ball, and also kind of realizing that it’s a very gross world, and a world that she actually doesn’t have any real affinity for, outside of a pretty dress every now and then. And I think that in her courtship and marriage to John Brooke, I think it’s less that he helped her see herself in a different way and more that she finally realizes, ‘Oh, here’s a kindred spirit with whom I actually want to build a life,’ because I think she finds herself to be more like Marmee than she could have imagined and the things that are actually priorities and desires.

Jace: Now Annes, the saintly Beth seems to suffer from crippling shyness, slash maybe we’ll call it social anxiety. The scene where she can’t ring the bell at Aunt March’s house is very painful to watch.

Annes: Yeah.

Jace: But I actually see her as the bravest of the Marches as the result of that. And do you agree that she she has this sort of inner bravery that she doesn’t realize she has?

Annes: I think she has to be brave much more frequently than any of the other sisters. It just doesn’t seem to everybody else like she’s very brave at all. But she has to fight herself so often to overcome her anxiety. That yes I think she spends a lot of her time being incredibly brave and she really does push herself to be to be strong and to go further than she would if she could just be at home each day. That’s what she would do. And I think it’s okay to be shy like she is. And I don’t think that is necessarily something that should be fixed. I think it’s fine for her to embrace that she is that person, and for society to accept that some people are, will want big careers and will want to go far, and other people won’t, other people want to stay home, and that’s all they want and that’s fine.

Jace: Willa you mentioned John Brooke, who is Laurie’s penniless tutor. Why is it Brooke who ultimately wins Meg’s heart, and what does he offer her?

Willa: John Brooke is, for Meg, a kindred spirit. I think that his desires in life, for simplicity, for hard work for you know achievement through effort and commitment are all things that Meg has grown up around. And I think that John Brooke is a natural extension of the values that have been instilled in Meg from childhood through Marmee and father. And I think that in Meg’s choosing John Brooke as a husband, she’s choosing to continue what her parents have been teaching her all life and continue to explore why those things are her values and life. She’s found someone who reflects who she wants to be and who makes her feel the best version of herself.

Jace: How challenging was it to film the scene where Meg gives birth to the twins?

CLIP

Meg: You didn’t tell me. How did you ever survive it?

Marmee: Oh I don’t know, Meg. I don’t believe women ever know, but I did, we do, and you will, I promise you, you will!

Meg: (Screams)

Willa: It was actually really, it was a great day. It was I think I had actually watched our director’s birth video, she had had a home birth and we spent a lot of time talking about childbirth and I think it was very, very important for Ness, that it felt real and did not feel like most, I think, births that are filmed, to be kind of like overly histrionic, or like really up, when in reality, I think childbirth is a very grounded experience. It’s not like screaming in pain, it’s like vocalizing a need. It’s the vocalization of like, the body working and so it was a lot of vocal work honestly. And there was a lot of just like physically present in the moment and it was, it was athletic. I was so sweaty. And it took a long time. But I think it was lovely that it was directed by a woman, and directed by a woman who had had a natural birth and wanted to present another alternative for childbirth because I think that the way the childbirth is often depicted is one of fear and terror, as opposed of like, embodiment and like the body in action. So yeah, I think it was very empowering.

Jace: Now we’re coming to that part of the interview we’re going to talk about that thing that we have to talk about which is the elephant in the room, which is of course the death of Beth here. How does Beth’s awareness of her own mortality affect her? I mean, how does it change her knowing that she is going to die soon?

Annes: She she spent a lot time knowing about it, without informing anybody else. So by the time she shares it, by the time by the time it was apparent to everybody else, she’d made peace with it. She feels everyone’s pain so much and she knew how this would hurt them. And so she felt like she had to be strong for them, too. And I think she, she just accepts it. I think she knows the way it’s going, and she does make peace with it and accept that this is God’s plan for her, and takes that time to then prepare everybody else, and make sure that Jo will be a carer now for everybody else now that Beth won’t be around to do that.

Jace: Now one of my favorite scenes in the entire series is the scene where Beth tells Jo about her illness on the beach.

CLIP

Beth: You know, don’t you, Jo?

Jo: Yes.

Beth: I wanted to tell you, but I couldn’t. I’ve known for a long time. I suspected and I wanted to be wrong so I went to Dr. Banks so he could tell me to not be so silly, and he didn’t.

Jace: What was it like shooting this intensely emotional moment with Maya?

Annes: That was my favorite scene to film, too. Because we were on a beach, it just creates such an easy atmosphere. And it was so quiet for us just to sit there, and we had time, we just sat and waited for, and it just felt like we could wait for the right words to come. And it felt real, it just felt like a very truthful, very poignant moment of letting someone in, and preparing them for what was to come. And then the fact that there’s also a little bit of judgment from Jo, ‘Why don’t you try harder?’ and that she does try, and I think that was important for for Jo to know that this isn’t an easy thing. She’s not taking an easy way out. She’s tried, but this is just what’s going to happen. So filming that felt really special.

Jace: Now Beth’s death scene is perhaps the most famous moment in all of Little Women. Were you nervous at all about getting this scene right, as it were?

Annes: Yeah, I mean, nobody’s ever died before. And so therefore to be able to, and then be able to act it. So you don’t know if you’re doing it properly. But you just have to make it as truthful for you as you can which was just to try and feel the pain and try and struggle for breath and to feel weak, and then the rest. I think, I think what sells that really, is everybody else’s reaction, that they felt the pain so much. And you see Marmee breaking down in such a painful way, and I think that’s what makes it real.

Jace: What was it like filming that scene with the Marches around the bed and as Beth sort of breathes her last breath.

Annes: I think on that day I’ve spent such a long time in bed before anybody else arrived. I can’t remember what’s what scenes we did but there was a long time. It was such a dark room. And I was under layers of quilts, and I was sweltering, I was just so hot, and I felt really therefore unwell. Just because I’d been lying there trying to convince that I’m unwell, and then once you pretend something for long enough, it feels real. So I was lying there feeling awful, and then at some point in the day we moved on to that scene where all the Marches walk in and I just stayed in my mode, so I didn’t really open my eyes, but it felt very heavy and Ness got upset. And so we we all got upset at various points it was quite scary just because it did feel quite real.

Jace: Willa, for you, I mean, what was it like sitting in that room doing that scene?

Willa: I just remember walking into the room with every mouse that went in for a rehearsal before surge. And it was just it. The crew was very quiet. Ness was very upset, and we all we all just became very emotional very quickly, and we were shooting a wide shot first and I just remember sitting there and and sobbing, and crying so hard, and feeling so moved by the energy in the room, it was really unlike anything I had experienced filming something. Everyone was so present and so believed the situation. And it was it was pretty traumatic, honestly, like it was a very hard day of work.

Jace: Do you have a favorite scene from Little Women, one that stands out to you?

Annes: Mine was the beach scene. Because Beth doesn’t speak very often it was so rare for her to have a full conversation and I just enjoyed it.

Willa: I loved the the ball scene, and my scene with Jonah on the bench.

CLIP

Jonah: Meg! Why don’t you just eat your ice cream?

Meg: Because! My feet burn so in these borrowed shoes that I would rather just stick them right in it. Don’t tell Jo I let them dress me up.

Willa: I think that Meg is so funny. I think that she takes herself so seriously, and I think that in that moment of self-awareness, of how seriously she takes herself, I think there’s such good comedy and lightness. And I think that that was really fun for me to film. And I think it ended up coming across really well.

Jace: Now I’ve heard you have a passion for baking sourdough bread.

Willa: I do! Although it’s been awhile.

Jace: Why sourdough?

Willa: I just love sourdough bread. I think it’s it’s my favorite kind of bread. And I also just love having a little live creature. I think it’s just really cool a science project. You don’t have to, literally you just mix flour and water together, and then the yeast that lives in your kitchen, because there’s yeast on all surfaces, kind of, you know, takes over this starter and makes a little creature that rises and falls and breathes over the course of the day. I don’t know, it’s pretty great.

Jace: That’s quite poetic. I’m going to turn out from bread to butter Annes, you’ve described yourself as salted butter’s biggest advocate. What does that mean. And who are these people campaigning against salted butter?

Annes: There’s loads of people campaigning against. And also all of the people who eat margarine.

Jace: Oh no.

Annes: I don’t understand. I think the one the one thing that Wales does better than anywhere else is salted butter. Even in England, the salted butter, is not salty. You know I just really like salt, and butter, so my butter with your sourdough….Oh, I can eat salt flakes.

Willa: Annes puts salt on everything. She even puts salt on things that are quite salty.

Annes: Yeah, all sweet things, and brownies sprinkles of salt.

Jace: Yeah it’s good. It’s good. Well, thank you both very much. Annes Elwy and Willa Fitzgerald thank you.

Willa: Thanks.

Annes: Thank you.

Jace: There would be no March family without the Marmee at their head. Academy Award-nominated actor Emily Watson brings a careworn humanity to her role as matriarch Margaret March and she joins us in a special bonus episode of MASTERPIECE Studio next Sunday, May 27 for a conversation on family, loss, and the magic of the Marches.

While you wait for Emily Watson, take a minute to both subscribe to and review MASTERPIECE Studio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you happen to find your podcasts. Reviews and subscriptions help raise the podcast’s profile so other MASTERPIECE fans can discover our conversations for themselves. And thanks!

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.

Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking Cruises and The MASTERPIECE Trust.

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