After her role as Marmee in the MASTERPIECE adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, actor Emily Watson has increasingly found herself wondering why she can’t parent more like the March family matriarch. Marmee is wise, forgiving and subtle, and allows her four daughters to grow and learn from their mistakes. She revisits the novel, and the role, as well as her Oscar-nominated film debut, in a frank and intimate conversation.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
When we look back at Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, everyone always talks about the marvellous March sisters, those four icons of 19th-century American womanhood. The March family member we often forget, however, is perhaps the most important of them all: Marmee.
Jo: You’re never angry.
Marmee: No, I never seem angry. But I am angry. Almost every day of my life. I’ve been trying to cure my rage for 40 years, and have only succeeded in controlling it.
Jace: The March matriarch is tough, subtle, and wise, urging her four fiercely independent daughters to live out their lives as they see fit, while never forgetting the fundamental importance of family.
Marmee: I want to kiss you all so much. But I’m afraid that kisses would turn into me throwing my arms around you, and all this perfection would be utterly undone.
Jace: Actor Emily Watson plays Marmee in the new MASTERPIECE adaptation of Little Women, and her performance in the role is a understated highlight of the production. Watson, whose career has spread from her Academy Award-nominated debut in Breaking the Waves all the way to Little Women and beyond, joined us in conversation in a tiny hotel room in Pasadena, California.
Jace: And this week we are joined by Little Women star, Emily Watson. Welcome.
Emily Watson: Thank you for having me. It’s very nice to be here.
Jace: How familiar were you with Louisa May Alcott’s novel?
Emily: I’d read it as a child, and loved it as a child. Some of the scenes from it seared into my memory that when — the whole book burning, lake-drowning, near-drowning incident is sort of registered very highly on my scenes of horror. Yeah.
Jace: What is it like returning to a novel that was so beloved as a child? What scenes or elements played out differently now from the vantage point of adulthood?
Emily: Well I obviously re-read the novel with a view of, you know, investigating the character of Marmee, and I never really remembered that much about her, except that she was sort of a good person and wholesome but actually she’s a really great parent. And I think Heidi’s adaptation has brought out some of the really interesting things that are in the book in that she is a woman who has struggled with having a temper all her life, and has learned to manage her temper. She does the opposite of helicopter parenting, she allows her children to make mistakes. She lets them come to her. She doesn’t try and interfere in their lives. But I think the most striking thing to me was that they are a family who are striving to be good people. You know, the first thing you see them do is give away their Christmas breakfast to a family of refugees, German refugees, which is a bit ironic considering where we’re at.
Marmee: Girls, I’ve just come from the most deprived and wretched home I have ever seen. There was a mother with a newborn, and five other little ones huddled under rags for warmth. I took firewood, but it was not enough.
Jace: You mentioned Marmee being the opposite of a helicopter parent. She is pretty inspirational, I think, in the way that she raises her children. She does let them make mistakes, and then come to her. What do you think we could learn from her as parents in the 21st-century?
Emily: I think it’s a thing that comes naturally to her. You know we want to make our children safe all the time. We want them to be free from disease, free from threat, free from everything so we seek to control their lives. They live in a time where if somebody gets scarlet fever, they’re pretty much that’s it, they’re gonna die, and they have to live to accept that. The life expectancy around that time was average was something like 48, maybe? And there’s much more acceptance of the things that you can’t control. So she has that space. She doesn’t dive in that she doesn’t sort of pounce on things. She has the space to let people be themselves, which I think is something that’s very missing from our culture at the moment, in terms of the way we raise our children.
Jace: Marmee, I think, let her children be independent, and it’s that very independence which considering this is 1868, I feel like we should maybe embrace more?
Emily: She was, to all intents and purposes in a lot of the book, a single parent because Mr. March is away, you know, fighting the Civil War. And you know and they’re a family who’ve made made a great sacrifice in that sense, as many families in that time had. And you know, she’s struggling to keep people all together with a dad away at a war. They don’t have a lot of choice, they’ve just got to get on with it. And then she has to leave them, when he’s seriously ill. I love the sense that we’ve managed to get in this piece of the four teenage girls living in a small house together, I mean that’s quite an impressive amount of smelly energy, I think.
Jace: What was it about Heidi Thomas’s script for this adaptation that excited you?
Emily: I felt that she had found a way into the mind, the relationships and the minds of these people that felt very relatable to us, you know, in a modern sense. That you know, Jo, whose story it is, really, is someone that I think most people who read the book identify with, that struggle for not feeling comfortable in your skin, struggling for your identity, having an ambition that feels impossible, and feeling constrained, and feeling the anger and angst of being a young person, and not having the opportunity, not having the life that you want. I think that’s, obviously for a lot of people, most people’s experience, and it’s not about the American Dream, she doesn’t get castles in the air and become a great author. But she learns a lot about herself, and she really she honors herself. She respects herself and she follows her judgment and you know, it’s a story about respecting yourself, I think, which is hard to do sometimes.
Jace: In terms of your performance. How did you approach the character of Marmee? What makes her tick?
Emily: I think she’s very measured. She’s very, very thoughtful. She responds to things. She always manages, you know she doesn’t scream at her kids. I often find myself in situations recently, thinking, ‘God, what would Marmee do?’ She’s just so cool, just finding that space to think, and really give a good answer that’s going to inspire the children to think about something in the right way. Which is really hard to do. And just thinking about what it is she’s had to overcome to be able to be that. And there aren’t really that many clues in the novel. There was some sort of elements of Alcott’s own family that are there, but the sense that she herself lost her own mother when she was young, and the grief and anger that you probably never really get over from that and she’s the opposite of someone who has narcissistically dwelling in their own pain or their own anger. She has been very thoughtful about her life experience she’s chosen to marry somebody who’s never going to deliver a life of luxury. A man who has taken 20 years to write a book. And I’m sure that in itself is quite a trying thing. But she’s chosen a considered life, and a quiet life.
Jace: Now Marmee has a strong bond with each of her four daughters. What sort of rehearsal process was there on Little Women, and how did that help shape that maternal bond with these actors?
Emily: Well when you when you work with young actors you never really know what it’s going to be like because, I shan’t name any names or talk about any particular jobs that I’ve done, but you kind of find yourself in a bit of a, you know, situation with young actors about who’s doing the most glamour shoots, and who’s climbing the greasy pole the fastest, and you know, it’s, I just kind of stand back and try not to interfere. Just get on with the job. This was really the opposite of that. These were a bunch of very, very committed young people, very idealistic about the art of acting, which is so refreshing, and gives me hope. We had a very strong rule of leave the phones behind, were going to be in this room. We’re going to really talk to each other. We’re really, and this is the rehearsal process, where we’re going to commune here. And the director, Ness had a wonderful kind of route into that. She asked us all to share things with the group that nobody else knew about us. So it was very much, there was no small talk. We just jumped in there and we opened up to each other in a way that was very revealing and talked a lot about, you know, the experiences of adolescence and frustrations and, you know, with the difficulties of our own growing up and being young women and how that related to this, and it was a very bonding experience.
Jace: How does having a female director on a project like this affect the mood of the actors, the feel of the piece itself?
Emily: Well I’d love to say that it’s irrelevant, but of course it’s not. I think, you know, I’ve been doing this for 20 years and the difference between a set that is with a female director and a crew that has a balance of men and women in it, to a crew that’s all men is so different. It obviously depends a lot on the nature of the individuals in a male crew. You know, some of them can be absolutely beautiful and sensitive and very creative and have a very feminine aspect to their creative work. But it can also be like being on a football team, which I find so difficult to work with. So I very much enjoyed this the dynamic of this. There was a lot of women obviously in front of the camera but behind the cameras, as well. And Ness, she’s got young children herself. For her the stakes were incredibly high about the choices these young women were making and why they were making them and what their pains and difficulties were, and where their joys and triumphs were. Physically, the way it looks, it’s very it’s got a really fresh take to it. She loves the female body, she loves the detail of female life in a way, the intimate ordinariness of a woman’s daily life. She’s got a real sense of the smell in the way that she’s shot this piece. It just has a very particular sense of her as a woman.
Jace: Do you see Marmee as an older wiser version of Jo, or as a mixture of all four of her strong-minded talented daughters?
Emily: She was Jo when she was young, and in a sense she’s trying to encourage Jo to make choices, give her the wisdom of her hindsight and make choices that I probably didn’t have, wasn’t able to or, didn’t have the foresight to when I was your age, kind of thing. But yes, I think she identifies with Jo, possibly.
Jo: Three years, Marmee? That’s no time at all.
Marmee: I would like to keep all of my girls as long as I can. But I also want real love for all of you from good men, and the former takes time to flourish and the latter are not lightly found. Meg doesn’t love John yet, but she will, and everyone will have to bear it.
Jace: I love the relationship between Marmee and Robert March, played by the very wonderful Dylan Baker. What do you make of their marriage and its sense of a egalitarianism?
Emily: Yes, very interesting. I think in a way because of the situation and he’s away, you know Marmee is running the show. She’s very definitely in charge of everything that’s going on in that house. And when he returns, there’s a sense that he is in a sense more of a thinker than a doer. He’s the one who’s really sits in his study and contemplates the nature of life and writes his book. And she’s making sure that the wood’s being delivered all in all the all the physical needs of running that small empire that they have there, that all those women are being attended to. And he seems to me a little bit of a dreamer, which is probably a quality that you can really fall in love with when you’re young, and might be a bit annoying when you’ve got, you know, four small…
Jace: Four children.
Emily: Four small children under the age of 6, or whatever it is. You know I think they have their strengths and weaknesses and they’re not perfect.
Jace: And what was it like working with Dylan Baker?
Emily: Oh, he’s just fabulous. It was one of those. Well, you know, when you got a really fantastic menu and you’re looking forward the dessert because you know it’s going to be really good. ‘Oh, I’ve got scenes with Dylan today!’ It’s just, you know, it was lovely.
Jace: Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…
Masterpiece Studio is brought to you by Viking. Explore the world in comfort, by river and sea. Learn more at vikingcruises.com.
Jace: Now those of us familiar with Little Women know that Beth’s death is coming, it’s sort of hovering over the action the entire time, but it’s still gut wrenching when she says, ‘Marmee, I’m sick, and I’m not going to get better.’
Beth: I’m sick and I’m not going to get better.
Marmee: She was the one that I never made plans for. She was the one that I couldn’t imagine married, she was the one I couldn’t picture with an infant in her arms.
Jace: What did you make of Marmee and Beth’s relationship? And what does she see in Beth that she doesn’t in her other children?
Emily: Beth is almost the one that Marmee is hardest on. She’s always trying to push her to be different from how she is. She knows that she’s one of those people who is very, very introverted and has very, very strong issues with social anxiety, and being in company and new people and meeting people and she’s been invited to go across the road and use the piano, and she can’t bring herself to do it and Marmee is always trying to make her do it, trying to sort of widen her horizons and push her. It’s almost as if in her desire to get Beth emotionally better she doesn’t see it coming, and it’s so devastating. It’s a beautiful piece of writing actually, what Heidi picked out. The devastation of not being able to protect your child, and look after her, knowing this death is inevitable and not being able to stop it is really, really devastating. I think then it’s right, the writing is clever, because then that moment is about Marmee’s grief, but the actual death is then simply about Marmee serving Beth and giving her the best death, the most you know supporting her in whatever transition that is and being there for her having done her grief privately, which I think is a really smart thing to do. I was with my father when he died and there was very much that sense that you are…It’s a great honor and a privilege to be with somebody when they die. And your grief is later. And when they’re dying, you have to be very present and be there for them. You know, obviously it’s different for different people depending on what you believe. But it was a very powerful experience for me.
Jace: I mean she gives her a moment of invincibility as her final moment.
Emily: Yes. Yeah. And say you know about to say rest here and tell you already and just be half her in her arms and be — oh, it’s making me bit flustered as I speak about it. But it’s yeah, it’s a very beautifully observed thing, the the nature of what that moment is and that your grief is separate from that. And that you know is it as a parent, you can’t really express grief. She expresses it to Jo in a very full way but my own experience of losing my father not really being able to be upset in front of my kids or you know are just other people in the family I just having to hold it together and really the only person who I could really really let go with was the dog. And when I was then I was alone with my dog that was it, the floodgates opened. But you have you have such a duty around death to be strong, I guess.
Jace: Why do you think that this moment has struck such a powerful chord with viewers and readers for the past almost 200 years?
Emily: I think, you know, the book is for people and about people of an age where you know you’re coming into those teenage years, and you’re suddenly thinking about profound things, maybe, and loss, and and that, you know, that you are actually mortal and you will die, and death comes to everybody. And how does that idea feed into all these kind of ambitions and desires and kind of fantastic, frivolous, beautiful youthful energy that you feel in your life? And this book, you know, looks at that head on, what it is to lose somebody and for a life to be cut short.
Jace: There’s a beautiful contrast between Beth’s death scene and Meg’s delivery scene, the one constant in both, being Marmee herself. How has motherhood shaped Marmee, and what is the lesson of survival that she teaches Meg here?
Emily: In our modern world we expect to survive childbirth and I mean that’s sort of one of the great shocking things when you start looking at statistics of you know, the issues around childbirth around the world, it’s really shocking. But you know, for the people who will be watching this program we expect it’s a safe thing delivering a child. Then, not at all. Back then, people died in childbirth a lot. And you know, there’s a moment when Hannah, the servant looks at Meg and says, ‘She’s awful big for a, you know, for a wee girl,’ and Marmee says, ‘No, she’s going to be OK.’ And it’s of course twins. And you know, it’s you, know going into labor would have been, you know, how is this going to go? Is it going to be alright? And probably the majority of times it was. But there would have been times when it really wasn’t. So that sense of having been through a huge experience that we will have when we have children. The stakes are higher here because, you know. Well done. You survived. Not meaning as in you came out of it and felt OK at the end of it, but you just, you didn’t die.
Jace: Do you have a favorite scene from Little Women?
Emily: The whole book burning sequence, I love that. I think that’s sort of just the catfight of it all is you know Amy’s done a wicked thing and she doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.
Marmee: Amy, how could you?
Amy: Did you see what she did? Did you see what she did?
Meg: Yes, and don’t look to me for comfort, because I don’t blame her.
Jace: At 29, You made your film debut in as Bess in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, What was the experience shooting Breaking the Waves like?
Emily: It was like having a door opened, for me, and suddenly finding a validation in something that was so demanding and involving and so fulfilling, and just, just felt like I’d found my people. I’d found my place. I felt like I was asked to do something really, really, really difficult. And I just jumped and I did it and it was an amazing experience.
Jace: You attended the Cannes premiere of the film without Lars von Trier present…
Emily: Lars Von Trier didn’t travel to Cannes because he’s phobic of, well, an awful lot of things. And so it at last minute that he couldn’t be there. So that was a little bit like being thrown to the wolves, although I was so ignorant of the whole thing. I sort of didn’t really know what was going on. I just turned up and it turned out to be this massive deal I’ve no idea that we were what being in competition meant, or how big the screening would be and suddenly that we were you know it was a huge deal. But luckily it was well received.
Jace: Now you’re one of only a handful of actors to get an Academy Award nomination
Jace: For your very first onscreen role. What did it feel like getting an Oscar nomination for that debut performance?
Emily: It was a bit like an out of body experience really. We had a tiny little housing association one bedroom flat in a sort off the borough high street near the Elephant Castle, in an area which has now become very fashionable, but wasn’t then. And the phone ringing, and it was Dustin Hoffman, calling to say that he’d seen Breaking the Waves and he thought it was really amazing. And then it just and I started winning all these awards. And I went on this massive press roll with it for a year, and I have to say I was kind of catatonic. It wasn’t a bad experience, but it was just overwhelming. I didn’t really know how to process what was happening to me because it was so different from my life experience up until that point. I just didn’t didn’t have the tools to process, really.
Jace: Did you get the sense that that single performance would change your life forever?
Emily: Yes. I mean I remember when when we were in the screening in Cannes and that there’s that Cannes music. Jean-Marc Barr, who’s one of the actors in the movie, who had been previously in Cannes, a few years before, with a film. He just leaned forward and whispered in my ear, he said, ‘Emily. Your life is about to change forever.’ And he was right. It was you know it was a real turning point.
Jace: True or false: you were Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first choice to play the title role in Amelie and the character of Amelie is actually named for you.
Jace: Why do you feel you’ve played so many disturbed characters?
Emily: Very good question. I think once you’ve done it once, people trust you to go there, to find the path to reach the place you need to get to, or just trust that you have the chops the commitment to get to the place you need to get to. Or maybe it’s just I’m really disturbed. I think you have to be pretty unhinged in some way to do this job. It’s a real tightrope of really, really kind of persuading yourself to believe in something to the point where you really kind of feel that about yourself, and then suddenly it’s all over and you go, ‘Oh, but, but I’m not like that.’ I know I still, still now have that experience quite strongly. I’ve just shot a TV version of King Lear which is I think going to be amazing actually. It’s Anthony Hopkins playing Lear and has this incredible cast, Emma Thompson and I play Goneril and Regan.
Emily: And it was just thrilling. It was so thrilling, and about a kind of couple of weeks after I finished shooting, Emma texted me she said, ‘How are you doing?’ And I just said, ‘Well I, I for the first week or so I came off, I thought I was invincible. I thought I could fly. I literally thought, if somebody touched me, pushed me, I would take off. I sort of felt I was on such an adrenaline high from having played this very, really very disturbing…’ I mean, if it wasn’t by Shakespeare, you’d be calling your agent going, ‘This is, really dodgy, can you get me out of here? ‘I mean’ I played Regan, and she, you know, she stabs out the eyes. You know, it’s a really, really disturbing thing, but I just felt so powerful at the end of it. And then about a week later, I woke up one morning feeling about 900, and realized that I was coming off the adrenaline and crashing and it, it does that to you. But it’s so, if you let it. It’s so persuasive, you really, you sort of wake something up, and it’s kind of running in your blood for a while, and then then you put it back down again. So it’s sort of a lifetime of pretending, and really trying to deceive yourself, which is all a bit confusing, really, quite confusing for your children.
Jace: You have been in so many films, your IMDB page is sort of insane to look at. Do you see a single performance as your breakthrough?
Emily: Well obviously Breaking the Waves was a breakthrough because it was my first thing and it put me on the map in terms of film. But I guess I have. It’s like being asked to name your favorite child, and I have not so much performances, but experiences that I will treasure to the end of my days that were. But being in Gosford Park with Robert Altman was, even to be in that film, to be in that company, but to be in the presence of that man, and to have a kind of a window into how he thought about art and life and people, and what a great human being he was, was just so brilliant. Likewise, Paul Thomas Anderson. That was such an amazing experience, it was a delicious treat and will remain that, you know for the rest of my life and I made a good friend, that he’s, you know, a very special human being as well as being a brilliant, I mean I think our, probably our greatest living filmmaker.
Jace: He called you the Dame Lady of All Things That Are Great.
Emily: Oh did he, that’s very nice.
Jace: He did.
Emily: I paid him.
Jace: Emily Watson, thank you so much.
Emily: It’s a pleasure.
Jace: Coming up next on MASTERPIECE:
On June 17, novelist Patrick Gale’s multi-generational story of secret romances, heart-breaking sacrifices, and personal growth arrives in the form of the new drama Man in An Orange Shirt, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Julian Morris, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen.
And then, beginning on June 24, travel back to the Oxford of the 1960s with a thrilling new season of MASTERPIECE Mystery’s Endeavour.
Watch for MASTERPIECE Studio to return this summer, with more conversations and behind-the-scenes insights into your favorite MASTERPIECE shows.
In the meantime, listen back to classic MASTERPIECE Studio podcasts with the casts of Downton Abbey, Poldark and more, and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you listen to podcasts.
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.
Jace: So violence is OK, but sex is not?
Jace: No sex please, we’re British.
Emily: Consensual sex between mature adults, absolutely, no way, but violence, yes, as much as you like.
Sign up to get the latest news on your favorite shows like Victoria, Sherlock and Poldark, exclusive content, video, sweepstakes and more.