True Romance: Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet on reuniting for Little Women
They may be posing in an airy lower Manhattan studio, but Timothée Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan have a way of making you feel right at home. "I made a little playlist this morning," Chalamet announces to the room. He syncs up his cell phone to the sound system, his boyish grin widening as Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" starts blaring. He returns to the camera, which snaps him and Ronan at a furious pace.
It's their first joint cover shoot. He's wearing a shimmery striped shirt with high-waist trousers; she's rocking a shirtdress, fishnet stockings, and clear stilettos. He keeps cracking her up; she musses his hair with doting affection. During a break that follows, he wanders, gripping a paper bag stuffed with assorted bagels — from Tompkins Square Bagels, which Chalamet, a lifelong New Yorker, insists are the best in the city — and offering one to anyone in his path. He sings and dances — very Elio-in-the-town-square-like — to Bob Dylan's "Tombstone Blues." He creeps behind a distracted Ronan before spooking her with a yelp. "I didn't even know you were there!" she exclaims, reddening from the fright but with a smile so lovingly at ease, you sense she's used to the prank.
They've known each other, after all, for some time. About three years ago, Ronan, now 25, and Chalamet, 23, met filming Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig's solo directorial debut, in which Ronan's irrepressible heroine (briefly) romances Chalamet's douchey amateur musician. They reunited with Gerwig last year, on the heels of Lady Bird's Oscar-nominated success, for a bigger undertaking: a remake of the oft-remade Little Women (Dec. 25). Ronan and Chalamet slipped into the roles of tomboyish Jo March and buoyant Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, best friends who ultimately break each other's hearts. Their courtship ranks among American culture's oldest tales of unrequited love — made indelible by Katharine Hepburn and Douglass Montgomery, Winona Ryder and Christian Bale, and so many others — yet finds, in the hands of two of the most compelling actors of their generation, galvanizing new life.
That goes, in fact, for the whole of Gerwig's Little Women. Her version certainly contains the snow-globe coziness of treasured adaptations past, but also carries a fizzy emotional authenticity and attention to detail. The film is remarkably lived-in, too: This take on Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel, which follows Jo and her three sisters pre– and post–American Civil War, feels plucked straight from the text in the best way, with siblings fighting like siblings, love and loss and hope and pain vividly experienced on screen.
Ronan and Chalamet's charming big sister–little brother dynamic is not unlike the one that Jo and Laurie share in Little Women. Watch the actors play off one another, and the film's tender realism clarifies itself: Their on-camera intimacy is just as palpable behind the scenes. Indeed, after shooting Lady Bird for a few weeks, the pair hung out regularly over the next year, making the awards-circuit rounds and scoring lead-acting Oscar nominations — Ronan for Lady Bird, Chalamet for Call Me by Your Name — before swiftly signing on to Little Women. In advance of filming in Concord, Mass. (the actual setting of the book), Gerwig and producer Amy Pascal gathered the large production's cast and crew for rehearsals at a house just outside the town. For Ronan and Chalamet, the contrast between this and their early Lady Bird days was immense. "I felt very prideful… about how big it had gotten, how many people were there," Chalamet recounts. "On Lady Bird it was, like, 25 people hanging out in a house!"
They fell back into each other's rhythms instantly. "He keeps me on my toes — I'm never quite sure what he's going to do next," Ronan says. "That only progressed more and grew more. It helped that we do have a very natural rapport with each other…. These two characters physically need to be very comfortable with one another. They're literally intertwined for half the film." Chalamet adds: "In the least clichéd way possible, it really doesn't feel like [I'm] acting sometimes [with her]."
Chalamet credits Gerwig, too, for establishing a playful, comfortable atmosphere. He thinks back to his first day of rehearsal: He reunited with Ronan. He introduced himself to Emma Watson (who plays the eldest March sister, Meg). He was guided into a third-floor conference room of a "random building" where, "all of a sudden, there was a full dance class going on." He recalls fondly: "Everyone breaks down and becomes a little kid. This job is so trippy in that regard — you want to be serious, you want to be professional, and then it's almost best when you're able to be 12 years old. When it's someone you're actually friends with, it makes it easier."
Ronan smirks, gearing up for a jab: "We're not friends!" Delighted, Chalamet keeps the bit going. "We're not friends," he says, solemnly. For once, they're not very convincing.
Greta Gerwig doesn't remember a time before she knew Jo March. "[Little Women] was very much part of who I always was," the writer-director, 36, says. "It was something my mother read to me when I was growing up. It's been with me for a very long time."
She joined Sony Pictures' new Little Women adaptation when she was hired to write the script in 2016. Once Lady Bird bowed the next year, she emerged as a candidate to direct the film. "Greta had a very specific, energized, kind of punk-rock, Shakespearean take on this story," Pascal says. "She came in and had a meeting with all of us and said, 'I know this has been done before, but nobody can do it but me.'" She got the gig.
In her approach, Gerwig drew on her lifelong relationship with Little Women; beyond childhood, she discovered new, complex layers to the novel, and in turn to Alcott's legacy. "As a girl, my heroine was Jo March, and as a grown lady, my heroine is Louisa May Alcott," she says. It's perhaps why Gerwig's Little Women feels like the most adult — and modern — version of the story that's reached the screen to date. The movie begins with the March sisters in adulthood — typically where the narrative's second half begins — and unfolds like a memory play, shifting back and forth between that present-day frame and extended flashbacks to the childhood scenes etched in the American literary canon.
In that, Gerwig finds fascinating, fresh areas of exploration regarding women's lives: the choices society forces them to make, the beauty and struggles of artistic pursuit, the consequences of rebellion. Jo's journey as a writer anchors Gerwig's direction; tempestuous Amy (Florence Pugh) gets more of a spotlight as she matures as a painter (and Laurie's eventual wife); and Meg is realized with newfound nuance: "We felt it was important to show Meg juggling all her roles — a mother, a wife, a sister — whilst also celebrating her dreams, despite them being different to those of her sisters," says Watson. But Gerwig doesn't see herself as reinventing the wheel. "A lot of the lines in the film are taken right from the book," she explains. "When Amy says, 'I want to be great or nothing' — she says that in the book! I don't think we remember that, but she does say it." Gerwig also loves one line spoken by the sisters' mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), also revived in this version: "I'm angry almost every single day."
Gerwig compiled a "bible" filled with cultural references: to Whistler tableaux of family life, to David Bowie–Jean Seberg hairdos that inspire the look of Jo's mid-film cut, to Alcott family letters. "I wanted it to be footnote-able," Gerwig says. "I wanted to point to it and say, 'This is where this is from.'" She considers Alcott's text sacred: "I wanted to treat the text as something that could be made fresh by great acting."
Beyond those charged but less quoted Little Women lines are its famous ones — throw-pillow staples like Jo's "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," that no adaptation is complete without. The actors rehearsed these "almost like a song," pushing to move through them with a rapid musicality. "We [read] the book out loud," says Dern. Gerwig expected the script's words to be memorized precisely. "I knew I wanted them to get this cadence that felt sparkly and slightly irreverent," she says. "I wanted to make them move at the speed of light."
She poured the same love into iconic scenes, like Jo and Laurie's ebullient dance that follows their first meeting. Here it goes on longer — and more vibrantly — than in any previous iteration. (Ronan says they filmed it at 3 a.m., to boot, adding, "We must have done it, like, 30 times.") Then there's the devastating moment when Laurie asks Jo to marry him and she rejects his proposal. Gerwig tasked the two actors to unleash here. "Emotions just bubble over," Ronan says. "[Greta] just let us go with it, wherever it went, from take to take. What I loved about that scene is that every take would be different emotionally. It didn't have the same trajectory.
"The two of us, it's a relationship I have with no other director," Ronan continues. "She makes me feel like I can try anything."
As Ronan and Chalamet emerge from their photo-studio dressing area in impossibly chic new ensembles — she donning a form-fitting knit sweater, he a silky, ruffled top — their creative energy fills the space. They try out different poses, debating concepts and ideas with each other on the fly; at one point he wraps his arms around her waist, and she quips to no one in particular, "We're expecting our first." Camera snap.
They're modeling a new brand of movie stardom — pursuing projects with a point of view, adamantly being themselves in the public eye, subverting gender norms. Their androgynous fashion performance here reflects their wardrobe shake-ups in Little Women: Gerwig and Oscar-winning costumer Jacqueline Durran (Anna Karenina) had the two actors swapping clothes throughout filming, to reinforce the masculine-feminine fluidity between Jo and Laurie. "They are two halves," as Pascal puts it. "These are really bold characters that are really different than you've seen them before."
And just as Gerwig expressed a need to direct Little Women, Ronan knew in her bones she needed to play Jo. She'd first encountered the story via the 1994 film when she was 11, and later read the book, feeling an immediate kinship with the young woman she'd come to portray. "When Louisa describes Jo, it felt like someone describing me physically: sort of gangly and stubborn and very straightforward, and went for what she wanted." At an event for Lady Bird, she — in a very Jo kind of way — just "went at it" by approaching Gerwig. "I said, 'So I want to be in Little Women, but only if I'm playing Jo.'" (Chalamet, for his part, was asked by Gerwig, "Hey, want to do another movie?" He responded: "Yes. Yes, please.")
Over months of living in Concord with her castmates, Ronan discovered new depths within herself: "Jo's ethos is 'Everything everyone else is doing, I'm going to do the opposite.' [I had] to try things that I'd never tried before. Be a bit messier with a performance." Gerwig set up etiquette lessons for the cast; whatever the instructor said ("Don't shake hands! Don't gesticulate with your arms!"), Ronan made sure to ignore it. She speaks now of this as freeing, even transformative. "I felt like I had tapped into something I'd never gotten the opportunity to tap into before, or I just didn't have the guts to tap into myself," she says. "Finding that was just amazing."
Shortly after wrapping Little Women, she filmed Wes Anderson's next film, The French Dispatch — marking her third time costarring with Chalamet, who plays a central role. As for now? Ronan is taking a little break. "I'll wait for the right thing to come along," she says. "It's lovely to be in a position at this moment where I can wait for the absolute right thing." Same goes for Chalamet — he shot Netflix's The King (out Oct. 11) right before Little Women and just completed production on Denis Villeneuve's Dune adaptation. "It's the first time in almost two years I've gotten a breath, so I'm savoring it."
It's been a long day. They're back in comfy clothes; Ronan is taking a late lunch. It feels like both actors — as another whirlwind of acclaim and press and romance-shipping awaits — are at a kind of peace, exhausted but satisfyingly so. Little Women is the biggest movie either has done to date; more attention, as they inhabit such revered characters, is sure to follow. "I just haven't thought about it that way," Ronan admits. "Maybe because it's just Greta — even though it's on a much bigger scale, she wanted it to feel like Lady Bird."
Ronan understands the timeless power of Little Women, of course: "It's as important to tell Little Women right now as it would be at any point in our lifetime." She points to this pop culture climate of "celebrating female friendships and sisterhood," and continues, "It's a story that's full of love. That will always be relevant."
She turns toward Chalamet, and you realize the love they brought to Alcott's classic is what first blossomed between them on Lady Bird. "I love that in Lady Bird, you broke my heart," she says to him softly. "In Little Women, I got to break your heart." (Chalamet, ever the goofball, finds an obvious opening: "Yes, that's true. Then I married your sister. Ha, ha, ha!")
If this all sounds a little idyllic, well, neither actor — nor Gerwig, nor Pascal, nor the rest of the cast — can do much to convince you otherwise. Shifting back to Little Women's timelessness, and reflecting on Ronan's comments about it, Chalamet says, "I don't know how to add to that." Instead he turns back to his costar, his expression suddenly sincere, filled with gratitude. "But if I can add one little dose of information," he says with a nervous laugh. "And not just because she's sitting next to me." He credits Ronan with bringing that "timeless energy." He says "thank God" they were able to make the movie. "It's so rare with Saoirse — I'm so f—ing grateful to get to work with her," he says. "Whatever book I write for myself when I'm older, to look back on —" He stops himself. "Well, this is a bigger conversation."
But Ronan, chuckling, doesn't let him off the hook. "Will I have, like, a chapter?" And Chalamet laughs — another opening, another chance to act with his greatest scene partner, to see what journey of creation and discovery they'll go on next. "A chapter of Saoirse," he says.
At this rate, one chapter won't suffice.
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