The Making of Jo
After nabbing the role of Jo March, Hawke immersed herself in all things “Little Women” as research.
“I feel like there are often two choices when it comes to playing a character that other people have taken a stab at – a familiar character – is you either try to take in nothing, or you try to take in everything,” she said. “Taking in nothing wasn’t an option for me because I’ve read the book so many times and because I was so familiar and loved the Winona Ryder movie so much. When it came time for me to prepare for the role, I decided I needed to clean my imagination by watching every adaptation. The June Allyson, the Katharine Hepburn [versions]. I tried to take in as much information as possible.”
“Little Women” is a dialogue-heavy story, which was unusual for the time it was first published. This was essential, however, for portraying the complex but loving relationships in the March household. Set during and after the Civil War, the story follows the four March sisters as they mature and finding meaning in love and family.
Hawke spent a week before the production began shooting this distinctly American story in Ireland with the other young women — Willa Fitzgerald as eldest daughter Meg, Annes Elwy as the compassionate Beth, and Kathryn Newton as the vain Amy — to create a convincing sibling bond.
“We told each other things in our personal lives. We immediately all found a real connection together and had a really special chemistry, and those girls are still some of my best friends in the world,” she said. “Not only did we get to have intimacy exercises and stuff but we were also were living in the same hotel together, all of us the same age and in the same country, so we had a lot of things to connect about the material and then we just did that ourselves.”
Jo’s other most defining relationship (besides the one with her parents) is with the neighbor boy Laurie Laurence played by Jonah Hauer-King (“Howards End”). Although she sees him as a brotherly confidant, he would prefer to shift to a more romantic dynamic.
“Jonah and I had been talking about Jo and Laurie’s relationship from the first moment we met on set during pre-production,” she said. “We’d been trying to understand what their relationship was and why it goes the way it goes, every night at dinner for a month.”
Hawke also felt energized by an unusual scene partner: the parrot belonging to the hard-to-please Aunt March (Angela Lansbury).
“The parrot had some rather unpredictable behavior when it came to hair pulling and shoulder climbing. I really loved getting to interact with an animal or a baby or a kid in a scene because they don’t really know that you’re acting,” she said. “They don’t know that this isn’t reality. They don’t know that this isn’t what’s happening, because it is what’s happening. To the parrot, we are in this old house. We are back in time. The conversation that’s going on in front of it is really the only thing that’s real.
“It really grounded me and made me feel so present in the moment because it just made it so real and alive and truthful and reminded me that what’s happening in the scene is what’s really happening. It is immediate, and it is true, and it is honest because I’m allowed to be as youthful and open-minded and innocent as a parrot or baby. And that’s what I strive for in my craft.”
A Tale of Two Jo Marches
Finally, Hawke brought one cultivated skill with her to set that would help in portraying Jo’s craft as a writer. For the many scenes in which her character sits at a table and does nothing but put pen to paper, Hawke was able to scratch out the words with a practiced hand because she had learned to use a fountain pen as a child.
“I had to luxury of going to a Waldorf [school] on the Upper East Side. I got to take classes in writing with a fountain pen, and actually, something you make is your own textbook. So, while you’re learning about something, you have to write essays on it and then you handwrite, in cursive, in fountain pen, your essays out on beautiful paper and you bind it together into a book that you hand in at the end of the course. And so I’d actually been writing in fountain pen, in cursive, since I was in 6th grade. [On set,] I got to practice it with a new pen but it wasn’t a foreign entity.”
She even took on one of Jo’s more absent-minded habits when it came to writing with the ink pen. While some writers in that era used pen wipers – pieces of felt attached to clever or ornate handles made to look like animals or other designs – to unclog the ink from the tips of their pens, Jo had a more expedient method.
“What Jo would do is she didn’t have a pen wiper; she had the smock that our wonderful costumer Eimer [Ni] made for me,” Hawke said. “It was just kind of like big stripey thing that I would put over my dress, and Jo would wipe her fountain pen on her smock.”
Hawke also had a unique opportunity to commiserate with another living Jo March. Although she had met Winona Ryder several times in her life (the actress had co-starred with Hawke’s father in “Reality Bites”), it wasn’t until joining the cast of “Stranger Things” was Hawke able to discuss playing Jo.
“I felt super lucky to have gotten to be able to get to work with her… I’m really nervous for her to see it,” said Hawke. “We got to talk about it a little bit over the cast dinner. Mostly we talked about what an honor it is to get to play such a literary heroine, a feminist powerhouse figurehead, and what an inspiration she is and how fortunate it is to get to spend any time in one’s life with that character living in your body.”
”Little Women” airs the second part of its miniseries on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on PBS. The third season of “Stranger Things” is expected to turn Netflix upside-down sometime in the near future.