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Emily Watson on ‘Little Women’ and Performing in BBC’s ‘King Lear’ with Anthony Hopkins

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Based on the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott, this most recent adaptation of Little Women (from writer Heidi Thomas and director Vanessa Caswill) is as relevant and engaging in today’s modern times as it was when it was originally published in 1868, thanks to the universally relatable emotions of love and loss. Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, the story follows four sisters – Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), Jo (Maya Hawke), Beth (Annes Elwy) and Amy March (Kathryn Newton) – on their journey from childhood to adulthood, with the help of their mother Marmee (Emily Watson) and their wealthy relative – the cantankerous Aunt March (Angela Lansbury). 

During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actress Emily Watson talked about why she wanted to get involved with this take on Little Women, when she connected to the most, upon first reading the story as a child, how differently she looked at the material now, how uncomfortable the costumes were to wear, how much she enjoyed working with this cast, and the biggest challenges on set. She also talked about doing King Lear with Anthony Hopkins for the BBC, and what she looks for in a project.  

Image via PBS

Collider:  This is just so beautiful to look at, but obviously you don’t really know that when you sign on, so what made you want to do this. Was the appeal of a project like this just getting a chance to work with this material? 

EMILY WATSON:  I loved Heidi Thomas’ take on the material. It had a sense of freshness to it. I love that just a little bit of the historical context shows that this is a time where there was acute moral peril. She’s raising a family of young women, which feels a little bit like now, in a sense. The stakes aren’t quite as high, but it does feel that it’s a time of making people stand up to be decent, in small ways, in their lives. I think these are very much people like that. They were considered very thoughtful. They were evolutionists. They were prototype feminists, who were really ahead of their time. I think it’s an interesting reflection of that.  

When did you originally read this story? 

WATSON:  As a child. 

Do you look at it very differently now, than you did then? 

WATSON:  Totally, yeah. That’s also because I re-read it with a view toward Marmee. I didn’t really remember Marmee, from when I was a child. She was just this comforting mother. But what I like about the adaptation is that you have a sense of what she presents, which is a united front of strength and stability, and good advice, and just being really cool and not over controlling her children. And then, you see inside that and you see what she has to struggle with, in herself, to be that person, which I think is interesting. 

When you first read this story, who were the characters that you connected to the most? 

WATSON:  When I was a kid, it was Jo, for sure. It was just that sense of being a teenager, not being comfortable within your own skin, and just wanting to get out of where you were and make something of yourself. I think that’s a very universal feeling for young women. 

What was it like to be on this female-led production, and to be surrounded by so many women? 

WATSON:  It was lovely, actually. It’s becoming more and more common that a set is a much more balanced place, in terms of gender. But with this, it was the writer, the producer, the director and pretty much all of the cast, with a few very lovely exceptions. It didn’t even occur to me to think about it, until somebody else brought it up. There was never any objectification of any of these women, at any point. This story was always told entirely from their point of view and was with them, all the time. There was no camera looking at them from the conventional male perspective, in any way. It was great, and it also allowed it to be sweaty and properly teenage. 

Image via PBS

It’s interesting because this was originally published so long ago, and yet nobody has ever really tried to modernize the story. With as many times as this story has been retold, it stays within its original period. 

WATSON:  I think it has things in common with the stories that are set during World War II or World War I. It’s when the stakes for humanity were very high. It heightens things. It heightens what it means to raise a human being, when your country is at war with itself, over its moral conscious. The first thing we see them do is give away their Christmas breakfast to a family of German refugees, which is a little bit ironic, with all things considered. 

Are you surprised that a story that was published so long ago is still so relevant and relatable today, or do you think those human emotions will always be relatable? 

WATSON:  No, I’m not surprised, at all. I was raised reading literature from all periods, of every century. If something is good and has a lasting appeal, it’s going to stay. It’s got staying power. Everyone has been in a house of teenage girls. 

Even though they’re beautiful to look at, how uncomfortable were these costumes to wear?  

WATSON:  They’re an awful thing to do to a person. Talk about the subjugation of women. With wearing a corset, and then the petty coats, a dress would probably weigh about thirty pounds. They were really, really heavy. The scene we did where we were carrying breakfast, we shot that probably about 15-20 times, walking through the snow and carrying a heavy tray, in all those costumes. It wasn’t snow, it was salt, but that was just exhausting. 

What was it like to work with these young actresses? 

WATSON:  It was very rewarding. The director very clearly set up a situation where she said, “This rehearsal room is entirely private. We don’t bring phones in. We don’t bring any media in. We don’t bring anything in. We can share things in here.” She said, “I want you all to share something that you might have suffered, that nobody else knows.” It was very revealing. We just talked about what it was like to be teenagers, and grow up and work with our parents. We really shared, so it felt like a bonding thing that we then brought to the set when we started to work on it, which was very nice. They were a really committed bunch of young women. They’re committed to their craft, which is really nice to see. They’re all really smart.  

How did you find the experience of working with Angela Lansbury? 

WATSON:  She’s amazing! She’s a legend. She’s extraordinary, and sharp as a whip. She’s 91 and still absolutely hitting it, every time, which is brilliant. 

Image via PBS

Do you see yourself still having a career like that, at that age? 

WATSON:  I hope so! I hope that I’ll have the choice to still be doing it then, if I’m spared. Acting is very life affirming. You go to work and it’s like you sit around the fire pit and you tell stories. It’s the most primal form of engagement. It’s very life enhancing 

Did you have a favorite day, on this production? 

WATSON:  I loved the scene where they have the cat fight. That was really fun. They were just really lovely to be around, those girls. I love the drama of that scene. 

Were any of the days particularly challenging? 

WATSON:  Some of the really emotional stuff with Beth, was challenging, just to have the presence of mind and the experience to protect myself and stay in it. And when it was impossibly boiling hot on the tiny set, with lots of adverse conditions, that was quite challenging. But generally, it was a good experience, all around. 

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