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How Actress Eliza Scanlen Found Beth’s Resilience in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

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Writer-director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) has crafted a Little Women that draws on both the classic novel and the writings of Louisa May Alcott, and unfolds as the author’s alter ego, Jo March, reflects back and forth on her fictional life.  In Gerwig’s take, the beloved story of the March sisters—four young women each determined to live life on her own terms—is both timeless and timely.  Portraying Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth March, the film stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen, with Timothée Chalamet as their neighbor Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmee, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March.

Across disparate countries and radically different eras, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has come to life in a million different ways.  It is a book that is unsparing in its depiction of the way the world is hard on ambitious girls, but also offers a comfort: that ambition – a vibrant inner life that breaks the bonds of the world – is its own reward.  It is a book that we first encounter as children, when the world’s possibilities are wide open and there is nothing in the world that can hold us back; we return as young adults, when the constraints of adulthood and society begin to shape who we are; and we return again, as older readers, with the bittersweet nostalgia of what it meant to be young and bold, joined with the exciting joy of seeing a new generation experience that daring for themselves.  The insistent power of the book is its distinctly individual call to grapple with life’s many clashing lures—with family, art, money, love, freedom, and the hope of being 100% who you are, creating your own unique story.

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This deeply personal, fiercely alive idea of Little Women is the one writer-director Greta Gerwig wanted to transport to the screen.  Gerwig approached the material with a determination to capture the sweeping, epic nature of the story that captures the enormity of what Alcott created, but also an honest, disarming emotional intimacy that brings the characters to life.   As every reader brings her own personal interpretation and meaning to the story, Gerwig puts her own stamp on the story.

The picture that emerges is of four women looking back with affection at how they became who they are.  It is also one of a world where the dailiness of women’s lives—their discoveries, sacrifices and anger, their financial, artistic and domestic concerns—deeply matters.  What does it mean to take the reins of your life when so much that happens, from a crack in the ice to a mistimed letter, is out of your control?  And how does that look to four sisters with four divergent dreams?

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Eliza Scanlen, who plays Beth, offers another take on the story’s continued resonance. “It affirms that the emotions you experience in childhood are just as complicated and important as the ones you experience later on in life, which has not often been done.”

Indeed, Gerwig approached the film as both a faithful retelling, drawing as much from the text as possible, and a postmodern one.  She shakes up the story, telling it in two separate timelines, with the characters’ lives as adults living alongside the story of their childhoods.

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Perhaps what most exhilarated the women participating the film was that this Little Women is unabashedly a story in which boys and men are certainly part of the picture—at times alluring, at times enervating to the sisters—but never at the center of the world.

Beth March may be the most inward and perilously fragile of the March sisters—a gently passionate musician whose life is forever changed by a bout with Scarlet Fever—but she leaves a deep mark on everyone who has ever read Little Women.  Taking the role somewhere new is Eliza Scanlen, the young Australian who recently came to the fore as imperiled Amma Crelin on HBO’s Sharp Objects.

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“Beth has a hard life, but she’s just as ambitious as the rest of them. Why wouldn’t she be? She’s a March sister. She has her own dreams of grandeur, and I wanted that to feel big.  Beth to me has always been a very Emily Dickinson-like character, someone who comes to deeply understand things about the fabric of the world without ever leaving home. Beth is a very complex character,” notes Scanlen.

“Compared to her sisters, she’s shy, but she has this quiet energy and power about her that I can really relate to.  I think we can all be a mixture of introvert and extrovert, and hopefully this film will allow people to appreciate the introverts as having something to say.  Nowadays we live in a very extroverted world where we reward being gregarious, loud and exciting.  So, to be able to find strength in quietness, kindness and deep thought was exciting.”

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Scanlen credits Gerwig for bringing the cast so deeply into the March’s lives. “Greta has a deep love for theatre that she used to create a very candid feeling of a family—one that includes fighting, shouting and getting angry.  She has a respect for how childhood has informed the lives of these sisters and she isn’t afraid to show the meanness sisters can have at times, even as they inspire each other.”

One of the most stirring aspects of Beth’s short life is that she brings the family back together in adulthood.  “There’s always a certain sadness about growing up and it’s hard to see the March sisters go their own ways,” says Scanlen  “But it’s also beautiful to see how sisterhood brings them back together again.  I have a twin sister—my love for her is infinite and that’s what I feel the March sisters have.”

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For the main cast of women, it was fantastic to see the men taking the supporting roles. Says Eliza Scanlen: “Greta depicts the men as observers of this magical connection the sisters share, wanting to be a part of it.  The makes for a really interesting dynamic we don’t usually see.”

The Koalition spoke to Scanlen about her unconventional audition, her unique approach to bringing Beth to life, her ability to get deep inside the head of character and more.

Check out our interview below.

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