Long before people took online quizzes to determine if they were a Carrie or a Charlotte, or a Marnie with Hannah tendencies but never a Jessa, the female personality was distilled into four other archetypes. If you were responsible and kind, you were a Meg. Impossibly sweet and a tad tragic? Total Beth. Prissy and a bit bratty? Amy, for sure. Headstrong and unconventional and a bit awkward? Jo.
Maya Hawke identifies most with the latter March sister, so it's only fitting that she's been cast to play Jo in BBC One's three-part adaptation of Little Women, which airs over the Christmas period. Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas has adapted Louisa May Alcott's beloved story of four sisters coming of age in New England during the American Civil War for the small screen, with a cast that includes Emily Watson, Angela Lansbury, Michael Gambon and, yes, the 19-year-old daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke in what she calls her "first paid acting job."
Hawke, who left The Juilliard School in New York to take the iconic role, may be a Hollywood newcomer, but her Little Women roots run deep. She was 13 when her class was given a list of suggested books to read; she chose Alcott's novel for her essay and now calls it her favourite book. Like Jo, she sees herself as stubborn and passionate. She also shares the character's love of writing, and is currently working on three screenplays of her own.
The spirited actress sat down with Refinery29 to talk strong female characters, fighting conventional gender norms, and getting advice from Uma.
You've said that you always saw yourself as Jo. What specifically about the character resonated with you?
"Her stubbornness, her clumsiness, how she always puts her foot in her mouth. How passionate she is about the things that she loves, and how much she loves her family and the energy she puts in to take care of them and be with them."
This is your acting debut. What made you realise that this was the right project?
"I've always been in love with language — poetry, literature, storytelling, plays, movies — but I really struggled with reading and writing and so acting was a way to experience and manipulate and love language without having to read or write too rigorously. And so I fell in love with this project because Jo had been a huge inspiration to me, with her passion and her drive and her ability to overcome mostly the societal obstacles in her life, but also the personal ones, to achieve her dream. She'd always inspired me to do the same. My obstacles were mostly personal or self-inflicted and not societal, but she still inspired me. And also it was an acting job in which the language was very sophisticated. I got to say very wonderful sentences, and saying beautiful sentences is probably my favourite thing on this earth."
At the screening I heard you joke as the credits came on that you might be sick. Is it daunting to see yourself on the big screen?
"I think that my generation is a little bit more comfortable seeing our image than prior ones because of iPhones and how much we photograph each other and video each other. But it's still very daunting to watch the distillation of something you worked so hard on, for so long, and to see what all that work became. And it's scary... but I didn't vomit."
Can you talk about working with a cast that's predominately female? It was implied that it must have been hell for your male co-star, Jonah Hauer-King (Laurie).
"Having a female-led environment doesn't mean that men will be uncomfortable in it, or made fun of, or sexualised. No one is asking to reverse the negative power dynamics set up by the patriarchy to create another one-sided power dynamic. One is just asking for there to be equality and equal opportunities as far as who gets to have power when, and who gets to establish the tone of an environment. But then reflecting, we made horrible fun of Jonah and tortured him constantly every day [laughs] so I was maybe wrong."
Jo is very much a tomboy who resists traditional gender roles. How do you think she would adapt to modern society, where those roles are now less binary?
"I thought a lot about that when we were filming, and what I ended up feeling — based on talking to the historical representative of Louisa May Alcott, doing my own research into Louisa's life, and reading the book and script over and over again — the reason that Jo wishes to be a man is because of the opportunities that men are afforded that she's not afforded. When she says 'I wish I were a boy', her longing is mostly about her wishing to have the opportunities that boys have. She wants to go to college, she wants to write, she wants to play sports, she wants to get to use her body with liberty and freedom and not be constrained by a corset and long petticoats and the obligation to marry. Louisa never married; Louisa travelled constantly all over the world, having lovers. She lived in Paris...
In today's world, though there are still lots of societal challenges for women, which has been made very clear in the last few weeks, a lot of the things that Jo wishes she could have, she would have as a girl."
"I wouldn't say that my mom has given me specific advice in recent weeks. I was raised to speak up for myself, to try my best, have a good sense of what I want, and I've been lucky enough to feel that I have a voice, and that that voice will be heard. The advice that I've gotten is to have confidence. There's no one opportunity; there's no 'one shot' deal, one big break. If you are interested in having a life that's devoted to the arts, and if you continue to devote yourself to the arts, it will feed you. It's not about you; it's about adding a voice to a chorus that is celebrating the art world and that is trying to worship the gods of theatre and literature and storytelling. If you are willing to be a part of that, and add your voice to that chorus, it will either someday reward you for that or not. Focus on the work, and believe in yourself."
The four sisters have become these personality archetypes. You've said that lots of women consider themselves a Jo.
"Well, [the story's] from her point of view. But I'm also always surprised at how many people identify more with Amy or Beth or Meg, too. I think I'm a Jo or an Amy. I don't know. I think I almost like Meg best when I watch the Winona Ryder version [1994's Little Women]. I just really like that actress."
What are you working on post-Little Women?
"I'm attached to a few independent films that are all getting the final touches put together. And I'm doing a lot of work on my own."
I've heard that you're writing a screenplay.
"I've always been writing. I've written several short plays for stage, I'm working on a book of poetry, I write songs. I do get quoted as saying I was writing a particular screenplay [a rumoured comedy about abortion], but I'm really working on three at the moment. I'm trying to keep busy and get some ideas on paper. I think one thing that's really important is making work for yourself. It's really hard to get jobs and to get interesting work, so to start trying to make it for myself I think is a great way to begin."
Little Women premieres on BBC One on Boxing Day at 8pm.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.