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Wednesday 26 September 2018

'We went hiking in the Wicklow Mountains' - actress Maya Hawke

Her parents are Hollywood royalty but Maya Hawke is starting her acting career on the small screen in the BBC's Christmas adaptation of Little Women. She tells Shilpa Ganatra about filming in Ireland for three months and how the character of Jo inspired her

Period drama: Maya Hawke plays Jo March in Little Women
Period drama: Maya Hawke plays Jo March in Little Women

As far as acting debuts go, it doesn't get more high profile than the jewel in the crown of BBC1's Christmas schedule. This year, that spot is taken by a three-part adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, in which 19-year-old Maya Hawke takes the role of the bold and brave Jo March.

If the name isn't familiar, the face will be: she's quite evidently the daughter of actors Ethan Hawke (Boyhood, Before Sunrise) and Uma Thurman (Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction). Perhaps the obvious relation is why she's never shied away from her background. While some actors like Angelina Jolie, Emilio Estevez and Nicolas Cage changed their surnames to avoid relying on their lineage, Maya realises there's little point.

"If I changed my name, everyone would have just known that I changed my name," she shrugs. "If I had been anonymous, it would have felt pretentious. It would seem like I'm trying to dodge something. I love my family and have such respect for their work, for their career and talents, and I'm very proud to be connected with them."

As it was, her name didn't help when she was trying out for the role, script in hand, in front of a panel of producers analysing her every move. Executive producer Colin Callender explained that "she auditioned like everyone else, and it was a great audition". And so her performance fits well amongst an ensemble cast, featuring Emily Watson as the matriarch Marmee, Cork resident Angela Lansbury as Aunt March and Michael Gambon as Mr Laurence.

Filmed earlier this year in Ardmore Studios and the surrounding Wicklow area, the set was meticulously crafted with on-location input from Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House, the Alcott family home-turned-museum.

Their three-month stay gave Maya and the crew a chance to get under the skin of their temporary home.

"I really enjoyed shooting in Ireland," Maya says. "The people are so lovely. I hope I don't offend anyone in saying this, but the nature reminded me of Americans: everyone was warm and open and easy to talk to. And Ireland is so beautiful and lusciously green.

"I'm lucky enough to be cast as Jo, and as she's a big character, she was almost in every scene, so I didn't get too much time off. But there were a few weekends when we hiked up the Wicklow mountains, and I went into Dublin for a few nice dinners - my evenings in The Winding Stair and 777 are the ones that stand out."

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Speaking as she prepares for a special screening of Little Women in London, there's an endearing awkwardness to Maya that I didn't expect, coupled with strong passion for the book, which she describes as "hugely influential" (it was the first book that Maya, who has dyslexia, completed by herself).

Written in 1868, the book tells the story of the relationship of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, as they grow up under the backdrop of the hardship of the American Civil War. Its major themes, relating to morality and family, are rich with interpretation and interdependencies, which explains why it's become a schoolroom staple.

"I felt inspired by Jo since I first read the book in eighth grade, when I was 13," says Maya. "The characters and the story were important in my life well before I decided to do the show.

"The wonderful thing about playing Jo is how three-dimensional she is. There are so many 2D female characters around, women aren't often given opportunities to play characters that have so many experiences. She's allowed to be mean and jealous and angry and brave and kind and generous."

Had she seen other characterisations of Jo?

"Yes, I tried to take in as much information as possible when I was researching the role, through reading the book and watching all the different versions: Katharine Hepburn, June Allyson, Winona Ryder," she says. "Then I let it go to find who Jo was in my body and imagination."

Described in the book as "tall and brown, with big hands and feet and a flyaway look to her", Maya's youth, strong will and creative flair serve her well as the main character, who leads the sisters Amy (played by Kathryn Newton of Big Little Lies), Beth (Annes Elwy of Philip K Dick's Electric Dreams) Meg (Willa Fitzgerald) as they transition into adults.

Arguably, their journeys as individuals and the relatable nature of their kinship gives the book its enduring appeal.

"There's a tremendous amount of human experience in the book that is timeless and easy to connect to whether you're a boy or a girl," says Maya. "They suffer through grief, loss, blooming sexuality and first love. And the characters strive to be their best self: they acknowledge their faults, whether it's anger or stubbornness or vanity or shyness, and work hard to overcome them.

"I also think the book was political. The Alcotts were abolitionists, feminists, transcendentalist and environmentalists, existing in a time when our country was torn in half. So getting a sense of what they were thinking with their spiritual beliefs is very relevant to today."

Would she describe herself as a feminist? "Absolutely," she responds without missing a beat. "It can't be articulated enough, that feminism means the desire to have equality between men and women. I believe that and I act on those beliefs, by going to marches and making a difference where I can."

Is she optimistic that it can be achieved?

"In these trying times, the only answer is to be optimistic and proactive."

It bodes well for the next generation of actresses like Maya that conversations have opened up about the treatment of women in Hollywood, thanks to prominent actresses like her mother calling out their harassers and abusers. Uma, whose Kill Bill movies and Pulp Fiction were made through Harvey Weinstein's company, has promised to go into specifics when more composed, but nailed her mast to the #metoo campaign.

While Hollywood recalibrates itself, opportunities for three-dimensional roles are already beginning to balance out; the continued popularity of Jo is one example, and Maya cites Saoirse Ronan's role in Lady Bird as another.

"Saoirse was funny, awkward and stupid and so smart," Maya notes. "She was given permission to be a full character and to express herself in a lot of different ways. It was great to see a young woman get to play that kind of character."

But Maya has her sights beyond the family trade. Having dropped out of the revered Juilliard School of acting in New York to work on Little Women, Maya is now considering all things creative - from writing to acting to directing. Though she first came into the public eye as a model for AllSaints, she explains that it was merely a college job for the cash.

"I've never been interesting in a career in modelling, I was interested in my independence," she says. "When I was in school, modelling was what I needed to reach independence without having to leave. Now that I'm out, I can act and write - those are my primary career interests."

In which case, expect this little woman to go a long way.

Little Women airs on BBC1 on December 26 and 27 at 8pm and December 28 at 8.30pm

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