“Little Women” was a book that I grew up with reading, and little did I know of how complex a story it really was.
I found this out when I saw the wonderful first episode of the upcoming BBC miniseries based on the book, presented by Playground, Masterpiece and PBS at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood.
After a very English reception with tea, eclairs and cut sandwiches, we saw the screening and then a panel (hosted by Jenelle Riley, an editor at Variety) opened up to disclose not only the intricacies of the original book, but also Angela Lansbury’s first professional acting gig.
Riley began the panel (including Lansbury, actress Maya Hawke, actress Kathryn Newton and screenwriter/executive producer Heidi Thomas) by asking about everyone’s first professional job.
“I wrote a play while in Liverpool – I was auditioning for my leading man, and cast the lead who later became my husband. I live with that every day and it’s been 28 years,” said Thomas with a smile.
Lansbury got a job singing in Montreal, Canada “that was my first professional job in the 1940s, I sang songs of the day. And my first film professional film job was ‘Gaslight’ (where she was Oscar nominated).”
“Being nominated was unexpected, a dreamland, I remember it to this day — and the dress!”
Hawke was on a soap opera at five years old. “Little Women” was her first serious role.
“I’m so proud of it too. And when we were in Ireland, filming the boat scene — that was probably the best day of my life!”
Thomas went on to recollect that “Little Women” was the first book she read cover to cover.
“I read it as a child, then I re-read it every ten years; it was my go-to book when the world felt dangerous. The novel is so complex and layered, I found it was a story about challenges and the characters were flawed. Re-reading it at 54 was one of the greatest literary experiences of my life.”
Hawke had been in love with the book, as “Jo (her character) helped me go through some things as a young woman. I wrote and said I really wanted this part.”
“My favorite thing about Amy is that she doesn’t stop dreaming and in the end she gets what she wants. They don’t like the word no,” Newton explained.
Lansbury related that, as she was brought up in Britain and it was an American book, she had come about the book late in life and “found it to be absolutely captivating.”
“I was very happy to be in it. I was 91 when I was in it so that was a long time to wait. So you see? Hold up girls (she held up a fist jokingly).
Riley asked about the rumor that the miniseries would be Lansbury’s last TV experience, and “what can we do to discourage that?”
Lansbury replied, “Send me a script.” The audience cracked up.
The fact that it was the first time Lansbury had worked with a female director was a surprise, related Riley. Then she asked how it was working with a legend like Lansbury.
Hawke thought Lansbury “so grounded, so real and a respect for others, she doesn’t put herself on a pedestal.”
“I noticed that the cameramen stood up a little straighter when Angela was in the room!” said Newton.
Thomas spoke about the book in regards to humility and courage.
“I felt it was all about humility; the book has enraptured the world for 150 years, and also I’m not American and this is one of the great American novels,” she explained.
When asked what role it was that she was most recognized for, Lansbury felt that it was Jessica Fletcher on “Murder, She Wrote.”
“I’ve played many different things and I’ve loved every minute. I feel I’m one of the most fortunate actors around, I’ve loved it all. I’m so infinitely grateful for the opportunities brought to me by everyone from the walk – director and actor and writer,” related Lansbury.
Riley then asked Lansbury if she was still learning new things about acting?
With impeccable timing, Lansbury said, “No.” The audience cracked up again.
Then she added, “Actually, you never know what you’ll get in a part, so you have to do research and your homework. I can say, I don’t know it all — there’s always something to learn.”