Sunday 23 July 2017

so not the girl-next-door

Emily Hourican

EMILY HOURICAN

SAOIRSE RONAN TALKS ACCENTS, GROWING UP IN THE PUBLIC EYE AND PLAYING THE OUTSIDER

Saoirse Ronan has made a career out of playing the innocent outsider. Never knowing, never precocious, she is the antidote to typical Hollywood child stars, a kind of signifier for an idealised version of unspoiled youth.

A quick checklist? Briony Tallis in Atonement (an odd, isolated, overly-adult child), Eleanor in Byzantium (a vampire with a private code of ethics), Susie in The Lovely Bones (who exists, quite literally, outside life), or Hanna (a genetically engineered vigilante, raised to extract posthumous vengeance for her mother). These are the kinds of role that her exquisite features and rather other-worldly air automatically fit her for.

In person, this ethereal quality is far less marked. In fact, she almost passes as an average 19-year-old – though she is more self-assured and self-possessed than most average 19-year-olds. She conducts our interview alone, no PR, no retinue of minders. I'm initially surprised to find her so unprotected, but ten minutes in, it is clear that she is well up to the job of looking out for herself.

Curled into a high-backed armchair, wearing black skinny jeans, a silver and black T-shirt, and a neat pair of studded brogues, she is polite, friendly and highly professional. She is thin, but in a natural, fit way, not a calorie-controlled way – anyone who saw her beat Black Eyed Peas singer will.i.am in a race on the Jonathan Ross Show will know this.

In part, the effect of her personality is altered by her voice and accent. She speaks with a strong Irish accent – more Dublin than Carlow – which underlines just how very good she is at disguising it. And it isn't just the accent, her voice changes in subtle but distinct ways; low and precise, with clearly enunciated sounds in person, it moves easily from soft and wondering to hard-bitten, depending on the film.

"Thank you," she responds politely, when I tell her how impressed I am with her vocal range. When I comment that she sounds far more Irish than I expected, she smiles, "I'm obviously very, very Irish. If I sound Irish, that's a good thing."

As Daisy in her latest release, How I Live Now, she speaks with a confrontational New York toughness that goes right through her character. "I think an accent really influences what you do with the character. An accent defines somebody, how they express themselves, how they hold themselves. There's a lot behind an accent that lends itself to the character of somebody," she agrees.

The film is an intense coming-of-age love story, set against the backdrop of a dystopic future in which England is at war with unnamed enemies. Daisy has come from New York to stay with her English country cousins; all hard edges and sharp angles, she falls in love with the eldest of them, Edmond, and dedicates herself to this passion. The film is based on Meg Rosoff's best-selling novel. It makes no apology for the sexual relationship between the cousins, or for the unpalatable fate of some characters. Did she find it an uncomfortable film to make?

"No. I didn't find it uncomfortable," she says thoughtfully. "From my character's perspective, it did become very bleak and hopeless, but the heart of it is very beautiful. The classic romance of these two young lovers, who have become separated by war and by other people. Their connection is so strong from the off, it's quite passionate and heated. I think that's quite beautiful, and that's what drives Daisy forward."

What about the fact that the characters are related? "It's quite an unusual set-up," she concedes, "it's a very intense connection, whether it would be sexual or not. This was a girl who never felt she had anyone to hold her, take care of her. She doesn't feel like she's loved at all. Then this boy comes along and has a very intense connection with her, whether she likes it or not. And she can't help but be attracted to that."

Has she ever experienced that kind of love I wonder?

"I don't like to talk about that in interviews," she says. I've seen her this way before on TV shows – she simply retreats from highly personal questions. So I drop it, even though the internet is pretty certain that she is dating actor Max Irons, her co-star in The Host. When I change the subject, she responds by politely engaging once more. Has she ever wanted to play more mainstream roles, instead of an outsider, something girl-next-door?

"No. A lot of the classic girl-next-door roles are boring. The reason why I've been so drawn to outsiders is there is substance there. I don't set out to just play outsiders, but it's the way it has worked out so far."

Partly the perception of innocence comes from her upbringing. The only child of two devoted parents, Saoirse was born in New York and the family moved to Carlow when she was three. Her father, Paul, is also an actor, and Saoirse accompanied him on set from when she was tiny. Her first role came when she was eight, on RTE's The Clinic. She then auditioned for Luna Lovegood in Harry Potter, a part that went to Evanna Lynch, but that was the catalyst for Atonement.

"As soon as I met Joe [Wright, director of Atonement] I was desperate to do it," she says. "I remember he called me up and told me I'd gotten it. We were in the car on the way home from the weekly shop, I just burst out crying."

Nominated for an Oscar for Atonement and aged just 13, her career has progressed solidly ever since. Shortly after Atonement, she left school. Reports at the time suggested bullying was the reason, but she demurs. "It was just something I had to do. I was away a lot, working a lot, with a tutor most of the time."

Until last year, both her parents accompanied her on set. Despite the closeness of the family, it seems a potentially isolated existence. Does she get lonely?

"Probably because I'm an only child, I do like spending time on my own.I've always had a few very close friends who have always stuck by me."

What about her parents? Is there any ambivalence in their attitude towards her success? A hint of fear to cloud their joy?

"They're always going to be worried about everything I do. They're parents," Saoirse says. "Mam gives me a St Anthony figure that her mam gave her, for when I travel. But I think they trust that I know what I want, that I have a pretty clear idea of where I want to go and what I want to do with work. We have a great relationship, the three of us."

Saoirse's remarkable self-possession extends to the roles she says yes to. Shortly after we meet, rumours abound that she is in the running for Star Wars: Episode VII, but I wonder. She turned down The Hobbit because it would have tied her down for too long, ditto Kitty in Anna Karenina.

"I'm very careful about how I choose roles," she agrees. "Even though I really appreciate the work I've gotten, and how steady its been for so long, I don't want to do something just for the sake of working, but because I really want to do it and I love it and feel passionate about it. It's incredibly difficult to do something for three months of your life, and not really care about it."

As a result, the last while has been quieter than usual for her. Having worked with Kevin Macdonald for How I Live Now, Wes Anderson on The Grand Hotel Budapest, to be released shortly, and Ryan Gosling on his directorial debut, in rapid succession, she has had more downtime recently.

Does she ever get the fear that she'll never work again?

"It's a tricky time," she says. "When you're about 19, 20, you can't do the whole coming-of-age, 15-year-old girl, but also you're not quite at the young woman stage. It's hard to find that balance. But it's fine. A lot of it has been down to not necessarily having the right fit of roles coming my way."

On that note, does she ever worry about growing up so publicly? Transitioning from child to adult on screen? And about the way in which public opinion, so indulgent of children, can harden as they get older.

"I've been fortunate so far, outside of Ireland, the only time someone would come up to me is if they vaguely recognise me from a film I've been in.

"I'm sure people have been cruel to me already, but I genuinely – I know people say this, and you think, 'yeah, that's a load of bull' – but I genuinely don't read anything that's written about me."

To prove the point, she tells me about her flight over from London the day before. "There I was, drinking my water, and I wondered who's on the cover of 'Cara' ... I peeked, and thought, 'oh shit, it's me ... ' I couldn't even look at it. I found it really odd. I was too scared to look at it. I didn't go near it."

It's the only time her self-possession falters. The only indicator I get that somewhere under that poised exterior is a kid still pinching herself. Given her talent and work-ethic, I suspect there will be many more such episodes in the life of Saoirse Ronan.

'How I Live Now' is showing in cinemas

Sunday Independent

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