Saoirse Ronan finds her freedom
An Oscar nominee while still at school, Saoirse Ronan played out her teenage years on screen. Now, at 21, she's left home for London, and taken on her biggest role yet. Here, she tells our reporter about her own coming-of-age story
Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30
Saoirse Ronan is something of an anomaly. Not only is it unusual to meet a young person who's more into Chekhov than Snapchat, it's also incredibly rare to meet someone so young and well-known who is completely down-to-earth. Despite massive success from the age of 13, she's as ordinary as any other 21-year-old woman - although with arguably far more life experience, and far less dependence on her smartphone.
It's not a big jump to draw parallels between her and another beautiful young actress who has grown up before us on screen, Emma Watson. The Harry Potter star is the face an international campaign for gender equality, called He for She. Her rousing speech to the UN on the issue last year reignited a global conversation about feminism. Does Saoirse - who last week spoke out in favour of wage equality - identify herself as a feminist?
"I guess I always have been, but never really realised," she says. "For as long as I've been doing interviews, I've referred to myself as an actor and I never thought anything of it. But people would always correct me on it and say: 'You're an actress!' When you understand what feminism is, it's just the desire to be treated completely equally.
"I want us to get to the point where we don't have to talk about this any more, where it's just normal. Where you don't have to point out a director is female, they're just a director. That's when things will have changed, and for the better.
"I love playing women - and what I mean by that is real characters, not just specified as 'the girlfriend' or 'the sister'. And I think we're getting there, with actors like Cate Blanchett and great female-centric films like Trainwreck and Bridesmaids."
The same could be said of Saoirse's latest role - the central character in Brooklyn. Colm Tóibín's much-loved novel has been adapted for the big screen by Nick Hornby and Saoirse plays its heroine, Eilis Lacey, alongside Julie Walters and Domhnall Gleeson. The film premiered at Dublin's Savoy cinema last week, with the likes of Bono in attendance. "Oh I loved making Brooklyn, I really did - but it was like getting through a marathon every day," Saoirse enthuses, when we meet. Casually dressed and practically make-up free, she's warm, welcoming and incredibly enthusiastic about this project, despite suffering from a sore throat.
"As Eilis, I'm in every shot. We had eight weeks to shoot the whole thing, which wasn't really that long considering the amount of dense scenes and, of course, shooting in different countries. It was a big ask of the production and of the actors to get it done in that time, and it was tough - by the time we got to Montreal about halfway through, we were just drained and running on empty. But to get to the end of it was the most satisfying thing I've ever done. It really is like a dream come true."
For anyone unfamiliar with the novel, it's the story of a young Irish woman from a small town who is encouraged by her sister to move to New York and find herself beyond the constraints of the familiar. Clueless and homesick at first, she eventually settles in Brooklyn, only to have a family tragedy call her back to Ireland.
"The one thing the director John Crowley told me that really stuck is that this is a film about choice - about being in the position for Eilis to stand on her own two feet and make a decision," Saoirse says. "The lovely anti-Hollywood thing is that either choice would be good! She would have had a nice life either way. But it's about following your heart."
For Saoirse, making the film was a cathartic experience - having made the move from Ireland to London before filming, she could relate to her character's struggles with emigration, loneliness and growing up.
"This film was really the most vulnerable I've ever been. I was genuinely really nervous all the time, and kind of overwhelmed by that. It was a combination of living away from home and that only having happened in my personal life six months before we started filming. Essentially, my situation - in almost every way - was identical to what Eilis goes through, despite her story being set in the 1950s."
Brooklyn might be a period piece, but its themes are just as relevant in today's society. "We have friends that go away, I've lived away. The subject this film tackles that everyone can tap in to is the grief you feel when you leave your childhood behind… When you leave your home and you know that, having set up a life elsewhere, you can never go back to that. You've changed individually and separately from that world.
"I've been going through it for years, separate in a way from my peers, but it was really when I moved away that I realised home would never be the same thing to me again. It was kind of heartbreaking for a while, but now, it's actually really exciting. I've gone through the fire and come out the other side. So the role of Eilis was a tough job because it was so emotional. I was going through it at that very moment. It wasn't like it was in retrospect. Brooklyn was sort of like rehab for me, or like going to a shrink!"
Baring her soul on screen may well pay off in terms of industry adulation, as Saoirse's role is creating Oscar buzz already. Does the weight of expectation in terms of awards frighten her?
"Not now, no," she says firmly. "I've been on both sides of it, where it's worked out and a film has been nominated, but I've also had Oscar buzz before a film was even made and then it didn't get that kind of attention. I just want Brooklyn to come out now, and have everyone see it!"
She attributes her grounded attitude to her parents - she's the only child of actor dad Paul and mum Monica. "I'm very much like my mam. She got me through the past few months, living away from home. She's the most important person in the entire world to me."
Saoirse was barely a teenager when, in 2007, she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Joe Wright's Atonement. Her portrayal of Briony Tallis in the movie shot the 13-year-old from Ardrattin, Co Carlow to global prominence. She's been working steadily with some of Hollywood's biggest and brightest ever since, all the while managing to stay very much under the radar. Her credits include Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, big-budget adaptation The Lovely Bones and action thriller Hanna.
Brooklyn is Saoirse's first starring role since 2013's thriller How I Live Now, and arguably the first time we're seeing her play a girl transitioning to a woman. "It was the first time I got to wear lovely make-up, even seeing lipstick on my face was new for me! I had the loveliest outfits, too. What I like about the clothes from that period is that they encouraged women to have a womanly shape - boobs, a bum, legs and hips. The shape of the clothes really emphasised that. There are so many girls now who are encouraged to be a stick figure, and it's not natural for a lot of women, so it was great to live in that period for a while, where being shapely was encouraged."
Like any Hollywood star, Saoirse is no stranger to scrutiny of her own appearance and abilities. I ask how she feels about it, and she's thoughtful in her response.
"I always wear what I want to wear, and I never read anything about myself. It's not bulls*** if an actor says they don't look themselves up - I genuinely don't because I would become so paranoid if I did. We're all insecure in our own ways, I don't need opinions from anyone else because they'll just make me feel worse.
"When you're in front of the camera and there are eyes looking at you that don't know you personally, there's always going to be negativity that comes with the positivity. That's just the way it is. It's all part of the job."
Still, we don't often see Saoirse outside of her promotional duties. Her love life isn't tabloid fodder and she doesn't frequent celebrity nightspots.
"It's a conscious thing, absolutely. To me, it doesn't make sense to seek any self-promotion. I don't want to publicise myself personally, just the work I've done. I've never wanted to do superfluous press." Her work speaks for herself, I offer. "I hope so."
However, that's not to suggest she's lacking in the social department. She recalls the night when the marriage referendum passed last May with glee. "It was the best night! It was amazing for all for us. I remember looking around and almost seeing a change in atmosphere and mindset. We suddenly became a modern country, and that was incredible. I couldn't be prouder to be Irish - I've always been very patriotic but this was a unifying moment. I went out that night, to The George and Lillie's Bordello and lots of other places, and Dublin was like a rainbow. It was my first time voting, and it couldn't have been better."
Next for Saoirse is another new experience - treading the boards on Broadway in The Crucible, alongside Bond star Ben Whishaw and Tony award-winner Sophie Okonedo. "I've been attached to the project for over a year, and performances start in February. I think every actor needs to do theatre, because it's a completely different way of acting. The stamina you need to keep it fresh every night is incredible. I'm terrified but I'm really excited, it's something I really need to do."
She also sees herself settling in New York for a while, just like her parents did in the 1990s - Saoirse was born in the Bronx and feels a real affinity with the city. "I feel much closer to home when I'm in New York. It doesn't matter who you are - black, white, Hispanic, Irish, Jewish - everyone is a New Yorker. We're all in it together."
'Brooklyn' is in cinemas from November 6