Sunday 24 June 2018

'Everyone talks about her accent but her mam and dad are as Dublin as can be' - friends of Saoirse Ronan

Next weekend, Saoirse Ronan will arrive at the Academy Awards as a contender for Best Actress. It marks 10 years since she first walked the red carpet as an Oscar nominee at the tender age of 13. So, how did she avoid the pitfalls of so many child stars, to go from Carlow schoolgirl to Hollywood heavyweight? Jessie Collins talks to friends and industry insiders, and discovers it's down to a combination of hard work, self-belief, a wicked sense of humour - and the support of parents who have no truck with 'notions'

Saoirse Ronan. Photo: PA
Saoirse Ronan. Photo: PA
Saoirse Ronan with her parents, Paul and Monica. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Saoirse Ronan was just 12 in her break out role in Atonement
Saoirse Ronan with co-star Lucas Hedges in Lady Bird

Jessie Collins

The last time I met Saoirse Ronan she was 15, elfin-like and gamine, with her strawberry blonde hair and long lean limbs, her creamy skin and piercing grey eyes almost unchanged - despite being in full-blown teenagehood - since she first entered most people's consciousness as Briony Tallis, the undoubted breakout star of 2007's award-winning war-torn epic, Atonement.

The film went on to win Best Motion Picture Drama at the Golden Globes, and though its main stars at the time, Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, got top billing, it was the outstanding performance of the 12-year-old Irish actress that upstaged all others on screen.

It won Ronan a BAFTA, Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, one of the youngest actresses ever to achieve such heights. By the time we met she had already completed another seven movies, including The Lovely Bones and The Way Back.

Next week, we will find out whether Saoirse, now 23, has joined the Hollywood elite by winning a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird - she already took home a Golden Globe for the performance at last month's ceremony.

Saoirse Ronan with her parents, Paul and Monica. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Saoirse Ronan with her parents, Paul and Monica. Photo: Brian McEvoy

On that day eight years ago, however, she wasn't nearly the biggest Irish star in the room. We were there to create an iconic photoshoot bringing together one of the greatest Hollywood icons Ireland had produced, Maureen O'Hara, with the youngest, and perhaps only other Irish actor since who could genuinely hold a candle to that legacy. O'Hara was 90 at the time, 75 years Ronan's senior.

What was remarkable though, was the self-possession and maturity the young actress was showing already. She was in awe of O'Hara, but she was also incredibly relaxed. A mixture of quiet confidence and deference, there was no obvious insecurity about whether, at 15, she deserved to be there. The obvious implication that she was potentially heir to the O'Hara crown appeared to rest lightly on her shoulders.

Her father Paul Ronan, a stage actor before Ronan's own career took over, was possibly the most starstruck of all, which was as much a testament to his love of film as to the undimmed stellar wattage of O'Hara, something he undoubtedly passed on in large measure to his daughter. Barry McCall, who was the photographer that day, had just come from shooting with the young star, capturing her for his PHO20GRAPHY portrait and fashion photography book in aid of the ISPCC, dressing her in chainmail and closing in on her piercing gaze.

"I saw her as a kind of Joan of Arc character," he recalls. "We just scraped everything back with minimal make-up and let her face be the most important, powerful thing." Ronan had just finished making Hannah, also with Atonement director Joe Wright, delivering another standout performance as a teenage assassin. "It's when you pare everything back," says McCall, "that you realise just how good she is. She can act with her pupils. And I'm sure every director she has worked with can see that as well."

Her ease, and her confidence, was clear to him then too, her ability to collaborate, and understand what works, that of someone way beyond her years. "When you take her picture, she's very easy in herself. Maybe even more importantly she'd know about the image you're trying to create as well." McCall, who has photographed everyone from Colin Farrell to John Hurt - and whose stunning, warrior-like portrait of Saoirse graces our cover today - doesn't bestow the praise lightly. "She'd be like a cross between a Cate Blanchett and a Meryl Streep. I think she's as edgy as Cate Blanchett would be, I think there's a sustainability to her, there's a lastingness with her that she will have a career like a Meryl."

The comparison with Meryl Streep - herself nominated for this year's Best Actress Academy Award - is one that comes up with increasing regularity. Indeed, A-lister Ryan Gosling, who worked with Saoirse on his 2014 directorial debut Lost River, has hailed her as being "Meryl Streep reborn".

Saoirse Ronan was just 12 in her break out role in Atonement
Saoirse Ronan was just 12 in her break out role in Atonement

Caroline Downey - Director of MCD and manager of Ireland's biggest breakout musical star of recent years, Hozier, who worked with Ronan when the young actress supported the ISPCC anti-bullying campaign - agrees. "I think she is incredibly talented as an actress, she has the same connection Meryl Streep has with an audience. As a person she is just so down to earth and has remained very grounded considering she has become so famous."

Her willingness to champion causes has made her something of an inspiration for her generation, too. At last weekend's BAFTA ceremony she spoke passionately in support of the Time's Up campaign while on the red carpet. And she has won widespread praise for choosing to show her acne in Lady Bird, in order to "represent teenagers as they actually are".

"From where I sit she is an amazing role model," says Downey. "She is an inspiration in terms of demonstrating that you can follow your dreams, be kind and gracious to others, and it's important to give back."

They are qualities that to an extent, catapulted her so young, and so early, into mainstream notoriety. Jina Jay, casting director for Star Wars, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Pride & Prejudice among many others, originally cast Ronan in Atonement, and subsequently in Hannah and The Lovely Bones, has said of discovering this rare talent: "Finding the 13-year-old Briony was a huge challenge. Very often one is trying to find a child who, at that point in his/her life, captures the essence of the character. The stunning thing about Saoirse Ronan is that she is not at all like Briony but she understands how to inhabit the soul of Briony. Saoirse had not even read the book and barely had time to read the screenplay in depth when we offered her the role."

It's an ability that casting director Fiona Weir (Harry Potter, J Edgar), who cast her in Brooklyn, sets out as one of her most remarkable aspects. "It's not just this instinctive acting ability, she has also got this acute awareness of authenticity and an incredible ability to detect what is authentic, that feeds into her acting. She is completely truthful, in every piece of work, there is no artifice."

Her one-time tutor, Paul Huggard, originally a neighbour from Carlow, travelled with the young actress from set to set between the ages of 14 and 16, overseeing her academic studies. He recalls that she has always had an amazing assuredness. "She didn't go to acting school yet her sense of belief in herself struck me so strongly, not an arrogance, and it wasn't something she verbalised, but to be around all these people and though she was young, she was able to deal with all the adults. You could feel the talent, she was just able to switch it on."

Saoirse Ronan with co-star Lucas Hedges in Lady Bird
Saoirse Ronan with co-star Lucas Hedges in Lady Bird

Far from being overwhelmed by her extraordinary life at such a young age, it was something, Huggard says, was actually a source of strength. "Her name means freedom, she kind of realised, in a way she was following that by not being in the system. She was very conscious of that."

This was married with a steely determination, says Huggard, that carried her through. "She definitely has that discipline, she's very focused. The Way Back was a very tough film, we were up in Bulgaria where it was very cold, and then in Morocco where it was very warm, and there were people getting stomach upsets and people on set being unwell, but she dealt with it all, she kept going and was always really determined."

Her discipline is something that's gathered something of its own infamy at this point. Her mastering of Beethoven's Piano Sonata Opus 2, No 3 in just 12 weeks for Neil Jordan's 2012 horror fantasy Byzantium - having never even had a music lesson - is just one of the instances where she has shown Day Lewis-ian levels of dedication.

Her original stylist, and long-time friend Grace Moore says it's something she is repeatedly amazed by. "She is such a hard worker. The amount of hours and work she puts in is phenomenal."

There have been long periods of unbroken projects, coming from back-to-back promotional tours for Brooklyn, for instance, before going straight to her first theatre role in The Crucible on Broadway. "She had eight months straight of no rest, no sleep, no break. People just don't see that, and they don't understand it. It's madness, there is no time to be all high and mighty."

"She pushes herself," Moore continues, "when she did Broadway that was a huge push for her. Her dad came from more the theatre end of acting, so she really respects anybody who does too. She is not afraid of hard work. Look at the amount of red carpet stuff she is doing in the UK at the minute. It's constant."

When talking to anyone about Ronan, it is the role that her parents have played in shaping who she is, that recurs again and again. Paul Ronan was a struggling actor also working in a bar in the early 1990s in New York when he and his wife Monica - who also acted as a child - had Saoirse, who was to be their only child, in April, 1994. They moved back to Dublin when Ronan was three, resettling in Carlow where she attended Ardattin National School until Hollywood came calling and they again relocated to Howth in north county Dublin.

Her father is from Crumlin, her mother from Cabra, neither came from a privileged background, and that ethic has seemed to stay closely knitted into their upbringing of Ronan. It's the reason, says Moore, that the Carlow girl speaks with such a thick Dublin accent. "I know people go on about the accent but she has been around her mam and dad her whole life, she was constantly on the road with them, and she hangs around with me [Moore is from Pearse Street in Dublin]. Her mam and dad are as Dublin as can be."

And where some might presume to think, given her father's background, that there was any element of a showbiz family, or an agenda to see personally unfulfilled dreams realised, this seems very wide of the mark. It was the very young Ronan, in fact, who initially pushed to pursue acting, leading her dad, who knew some well-placed people in the industry, to seek advice on the best way to go about it.

One of them was Irish casting director Ros Hubbard, famous for spotting the talents of Colin Farrell and Kate Winslet, among others. Hubbard recalled the meeting when talking to The Examiner back in 2016. "Paul said, 'The little one wants to do a bit of work', so we met her. I think she was born with star quality written on her."

Paul Huggard agrees that it was her parents' support, and willingness to help her follow her passion, that was key in her early success. "You have to give her parents a lot of credit, they went with it. They allowed her that freedom to do all the work, and to support it. And then she was able to take that freedom and run with it."

Their presence was a constant leveller, too. "Her father and mother were always around, and with her, and that was very important. They kept it grounded, they definitely kept it real. She was able to keep her sense of perspective."

Grace Moore backs this up. "They worked their arses off in New York and had nothing when they first had Saoirse. They completely know what it's like to be ordinary, they still are ordinary." So ordinary in fact, that even early on, though working on multi-million-dollar movies, Ronan and her parents were still taking cabs at their own expense everywhere while shooting, before they realised the other talent all had drivers and maybe they could, too.

"Her dad really helped her with all her scripts and making good choices," says Moore, "but she made a point of when she turned 18 of making all her choices herself. Even down to going on sets on her own. She was like, 'No, I need to do this for me.'"

The first time this was broached though, circumstances went against her. "She was due to film 2013's Lost River with Ryan Gosling in Detroit, her parents were like, 'No way, there is no way you are going there on your own!' Monica was like, 'Saoirse, after Detroit you can do it on your own, but not for Detroit!'"

Soon after though, she began to spread her wings, when the then 18-year-old moved to London and began to make fully independent choices. "It wasn't really fleeing the nest," explains Moore, "but ever since then she has expanded hugely, she really knows the decisions she wanted to make for herself."

Her lead role in Brooklyn - and much remarked upon first sex scene - marked a time which saw Ronan coming of age; no longer the young ingénue, this was a part that marked the beginning of her adulthood. Casting director Fiona Weir says her decisions are one of the things that really sets her apart. "The choices that she has elected to do are very interesting, choosing low budget, beautiful parts while other young actors might be chasing the big franchise, she makes such good choices."

Caroline Downey concurs. "I think the career choices she makes are made with the help of her team and family plus her own intuition."

Growing up in the public eye, that transition from a child actor to a movie star is something that even greats like Jodie Foster have not been able to manage with total ease. But her ease in terms of coming of age has been mirrored by an impressive style evolution, too. "At the start she was quite reserved," recalls Grace Moore, whose first styling job with Ronan was the McCall shoot for the ISPCC, after which she continued working with her for her press tours, including The Long Way Back.

Most comfortable in her jeans and Converse trainers, she has gradually evolved as her confidence has grown to inhabit the pieces she wears like a seasoned pro. A-list stylist, and contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Elizabeth Saltzman, who counts Gwyneth Paltrow and Uma Thurman as friends as well as clients, has brought a whole new level of sophistication and power to Ronan's wardrobe - resulting in as many column inches for her style choices as her acting nous. The past couple of years have seen her become the darling of some of the biggest design houses, with Gucci to Versace tailoring gowns specifically for her.

Irish designer Helen Steele, who collaborated with Ronan on her dress for the Brooklyn premier (see overleaf), and whose designs are regularly worn by the young star, says Saltzman's influence is bold, and brilliant, but Ronan is no clothes horse. "I wouldn't just put it down to Elizabeth Saltzman, I would put it down to her. She knows what works for her. She's not going to go out in something frou-frou and silly that she doesn't feel comfortable in."

"Her style is incredible," Steele continues. "I don't think she's ever gone through an awkward stage. Dressing is like an extension of yourself. And I feel with her, the more she's kind of grown up and matured, the more she starts to take risks. It's like war paint, I think it is for her, anyway."

She knows how to hold back too, says Steele. "She's got an amazing, I think, self-restraint and willpower to be able to be really strict with herself, to be thoughtful, not only in her work but that extends to her choices that she makes on the red carpet. And she's not heavily influenced by anyone else. She's very much her own person, which I think is a great testament to herself and her parents."

Though there have been some rumblings at home about not wearing enough Irish design, both Steele and Moore are quick to quash the criticism. "I think that's nonsense," says Steele, "she really does support an awful lot of Irish designers. She wears MoMuse, Electronic Sheep, she wears my stuff. There's lots of designers she does wear. But again, she's careful about what she chooses because she won't wear something that doesn't suit her personality. It's not so much the clothes wearing her, it's her wearing the clothes, and that's what every designer wants. I think she chooses wisely."

Moore agrees. "Saoirse doesn't get into the politics of what she is going to wear. I tend to style her in a lot of Irish designers because I'm based here. You see in her downtime she loves wearing Irish designers, she wears MoMuse jewellery everyday. People are too touchy about it. She is flying the flag for us on the night either way."

Moore agrees, though, that Saltzman's influence has been a big one. "Elizabeth is amazing, she is top of the range stylist, she is totally open to getting things custom-made for her, and Elizabeth would have an incredible relationship with the designers, so the likes of Gucci and stuff are just mad about her, screaming for her. But she wouldn't just wear it because it was Gucci. But everybody wants a piece of her."

Which begs the question, how has she managed to make the transition from child actress to movie star, without so little off screen drama? Fiona Weir says it is down to the focus on the work, and not the circus that surrounds it. "Many young actors of her age, they let the noise of the industry get in the way, Saoirse understands that it's all about the work."

Moore, too, says she is extremely careful about whom she lets in, and as her star rises, her circle gets tighter. "She has a really close network of people - she picks and chooses who she works with and who she is friends with, wisely. She keeps her head down, and does her work. It is a job for her at the end of the day."

According to Moore, she doesn't read anything online, and the family don't buy newspapers. Ronan left social media around the time of the Brooklyn promotional tour, finding the direct line too much to handle. When she is home she asks friends not to post on social media that she's here, "for fear of offending those she doesn't get to see as much as anyone else" says Moore, though she does still maintain a private Instagram account. "Everyone just wants a piece of you," she told Moore at the time of the Brooklyn promo tour. Moore added, "And she is really private, to her it's just a job. She still finds it mad that people want her autograph or want a picture with her."

Saoirse's first real taste of bad press was the recent debacle over her Saturday Night Live send-up of Aer Lingus, though she subsequently defended her performance on The Late Late Show. Miss-fired as the SNL sketch may have been, it pointed to a quality that she doesn't get to demonstrate as often, and the one thing those around her constantly make reference to. "She has a wicked sense of humour," says Caroline Downey. "What you see is what you get with Saoirse," explains Paul Huggard, "her sense of humour is totally natural." Weir agrees, too. "She is also just a fabulous sense of humour, really, really sharp."

It's what keeps her grounded, says Moore, who says she still refuses to use her celebrity status for anything even as run-of-the-mill as getting a table in a restaurant. And though her parents are now in the background, there is little chance at this stage of the attention going to her head. "Her mam and dad wouldn't let her, if for one minute they thought she was getting notions they'd be the first to set her straight. Her mam and her have an unbelievable relationship, they are more like best friends, there is nothing her mam doesn't know."

It's this, says Weir, that will be the reason her star will shine brightly for longer than most, and though still only 23, and with the Meryl Streep comparisons only growing, Ronan's story is not going to be in the shadow of anyone else's legacy.

"What I would say to those Meryl Streep references is that she is Saoirse Ronan, and very much her own person. She is an actor of incredible quality and versatility and she is going to have a great career of length. She does have the gravity and talent of certain older actresses, but she is very much her own person, and always will be her own person."

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