Friday 20 April 2018

Handling the hot and cold with a Midas touch

Extreme temperatures and box-office hits are all in a day's work for this young actress, says Evan Fanning

RISING STAR: Saoirse Ronan has worked with directors such as Peter Jackson, is raved about by journalists globally and the likes of Susan Sarandon, and has a host of awards nominations under her belt, yet is only 16 years old
RISING STAR: Saoirse Ronan has worked with directors such as Peter Jackson, is raved about by journalists globally and the likes of Susan Sarandon, and has a host of awards nominations under her belt, yet is only 16 years old

AS is traditional in homes around the land at this time of year, the Ronan household sits down for Christmas dinner together. Paul cooks the dinner, allowing his wife Monica and daughter Saoirse a day of indulgence. The three family members sit down to their meal while their 12-year-old Border collie Sassie hovers around the table, looking for scraps.

It's a familiar scene but with one extraordinary difference. The 16-year-old girl sitting at the table is one of Hollywood's biggest stars. More than that, she is one of the industry's most respected young actors whose body of work, four months before she turns 17, eclipses in quality that of many a more experienced star.

After dinner, the family sits and watches some movies. Gone with Wind, My Fair Lady or Some Like It Hot. "All the Christmas classics," Saoirse explains, curled up on a couch in a London hotel room, her black patent shoes dangling over the edge of the seat.

As we begin to talk, her mother tip-toes across the room with a cup of tea for her only child. Tea features prominently in discussions with Ronan (as anyone who saw her appearance on last week's Late Late Show can testify), although I'm not sure that this Mayfair establishment does a line in her preferred brand of Lyons or Barry's.

It's always difficult to genuinely gauge the success of Irish stars and separate national pride from bona-fide achievement. With Ronan, it is less so. Oscar nominated for her performance as the meddling Briony Tallis in Atonement, she was the best thing about Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, in which she played Susie Salmon, the murdered teenager who narrates the story from a fluorescent, fantasy after-life.

Her co-stars rave about her. Last year, I sat in a room with Susan Sarandon while she eulogised about her experience of working with and getting to know Ronan while working together on The Lovely Bones, while journalists from the UK, Europe and Asia are united in their admiration of her performances (as well as bemusement at the pronunciation of her name).

You also only have to look at the calibre of the director who cast her to see what the industry thinks of her. Jackson had the choice of any young actress in the world to play his central character, but plumped for Ronan after seeing her first on an audition tape her father filmed and sent to New Zealand.

Joe Wright was delighted to work with her again on the upcoming Hanna, released next year. Ronan even jokes that she is the one sending work in the direction of her friends.

"It was funny because on Hanna I had read the script and they didn't have a director for it -- Joe won't mind me telling you this," she interrupts herself to say. "I said, 'Why don't you ring up Joe Wright?' and they did, and he agreed to do it, and now there's this joke that I'm getting gigs for Joe."

Next year, she will also appear in the new film from the acclaimed director of Precious, Geoffrey Fletcher, while the internet is awash with rumours that Jackson will turn to the Carlow girl for a starring role in The Hobbit.

How Ronan has reached this position is now a familiar story, but, if it has managed to pass you by, it goes something like this. Saoirse was born in New York in April 1994, when her dad was working in a bar while trying to forge an acting career.

They moved back to Ireland to live in Co Carlow when Saoirse was three and, though she may not remember it, her father brought her to work with him on sets such as The Devil's Own and The Boxer, where she may have been introduced to Brad Pitt or Daniel Day-Lewis. She might not recall, but these days it's more likely that they are the ones sitting at home saying "I met her once".

She began acting at seven appearing in The Clinic as Rhiannon, and even shared one of her first scenes with her father. She also appeared in four episodes of the RTE series Proof before she was cast in Joe Wright's adaptation of the Ian McEwan bestseller Atonement.

That startling performance earned her Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress (she was beaten by Tilda Swinton twice and Cate Blanchett).

She hasn't looked back since, aided by a series of sensible career choices which have enabled her to work with the directors and actors who will help hone her abilities, rather than taking roles which may have been more lucrative but less rewarding in the long term.

Her latest film, Peter Weir's epic The Way Back, is another big tick in the credit column. Everything she seems to touch turns to gold. Based on a disputed memoir by Slavomir Rawicz, the story is of a motley crew of prisoners in a Siberian gulag in 1942 who manage to escape their immediate surroundings, but face an impossible walk to freedom through the freezing Siberian winter and the equally harsh heat of the Gobi desert.

Ronan plays Irena, a Polish orphan the gang of men stumble upon along their journey, and through her prying eyes their individual back stories are revealed.

It was a case of art imitating life as the cast, which includes Ed Harris and Jim Sturgess, acted out their scenes in extreme conditions in the freezing Bulgarian mountains and the Sahara Desert heat, which hit 50 degrees on occasion.

"Everyone was suffering, especially out in the desert," Ronan recalls. "There's no shelter. You don't really get a break from the heat at all. We would cherish the moment when a gust of wind would come by, even if there was sand carried along with it, because it was a slight change in the climate."

Also joining Ronan on the cast is Colin Farrell, who produces another hugely impressive performance as the violent, unhinged Russian Volka, whose every action is laced with menace. "Our little Irish gang," is Ronan's description of her time with Farrell.

The Irish acting community is tight-knit, so I ask her if she had met Farrell before? She's not so sure. "I think I'd met him once maybe. Dad had worked with him." Again, Farrell could probably verify whether or not they had.

Their time together was enjoyable, though. "It was great to have Colin there," she says. "He's a very good actor and he's doing really quality stuff right now, which I'm glad about because I think he's good enough to take on these roles. It was lovely to work with him. I wish we had more scenes together, but I'm sure we'll work together again."

It may be a cliche, but, sitting chatting to Ronan, it is hard to believe she is 16. There is no PA or publicist hovering in the background in case the interviews strays into territories she doesn't want to talk about, as can be the case with actors twice her age.

She's been schooled in the business from an early age, and her parents have been a constant presence as her career takes her all around the world, mum acting as a chaperone and dad offering guidance and tips on her work, reassuring when, as she says happens before most of her films, she worries about "whether or not I am going to be able to act anymore".

Squashed into this schedule somewhere is school. "Yeah," she almost sighs. "I do home schooling -- when I'm at home I have a tutor who teaches me and then when I'm away he comes with me."

So how does a teenage girl find the time to knuckle down to work when she's playing make-believe on film sets worth millions of dollars? "You just have to find time. I find that one of the most important things is just to read books, read good books, and listen to music and watch good films." She's currently in the equivalent of transition year, "so this is my work experience", she says with a laugh.

I'm curious as to which question she finds the most infuriating: Does she have a boyfriend or how does she pronounce her name?

"Both," she says laughing. "You've nailed it on the head. Not so much with the name thing anymore, and it shouldn't have annoyed me because I completely understand why people can't pronounce my name if they're not Irish. Even some Irish people can't pronounce it. But sometimes people would ask me about a boyfriend or if I will move to Hollywood. Reminder: I'm here to talk about the film."

Aside from these issues, she says the press schedule, often as gruelling as a movie shoot itself, doesn't bother her, but she admits she finds it a bit odd "talking about myself all day". It's less of a problem when people are nice, she says, "like you".

I'm flattered, but it's only afterwards that part of me wonders if this wasn't a savvy comment aimed at moving swiftly along from discussions of boyfriends. On and off camera, it would seem Saoirse Ronan knows how to say all the right things.

The Way Back is now showing

See review below

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