'I have no celebrity status' - Saoirse Ronan's ability to hide her fame in the US will soon be no more
Saoirse Ronan is looking relaxed when we meet in the penthouse of a Dublin city-centre hotel. She’s half curled up in an outsize armchair and checking something on her phone, but stirs herself to pour me a courteous cup of tea.
Last time we spoke, she made no bones about the fact that she doesn’t always enjoy doing interviews, but today she seems more
than happy to talk. Perhaps that’s because she’s promoting a film she’s very, very proud of. Kevin Macdonald’s ‘How I Live Now’ is a
beautifully constructed dystopian thriller and marks a major departure in Ronan’s career.
Until now, she’s tended to play mainly sympathetic characters, and even young Briony in ‘Atonement’ was only a troublemaker by accident. In ‘How I Live Now’ she stars as Daisy, a chippy and obnoxious American teenager who takes the head off just about
everyone she meets when she comes to England to visit her rural cousins. Daisy’s not happy, and we only gradually find out why, but meanwhile disaster strikes when southern England is hit by a sizeable nuclear bomb. Ronan’s performance is bracingly raw and convincing, which is hardly surprising when you consider her recent work in films such as ‘Hanna’ and ‘The Way Back’.
But what’s different is the edgy sarcasm and teenage attitude she brings to a demanding and difficult role.
So what drew her to this rather grim project that involved a rainy shoot in North Wales?
“Daisy’s character appealed to me,” Ronan says, “because it was something different.
"She’s a pain in the arse at the beginning, a bit of a brat who lashes out at everyone. In the original script there was a lot more stuff about how she was abandoned by her father and more or less disowned.
“So she’s paranoid and has no self confidence and acts like a bitch to defend herself.
"But during the film she changes a lot and has to learn how to care about other people, and I really enjoyed the challenge of that.”
Was Daisy hard to play?
“She was hard to get a handle on at first, and you use your own teenage insecurities to understand hers,” she explains. “I remember
we did this screen test and I had the bleached blonde hair and put on Daisy’s leather jacket, and that’s when I first felt that I really had a firm grip on who she was.”
Saoirse Ronan talks films like a seasoned professional, and it’s hard to believe she won’t turn 20 until next year. Then again, she’s been working regularly as an actor since the age of nine, and broke through in Hollywood at age 12 after receiving an Oscar nomination for her crucial role in Joe Wright’s ‘Atonement’.
And while most child actors crash and burn when they grow up, Ronan seems to have coped with the pressures of it all remarkably well.
Her accent is still determinedly Dublin, and she talks about working with Peter Jackson and Joe Wright the way you and I would talk about going to Tesco. How she has remained so apparently unaffected by he success is a mystery, though the guiding influence of her father, Paul — an actor himself — may have something to do with it. And crucially, she’s all about the work, not the celebrity.
“I don’t really go to parties and the celebrity stuff and all the things you don’t really need to be at,” she says. “I’m not really seen out and about or anything like that, so in that sense I have no celebrity status.”
Is that a conscious choice? “It is, yeah. I just don’t want to do that kind of stuff; I’d prefer to hang out with my own mates and go see a film or something like that, or be working.”
Ronan still insists that she’s not famous.
Is that a tactic?
“I suppose it is in a sense — I’d hate to ever be up myself, so it helps to think that way,” she says. “I know I’m well known in Ireland because I’ve been on the ‘Late Late Show’ and so on, but people here tend to leave you alone, which is great. And in America, they usually don’t know who I am. Sometimes people will ask, ‘Are you that girl from ‘Hanna’?’ or whatever, and I just say no. It’s easier.”
She may not be able to pretend she’s not famous for very much longer. After our interview, she is heading off to meet a reporter from the ‘New York Times’ to do a story and photoshoot set in some famous Dublin haunts.
Her work in ‘How I Live Now’ and two forthcoming movies with Ryan Gosling and Wes Anderson seem sure to raise her profile higher, and there’s even talk of her landing a key role in JJ Abrams’s ‘Star Wars’ revival.
Even in bad films, her performances are almost invariably singled out for praise, and she’s possibly the most talented young film actress of her generation. That talent was evident from the start.
Ronan made her professional debut in 2003 on RTE’s medical drama ‘The Clinic’, and just two years later was cast as Briony Tallis in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel ‘Atonement’.
“‘Atonement’ was the film that made me really fall in love with acting,” she says, “and made me take it very seriously because it was the first really serious thing I’d done.”
Her portrayal of the troubled 1930s teenager was remarkable, and earned her Bafta, Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.
“After that, I was very much of the mind that I would never give it up and would always continue acting, and I still feel that way," Ronan says. “When I’m not working I don’t know what to do with myself, whereas when I’m on a set I’m comfortable there and I feel like I’m at home.”
Since ‘Atonement’, she’s proved herself a versatile and charismatic screen actress.
Peter Jackson’s ‘Lovely Bones’ was generally considered to have been a bit of a dog’s dinner, but virtually every critic who panned it singled out Ronan’s portrayal of doomed teenager Susie Salmon for praise.
She played a teenage con artist in ‘Death Defying Acts’ (2007), a wartime Polish peasant in ‘The Way Back’ (2010) and a soulful vampire in Neil Jordan’s recent film ‘Byzantium’. But as she’s made the transition from child to adult actress, Ronan has been careful to avoid getting typecast or falling between the cracks.
She’s well aware that she’s been pigeonholed at times as “an ethereal type”, and has deliberately fought against it.
“I would hate to get stuck doing one thing over and over; I don’t think you develop as an actor that way,” she says.
That’s why she surprised everyone in 2011 by taking the lead role in the action thriller, ‘Hanna’.
“‘Hanna’ was going to be a straightforward action picture until Joe Wright got involved, and I was happy with that because I’d never done anything like it before and wanted to see if I could pull it off,” says Ronan. “Then when Joe took over, it turned into this mad art-house action thing. It was fun to do.”
She’s just finished filming Wes Anderson’s ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’, a comic drama set in middle Europe in the 1920s and co-starring Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Willem Dafoe.
Working with Anderson, she says, was “really different, because he storyboards everything down to the ninth degree and notices absolutely every detail. It was quite intimidating at first, especially surrounded by Anderson regulars like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. I’ve seen rushes and it looks fantastic. He never makes bad films, anyway.”
That’s due out in 2014, as is ‘How to Catch a Monster’, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut.
Working with Gosling was “the complete opposite, very relaxed and very fluid, we were improvising a lot of the time, and it was a very unusual story”, she says.
For now, Ronan is about to take a rare break from it all for a few months.
“I’m not working now until the end of the year,” she tells me, “so I’m going to have what I call ‘normal time’ for a few months, which is great, just seeing friends and taking it easy. But I find it hard to relax, to be honest — I’m better when I’m working.
“Every time you stop you think, ‘That’s it, will I ever work again?’ You get plenty of offers, but it’s the interesting stuff you’re after.”