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Little Saoirse is all grown up... into a teenage assassin

No one is going to want to mess with Saoirse Ronan by this time next year. Sixteen-year-old girls from Carlow don't generally come with a murderous reputation. The coming year, however, sees the release of two movies in which Ronan plays a teenage assassin.

She has just started filming Violet and Daisy on the streets of New York. It is directed by Geoffrey Fletcher, who won an Oscar last year for writing the screenplay for Precious.

Post-production work is also finishing on Hanna, a film from director Joe Wright, the man who steered Ronan to an Oscar nomination at the age of 11 for her role in Atonement.

These are no Spy Kids projects. In Hanna, Ronan is expected to hold her own against the likes of Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana. She is playing a child who has been trained as a killer in the wilds of Finland and sent out to exact her father's deadly wishes on the world.

Publicity shots from Hanna show Ronan's usual bright-eyed candour replaced by the 1,000-yard stare of the brainwashed. Her hair is pulled back into a severe bun, her face pinched and closed. She looks like she would shoot you as soon as look at you.

Less is known yet of her role as Daisy in Geoffrey Fletcher's movie but here, too, is a man who likes to challenge actors. Precious was a traumatic journey through a poor, young girl's life of abuse and dysfunction in 1980s Harlem.

If there is anyone who can handle such character-testing roles, it is bound to be Ronan. Even as Briony Tallis in Atonement, she managed to convince that a small girl could ruin lives through the sheer force of spite.

This command seemed to come from nowhere. She had previously only had small parts in RTE's The Clinic and drama mini-series Proof. Her father, experienced character actor Paul Ronan, had sent a tape of her acting to the Atonement casting director after she began drama classes just two years previously as a "lark".

She was an unknown starring in that film at the age of 11 -- and nominated for an Oscar by 13. By 15, she was beaming comfortably at the side of Susan Sarandon and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson on the red carpet for the global premieres of The Lovely Bones.

And while critics were lukewarm about Jackson's film -- a thriller narrated through the voice of a raped and murdered girl was always going to be tough to pull off -- they singled out Ronan's performance for rave review.

Also, it seems that Ronan is such a professional, even at this young age, that putting other, more experienced actors at their ease comes naturally.

Stanley Tucci, who was cast as the perverted murderer of Ronan's character in The Lovely Bones, said: "It turned out she's the one who really in some ways made us all feel comfortable because she's so mature."

Colin Farrell told me how she bowled him over as they acted together in The Way Back, a World War Two film which is due for release shortly. "She's a phenomenal actor. It's just in her," he said. "She's really smart and really lovely with it."

Thinking he was being supportive while she worked on her dialogue on The Way Back, he would tell her: "Saoirse, I'll just be beside the camera here."

He put on a deadpan Carlow accent to finish the anecdote: "She'd say: 'No thanks, Colin, it's alright, I'll look at the matte box (A device fitted to the lens of a camera).' You'd be like, 'OK'. She's so brilliant and able and proficient. It's not hyperbole."

Perhaps it isn't hyperbole either to say that Ireland hasn't had a Jodie Foster -- an actor who successfully negotiates the leap from hyped child to acclaimed adult roles -- but it might have now in Saoirse Ronan.

Hanna, The Way Back and Violet and Daisy indicate that Ronan won't become a young woman to squander her talent on money-spinning but unedifying roles. She isn't the type to hit the dust by climbing on to, and falling off, the celebrity bandwagon in the style of Lindsay Lohan.

Ronan's former headmaster from her home village of Ardattin, Co Carlow, told how she popped down to open an extension to her old primary school.

"She still has the friends she would have made in school here," said Paddy McInerney. "She meets up with them whenever she's home." Ronan uses the usual tools of teen communication -- email, Facebook and, to a lesser extent, the more public Twitter -- to stay in touch with her school pals; and at the start of September she was back to hand out awards to deserving young people at a ceremony in Carlow town with her constant companions, mum Monica and dad Paul, by her side.

This seems to be key to her safe transition from Carlow to California: she always seems aware that it could be a return ticket.

Irish Independent