Wednesday 23 May 2018

Lovely Saoirse puts her name on everyone's lips

Just 15, the Irish starlet of The Lovely Bones has had an extraordinary career, writes Evan Fanning

Evan Fanning

The talk all morning is of Saoirse Ronan. Quite a feat when the 15-year-old is going to be joined by Susan Sarandon and Peter Jackson to talk about The Lovely Bones, but still everyone wants to know about the girl from Co Carlow.

Or at least they want to know about her name. How do you say it? What does it mean? Japanese journalists coach each other breaking it down into about eight syllables, while the Italians fire it out in one quick burst which makes it either sound like an insult or something romantic, I can't quite figure out which.

While the pronunciation may be troubling them, Ronan's is a name they are unlikely to forget in a hurry. The Lovely Bones, the film adaptation by Lord of the Rings director Jackson of the best-selling Alice Sebold novel, is yet another masterclass in acting from the teenager.

It follows her Oscar nominated performance in Atonement, as well as roles in Death Defying Acts and the lead in City of Ember. She's quickly gained a reputation as a sort of 15-year-old version of Meryl Streep with whom, incidentally, she will contest a Best Actress nomination at the Bafta awards in London tonight.

Ronan breezes into the room with her silky straight blonde hair framing her almost angelic face. She's dressed nearly like any other teenage girl, with a cardigan and jeans, although her Fleetwood Mac T-shirt gives the faintest suggestion that a world has been opened up to her beyond the grasp of the average teen.

There's something very real about her. She certainly isn't like the media-managed Los Angeles born-and-bred child stars with nothing to say and few real achievements to show.

Ronan has made an extraordinary career for herself already. When her family heard that Jackson was looking for someone to play Susie Salmon, her father, the actor Paul Ronan, put together an audition tape because, in Saoirse's words, "sometimes it can be difficult to just fly to LA to meet someone".

The tape worked, and Jackson asked to meet her and her family in London, but the subject matter of the film -- Ronan plays a 14-year-old girl who is murdered by a local paedophile -- created certain anxieties among the family.

"Both me and my parents were nervous and apprehensive and not sure whether it would be a good thing for me as a child to do, let alone as an actress. But we sent the tape anyway because it was Pete and, at the end of the day, you're not going to really turn down Peter Jackson. When we met him we were completely reassured that it would be handled very well and tastefully done, and I knew it was in safe hands."

It is not only with directors that Ronan seems to be in safe hands. Born in New York where her father worked as a barman before moving into acting, the family moved back to Ireland, to Carlow, when she was three.

Her role in The Clinic, where she played Rhiannon Geraghty for four episodes, led to a stint in Thaddeus O'Sullivan's Proof before her big break in Joe Wright's Atonement, where she played the reticent, curious teenager Briony Tallis, whose error of judgement leads to disastrous consequences.

It earned Ronan a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars (she was beaten to the award by Tilda Swinton) and put her on the path to becoming a household name, albeit it one that people can't really pronounce.

It's a journey that she appears happy to take in her stride with a quite remarkable degree of perspective. "I think something like this is always going to change you and the people around you, but that doesn't necessarily have to be in a negative way."

She talks about the Hollywood stars she's met along the way, such as her Lovely Bones co-stars Mark Wahlberg ("a lovely guy"), Rachel Weisz ("so cool and funny") and Sarandon ("I think a lot of girls would want to be like her. If they don't, they're mad") as well as directors such as Peter Weir, whom she worked with in The Way Back, due out later this year. "He's amazing. I could listen to that man all day," she says of the director of Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show.

She's been slightly surprised, she says, that all these people she has met and worked with have been so down to earth. "You hear stories about people who aren't like that and who take advantage of the whole fame thing and think they're more important than they really are. I hate when people do that. I just don't want to be like that."

Sarandon, her co-star in The Lovely Bones, was quite bowled over by Ronan when they first met. "I just thought she was delightful. She was very funny and she's strong. I thought in Atonement she was great but it was a very toned-down version of her. She has matured so much just in the short time that I have known her. She has changed so much, as kids do at that age. It's quite extraordinary to see her now."

The legendary actress also cites her grounded family and the fact that she is an outsider in the LA system as being integral to her success, but warned that this run of extraordinary roles may not last forever.

"She has a great family," Sarandon says. "Her family is a really good support system. I immediately had them over to the house and they're so grounded and down to earth. That she didn't come through the whole Hollywood thing helps her quite a bit, too, to have a healthier perspective.

"This movie is all about her. It's hard to find that on a regular basis for anybody, let alone a young girl, so maybe she'll get a break to grow up a little bit out of the limelight for a while. I think she'll choose wisely. I think she's had so many interesting parts so far that it will be hard for to take a stupid teen movie or something."

Ronan herself has a long-term plan that she is working towards, "kind of, sort of, at the moment, unless things change". This involves going to film school in New York where she wants to learn the mechanics of filmmaking so she can indulge her passion for writing and directing.

"I've done a few short films, but like really crappy ones with my friends and stuff. Just on the camcorder. They haven't been good or anything."

In the meantime, there are more lead roles and incredible experiences. She will shortly be teaming up again with Joe Wright for Hanna, in which her co-stars (and at this stage she is almost on equal billing with them) will include Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana.

There's also her schooling, which she manages to fit in around shooting with a private tutor. "Sometimes it's hard to balance it because they are so different and it can be very difficult when you're on set. Especially with The Lovely Bones, it was really hard because you're in all the time, in every scene and nearly every shot so it's very hard to get time to do school work as well."

Her friends at home, apart from "literally two people", have been totally supportive of her success. "I think sometimes they get freaked out when people recognise me. They actually think that they're being rude."

The fame side of things "has been fine, but sometimes it can be strange". The worst part seems to be that it drags her away from Sassy, her 12-year-old Border Collie. "I love her and I miss her more than anyone." That dog could be in for quite a ride.

The Lovely Bones is now showing.

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