Saoirse Ronan - a lesson in pure class
Ticking another directing great off her bucket list, Saoirse Ronan talks to James Mottram about working with Wes
There are moments, just a few, when you remember that Saoirse Ronan is still young. Like the way she joyously reveals her upcoming birthday plans, when we meet in an unusually clement day in Berlin. "I'm having a Bridesmaids themed birthday party," she exclaims, loudly. "You know the film Bridesmaids?" I confess that I have seen the Kristen Wiig comedy and Ronan's big blue eyes flash excitedly. It promises to be a raucous affair, which is exactly as it should be for one who is about to turn 20.
For the most part, though, this Irish actress is no average adolescent. An Oscar-nominee at 14 – in Joe Wright's Atonement – she's already worked with Peter Jackson, Neil Jordan, Peter Weir and now Wes Anderson, in his sparkling new comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wright, who reunited with her for 2011's Hanna, calls her "the most focused and dedicated actor I've ever met in my life". Bill Murray, who features alongside her in Anderson's movie, puts it more poetically. "She's an angel – really an angel."
It's this angelic quality that Anderson mined for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Set in a fictional East European republic in the 1930s, it centres around an opulent five-star residence, run with absolute precision by Ralph Fiennes' flamboyant concierge Monsieur Gustave, who goes on a madcap adventure with his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) after one of their guests dies in mysterious circumstances. Ronan plays Agatha, who falls for Zero and comes along for the ride.
"What I really liked and respected about Agatha is this purity," says Ronan. "She has this purity to her that I think makes her quite a strong girl." Whilst born with a sizeable birthmark on her face, Agatha is no shrinking violet, spending her days in the local bakery, Mendl's, crafting the town's favourite pastry, the 'Courtesan au chocolat'. Ronan isn't quite as skilled, though she's had her moments in the kitchen. "I've made cupcakes and a cheesecake and a pumpkin pie before," she beams. All of which bodes well for that birthday party of hers.
Shot in Görlitz, East Germany, it was Ronan's first film without a parent on set. "I think it's very important to have your parent with you, up until you're about 18," she says. "Because there are so many temptations and there are so many people that will try and veer you in a direction that you may not necessarily want to be veered in. I think my Mam was so great at not only keeping me away from all that but making me aware of all that, and I think that's something only a parent can do, because they have your best interests."
In other ways, The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like a goodbye to her adolescent years. "Agatha is still a girl, but the films I'll be working on now I'll be playing young women, which is what I want to do," she says. She's about to start shooting Brooklyn, with Irish director John Crowley (Intermission). Adapted from Colm Toibin's novel by Nick Hornby, she plays Ellis, an Irish girl in the 1950s who goes to New York for work. "I only realised recently, going through all that stuff myself – it's something that everyone experiences at that stage. You're growing up and you're moving from place to place."
It will be an odd sort of homecoming for Ronan, who was born in New York, in the Bronx, after her parents moved there when things got tight in Ireland. Her mother Monica worked as a nanny, father Paul as a barman and in construction, before he turned to acting. So the story goes, he brought her as a babe-in-arms on the set of The Devil's Own – and she met Brad Pitt. After the family moved back to Ireland, and County Carlow, when she was three, he won small roles in movies like Veronica Guerin and TV show Ballykissangel.
While her father still works – he briefly appeared in Kevin Macdonald's How I Live Now last year with Ronan – his life as a jobbing actor indicates the realities of the profession. "I find it quite scary when you're not working," admits Ronan. "The last few months ... I was really worried. I was like 'I'm never going to work again. I'm not going to do anything. Nobody is going to hire me.' And everyone has that fear when they're not working. Yet at the same time you need to try and find a way to enjoy normal life as well and be able to go out to the shops and pick up a carton of milk."
For all her confidence, Ronan has her vulnerable side. She refuses to Google herself or read reviews anymore. "I just get really paranoid. You can read so many lovely things that people say about you and someone will say something that's even just slightly negative and you're obsessing over that – why does this person not like me and what have I done to make them not like me? It's just a natural human thing. But it's very surreal when people that you don't know are writing about you on the Internet and in the media."
Still, it's hard to see why work will dry up. While she hasn't always chosen well – the drab adaptation of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer's sci-fi The Host springs to mind – her instincts and her focus is sharp. Next up is the dark familial drama How To Catch A Monster, the directorial debut of Drive star Ryan Gosling. So is Gosling as cool as he appears? "He's alright," she says, casually. "He's alright. He can rock a sweater. He has some great clothes. Ryan is very stylish. Very stylish."
Unlike most of the female population, Ronan doesn't have eyes for Gosling (as she's rumoured to be dating George MacKay, her co-star from How I Live Now). But can even see herself following him behind the camera? "I would love to. Not necessarily for anyone to see. But I'd like to make some short films with some people I know. Maybe just screen them for myself! Draw the curtains, me on my own, eating some popcorn – that's how my life is going to pan out. Me and all my cats!"
RONAN'S ROCKIN’ ROLES:
The film that announced Ronan to Hollywood – and won her an Oscar nomination — she was sensational as the finger-pointing teen Briony Tallis in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel. Even co-stars Keira Knightley and James McAvoy struggled to keep up.
THE LOVELY BONES (2009)
A huge moment in her career. Kiwi legend Peter Jackson called upon her to play Susie Salmon in his take on Alice Sebold’s novel about a young girl who is murdered and watches over her loved ones from purgatory.
THE WAY BACK(2010) Concerns were raised over the historical accuracy of Peter Weir’s film about real-life POWs who made a daring escape from a Siberian gulag in 1941. But no-one could deny the authenticity of Ronan’s turn, as a gutsy 14-year-old Polish refugee.
Reuniting with Joe Wright, Ronan took the title role as the ruthless teenage assassin who begins to question the very deadly universe she’s been raised in. “I really liked the idea of doing action,” she says, “having to train for it and do fight scenes.”
Working with Irish director Neil Jordan, Ronan formed a strong on-screen bond with Gemma Arterton in this stylish vampire film (shot in Hastings, of all places). A more serious tale for the Twi-Hards, proof that Ronan too was growing up.
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