Sarah Bolger: 'Now that I'm 18... everyone's asking me about sex'
Sarah Bolger was the cute kid in In America but now she's all grown up and planning an ambitious career assault on Hollywood. She just has to do her Leaving Cert first. Susan Daly reports
Turning 18 is a coming of age for most girls, but for young Irish actress Sarah Bolger it has been more of a rude awakening. Seven years ago, she was the cute older kid from Jim Sheridan's Oscar-nominated movie, In America, acting alongside her younger sister Emma. Now, sex is suddenly on the agenda.
"It's madness," she says, shaking her head. "People think that now that I'm 18 it's all right to, like, ask me about sex and stuff. I was in Berlin [where she won a prestigious European Shooting Star award in February] and this interviewer asked, 'So who would you like to jump into bed with?' We had been talking about Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, so I'm sure he just wanted me to say him."
That interviewer's assumption that the Dublin teen might be, let's say, worldy-wise stemmed from her association with the TV series The Tudors, which stars Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as the randiest King Henry VIII since Sid James in Carry On Henry. Sarah rejoins the cast as Princess (later Queen) Mary for the show's fourth and final season, to be filmed in Ireland this summer after her Leaving Cert exams are finished.
The bed-hopping question was inappropriate on two levels. For one thing, the character of Princess Mary -- daughter of Maria Doyle Kennedy's Catherine of Aragon, history fans -- is pretty conservative. While Rhys-Meyers is frequently required to act with his breeches down, "thankfully, Princess Mary has never been involved in any incestuous relationships, or had her boobs hang out of her costume", says Sarah.
When it comes to stripping off for 'artistic purposes', Sarah is adamant. "I wouldn't do nudity, I don't think," she says, before adding, "for a very long time". She has been forced to think carefully about the subject for some time now. "These scripts were coming up for me even two years ago that had stuff in them that would be just a little dodgy."
The second problem with the question is that the interviewer evidently didn't research Bolger very closely before he asked it. Although she is no wide-eyed ingénue, she doesn't seem a likely candidate for the child-star-goes-off-the-rails hall of infamy. If anything, she's keen to stress her wholesome credentials. She doesn't drink alcohol and she went to a club once, but didn't like it. "I'm scared stiff that I'd be standing there with a glass in my hand and someone would take a picture of me, saying, 'Oh, there she goes'." She didn't go out to celebrate her recent milestone birthday because she was too busy preparing for an appearance on RTE's Seoige show.
I'm starting to feel relatively debauched for accepting a strong coffee, which she brews up on the espresso machine she bought as a birthday present to herself. The sturdy, second-hand Volkswagen runaround sitting outside the front door of the family's large, pleasant house in Rathfarnham was her 18th birthday present from her parents. "I probably won't get near my money until I'm about 40," she laughs. As a learner, Sarah is forbidden to drive without a licensed driver in tow.
Her parents want her to go to lunch with them when we have finished our interview, but Sarah wants to stay home and study. "They think I'll be straight out the door driving the car on my own as soon as they're gone," she says. If there is the tiniest hint of a pout, it's gone before it has a chance to dance on her lips. Unfailingly polite -- she tends to refer archaically to men as "gentlemen" -- I get the feeling that she's used to behaving herself in front of adults.
As her mum Monica says: "She has lived a life in her years already. She's been doing this for ages, dealing with adults and taking meetings that would daunt anybody since she was small. She takes it all in her stride." She certainly knows how to handle herself. This is how she dealt with her creepy questioner in Berlin: "I said, 'Do you know what? I don't feel comfortable answering this question'." Next!
Sarah is similarly composed about her upcoming Leaving Cert. Although she missed her mock exams because she was away for work, and has had to substitute attending school with on-set tutors from time to time, she is preparing to sit nine subjects in June. She lists them out: English -- her favourite -- Maths, Irish, Biology, Business studies, French, Classics and ... um ... what's the other one? Oh yes, Geography.
"The Leaving Cert is an exam to help you in your future career, as is any acting job I've ever done," she explains. "I want to do well in it but I'm not counting on it. I'm probably going to defer any course for a year. I don't have any plans other than acting anyway."
Monica and dad Derek are insistent that she puts the head down, as any concerned parents would be, but Sarah is justified in saying that she has put in the groundwork for a career in acting. Noted south Dublin drama teacher Ann Kavanagh first spotted Sarah as a four-year-old in her pre-school play and marked her as 'one to watch'.
When she was just seven, she took a role in the TV movie A Love Divided (1999) alongside Orla Brady and Liam Cunningham. Her big break arrived in the shape of director Jim Sheridan and In America, which was released in 2002. She and sister Emma played on-screen sisters whose parents, played by Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine, are grieving the loss of their only son. Sarah went on to win the Phoenix Film Critics Award for best young actress for her sensitive turn as Christy -- but almost didn't get the part because Sheridan had originally envisaged the role for a 14-year-old (Sarah was 10 at the time of filming).
My sister's in the car; I'll get her
As Jim Sheridan once told the story, he had just informed Emma, then six, that she had been cast in the part of younger sister Ariel: "And she said, 'Oh good, my sister's in the car, I'll get her'. I said, 'No, Christy was written for a 14-year-old', but Sarah came in and that was it."
In America launched the sisters on a whirlwind of publicity and awards ceremonies. In one surreal moment, Tom Cruise sang Happy Birthday to Sarah at the aftershow party at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2004. She continued to work steadily on home-produced dramas such as The Clinic, Stardust and Tara Road, but the past two years have seen her consolidate her position as a strong young presence in Hollywood. Stormbreaker in 2006 had her getting thrown off a building by Mickey Rourke -- a "gentleman" apparently -- and The Spiderwick Chronicles last year brought her further to the notice of the highly excitable, and highly desirable, teen market.
Her interests in LA are being represented by respected Irish agent Hilda Queally, who also looks after Kate Winslet. Michael Symons of Hamilton Hodell, Sarah's agent in London, says: "Sarah is incredibly fortunate that she has reached that stage where she doesn't have to do all of those gruelling stages of open auditions. The Berlin award was really wonderful. People sit up and take notice of that as they only choose 10 a year from the whole of Europe. If you look back at who has won it in the past, they have gone on to have some very exciting careers."
In that context, where you are a lauded young actress in demand, being trained in swordplay by the Canadian Olympic fencing coach (for Spiderwick), or being linked on the internet with your dishy young co-stars Freddie Highmore and Alex Pettyfer -- "One said I was pregnant!" -- no doubt, it's difficult to get starstruck. Sarah is very poised, and has clearly sat through many interviews. It's nice to see a touch of teenage dramatics breaking through when asked if she's ever been impressed by anyone.
"Ewan McGregor!" she replies instantly, voice rising an octave. "He was only on-set [of Stormbreaker] for one day and I was there on that one day, thankfully. I was like, 'Oh my God, he's coming over here! He's coming over to me!'"
When she comes home, though, she is Sarah Bolger again -- a schoolgirl at Loreto Beaufort in Rathfarnham who likes to hang out in Dundrum Town Centre with her pals and walk the family dogs.
Her father, Derek, a friendly man who bounces down to the gate to usher me in out of the rain, owns an organic butcher's shop in Rialto. Is it true Sarah can be spotted giving a hand behind the counter? "I say I do sometimes," she smiles, "but really I'll drop him in lunch on a Saturday -- that's about the extent of it. I don't think I'm the butchering type."
Neither, it seems, is sister Emma, who is now 14 and, after a break from acting for a few years, recently signed up with the Irish agent of Oscar-nominated Wexford youngster Saoirse Ronan.
"I feel that if you leave for a while, you'll never get back into it," says Sarah. "But Emma's going to be one of those little bitches who leaves for three years and then lands a big film. She'll be great, though. She's so bubbly, 14 going on 50 and she's very loud -- if you don't see her, you'll hear her."
The sisters have no other siblings. They squabble occasionally, says Monica, but they are very close. "Emma has decided loosely to get back into the acting," says mum, "but she's seen how Sarah has worked and she's not quite sure it's worth the sacrifice. They have their moments, but Emma has a calming effect on Sarah and she trusts her. If Emma says that something doesn't look good on Sarah, then Sarah won't wear it."
The Bolger girls have obviously been given a grounded, supportive upbringing. When Sarah came back from travelling with the Spiderwick premiere to LA, New York, Sydney, London and Paris, it was straight back to school the next day. Monica travels with her eldest daughter on her frequent trips to meet producers and directors in LA.
"My parents are protective of me, but you can't complain when they just want to look after you," says Sarah. In The Tudors last season, the script had her kiss a prince but "the gentleman [the actor] himself was 28", she says, "and my dad was like, 'He's what age?' My father doesn't normally go to the set, nor does my mother, but that day they both showed up!"
Not that she's kept locked up in a tower like a medieval princess. She does have a boyfriend, of whom she says coyly, "He's not Irish", and she has plenty of friends in Rathfarnham.
"I don't think I am famous enough -- or at all," she corrects herself, "for people wanting to be friends with me just because of that". But she does notice that some people make a point of not mentioning her 'other life'. "They will completely ignore the fact that you have acted and I can understand it. But I enjoy doing it -- so feck them all!"
Friends with Saoirse Ronan
This note of defiance gives a glimpse of a somewhat steelier core than you might expect. She may be only on the cusp of adulthood, but Sarah Bolger is a young woman with a plan to break Hollywood.
"I feel like the past couple of years have been Colin, Cillian and Jonathan. The last Irish woman I can think of is Brenda Fricker. Irish women have to get up there and say: 'Move over, gentlemen!'"
That's fighting talk, but it is true that Sarah and Atonement star Saoirse Ronan (15), from Wexford, are alone in the young Irish female contingent landing big-budget parts in the US. The pair became friends after meeting during a joint newspaper interview and at the IFTAs earlier this year, where they were both nominated for awards.
"We have been texting ever since, cos we're both in the same position, you know? Her next character is a Polish girl and she was asking me about it the other day." (Sarah has just finished filming The Iron Cross, a Second World War drama in which she plays Polish girl Kashka, and knocks out a line of what sounds like impeccable Polish for my benefit.
"Saoirse has done fantastically well -- I was so rooting for her when she was up for the Oscar. We're going to have to take over!"