Tuesday 21 November 2017

Saoirse Ronan - A leading lady for a new generation

Saoirse Ronan has always done things her way, evading pap shots, showmances and body-obsessions. No wonder 'Time' has anointed her a 'next generation leader'

Red carpet: Saoirse is fast finding herself in the same galaxy as Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and Meryl Streep.
Red carpet: Saoirse is fast finding herself in the same galaxy as Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and Meryl Streep.

Tanya Sweeney

For Hollywood actresses, a place in the big leagues often comes at a cost. Become too famous and in-demand like Keira Knightley, and directors like John Carney denounce you as a 'supermodel' who hides who she is. Dare to be too pretty (like Alicia Vikander) or too enslaved to Hollywood's bodily ideal (like, well, everyone else), and your ornamental worth all but eclipses your professional endeavours.

Yet a 22-year-old from Carlow has managed to crack Hollywood's most enigmatic code. Save some hearty (albeit unintentional) plugging of a Dublin nail salon on Ellen DeGeneres' show, Saoirse Ronan has given the cosmetics contract gravy train a rather wide berth. No-one knows what her workout regime is like, or indeed her views of body image.

Saoirse Ronan on the cover of Time magazine
Saoirse Ronan on the cover of Time magazine

Almost a decade on from her first Oscar nod (at 13, for 'Atonement'), Saoirse has also cleverly eschewed the other trappings of fame: impulsive tweeting, showmances, pap shots, red-carpet attention grabbing. Like Jodie Foster before her, she is no one's idea of a former child star. Effectively walking off the Oscars red carpet in February straight to the bright lights of Broadway (where she appeared in 'The Crucible'), Saoirse has managed that most impressive of high-wire feats: she is an actor's actor.

Little wonder, then, that 'Time' magazine has anointed her one of 10 'next generation leaders'. Unadorned, alert and directional on the magazine's cover, her words inside are even more hard-hitting: "It's important for me to play intelligent women, because I think in art, you have a responsibility to portray real life," she says.

"It's even more important now that there's such a massive shift towards feminism that men and women see strong, complex women onscreen. I'm not being bigheaded, but I'm not a dummy. So I don't want to play someone who is a dummy onscreen. It's just boring."

If we're talking co-ordinates, Saoirse Ronan is fast finding herself in the same galaxy as Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep and Julie Walters: women who have been lauded for their craft, and respected enough to let their talent be the most compelling thing about them. Suffice to say that it's a boon not handed out lightly to female actors. The best part of all? There has been relatively little effort on Saoirse's part to be taken seriously.

Saoirse Ronan as Hanna
Saoirse Ronan as Hanna

Has it all been by accident or design? Perhaps a little of both. While Saoirse is primed to take a spot in the higher echelons of acting talent, she has lost little of her youthful vim. Spotted having a crafty drink during the Oscars, missing her cue at the Golden Globes… the Saoirse Machine isn't so tightly controlled so as not to let her own playful personality peek through. Irish novelist Belinda McKeon interviewed Saoirse for the 'New York Times' in 2013, and spent a day carousing through Dublin with the young star.

"She was as grounded as it gets," recalls Belinda. She was so chatty - and her parents too... though what struck me about her was how deeply interested she was in things outside herself. Any journalist has a narcissist-radar. She was all about other people and other things, not herself.

"We went to Costume and Jenny Vanders and looked at clothes," she adds. "I remember she fell in love with a dress but it was e600 and she couldn't justify it.

"Later at dinner she and her mother talked about it, but the price was clearly not something they considered realistic. She's the real deal and she succeeds because she works damn hard and has a deep-down, truly-inhabited talent." In several ways, the child significantly explains the woman: born in New York but growing up in Carlow to Dubliners Paul and Monica, the youngster saw the thin end of the acting wedge at close range from an early age. In between acting jobs, Paul worked as a barman: Monica, as a nanny. She remains 'pals' with her parents, as she calls them, and while Paul is still her manager, her parents are no longer her constant chaperones.

"Ma watched Dad lose out on parts or star in shows off-off-Broadway and make buttons. She watched these really talented people never get the shot they deserved. So they prepared me to be realistic," she told 'Time' magazine.

"And that's good, because the moment fame becomes a priority, you should give it up." Saoirse's early career landed her small roles in RTE series like 'The Clinic' and 'Proof', she found herself playing Briony Tallis opposite Keira Knightley in the big-screen adaptation of Ian McEwan's 'Atonement'.

The author himself was moved by the youngster's performance. "She gives us thought processes right on screen, even before she speaks, and conveys so much with her eyes," he enthused.

Her 'Grand Budapest Hotel' co-star Ralph Fiennes, incidentally, is equally effusive: "I think she's completely natural," he says.

"She just seems to have been gifted with something, where she seems to have none of the anxiety the rest of us have. She's very special."

A lofty demand for a pre-teen, yet Monica is credited for keeping the young actress grounded on those Hollywood sets.

"To have someone with you from 10 to 19 when you're on a set, who has perspective and is only there to look out for you, it really means that you have a more realistic way of looking at this entire world," she told 'New York' magazine last year.

And, after impressing in a varied platter of parts, from high-octane action ('Hanna') through to quirky indie ('The Grand Budapest Hotel'), others have lauded Saoirse's ability to delve deep inside roles.

Speaking about 'How I Live Now', she said: "I had done three films that were very ethereal, were quite supernatural ..."I became very worried that I was going to be pigeonholed.

"And even though being an ethereal character is better than the girl next door, to be honest, I wanted to play somebody who was a current teenage girl, who cursed, and was a bit of a bitch, and had bleached blond hair, and worried about sex, and all these things that I hadn't really dealt with as much." She found her role in 'Brooklyn'- whch echoed an experience similar to that of her own émigré parents - similarly demanding.

"I've never worked as hard as that, and I definitely needed a bit of emotional support because it's too close to home," she said.

Some might say that Saoirse's astute picking of roles is intrinsic to her ongoing appeal. Hard work, coupled with this chameleon-like quality and no shortage of intelligence, means that once Saoirse finishes her current run of 'The Crucible' on Broadway, there is little time for repose.

She stars alongside Helen McCrory and Aidan Turner in 'Loving Vincent', a film about the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Also on the slate is 'The Seagull', in which Saoirse plays an ingénue actress opposite Annette Bening's fading star. Indie-queen Greta Gerwig has also hand-picked Saoirse for her directorial debut 'Lady Bird'.

Another of Ian McEwan's novels, 'On Chesil Beach', is in pre-production, and it comes as no surprise to find Saoirse in the role of a nervous, complicated young woman on her wedding night.

A varied and hectic few months, ahead, certainly, but it's safe to assume that Saoirse has an eye on the long game. The smart money says that, like Jodie Foster before her, the Carlow actress could well make the improbable journey from child star to lauded Hollywood director. Recently, Saoirse interviewed Jodie for 'Interview' magazine, and has realised since that they share a commonality beyond their on-camera endeavours.

"I was talking to (Jodie) and we were both saying it was a huge, huge influence to have our mothers with us when we were young and mothers who came from more of an ethical standpoint than a business one," Saoirse is quoted as saying.

Now based in New York for work, Saoirse remains based in Ireland in between projects. And while red carpets, talk shows and vast sound stages become an even bigger part of her life, Carlow remains a huge part of what makes her an actors' actor.

"I'd grown up outside LA, so I wasn't exposed to the competitive side of that world, where you feel like you have to do a thousand and one things in order to keep up with everyone else," she says.

"I didn't have that pressure of feeling like I needed to be exposed more or do a big studio film in order to get more work. It was down to the type of work I wanted to do."

Irish Independent

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