Born Free: Saoirse Ronan

Twilight to The Host – how the Irish actor has the world at her heels

Feature taken from the April issue of Dazed:

Saoirse Ronan was on a film set before she could walk. In front of a camera by eight and Oscar-nominated at 13, the 18-year-old is already a veteran of the film world. Watch her on the talk-show circuit and you get the feeling she knows the drill. First question? Usually something to do with her name – its pronunciation has been butchered in imaginative ways over the years. “What do you get when people say that?” she was asked on Lopez Tonight, with “SAOIRSE” spelled out in capitals on a screen behind her, to waves of laughter from the audience. (For the record, it’s pronounced “Sir-shah” and is the Irish Gaelic word for “freedom”. Even the 2010 Golden Globes posters misspelled it). Second question? Something to do with accents – after all, she has never used her own, distinctly Irish tones onscreen. A linguistic chameleon, she’s eerily gifted at mimicking inflections from the clipped vowels of the British upper classes to languorous southern drawls, and will oblige if you ask her nicely. But the most popular subject of conversation where Ronan is concerned is the fact she acted Keira Knightley off the screen as the precocious Briony Tallis, whose single wicked lie unleashes disaster in Joe Wright’s 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Her astonishingly assured performance won her that Oscar nomination, landing her on the red carpet at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, wearing a floor- length green dress that, she says, was meant to announce her Irishness, but just kept getting caught on everything. That night Ronan may have lost out to Tilda Swinton, but there doesn’t seem to be any doubt in the minds of the directors she has worked with that one day, when the film gods align, that little gold statuette will be hers.

Today, beside a fireplace in the wood-panelled drawing room of a London hotel, Paul, Ronan’s amiable father, handles the introductions. Her family travel with her when she works, and judging by Dad’s home movies and pockets full of his daughter’s favourite Irish tea, he dotes on his only child. But he’s also affectionately teasing of her, and is certainly not cut from the Culkin mould of hellish Hollywood parenting endured by many child stars. “I can’t get her to stop working!” he complains before Ronan arrives, describing three movies shot back-to-back before the pair hopped a red-eye from LA to London last night. In fact, their close family-unit seems to have ensured a remarkable lack of meltdowns and diva-like tendencies in Ronan, as has making her home a defiant 5,000 miles from Tinseltown, beside a river in the misty-green backwaters of County Carlow, Ireland – a peaceful polar-opposite to Hollywood. (The county’s Wikitravel entry lists antisocial behaviour there as “playing with shopping trolleys”.) The petite star enters, clad in a powdery-blue knitted cardigan, black jeans and DMs, and sinks into an enormous low-slung couch while she chats about Dazed’s shoot. “I’m more comfortable doing something a bit more out there like that,” she says, “so it’s not just me being me. It was great to have amazing clothes to wear, because before that I’d been shooting in Wales for eight weeks up to my knees in cow dung...” As she begins to explain the twists of fate that resulted in her current position as one of the world’s most promising actresses, Ronan points at her father. “He’s heard all this before,” she says, apologetically. “I don’t know how you’ve put up with me for 18 years, Dad. You’re a saint.”

I was at the premiere of the final Twilight film and I thought, ‘Jesus this is mad!’ It’s overwhelming. But you can stay away from it to a certain extent, choosing where you live and whether to go to every event under the sun

It was Paul Ronan’s acting ambitions that fuelled his daughter’s. In the late 80s, her parents upped sticks from County Carlow and crossed the Atlantic to New York, settling in the Bronx, where Saoirse was born in 1994. “There was a recession in Ireland and my parents left like a lot of young people at the time – like they’re starting to do again now,” Ronan says, sipping her tea. “They did everything: my mam was a nanny and Dad did construction, every job under the sun, and then eventually became a barman. These Irish actors from the theatre would come in for a drink after their performance and one asked him to audition for a play. My dad thought he was mad, but he did it and never looked back.” Ronan senior began winning more and more film roles, and when he was needed on-set, baby Saoirse tagged along too.

“Saoirse was in the army barracks when we were doing the Kevin Spacey film Ordinary Decent Criminal,” Paul Ronan chimes in, “and in the Hamptons, on the Devil’s Own set. Every job I was on, Saoirse was on it.”

“I was,” she nods. “So I was kind of comfortable on a set, you know? The camera never scared me.”

“She took over,” Dad smiles. “Brad loved carrying her around. He found out she loved strawberries so he’d always bring her strawberries,” he pauses. “Harrison was taken with her as well.”

“But that’s just because there was a baby on-set!” Saoirse counters, shaking her head.

“...and Colin,” continues Dad. “The first thing he said to me when I hadn’t seen him in years was, ‘I can’t believe that little girl you brought on set is now Saoirse Ronan!’”

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Brad, Harrison and Colin meaning Pitt, Ford and Farrell, of course. The Ronans moved back to County Carlow in the late 90s, and Saoirse made her acting debut on Dublin-set Irish primetime TV series The Clinic in 2003, not counting some enthusiastic efforts in school plays. “I played a tree once, and a bee. And a rock,” she laughs. “But I always went out for the lead roles when I was younger, I wanted all the lines. I used to count them. I’d be like, ‘How many lines have you got? You’ve got 15? Grand, I’ve got 25!’” She claps a hand over her mouth. “I make it sound like I was a horrible child. I wasn’t that bad!” 

Despite inheriting the Ronan acting genes, it wasn’t until a dappled English summer spent running around Stokesay Court, Shropshire, for Atonement that a real passion for her profession kicked in. “It was just such a brilliant experience for a 12-year-old,” she remembers. “The character was so different to me and to play someone like that made me fall in love with acting.” Ronan almost didn’t get the part, according to the film’s director, Joe Wright. Being Irish, blond and cheerful didn’t exactly gel with the image of Briony Tallis conjured by McEwan, all deep waters and seething resentments. Wright took a leap and cast her anyway; $125m at the box office and seven Oscar nominations later, he has no regrets, and they have formed an unlikely friendship, with Ronan dragging the 40-year- old to Lady Gaga concerts. “We both feel like freaks,” Wright explained to assembled guests at a New York press conference in 2011 for their next film together, Hanna. “That’s what binds us together.”

Her Atonement role gave the actress a taste for misfits and outsiders. Hanna saw her as a teen assassin raised in the wilderness on martial arts and the Grimms’ fairytales, comfortable with gutting deer and rooting around in their entrails in –30 ̊C temperatures. The tiny star, eyebrows bleached snow-white, spent much of the movie killing handfuls of grown men, and shot all the fight scenes herself after training five hours a day for three months. Then there was ghost girl Susie Salmon, clad in rainbow knitwear for Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, watching her grieving family from half- life limbo after being raped and murdered. Despite playing a corpse, her effervescent performance was unanimously hailed as the best reason to buy a ticket. “If I’m really interested in a role, it’s something that I’ll be thinking about and dreaming about,” she says of her choices to date. “It’s nice to play someone who has a strong mind. It gives you something to play with.”

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Ronan’s next role is somehow appropriate for someone who’s been surrounded by adults all her life; she’ll play “an ancient teenager” in vampire thriller Byzantium, directed by The Crying Game’s Neil Jordan. An immortal vampire, she haunts dilapidated British seaside towns, using a nifty retractable thumbnail to slit her victim’s wrists and drink their blood. The part called for Ronan to play the piano; the actress learned a Beethoven sonata in 12 weeks, and then tried her hand at a bit of Shostakovich. Like Wright, Jordan is smitten with Ronan’s superlative talents. “I saw her in Atonement and I actually thought the film never recovered from her absence,” he enthuses. She’s one of those actresses that when they’re gone, there’s a hole there. She’s a bit like Jodie Foster when she was cast in Taxi Driver – by the time Jodie got to the age of 17, 18, she was already a professional. There’s a bit of that in Saoirse. It’s almost eerie, the way she approachesthings. She started acting very young and nothing of the business fazes her.

I always have this worry that I’m not going to be able to act any more, that I’m going to be really bad! With every film I’m thinking, ‘Well, that’s it, I’m not going to be able to do it again...’

That resilience might be tested with Andrew Niccol’s imminent adaptation of Stephanie Meyer’s doorstop-sized The Host, which is likely to attract Twihards looking for another fix. Ronan gets to play both leads in the film, one human, one alien. She has so far avoided the celebrity fishbowl but Meyer projects tend to bring intense accompanying limelight, as well as the inevitable Kristen Stewart comparisons. The shooting coincided with Ronan’s 18th birthday, celebrated (like most of her previous birthdays) on location, this time in the New Mexico desert. “Saoirse is one of the most truthful actors working today, of any age,” Niccol told Dazed. “The fact that she only turned 18 on our movie is remarkable. Some of her scenes brought people to tears. Saoirse truly has the range to take on anything she chooses.”

With her advancing years, the actress is beginning to handle more onscreen love interest – in this case a romance with Max Irons, son of Jeremy. (Offscreen, she wisely chooses not to discuss her private life.) “I was at the premiere of the final Twilight film in Los Angeles and I thought, ‘Jesus, this is mad!’” she says. “I’ve never dealt with anything like that before. It’s overwhelming. But you can stay away from it to a certain extent, choosing where you live and whether to go to every event under the sun.”

With the kaleidoscopic range of roles she’s playing this year though, it’ll be hard to miss her. Across the eight films she has in the pipeline, audiences will see her evolve from precociously gifted teenager to adult leading actress before their eyes. After the aliens and vampires, there’s a role alongside Bill Murray in Wes Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is currently shooting, and a part in Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, the noirish fairytale How to Catch a Monster, before she steps into the shoes of a couple of history’s more daunting female figures. First, the titular character in acclaimed arthouse filmmaker Susanne Bier’s Mary Queen of Scots, then feminist author Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth. Until now, Ronan’s natural instincts haven’t failed her, but this new clutch of roles has inspired an interest in going more deeply into her craft. “Usually I’d just read the script and that would be it,” she muses. “But now I’m getting older I want to work on it more. I always have this worry that I’m not going to be able to act any more, that I’m going to be really bad! With every film I’m thinking, ‘Well, that’s it, I’m not going to be able to do it again...’” But if Neil Jordan’s Jodie Foster comparison sticks – and both actresses certainly share a fearless streak – Ronan seems set for a graceful transition to adulthood and longevity in the business. “Saoirse’s career has been very, very controlled, there’s not been a lot of profanity or sexuality because she’s been so young,” says Jordan. “But in one scene for Byzantium, I said to her, I want you to scream something you’ve never screamed before. Say, ‘You fucking cunt, Mother, I hate you!’ So she screams it, and it was terrifying! So out of character for her, and it was brilliant. Saoirse will probably have to play parts in the future that are more physical, a bit more sexual... I think she can go anywhere, seriously. She will certainly be around for a while.”

The Host and Byzantium are out on March 29 and May 3 respectively

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