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Saoirse Ronan

The Irish film star who’s on her way to Broadway via Brooklyn

Text by Sophie Elmhirst
Portraits by Alasdair McLellan
Styling by Jonathan Kaye
Issue n° 12, Autumn & Winter 2015

Anyone passing through Dublin Airport this summer was greeted by a huge poster of Saoirse Ronan – fittingly for one of Ireland’s national treasures. That might seem a strange way to describe a 21-year-old. But Saoirse first lit up the screen eight years ago, as Briony Tallis in Atonement, and has continued to illuminate it ever since with parts ranging from a teen assassin in Hanna to an immortal vampire in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium.

Now she’s set to dazzle us in the adult role of Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn, the story of an Irish girl’s anguished immigration to America. As a super-successful actor, Saoirse knows only too well what it’s like to be away from home. But that can’t be as hard as being continually compared to Meryl Streep.

One afternoon in midsummer, the actor Saoirse Ronan walked along a clifftop path above Howth, a small town outside Dublin. The cliffs are a short drive from the small house she bought a few years ago, where her mother, Monica, now lives and where Saoirse retreats between films. It was blustery and fierce up on the top, with a view out to Ireland’s Eye, an island just offshore. In the distance, rain hammered the sea. Saoirse got chatting to some tourists from Chicago – great pizza, she noted of their hometown – and then sat on a damp rock looking out to the water. “It’s so fricking beautiful here.”

Ronan loves her country. Not in a generically patriotic, home-loving way, but with the burn of history at her back. Her name, Saoirse (pronounced “Seersha”), means “freedom”; she admires figures such as James Connolly and Patrick Pearse for their struggle against English rule; she wants to play Mary, Queen of Scots (in a film currently in development, to be directed by Susanne Bier), because she can relate to the politics, to the history of Scotland and its struggle. She’s visibly moved every time she mentions Brooklyn – the adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel that set Sundance alight in March and is due for UK release in November – because it’s a genuine, unclichéd representation of Ireland and was adapted from an Irish book, made by an Irish director and performed by an Irish cast. It shows what her compatriots can do and the stories they can tell. “I’d like to show the great things about modern Ireland,” she said as she walked, sounding like an ambassador for the tourist board. “The forward-thinking people we have here.” Ireland is her home, but it’s also her passion.

After half an hour tramping over the cliffs, Saoirse looked a little frayed by the wind. As a child actor, she was famous for her otherworldliness – those haunting ice-blue eyes, pale blonde hair, a sort of ethereal delicacy to her movements. Today, wading through gorse in Doc Martens, black jeans and a Morrissey T-shirt, she seemed decidedly of this world. If you haven’t seen pictures of her recently, you might not even recognise her – she’s 5 foot 6, her hair’s darker, and though her eyes are still blue, their expression leans more towards wry than innocent. At 21, she’s lost the pure gleam of youth and replaced it with something more interesting: wit, experience, an ability to talk improbably fast in her strong Dublin accent about anything and everything. Gay marriage, Catholicism, the horrors of Beverly Hills, Three Men and a Baby: she storms through subjects as if they might run away from her. She’s the opposite of precious – content in the mud, a prodigious swearer, quick to poke fun at herself.

After the walk, Saoirse couldn’t find her way back to her car, a silver Toyota Yaris named Barbra “after the great Jewish goddess that is Streisand”. Eventually, after an elbows-out battle through the gorse, she worked out its location, but only after a few wrong turns: “I talk so passionately about Ireland, and I don’t know where the fuck I’m going.”

Throughout this series of portraits, Saoirse wears a selection of Shetland wool jumpers and printed cotton poplin shirts from the MIU MIU Autumn/Winter 2015 collection.

Home matters more when you’re away from it, and Saoirse’s been on the road since she was small, making films all over the world. She was born into the profession – her father, Paul Ronan, is an actor (he played Cate Blanchett’s on-screen brother in Veronica Guerin and beside Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own), and she got her first job aged 9 in an Irish television series called The Clinic, in which he made an appearance. Soon she moved on to feature films, playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s slang-conversant daughter in I Could Never Be Your Woman. And then came the life-changer: Atonement, the film of Ian McEwan’s family saga that spans 70 years, which won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in 2008.

Its director, Joe Wright, had spent months trawling smart English schools, looking for someone to play the part of the duplicitous young aristocrat Briony Tallis. Then he received a tape of Saoirse reading the lines and was struck by what appeared to be a crisp little upper-class girl with a spark. He invited her to audition, and “in walked this little Irish kid. And I thought, ‘She’s not right at all…there’s been a terrible mistake.’” Then she started reading the lines. “And out came this faultless accent and this intensity and total commitment to the character and every single line,” said Wright. “It was blatantly clear she was the only one for the job.”

On set, it quickly became obvious that she wasn’t your average child actor, overtrained and wound up like a toy to perform. She was captivating, rendering a rainbow of emotions we tend to assume only adults understand. “I remember Keira [Knightley] and James McAvoy on the first day, looking at her and saying to each other, ‘She’s going to give us a run for our money,’” Wright said. He recalled a rehearsal with Saoirse and Vanessa Redgrave, each playing Briony at one end of her life. Though they never shared a scene in the film, he wanted to establish consistency in their portrayals. The 12-year-old and the 71-year-old stood opposite each other and performed a sort of dance, copying each other’s gestures, finding a common language for their character, equally and totally immersed.

Talking about making Atonement still fills Saoirse with a kind of rapture. When the five-week shoot was over, she found it hard to cope. “Every day just felt like a dream. At the end of it you’re heartbroken. You’re completely heartbroken,” she said. It was, perhaps, like the last day of summer camp – if your summer camp is a big-budget period movie in a stately home packed with some of Britain’s most exceptional actors.

The film also served as training: Saoirse learned habits from Wright that she still abides by, such as not watching her own work. Every week, the team would watch the rushes, but he wouldn’t let her join them, not wanting her to lose the uninhibited freedom of her acting. “I’ve stuck to that ever since,” she said. “I’ve never felt the need to watch anything back.” Wright knew the responsibility he had – here was a child already serious about having a career as an actor but so new to the job that she was still unburdened by self-consciousness. She acted by instinct, and Wright saw it as his job to preserve that instinct, to protect it.

Her performance won her an Academy Award nomination (of the ceremony, she principally remembers being very hungry) and opened the door to the lead in The Lovely Bones, Peter’s Jackson’s 2009 adaption of Alice Sebold’s novel recounting how a family copes after a beloved daughter is raped and murdered by a neighbour. Saoirse spent much of the film wandering around a sort of CGI purgatory of psychedelic landscapes and communicating with her grieving screen family back on earth. While the critics universally dismissed the movie, they singled her out for praise. Kenneth Turan, in the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “An enormously gifted performer, Ronan is the only element of the film that is exactly as it should be, bringing naturalness, honesty and radiance to the part of a young woman just on the cusp of life.” In fact, there had been some debate about whether she should take the part at all – her parents were concerned about their daughter portraying a rape victim. But she was already making her own choices. “Always,” she said.

To understand Saoirse, you have to meet her mother. Partly because her daughter describes Monica as her “soulmate”, but also because when you meet her, you realise why Saoirse – a child star and thus almost inevitably a human catastrophe – turned out OK. They don’t look much alike – Monica is short, wiry and dark – but they finish each other’s sentences and make each other howl with laughter. When Saoirse was born in 1994, Monica and Paul were living in the New York borough of the Bronx. Monica was a nanny, and Paul, an aspiring actor, worked in a bar. At one point, they had “about 20 cents to their name or something stupid like that,” said Saoirse. Later, when her career began to take off, Monica was her chaperone on set. “She was the perfect movie mam, she wasn’t one of those crazy mothers who was living vicariously through me, or so crazy protective that she wouldn’t let anyone do anything. But she protected me and kept me away from all the grown-up stuff that can kind of ruin you a bit when you’re a kid.” Her mother became her human shield, ensuring she was schooled and well fed and didn’t grow up an entitled nightmare. The key? “Teaching them respect when they’re on set,” said Monica, standing in her kitchen. “They’re not queen bee. There are a lot of people running around after you, and when you’re a small child you can easily get used to it. You have to teach them.”

Monica was and is unfazed by the fireworks and absurdity of a Hollywood existence. In this family, normality is prized over extremity. You can see it in their house, which is modest, the walls covered in family photos and an image of a lighthouse. There’s a blue tartan tablecloth, bumper packs of 7Up on the side and a little sign on the wall: “It takes a special friend to make you smile.” Monica had tea made and chocolate biscuits arranged on a plate almost before we’d sat down.

“It doesn’t even feel like it’s enough to say that we’re close,” Saoirse said after Monica had left the room. “We’re just part of each other, y’know?” Then she called out: “Don’t start crying in there if you’re listening!” The way the pair interacts is somewhere between a cabaret double act and an old married couple’s banter. At the moment they’re both learning to drive, and they go for jaunts around the neighbourhood in Barbra Streisand, offering a running commentary on each other’s attempted manoeuvres. (In Ireland, it seems, you can drive around without a full licence and no one really minds.) On a trip into town, Saoirse admitted, “I need to get better at the parking,” then turned to Monica in the passenger seat and said, “And you need to get better at the driving.”

“Producers wouldn’t think of casting someone they only know from films when she was 15. I’m just showing everyone, look, I’m not 12 anymore.”

Other teenagers head to college; Saoirse’s bid for independence was to go off by herself and make films. Her first unaccompanied shoot was for The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which, playing the baker’s daughter, she stood out among a heavyweight cast including Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes. It was followed by the decidedly less jolly Lost River, directed by her friend Ryan Gosling (she met him when he almost played her father in The Lovely Bones, “before he became a superstar,” she said in a recent interview. “He’s the sweetest guy”). Lost River was to be shot in Detroit, “aka the murder capital of the world,” said Saoirse, and the 19-year-old panicked at the thought of telling her mother. But Monica said cheerfully, “I knew I could trust her.” Soon after that, Saoirse left home for real, moving to London to live in a flat in Highgate on the recommendation of a friend. (“Too grown-up for me,” she said of the neighbourhood. “It’s really fancy. And I’m not posh.”) She spent much of her time there on the phone to Monica, weeping, homesick as hell. When Brooklyn came along, the synchrony seemed uncanny. Here was a story about a young Irish girl, Eilis, leaving her home in Ireland and moving to America, tormented by how much she misses her family.

“Even still, I can’t really talk about Brooklyn without welling up,” said Saoirse over lunch in a cafe in Howth (where she animatedly discussed her cousin’s forthcoming trip to Vancouver with a waitress – “When Irish people talk to each other, they’re like, blah blah blah”). The story of Brooklyn was simply too close to her own situation, too acute in its reflection of her reality. John Crowley, the director, known for his theatre work and the 2003 film Intermission, had been a fellow Irish émigré to London. On set, he said, he’d often talked to her about missing home and how to cope. “She said to me, ‘Does it ever get better?’

Brooklyn had started life with a different director and a different lead actor. When they dropped out and Crowley got the gig, he knew immediately who he wanted for the lead: “It was straight to Saoirse for me.” Partly it was because she was Irish – he wanted the film to be as authentic as possible. (It was her first proper Irish part, though she didn’t use her own accent but took on a softer, more southern lilt. Adapting her accent has always been important in establishing a character, she told me: “I don’t ever want to use my own voice.”) Also, said Crowley, the timing was too good to miss: “I felt she was on the cusp of giving a performance where she shows herself moving from a girl to a woman. And that is the story of the film.”

Twenty-one is a tricky age, Saoirse said, because “you’re not yet a woman. I’m a young woman, yeah. But in producers’ eyes, and people who are making movies…they wouldn’t think of casting someone who they only know from films when she was 15.” Finding the right parts in the last couple of years has been difficult, she said – “just showing everyone, look, I’m not 12 any more.” So Brooklyn felt like a gift. Eilis leaves home, falls in love, has sex, gets married. It’s Saoirse’s announcement to the industry: I’ve grown up.

Filming was tough. Saoirse is in almost every scene, carrying the whole picture. Some mornings, she’d go into the hair and make-up truck and weep from the pressure and the resonance. She remembered shooting one scene in which her character is overcome by grief. Suddenly she was hit by the loss of an uncle years before, which hadn’t particularly affected her at the time. “I just sobbed and sobbed.” Her performance, perhaps as a consequence, has an uncanny truth to it, a brutal, raw emotion that launches itself from the screen. “It’s so good you don’t even notice she’s doing it,” said Eileen O’Higgins, who plays Nancy, Eilis’s best friend in the film.

People sometimes mention Meryl Streep when they’re discussing Saoirse’s acting ability. Joe Wright made the link, and Nina Gold, one of the UK’s leading casting agents, did too. “The nature of her talent seems to stand out in the way that Meryl Streep’s talent stands out among all her peers,” Gold said. In some ways, it’s just shorthand for “She’s really, really good.” But it makes another point too. Streep, Wright said, has it written into her movie contracts that she gets three months’ preparation time before filming begins. In other words, the performance looks effortless, but the breezy effect is born of slog. The same is true for Saoirse. She says she does her job on instinct, but according to Crowley, she turned up every day “impeccably prepared” – lines learned, character fully fledged – all the better to be open to the spontaneity of performance.

This is not typical. Both Wright and Crowley spoke of young actors – especially ones who’d had early success and been told a few too many times how special they were – pitching up with patchy lines and characters only half-explored. In such cases, the director has to handhold them into producing a performance that works for the film. Saoirse gives her directors something else. “Everything I’m doing, I’m doing for the director,” she said. “They’re the ones I want to satisfy with what I do. They’re the boss; it’s their vision. It’s their film.” The reward for the director is immeasurable. “With Saoirse, yeah, she can do what you want,” said Wright, “but she can do 20 other things too.”

After every film she makes, Saoirse said, she suffers a kind of comedown, adrift without the routine and community of a set. It was worse in her teens, when she’d return home to County Carlow, a rural part of Ireland where very little happens. It had been an idyllic place to grow up after the Bronx, with a house on an acre of land, a river where she learned to swim, and a dog, Sassy, who she still talks about with the adoration only a dead pet can inspire. ( wo years on from the loss, Monica is finally going to get another: every dog they see in the street, mother and daughter wistfully imagine stealing.) Saoirse went to the local primary school, where there were so few students that they split the school in two – the first four years in one classroom, the next four in the other. There were only two children in her year.

But the romance of rural isolation wore off when Saoirse hit puberty and started making movies. She’d come home and her peers would be at school. “It was hard to have friends,” she said. Now she’s made some effort to build a social life in Ireland. There’s Amy, who she’s known since she was 2, and Christopher, whose father is best friends with her own. It’s a familial group, cosy. Nonetheless, last year, after Brooklyn was finished, Saoirse had a crisis. “I came back here and I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was like, fuck, I’m so not able to handle my emotions. I felt like I was going through puberty again, but much worse.”

So she’s been working out how to manage her life between films, partly by eating well and exercising. She goes to the gym in Dublin three times a week and keeps regular sleeping hours. In the Howth cafe, she ordered a salad and green tea and immediately scoffed at herself in a faultless Valley Girl accent: “Can I just get a leaf? Just a leaf for lunch. Can I get some dry water?” The regimen is in part a reaction to her time in London – her version of the university blowout with a lot of late nights and too much take-away. She’d celebrated her 21st birthday in April not with a huge party but with a trip to California for Coachella and Disneyland. She insisted she’d got a tan, but her skin looked off-white at best. “White white sandy gold,” she conceded. “Shut uuuuup.”

Not long ago, Saoirse’s Irish agent sat her down and asked her what she wanted to do next – what kind of movies she wanted to make, who she wanted to work with. She was stumped. “They’re really quite stressful questions,” she said, still visibly perplexed. Defining yourself, playing the game – “I was like, ‘That’s so fucking industry.’ I don’t want to be that.” She’d always thought the right projects would find her or she’d somehow find them, that she wouldn’t have to go hunting them down or promoting herself. But that’s another part of growing up: realising you’re part of a business where power and money lurk behind every creative endeavour.

Now there are interviews and stylists. “It’s almost like a requirement,” she said. “I was uncomfortable doing photo shoots and things like that at first, but when you start to meet Grace Coddington and all these amazing people in fashion and art, it’s cool.” To her incalculable advantage, she’s incapable of taking herself seriously. One day she’d love to make a comedy (her inspiration in life and art is Kristen Wiig). It’s one of the few genres she hasn’t done, after vampires, period drama, romance, apocalypse and fantasy. And she should give it a try: Saoirse is naturally, exuberantly funny. At one point during tea, her phone rang. She looked down at the screen and saw it was her LA agent. “That’s Hollywood calling,” she said with a flourish, fake-grand. “Talk to you in a bit, Hollywood!”

In spite of the lead roles and the Streep reputation, Saoirse still auditions and screen-tests along with the rest. “Maybe if you’re Jennifer Lawrence...” she said, imagining a life where any part you wanted would be yours. “It’s so perilous for young actors now,” said John Crowley, “because people don’t really believe in developing careers somehow; they just want to shove them into massive superhero movies” – not Saoirse’s natural territory. “People don’t always value the kinds of things she’s pointing towards,” he said. In the long run, she’ll have to look harder for the interesting work, the good writing. But Crowley has every faith. “I think she’ll have a singular career.”

In spring, she’ll play the lead in The Crucible on Broadway opposite Ben Whishaw. “I can’t wait,” said Saoirse, gleeful. And then: “I’m terrified.” It will be her first theatre job apart from school plays. “I played a tree one year. A bumblebee. A rock. Those were some of my earlier roles,” she said. In reality, she’s thrilled at the prospect, and the chance to be in New York. America is part of her, instilled during those early years in the Bronx. “Just like J. Lo,” she laughed.

“I still need time to fuck up and make mistakes,” Saoirse said. She’s lucky: she’s got a job she’s good at. But she’s got her 20s to endure, a decade famous for its agonised self-questioning disguised as a great night out; she’ll have to negotiate where to live, how to live, who to love. She’s not with anyone at the moment, her first serious relationship, with fellow actor George MacKay, having come to an end. She met him while filming How I Live Now, directed by Kevin Macdonald. “He was Saoirse’s first proper boyfriend,” said Macdonald at the time, “and, in a way, I think she was living through the same thing that the character is going through.” As with Brooklyn, life and art synchronised. Now, she’s in a try-them-on-for-size moment. “I think it’s one of the learning curves for me, just different people I’ve had feelings for, and that’s changed with each person. It’s definitely something you can bring into your work.”

Up on the Howth cliffs, Saoirse talked about the upcoming referendum on gay marriage in Ireland. She’d been campaigning for a yes vote for months, tweeting assiduously, lending her face and voice to the cause. “Sound like a hippie all you want,” she said, “but it’s about whether two people love each other, and if they do, they should be allowed to celebrate it.” Her side won, much to her tweeted delight: “I LOVE YOU IRELAND!!!!! IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY!”