Saoirse Ronan is ready for the second act of her career. Over a decade after first appearing on Irish television, and eight years after her take-notice performance in Atonement garnered Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations, Ronan is already a veteran movie actress. Yet somehow she’s also just 21 years old. With two new films at last year’s Festival, she’s leaving behind precocious child roles and embracing the knotty, less certain terrain of early womanhood. Rather than flip the script to present a familiarly confident, butterfly sexy, fully-formed new Saoirse, she’s instead exploring characters in transition – characters that to some degree shadow her own attentive emergence.
In Nikole Beckwith’s Stockholm, Pennsylvania, she plays Leia, a woman who’s returned to her parents and childhood home two decades after being abducted and raised by a kidnapper. She’s effectively an alien to her parents – she hasn’t been outside of a basement bunker in years, doesn’t know how to engage in public or social settings, and espouses a hippie apocalyptic belief system – but she’s also a smart, fully formed young adult. Hard as her parents try to re-raise her, to train her into being a dependent child again, she’s grown into her own, albeit disoriented, person. And in John Crowley’s Brooklyn, Ronan is Ellis, a young Irish woman who immigrates to America to start a new life in Brooklyn. From starting a new job in a department store to adapting to the new climate, culture, and crushing loneliness, Ellis’s days are trials, but also opportunities for growth, for adventure, and for love. When tragedy brings her back to her homeland, she’s caught between who she’s most comfortable being and who she might become. In both films, Ronan does far more than bank on the power of her famously translucent eyes – she freights the full weight of expressing emotions great and small, of embodying and representing complications of living that are perennially incomprehensible.
We talked to Saoirse Ronan about her enthusiasm for these two films, why she especially related to these two characters at this time in her life, and the type of career she’d like to pursue going forward.
This seems like a real turning point for you as an actress, and that these two unique films, with two very distinct characters for you to play, have begun a new chapter for you.
I did them back-to-back last year, and they’re both important to me, mainly because they’re so centered around women, and so focused on a woman’s story. And one, Stockholm, Pennsylvania, was written and directed by one of the most amazing women I know, Nikole Beckwith.
What was it like working with her, considering it was her first feature?
Nikole gained an awful lot of respect immediately from everyone. What struck me is that she’s so clear and dead-set about what she wants, and she won’t veer away from that. I didn’t feel that I was necessarily tied down to anything, but that she was so clear on what this story was and what she needed, and my role was very clear too. And the fact that it was such a short shoot, and that the story itself was so incredibly intimate between just a handful of characters, really set the atmosphere from the off [that the character was something] we could work on together.
Your character, Leia, is something of an alien to people, and likely to the audience as well. And yet, despite her incredibly strange situation and upbringing, she seems to know herself quite well, and isn’t at all alienated from herself.
She’s very clear on who she is. Her captor has given her so much, and helped her to grow in some senses in a very mature way. She’s very smart and in touch with how she feels about things. He instills a lot of positive elements to her personality. But then at the same time when we see her arrive at her parents house, she’s been told her entire life that the world is a horrible terrible place, and she’s never seen the sunlight, never seen a tree. It’s such a shock for her, because she’s literally been kept in a box for her entire life. So there’s a mixture of her being incredibly sure of who she is, and then at the same time being thrown into this world of uncertainty.
I kind of like the idea that the audience is going to look at this and maybe be frustrated with her a little bit, that she’s not giving everything away to them. There’s not an inner monologue all the time that explains exactly how this captive child is feeling now that she’s out in the big bad world for the first time. It’s something that’s left for them to figure out on their own. That’s kind of the beauty of her character. I remember saying to Nikole, from the off, that there isn’t really an arc with this character. She doesn’t really change that much, and that’s the first time I’ve played someone who for the whole way through has stayed pretty much the same, and it’s the situation around her that has changed.
Did you find it psychologically taxing to play her, considering all of that, and considering it was such a short, intense, 19-day shoot?
I wouldn’t say I found it taxing, but there were times when you want the character to progress a bit, you want her to have some sort of eureka moment, and what I needed to remember, and what Nikole was great at reminding me of, was that she doesn’t change. She’s who she is, and that’s the way she needs to stay. And I think a lot of the time, as humans and as audience members, we want a character to change. And when that doesn’t happen it can become quite frustrating, either for us to watch on a screen or in real life. So it’s an interesting experiment to see how people will react.
And that’s so different from your character in Brooklyn.
Yeah, she goes through a bunch of changes.
I would imagine that for you, at least superficially, she
might be easier to relate to – since, like Ellis, you had a transatlantic
youth, calling both New York and Ireland home, and since you’re a person in her
early 20s for whom life changes are frequent and inevitable.
I’ve never been so affected by a film before. I really haven’t. When I did this film last year, pretty much every single thing that Ellis was going through within the story I was going through right at that moment. It was really fresh for me. I’d never had that before. At the moment I suppose career-wise, it’s a transitional time for me, moving from being a teenager or child to a young woman. And this was so perfect, because it tackles real relationships, grown up relationships. About seven months before [making the film] I had moved out of my family home and relocated to London. And I found it hard. I was homesick and I missed the people at home and I missed my family, missed having dinner at a set time every day, simple things like that. You can have a bunch of people around you and it can still be a very lonely experience until you get used to it. And that’s such a huge focus point for the film – when you’ve moved away from home and established yourself in a new place as a young adult, and you’ve developed relationships with people and have your first job. Then to go home and have people treat you the same way they did before you left. Or still treat you like you’re still living in Carlow – or the opposite, treat you as this kind of exotic bird that you’ve never seen yourself as. It’s a huge turning point for anyone.
And like Ellis, your parents moved to New York to make a go of it – was that heavy on your mind as well?
The relationship I have as an Irish-American with New York is one that’s a huge part of who I am. I was born [in New York], and my mom and dad pretty much made that exact journey except that they took a plane instead of a boat. They went over there in the 1980s, and they found it hard to get jobs. They literally did everything they could to make money. They stuck it out for 12 years, and they had me there. My mom in particular is a strong and independent person, and New York made her who she is. I don’t know if any other city could have done that the way New York did that for her. Because of that I feel that it’s always been a huge part of my identity.
Because of your particular beauty, your performances have often been called “ethereal” or “otherworldly.”
Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.
Yet here you’re playing a fully grounded person, and a person for whom your Irishness isn’t at all exotic but normal.
It’s true, the kind of characters I’ve been known for have been described as ethereal or otherworldly, and as much as I loved doing those roles [it was great] to play somebody who is just normal, somebody who just speaks in a similar way to me. This was the first time that I’ve played a real Irish girl, the type of girl that if I was around in the 1950s I’d have bumped into. The town where we shot in, Enniscorthy, is about 25 minutes away from the town that I grew up in. So there were a lot of kids who were extras in the dance hall scene, or the church scene, that, like, I did basketball practice with, that I had birthdays with. So it was the first time ever that my personal life, and my home life, and my childhood – which I’m still kind of mourning a little bit – crossed over. And something that [screenwriter] Nick Hornby does so beautifully is just taking the simple hurdles that we go through in our everyday life – like overcoming a fear, or making somebody proud, or grief or love or choosing the right place to live – and having that be your story. It was lovely working on something that was just very normal.
Since you grew up 25 miles from Enniscorthy, did you feel extra pressure to get the accent just right?
It’s almost like your accent becomes a character when you’re Irish – it’s very melodic and it really influences how you play [things] – but it’s a natural thing for me, I’ve grown up around people who speak like that. Well, I used to go to Enniscorthy all the time when I was a kid – it had the closest cinema to us. Well actually, we had a cinema that was about 20 minutes away but it only had one screen, so if a film we didn’t want to see was playing there we’d go to Enniscorthy, so I heard their accent all the time. Though I never had a country accent – I always had a Dublin accent – so that was something I was quite nervous about. I felt a huge responsibility to get the accent right, as well as the little idiosyncrasies that make us Irish.
How would you say you’ve changed and evolved as an actor as you’ve grown older?
You can’t help that once you start to have your own life experiences that they will play into what you’re doing a little bit. Though I try to control that because it needs to be very much about the character. But as you go on, just like when you read a good book or listen to a great song, you’re always going to find something that parallels your own life. And I think it’s helped for certain things to come a bit more naturally to me as I’ve gotten older. When you’re in your early 20s you’re going through a lot of changes in so many different ways, and even my control over my emotions, and how I tap into my emotions, has changed a lot. It makes sense that the best actors, I suppose, are kids – because they don’t know what’s going on, and they have no inhibitions and they have nothing to draw from – and the oldest actors, because they have everything to draw from.
So you’re feeling things out as anyone would, but you’ve also been doing this long enough that I’d imagine you have some sense of where you’d like to be going in your career.
Yeah, I guess so. I never wanted to churn out work. I never wanted to just go from one thing to the next thing just for the sake of working. So I still very much have the attitude that it has to be the right thing, otherwise there’s no point in doing it. Because if you’re in the situation where you don’t fully 100% believe in something that you’re supposed to be emotionally invested in, it’s the worst position to be in. You want to love going to work every morning. And for women in particular, there can be a pressure to go one way or another. Like, if you want to be [more] edgy, maybe play a drug addict or take your clothes off – there’s a certain thing you can do to get there. But I wouldn’t want anything to be too extreme. I’m trying to balance doing the work I want to do and still be able to change in the process.
Have you worked with any actors, or are there actors you’ve observed, who’ve been guides for how you’d like things to go for yourself?
She’s older, but I really love Cate Blanchett so much. And I’ve been looking at some of Meryl Streep’s earlier performances, learning about her when she was younger. To look at somebody like that who’s been so brave from the very start, it’s very admirable. There are brilliant people like Jennifer Lawrence, actors a bit older than me, who’ve made really interesting and brave choices. But in general I suppose I look at the older women that are around, people like Cate and Meryl.
Even from the beginning, those two never played “youth” – they were playing characters.
Absolutely. There’s a lot of young female characters where their goal is to get the guy, or to be the most popular girl or to become prettier. Whereas when you look at these actors, they’re very much looking at [their character] as a person. It’s not about being pigeonholed. They’re not just one thing.
This interview originally published during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. "Brooklyn" opened in select theaters Friday, November 4, and continues to expand throughout the country. "Stockholm, Pennsylvania" made it's television premiere earlier this year on Lifetime.