With a face that seems to come from another era, one so expressive that it could have served her well as a great silent film star, Irish actress Saoirse Ronan creates characters and produces performances that writers describe as “ethereal” and “otherworldly.”
Offscreen, however, Ronan is disarmingly unpretentious and a creature very much of her time. She professes to love basketball, swimming, and surfing. Three of her favorite movies of the last year include the über-popular titles, Trainwreck, Spy, and Inside Out. Best of all, she’s charmingly prone to reflexive self-deprecation: When conversation turns to a quick discussion of her rhapsodic pale, blue eyes, she says with a wry lilt, “Ah, yes, my eyes. My selling point. I’m, actually, a terrible actress, but the blue eyes, for some reason, seem to keep me going!”
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In many ways, it seems, the Emerald Isle actress (whose first name is pronounced SEAR-sha) is a normal, funny, and endearing young woman of 21. Her prodigious work, however, is as far from normal as Ireland is from the Ivory Coast. With its heady mixture of art house and major studio work, her filmography is one most actresses twice her age can only dream about.
Acting is Ronan’s lifeblood, figuratively and literally. Her father, Paul, is an actor. In 2007, after only a couple of years of acting, Ronan astonished the world with her breakout performance in Atonement. She played Briony Tallis, a headstrong, over imaginative, British aristocrat child whose false accusations destroy the lives of her sister and her sister’s boyfriend. Her accomplished performance made Ronan an overnight star — and garnered a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination — at 13.
She swiftly segued into the lead role of Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones, then suffered beatifically as a World War II Polish orphan in Peter Weir’s The Way Home. Mixing things up as a teen assassin in 2011’s thriller, Hanna, the actress acted with one of her acting idols, Cate Blanchett, who assayed the CIA operative who wanted her dead. (“Yes, I killed the Blanchett!,” says Ronan with a laugh. “But we’re fine now, she’s forgiven me for it.”) After headlining the smart, dystopian How I Live Now, in which she played an angsty American teen, somehow simultaneously conjuring Lindsay Lohan and a young Elizabeth Taylor, Ronan put her auburn hair up in braids to play the old-world love interest and take-charge baker’s assistant Agatha,in the Wes Anderson 2014 Oscar-winner, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Now, with her luminous, multilayered performance in the sleeper hit, Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibín’s best-selling novel of the same name, Ronan has aced the often treacherous transition from child actress to adult leading lady. Portraying Eilis (pronounced A-lish) Lacey, an Irish émigré who leaves her family in the countryside of Ireland for the opportunity of America and Brooklyn in 1952, the actress — who appears in almost every frame of the film — is an emotionally transparent marvel as she negotiates waves of deep homesickness, tears, first love, and the difficult but necessary business of growing up. A warm, classically styled, unapologetically sentimental throwback of a film, Brooklyn has audiences happily weeping. Ronan knows why: “The whole sentiment of leaving home is incredibly universal.”
Brooklyn’s director, John Crowley says Ronan’s performance in the film marks “the evolution of a major actress.”
Honoring her performance in Brooklyn, the Palm Springs International Film Festival is bestowing Ronan with its International Star Award, a prize that “recognizes an actor or actress who has achieved both critical and commercial recognition across the globe throughout their body of work.” It’s an award that, until now, has been presented only to veteran heavy hitters — Helen Mirren, Javier Bardem, and Gary Oldman. Ronan, calling from her “mam” and dad’s place in Dublin, says, “It’s amazing for me to be put in the company of those actors. Work is a huge part of my life and is the thing that makes the most sense to me most of the time, so to be honored for it in any way, I think, ‘Well, God, I’m just doing something I really love.’” Then she laughs. “But thanks, I’ll take it!”
Brooklyn’s director, John Crowley, isn’t surprised his star is receiving a career award at the ripe old age of 21. “When I look at Saoirse’s body of work,” he says, “I see the evolution of a major actress. To watch her earliest performances is to watch an actor who looks as though they’ve arrived fully formed with a complete set of skills and talent. At age 13! But, in many ways, she’s entering what must surely be her most exiting period to date. She always had an uncanny technical sense of the camera, but watching her create the role of Eilis, I was struck by the way that that technique was being put at the service of a huge emotional powerhouse within. That balance of flawless technique and huge emotional range is as rare as it is thrilling.
Ronan had never before played a character so close to her own experience as Eilis. “But Brooklyn is my first, real Irish role,” she says, “and so I needed it to be something that was incredibly personal to me. And, since I grew up in a county just 25 minutes away from Enniscorthy [Ireland, where much of the film takes place], well, that was an amazing connection. So was the fact that my mam and dad made the same journey that Eilis did back in the ’80s when they went to New York. And, of course, I was born in New York while they were there, so there’s that connection, too. And then, there was the fact that between the time that I signed to do the film and shooting it, I’d moved away from home for the very first time: I moved to London and was very, very homesick and very much missed, exactly as Eilis says in the film, ‘Being an Irish girl in Ireland.’ ”
“So I was going through the [same things Eilis was going through] at exactly the same time that I was filming Brooklyn. It wasn’t like I was looking back at an experience I’d been through in hindsight, it was something I was dealing with as I was making the film. To do a film that tackles [the issues of leaving home and growing up] in such an emotional way would knock me sideways [during the shoot], sometimes.”
“Acting is one of those things that’s more than just doing one job after another for me.”
Her performance has Oscar pundits predicting her return to the Academy Awards ceremony this year as a Best Actress nominee. But Ronan shuts down that kind of talk, pronto. “We’re not mentioning the ‘O’ word just yet,” she says. Why? “Because I can say now that I’m lucky I’ve been on both sides of that equation. See, you’ll have that [Oscar] discussion around your film and, sometimes, it does go that way [as with Atonement] and, sometimes, you have the discussion and it doesn’t go that way [as with The Lovely Bones]. Now, I genuinely don’t expect to be nominated for anything. Then, if it happens, it’s a great surprise.”
By the time the academy nominations are announced Jan. 14, Ronan — yet again echoing her Brooklyn character’s journey — will have moved to New York to make her theatrical debut on Broadway as Abigail in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. “No pressure there, not at all, for your first ever play!” says Ronan with another laugh at the prospect of tackling a classic for her stage debut and being directed by Ivo van Hove.
She does see a certain kinship, however, in Atonement’s Briony and The Crucible’s dangerously hysterical Abigail, whose twisted love destroys the lives of the farmer, John Proctor, and an entire town with her accusations of witchcraft. “I see the comparison … But I think Abigail is more malicious than Briony was. Briony was this child and the only thing she could turn to was her imagination, whereas, with Abigail … well, Abigail has an infatuation with John that becomes territorial and aggressive. I think it’s going to be so much fun, because Abigail is … the villain! There’s not much to admire about her and that’s great to play!”
It’s also the polar opposite of Brooklyn’s heroine. Which is exactly the way this actress likes to roll. “I never want to repeat myself,” she says. “And I’m desperate to get back to work. Acting is one of those things that’s more than just doing one job after another for me. It’s how I’ve always expressed myself. I’m an only child and I was the type of kid that would just go off into my own world. And I still do: I talk to myself and completely imagine whatever is in my head is actually happening in real life. Which maybe isn’t the healthiest thing a 21-year-old [should] do!” Then she laughs, sighs, and declares, “But it’s natural for me … I’d probably burst if I couldn’t act.”
With a film version of Chekhov’s The Seagull already in the can (yes, of course, she plays the actress, Nina), a Vincent van Gogh movie, Loving Vincent, wrapped, as well, Broadway calling, and a trip to the 27th Palm Springs International Film Festival on her dance card, Saoirse Ronan needn’t worry about an imminent implosion.
Her Brooklyn director agrees. “I really think we’re watching a singular actor develop and I’m sure she will amaze us and move us and surprise us for many years,” says Crowley. “I also hope she gets the opportunity to show off her wicked wit!”
She will. Ms. Saoirse Ronan is clearly just getting started.