At the New York premiere last week of "The Lovely Bones," the highly anticipated new film from "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson, something quite unexpected happened to teen Irish actress Saoirse Ronan. Crowds of star struck people waved photos for her to sign.
These people, it turned out, were her New York fans. It tells you something about the young Oscar nominee’s values and modesty that they took her by surprise.
Attending a film premiere in a shimmering designer dress and posing on the red carpet for the paparazzi is certainly glamorous, but Ronan is never going to get carried away by it all. There’s way too much Irish in her to ever put too much faith in all that glitters.
At 15 she’s in the full swing of that awkward age between childhood and maturity, and she’s fine with it. If something excites her she’ll giggle, but then her newfound self-awareness will kick in and she’ll step back.
She’s growing up in public and doing a wonderfully dignified job of it, in other words. And she’s a typical teenage girl in most respects except one -- very few teens already have an Oscar nomination under their belts, with another possibly to follow in 2010.
But how does she feel about seeing her face and name on billboards all over New York City?
“When you say it like that it sounds strange,” Ronan tells the Irish Voice during an interview last week. “I haven’t really had time to take it all in. But I did get tapped for the first time by people who recognized me on the street here. That was a new experience for me. That was a bit weird. But they were very nice.”
For most of the rest of the world, recognizing Saoirse Ronan means learning how to pronounce her Irish name properly. “I’ve been called ‘Sar-say,’ ‘Soo-see,’ ‘Say-ice’ and everything else,” she says.
“I can totally understand why people who aren’t Irish can’t say it but it can be a bit annoying. More people know how to say it now I think.” (For the record, her name is pronounced seer-shuh).
Her biggest fans already know that her name is the Irish word for “freedom.” And freedom is what she now has to pick and choose whom she works with (an amazing feat for a teenage actor).
Being cast by Peter Jackson in the starring role of his latest film (his last two films "King Kong" and "Lord of The Rings "made multi-millions) will certainly bring Ronan greater name recognition in Hollywood. Judging by the hotshot producers and stars that turned up at the premiere of "The Lovely Bones" and after party in New York, she’s already becoming Hollywood royalty herself.
But it’s the work, and not all the opening night fuss, that really excites Ronan. This is a young Irish girl who talks excitedly about a well-written script with the passion that most other actors reserve for talking about themselves.
During the interview she talks about Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, screenwriters for "The Lovely Bones," with a reverence approaching awe. It’s because she wisely realizes how often a great performance is dependent upon a great script.
“The challenge for me as an actress in "The Lovely Bones" was not to get ahead of the script or the scenes I’m in,” says Ronan.
“My character, Susie Salmon, has to slowly accept the reality that she’s died, that she’s been murdered, and that she’s passed on to a new place between life and death. She has to slowly come to terms with that and it was important to take my time.”
Although a murder and its aftermath are part of "The Lovely Bones" story line, the film is much more than just a simple horror who-done-it.
“Susie’s murder happens very early on in the film and there’s very little violence,” says Ronan. “For me the film’s really all about love and family.
“It’s not a dark and depressing film at all. It’s about coming to terms with death, and it helped me to come to terms with my own thoughts about death. I don’t want people to think the subject is so dark they can’t see it.”
Jackson was wise to cast her. With her indelible performance and soulful Irish beauty, Ronan drives "The Lovely Bones" from start to finish.
The Irish take real pride in their stars, and Ronan is one for the ages. As an actress she already has immense skill, transforming herself from role to role, and in public she carries herself with the friendly but quietly in charge demeanor of a typical Irish girl.
After all the fuss of the film’s opening night at the Paris Theatre and then the celebrity filled after party across the street at the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue with co-stars Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon and others, Ronan is already thinking about Christmas with her family and friends back home in Co. Carlow.
“My dad and I picked out a tree for Christmas months ago because we knew we wouldn’t be home until three days before and there wouldn’t be time,” she says.
“I can’t wait to go home and have a lovely quiet Christmas with my mum and dad. We’ll have dinner and then watch the telly.”
Although she was born in the U.S. – her father, Paul Ronan, was an actor in New York and also had a co-starring role in the Brad Pitt Irish film, "The Devil’s Own" -- Ronan was raised in Ireland, and her Carlow accent is still completely intact. She also keeps in touch with her big gang of friends and all their dramas via the Internet, so she’s up to date with everything that’s going on at home and she cant wait to get back.
She won’t rest for long, though. There’s another world premiere to attend soon.
Based on a true story, "The Way Back" is the name of her next film. Directed by Peter Weir (who directed "Dead Poet’s Society" and Witness) it’s based on the wartime memoir by Slavomir Rawicz. The film is about a group of soldiers who engineered a grueling escape from a Siberian labor camp in 1942.
Ronan will play a Russian on the run who meets up with other fugitives, including Colin Farrell as a tough, tattooed wise guy and Ed Harris an American. It’s a very strong cast, and the material and director seem certain to make it a hit. Ronan will probably be back in New York for the premiere before she has time think about it.
“I’m in the Peter Weir film next and I have a few projects coming up after that, but I don’t want to say anything about them until I am 100% sure, you know?” Ronan says, refusing to tempt fate.
She has a good head on her shoulders for 15, and now all she wants is to let people who haven’t read the book or seen the film yet know that although "The Lovely Bones" explores dark subject matter, it’s ultimately an uplifting film about love and family. For Ronan, it’s also another high water mark on her ascent to stardom.