At just 21, Saoirse Ronan has already worked with Peter Weir, Wes Anderson, Joe Wright, Neil Jordan and Peter Jackson. It’s a who’s who of the world’s top directors, and no other Irish actor has ever reached her level of stardom so early in their careers before.
In fact Ronan already has so much film experience under her belt now that at an awards show in Hollywood last weekend her friend and fellow actor Ryan Gosling jokingly suggested that she be presented with a lifetime achievement award.
He was only half kidding. During his introduction Gosling took a moment to instruct the American audience, which included Johnny Depp and his wife Amber Heard, how to correctly produce the Irish actress’s name.
“They are starting to learn now with me I think,” Ronan tells the Irish Voice.
“I’ve been saying throughout the press tour for Brooklyn that this is the most mispronounced group of filmmakers ever. Colm Toibin, Domhnall Gleeson, John Crowley and me.”
But Ronan has been famous now for nearly half her life and she’s clearly learned some valuable skills along the way, like how to keep your integrity while being a celebrity (cautionary tales like Lindsay Lohan’s must have helped).
This week she’s promoting her turn as Eilis Lacey, the young heroine of Colm Toibin’s book, which has now been turned into an awards ready screenplay by Nick Hornby that finally opens in theaters on Friday. When she saw the script did she think it was the role of a lifetime?
“It is a bit, isn’t it? I’m still pinching myself a bit,” she admits.
To date she says few interviewers have picked up on the strong parallels between the character she plays and the actress herself, who had moved away from home to London and was finding her own feet in the months before filming.
“You know what it’s like when you’re in a new place and you don’t quite have a purpose and you don’t quite know where you fit into this new world yet? It’s not necessarily your life yet but you feel like you’re just kind of existing there. It’s debilitating,” she says.
“It feels like there’s this heaviness that follows you around wherever you go. Sometimes it goes away and sometimes it comes back and you’re never quite sure when it’s completely passed. So I was in that kind of state when we made the film.”
As it happens that was exactly the state the shy Irish emigrant she plays in Brooklyn also experiences. And to add to the spooky parallels, she realized she’d be filming close to where she actually grew up.
“To go back home to Ireland and to not only shoot there but in a town that was so close to where I grew up, a place I don’t live in anymore, was strange. To me Carlow will always represent my childhood and this simpler time,” Ronan says.
“For my work and that world – that I’m not a part of anymore – to collide in such a way was overwhelming. It really was. It meant that what I had been through in the years between 18 and 20 meant that I could identify with everything that Eilis had been going through.”
Ronan says she has never had that kind of overlap before with a character.
“We have talked over the years about how I have been very much attracted to characters who are completely different to me and that’s always been where I’ve been most drawn. So to do something like this where I really couldn’t hide at all was really scary. It really was,” she says.
“When you get into it it’s fine but it did take a minute to learn kind of learn how to breath you know?”
As Ronan was stepping into her own new life she was also stepping into your character. Did she feel like that?
“You know you’re just after saying that and nobody else has put it in that way. It gets you very emotional, and I think that’s what the film did,” she says.
“The film to me is like the equivalent of one person coming up to you and saying the one thing that perfectly articulates how you feel and it knocks you back and you say that’s it!”
Although we see in Brooklyn that Eilis’ ties to home are very strong, the film never sentimentalizes her or them. This is not the Ireland of The Quiet Man. There’s a hard edge to Ireland too and Brooklyn doesn’t gloss over it.
There are women along the way who either help or hinder Eilis. One woman (Brid Brennan) who’s nicknamed by the locals Nettles Kelly clearly wants to drag Eilis back down to earth and put her back in the place she was in before she left home for America.
“To me Nettles Kelly was the girl who didn’t get away. The one who got stuck in her parents shop and then they passed away. Just the same way Eilis would have been if she had never left.
“I think she sees Eilis has had all these experiences away from Enniscorthy and Ireland and they’re bigger than the ones she’s had in the town she was born in and will probably die in. I think she’s scared of that and intimidated by Eilis. That’s the brilliant thing about Colm and Nick’s writing.”
Growing up in Carlow as a working film actress with an Oscar nomination under her belt by the age of 13, Ronan saw both sides of Ireland herself at times.
“We all know people like Nettles Kelly back at home. I bloody love Ireland and I love the Irish people but we’ve all had a Nettles Kelly in our town,” she says.
Occasionally growing up, Ronan felt the judgment as well as the praise that goes along with living in a tight knit community.
“I think when you’re part of a community that’s small it happens,” she says. “I certainly found when I started out that people either went one way or the other. They were either really amazing and didn’t change and were really supportive, or they saw a kid who was working and it was kind of intimidating I think.
“I don’t blame them for that, but it’s unfortunate that any young person is treated in that way just because they’re doing something with their lives. But I think it comes from fear.”
Films like Brooklyn don’t usually get the kind of critical reaction it’s been receiving. It currently has a 100 percent critical rave rating on the review site Rotten Tomatoes, which is unheard of.
“John (Crowley, the director) wasn’t trying to be cool when he was making it. It wasn’t going to be controversial or edgy and the fact that it’s simply about a life means that everyone is able to tap into it.”
Ronan has just wrapped filming on The Seagull, an adaptation of the Chekhov play. Next up she comes to Broadway in 2016 in an all-star production of Arthur Miller’s Salem witch trial drama The Crucible.
“I’m really excited and really scared about it in equal measure,” she confesses. “I always said around 21 or 22 would be the right age for me to do a play because I didn’t train. But I feel like with theater it’s different. I can understand why you train for something like that.”
Half way through a meeting with the director Ivo van Hove in London he bluntly told her, “You know, I want you to play Abigail Williams.”
“I walked out of the Covent Garden Hotel and I walked around the city. I have never been so terrified and so exhilarated at the same time. I can’t imagine the feeling I’m going to get doing the play,” says Ronan.
“I know I’ll be scared out of my wits, but the feeling you get from an audience is like nothing else.” It will no doubt help that she’ll be sharing the stage with acting royalty like Ciaran Hinds, Jim Norton and Ben Whishaw.
But what attracted her to the role of Abigail, a notorious monster?
“She’s selfish and spiteful and bitter. To get to play someone like that, I can’t wait. Someone who’s that evil. It’ll be great to play someone who’s awful,” she laughs.
There’s been talk all year about the awards caliber of her performance in Brooklyn, but then Ronan says something that makes you realize that such talk will never go to her head.
“You know, the way people ask you in the grand scheme of things, how do you see your career going or what’s the long term plan? I don’t know if you can have a long-term plan. Things to a certain extent are out of your control,” she says.
“You can go for as many auditions as you want, but until the time is right or until the right project comes along I do believe it will come to you. I’ve been lucky. When I’ve needed to change something’s come along.”
As for "Brooklyn", she’s just grateful for the opportunity.
“It was a tough old job because it was so emotional and it meant so much to us all. Films like this don’t often get this kind of audience. I’m just delighted it has.”