Saoirse, Hollywood’s Leading Lady in Waiting


Poised on the edge of adulthood, the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan still lives at home with her parents, but is coming into her own with an Oscar nomination, films with Wes Anderson and Ryan Gosling, and a budding friendship with Patti Smith.

Through the windows of stained and frosted glass, light from the city streets streams in, dusty and mellow. Conversation swells across the paisley carpet and the worn velveteen booths. Watching over it all, as he has done for the past 40 years, is the wry, white-bearded barman, Tommy Smith, a collector of rare books. On the wood-paneled walls, a ramshackle gallery of local artists; on the stools, a mixture of old-timers and Dublin hipsters (much like the Brooklyn variety, except they get their bikes stolen more often). There’s nowhere in the world quite like Grogans, this much-loved pub. If you’re looking for out-of-work Dublin actors, people say, this is where you’ll more than likely find them.

And here, it seems, is another of their number, strolling in from the street in the middle of the afternoon, her Dublin drawl ringing out proud and lively and her vivid blue eyes lighting up as she scores us a corner booth. In her plaid shirt and skinny jeans, she could easily be one of the local hipsters, but — don’t tell the other actors — that’s actually an Oscar nominee in the corner. And don’t blame me for introducing Saoirse Ronan, Ireland’s first honest-to-goodness Hollywood ingénue, just 19 years old, and with the most flawless skin I’ve ever seen, to Dublin’s most notorious bohemian bar. This was her father’s idea.

But Ronan fits right in. She is indeed between jobs, if only technically: she recently wrapped movies by Wes Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel“) and Ryan Gosling (“How to Catch a Monster”), and she’s about to fly to Toronto for the premiere of Kevin Macdonald’s “How I Live Now,” an adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s postapocalyptic Y.A. novel. Her character, Daisy, a surly New York teenager sent to visit English cousins at the onset of World War III, represents a coming of age for the actress who began her Hollywood career portraying another girl rattling around the English countryside in the shadow of war: the interfering little sister in Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” the performance that earned Ronan her Best Supporting Actress nomination in 2008. On Oscar night, she was the 13-year-old in emerald green Alberta Ferretti who brought her parents as her date. Five years and 13 films later, the Ronans are still quite happily “pals,” as Saoirse puts it. These days, her parents are no longer her constant chaperones, but her father, himself an actor, continues to act as her manager — a job that today involves dropping her off at the pub.

“I said you’d think we were pure dipsos, bringing you to Grogans,” his daughter says as we settle in with our drinks. Hers is a half pint of stout — which seems about right, given that she combines a ballerina’s willowy frame with a Dublin accent that’s as broad as it is brawny: she’s all ragin’ and goin’ and mad abourih’ (“mad about it”), all rolled vowels and lobbed consonants, like a young one from the pages of a Roddy Doyle novel. “Ah, he’s dead right, isn’t he,” she says, when I tell her that Tommy Smith has said there’ll never be a TV in here as long as he’s alive. “That’s the great thing about coming home — you’ve got the old Dub characters.”

Not that Ronan actually is a Dubliner: the accent is an inheritance from her parents. By the time she was born, in 1994, they had left Dublin and were living in Riverdale, in the Bronx; Ronan has dual citizenship. In New York, her mother, Monica, worked as a nanny and her father, Paul, picked up bar shifts between acting jobs.

The four of us are having dinner at the Trocadero as Ronan’s parents reminisce; it’s a long-established theater restaurant, where diners sit in red velvet banquettes and the walls are lined with black-and-white photographs of generations of Irish actors. This restaurant was also the choice of Ronan’s father: once a Dublin actor, always a Dublin actor. His daughter says that she has been feeling the urge to try theater herself. “I think it’s in the blood,” she says. “And even though I’m terrified about doing it, if something goes all right on stage, it must be the most amazing feeling.”

Her “Grand Budapest Hotel” co-star Ralph Fiennes, himself a seasoned stage actor, says he has a feeling that Ronan would be “fantastic” onstage. On the phone from his house in Italy, he says that Ronan has “no affectation,” either on or off camera. “I think she’s completely natural,” he says. “She just seems to have been gifted with something, where she seems to have none of the anxiety the rest of us have. She’s very special.”

The Ronans currently live in a seaside suburb north of the city, where they’ve just bought a home. When they left the Bronx and returned to Ireland in 1997, they settled in rural County Carlow, where Saoirse (whose name, pronounced “sur-sha,” is the Irish word for freedom) could grow up the way country kids do. But not quite the same: at 8, she made her screen debut in an Irish medical drama, in which she played a little girl almost run down by her father. Saoirse’s own father, that is — Paul played the frazzled driver. Which is ironic, because from the start of her career she has been very carefully protected by her parents: until she was 18, they vetted every script and public appearance, accompanied her on every set and oversaw her home schooling. (They continue to look out for her: just today, Monica has been buying Barry’s Tea to pack in Saoirse’s suitcase for Toronto.)

Ronan now chooses her own roles. “I had done three films that were very ethereal, were quite supernatural,” she says. “I became very worried that I was going to be pigeonholed. And even though being an ethereal character is better than the girl next door, to be honest, I wanted to play somebody who was a current teenage girl, who cursed, and was a bit of a bitch, and had bleached blond hair, and worried about sex, and all these things that I hadn’t really dealt with as much.”

You can see this in her, this moment of trying on characters, trying on roles, the act of becoming. Before dinner, Ronan and I stop in at Jenny Vander, Dublin’s legendary vintage store in the heart of the old rag trade district. In the window onto Drury Street, 1950s ball gowns rustle against flapper sheaths, surrounded by rhinestone bracelets and pearl cluster earrings, box frame handbags and velvet cocktail hats. Italian opera plays low on the stereo, and the store manager, Marion Sullivan, waves a greeting from behind the counter. Then, in the next instant, she has recognized the teenager who is already trawling, entranced, through the rails; she declares Ronan a “national treasure,” adding, “we’re so proud of you.” “Oh,” says Ronan, startled, and she smiles as she turns back to the clothes, fixed on treasure of a different kind. She admires, in turn, a brocade coat, an orange silk chiffon gown, a 1980s pyramid clutch, a Bakelite cuff. That white linen petticoat, she says, would be great as a skirt. A red military vest would be perfect for a friend.

As she pulls pieces out, exclaiming over them, I’m put in mind of the scene set in the Bowery thrift stores in Patti Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids,” which Ronan, on the way here, talked about having read and adored. She and Smith have become mutual admirers. Earlier this year, Smith turned up at the New York premiere of “The Host,” having come expressly to see Ronan’s latest performance and in the hope of saying hello. After the film, Smith asked a publicist for an introduction, and the two women chatted. “She took my hands,” Ronan recalls, “and gave me these amazing words of wisdom.” Shortly afterward, Smith sent Ronan a warm e-mail for her 19th birthday. “Out of all the people I’ve met through show business,” Ronan says, “she’s the most incredible, such a generous and kind and intelligent woman.”

Over the phone, Smith describes Ronan as “quite a little light,” and says she has followed her career since “Atonement.” “I’ve just been captivated by watching her. She has a certain inner sincerity that comes out and magnifies her character,” Smith says. “She’s so gifted. I enjoyed meeting her so much. She is very singular. I mean, I don’t think she’s innately fragile. I think she’s very strong.”

Ronan’s eye has fastened on a gem hidden at the back of the store; an extraordinary ivory bolero by the Irish designer Caiomhe Keane. Intricately hand-beaded, it looks delicate on the hanger but is as heavy as armor. “That is amazing,” Ronan says, as she holds it, and in the next breath, she’s slipping it on. “It’s like something from the sea,” she says, moving closer to the mirror. “That’s so cool.” And then she twirls: a teenager in her jeans and Keds, but already a star in her bearing.

Source: T Magazine