We have a new great interview of Saoirse and she talks about Brooklyn, Ireland and moving away from her home. Also, be sure to check out the beautiful portrait in our gallery.
Irish actors are another story: They’ve been coming up in droves. Colin Farrell, Michael Fassbender (who is half German, but was raised in Ireland from the age of 2), Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Stephen Rea and Gabriel Byrne are just some of the Emerald Isle’s menfolk to find Hollywood success. A few Irish actresses have, too, albeit to a lesser extent — among them Sinead Cusack, Fionnula Flanagan, Fiona Shaw and Brenda Fricker, who won an Academy Award for her role in “My Left Foot” (1989). But at least in the United States, none are exactly household names. The last Irish actress to really make a splash in the United States was Maureen O’Hara, who recently turned 95.
“I think a lot of it comes down to luck; I think a lot of it comes down to timing,” Ms. Ronan, who is 21, said recently over breakfast at the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo. “I don’t know why some of the male actors moved ahead while we didn’t.”
Ms. Ronan’s might not be a household name quite yet, but that’s partly because Americans remain largely incapable of pronouncing it (it’s “SEER-sha”). She was the young baker with the Mexico-shaped birthmark in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the luminous teenage assassin in “Hanna,” the slain girl who narrates the “The Lovely Bones,” and the tweenage aristocrat who set the plot in motion in “Atonement,” a performance that earned Ms. Ronan an Oscar nomination at the age of 13.
Her visibility will probably get another lift from the new film “Brooklyn,” opening Nov. 4, a critical hit on the festival circuit that has been described as “stunning,” “wondrous” and “lovely.” Ms. Ronan’s emotionally nuanced performance has been repeatedly singled out for plaudits, and largely solidifies her transition from ascendant child star to actress to watch.
“She was in the very best sense of the word the obvious choice,” said John Crowley, the film’s director. “She’s sort of like a lightning bolt, and kind of from another time in a weird way.”
Adapted by Nick Hornby from the best-selling novel by Colm Toibin, “Brooklyn” tells the story of a young Irishwoman, Eilis (“AY-lish”) Lacey in the 1950s caught between a new life and love in New York, and a paramour back home (played by Domhnall Gleeson, whose first name, while we’re at it, is pronounced “DOUGH-nel”). After setting off a bidding war among distributors at Sundance, the film charmed audiences at the New York Film Festival, where Ms. Ronan could bear to watch only the final five minutes, sobbing all the while (or, as she put it, “in bits”). Now there is chatter that Ms. Ronan and possibly the film might gain Academy Award nominations.
“It’s so personal — it’s my mam’s story and my dad’s story, and it was what I had gone through when I moved away,” Ms. Ronan said. “The journey she makes is what I’m still going through.”
With her milky skin, smattering of freckles, disarming brogue and quick wit, Ms. Ronan comes across as every bit the Irish country girl she is, an impression she only enhanced by ordering tea and porridge for breakfast.
Ms. Ronan was born in New York to struggling Irish immigrants, who were initially in the States illegally. Her mother, Monica, worked as a nanny, while her father, Paul, picked up often unsavory odd jobs, including one at a construction site that left him with permanent tinnitus, despite his effort to protect his ears by plugging them with cigarette butts. Then Mr. Ronan began working as an actor, and the family moved back to Ireland when Saoirse was 3, settling in County Carlow, in Ireland’s southeast, near a rural one-pub village.
Growing up amid her father’s actor friends, Ms. Ronan developed a yen for the craft. After a few appearances on Irish television, she was cast in her first feature when she was 10, across from Michelle Pfeiffer in “I Could Never Be Your Woman” (2007), and soon after in “Atonement.”
The Oscar nomination rocketed her to fame, and Ms. Ronan guesses that appearing in American and British films also helped her leapfrog ahead while other Irish actresses struggled to gain ground. Most of the now famous Irish actors have done the same, moving away to get work and camouflaging their accents.
“We all have to pretend we’re from somewhere else,” Ms. Ronan said. Still, she added, she often looks at some of her actress friends from home and agonizes about why they’re not where she is (though she did acknowledge that one likely contributing factor was the overall dearth of female roles). “I don’t know what it is, because we’ve got this amazing spirit, as you know,” she said. “We’re full of the fight, the Irish women.”
“Brooklyn” represents the first time Ms. Ronan is playing a lead role as an Irishwoman, which she said upped the pressure to play the part exactly right. She had long been looking for “a good Irish project,” she said, that told a fresh tale. “So many things have been done about the RA,” Ms. Ronan said, using the Irish slang for the Irish Republican Army. “Certain moments of history are always focused on.”
Mr. Crowley, the director, said that “Brooklyn” traced one of Ireland’s biggest untold stories — mass emigration midcentury — and that by focusing on Eilis’s struggles and wrenching choices, the film brings alive a much more sweeping tale. The 1950s was considered one of Ireland’s toughest decades since the famine, and about 15 percent of the country’s population was forced by economic hardship to move abroad.
“Everybody feels they know the emigration story, because they know of the vast numbers that actually left, but it actually hasn’t been done that much, and certainly never from a female perspective,” Mr. Crowley said. “And they’re very sad stories. They tended to be individuals going off on their own, and it was quite a shameful chapter for a while, that Ireland’s biggest exports were the brightest and best of its young people.”
About a year passed between Ms. Ronan’s casting and the beginning of production. Mr. Crowley said he soon noticed a difference in his star when she arrived on set. “I didn’t know myself she was going to turn up with the level of emotional depth that she did,” he said. In the intervening time, Ms. Ronan had gone through many of the things Eilis had: She had moved away, to London, found an apartment, and, Mr. Crowley said, gotten “really knocked sideways” by homesickness. She had asked Mr. Crowley, who is from Cork but has lived in London for 18 years, whether homesickness eased. He replied that it did but that she would never quite be the same.
“You’re not from the country you’re living in, however great that is,” he recalled telling her. “When you go home you’re no longer from that place either. And people view you differently, and you view them differently, and it’s all different. And you can’t tell why.”
Ms. Ronan said things got even more intense for her when the production moved to Ireland (it also filmed in London and Montreal), specifically to Enniscorthy, Mr. Toibin’s hometown, not far from where Ms. Ronan grew up. She found the parallels between her life and Eilis’s — nostalgia for childhood, estrangement from home — overwhelming. Sometimes between takes, she would slip behind a building, close her eyes and rest her head against a wall, because her nerves felt so raw. “When work and home collide in such a huge way, you don’t know what to do with it,” she said.
Heeding Mr. Toibin’s request, Mr. Crowley also carefully filled many of the other parts in the film with Irish actors; among them some of the young women in Eilis’s Brooklyn boardinghouse and, perhaps most notably, Brid Brennan, who is basically Ireland’s Meryl Streep, as Nettles Kelly, Eilis’s razor-tongued boss. (Ms. Brennan and Mr. Toibin had, as it happens, briefly been roommates in Dublin in the late ’70s.)
Looking ahead, Ms. Ronan will soon be returning to New York; she’s been cast in a spring 2016 Broadway production of “The Crucible.”
“No pressure,” she said wryly, “just a little American classic.”
She thinks she will live in the city for a while, first in the West Village and then perhaps in Brooklyn. She’s still getting used to living away from Ireland and her parents and has slowly come to understand, she said, what being in one’s 20s is about: realizing that you can’t go back to childhood, that you have to keep moving forward.