Saoirse is in the February cover of Harper’s Bazaar UK! She talked to Erica Wagner about British monarchs, Irish borders and whether history will repeat itself in the age of Brexit. The featured images, as well as the cover, have been added to our photo gallery. You can read the article below!
Saoirse Ronan on British monarchs, Irish borders and Mary Queen of Scots
She was the Queen who might have been. Mary Stuart was the daughter of James V of Scotland and his French wife, Mary of Guise; born in 1542, her charm, beauty and education made her as remarkable a figure as England’s Elizabeth I and indeed, as the great-niece of Henry VIII, there were those who thought her the legitimate heir to the English throne. It is the rivalry between these two women that is the focus of Josie Rourke’s captivating film Mary Queen of Scots – the eponymous heroine embodied by Saoirse Ronan, and Elizabeth by Margot Robbie. Now, on a sunny Sunday morning in Massachusetts, Ronan and I are chatting about the film – and much else besides – though the woman before me seems far from the regal figure I’ve seen onscreen, in a thick cardigan and candy-striped pyjama bottoms. It’s her one day off a week from filming Greta Gerwig’s second directorial outing, an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. She’s curled up on the sofa, nursing a cold and sipping tea through a straw, but her conversation is lively, funny, warm; and as soon as I’m in her presence I feel as if we’ve known each other for years.
The conflict between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I would, as we know, eventually lead to Mary’s execution. Rourke’s film is a depiction of the balance of power between them: in a certain sense it’s almost incidental that both are women. ‘The interesting thing is that they’re so similar in many ways,’ says Ronan. ‘The rivalry is almost created by the
lords and advisors around them. They used to write to each other all the time, and we
have a scene in the film where Mary says of Elizabeth, “Nobody understands my situation except her.” I think that’s an interesting thing to see in a political drama, that you’ve got these two people who have been turned into enemies by the people around them, but really they are sisters first and foremost. There’s an incredible strength that comes from acknowledging that.’
Perhaps this is the perfect moment, as we teeter on the brink of Brexit, to consider Mary and her place in history. Born in Scotland, raised in France, with a claim to the English throne: monarch, woman, wife, mother – of a son, James, who would finally unite the two kingdoms of Scotland and England – she was a woman with a multiplicity of identities. We seem to be living in a time when people are being pushed into describing themselves as one thing and one thing only: British or European, to take just a single example. Ronan’s portrait of Mary is of someone who didn’t see those choices as necessary; the pressures came from outside, not from within.
Ronan herself has an interestingly multi-cultural background. She was born in the Bronx to Irish parents, who moved back to Ireland when she was a toddler; her father was an actor, and from the get-go, she says, ‘I loved doing school plays, and my Dad used to record us all the time.’ Now, she has both Irish and American citizenship– and it’s clear that the political situation in both countries exasperates her. She’s vocal about her fear that Brexit’s effect on the Irish border will revive past divisions. ‘I was watching RTE news and they were talking about the border – and it’s such a feckin’ mess,’ she says bluntly. ‘One of my best friends, Eileen [O’Higgins, the actress, who she met on the set of the film Brooklyn], is from Down, in Northern Ireland; even I didn’t fully appreciate what the reality of it was.’ Ronan mentions a television series she’s been watching, Derry Girls, a Northern Irish sitcom set in the early 1990s, before the Good Friday Agreement made peace possible. ‘Derry Girls handles the situation so brilliantly with humour; you have the girls going, “Och, there’s a bomb on the bridge and I can’t get my nails done now!” And I asked Eileen if that’s what it was really like – soldiers coming on the bus? She said, “Yes, yes it was.” And I think no matter what side you’re on in the North, nobody wants to go back to that.’
You wouldn’t guess Ronan had any American connection from her accent, but on-screen she has an extraordinary ability to cross linguistic borders: her fluency surely rivals that of Meryl Streep (who will appear, as it happens, in Little Women as Aunt March). ‘It’s how I get into the character,’ she says. ‘What can be more difficult than the actual sounds is the cadence and melody. Modern American is much flatter than my natural voice. I found that quite a challenge on Lady Bird. Greta [Gerwig, the director] kept having to say, “Make it a bit flatter!” And I’d think I sounded like a robot. With the Scottish’ – she shifts quickly into a Scots brogue – ‘I’m basically speaking the same way. The rhythm and music are the same.’ She jumps back to her normal voice. ‘That made it much easier to keep Mary human, for me.’
In the film, Mary’s womanhood may not completely define her: yet one aspect is strikingly on display. We see the Scottish Queen get her period, staining her white shift; the ladies-in-waiting clean her, and the cloths they rinse swirl blood into a bowl of water. I’ve only ever recalled menstruation being referenced in Brian de Palma’s Carrie – not the most positive example, I offer. Ronan disagrees, and argues that the sense of shame that still surrounds this everyday aspect of women’s lives should be removed. ‘What’s genius about Carrie is that it shows what it feels like when you have your period for the first time,’ she says. ‘When I watched it as a teen with my mam, I’d already had my period for a few years, but if I hadn’t known what it was, I’d have thought I was dying. And that’s why it needs to be talked about.’
Mary, of course, is only one of the impressive roster of powerful women Ronan has embodied in her career. Her role as Briony in the film version of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement gained her an Oscar nomination when she was 13. Since then she has given one riveting performance after another: as Eilis in Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn; as the heroine of Lady Bird; in On Chesil Beach, another McEwan adaptation. And she made her Broadway debut in 2016 playing Abigail in Ivo van Hove’s acclaimed production of The Crucible.
‘From a purely selfish point of view, I’ve always wanted to play characters who are well-rounded and interesting and smart, or who are intelligently written,’ she says. ‘And because that’s what I’ve always wanted to get out of it, the films end up reflecting that. They’re the only roles I want to play. Even when I was a kid, I knew I didn’t just want to play “the sister”, or “the girlfriend”, or “the secretary”. That was always a priority for me, to play someone who –even if they were only in a few scenes – really had something to them.’
It’s clear she doesn’t have much time for the notion that films with women in them are ‘women’s movies’. In part, I think that’s because – blessedly – she is of a generation that’s moved past such regressive ideas, although she knows there’s still some ground to cover. ‘With Lady Bird,’ she says earnestly, ‘the amount of guys who would come up to me – and I had it with Brooklyn as well – and be like, “I’m not usually into films like that, but ah… I really liked that, and I even cried a little bit because I loved it so much”. And I’m like,“What kind of films do you mean?” Of course, they mean female-led movies. But the thing is, whether there’s a girl or a boy leading it, Lady Bird is about someone preparing to leave home. That’s it. And the more specific you can make it to one person’s experience, the more universal it will be.’
Strong women have certainly informed her own upbringing; her ‘mam’ is an integral part of her life. Monica Ronan ‘was always with me’, Saoirse says, when she was working as a child, ‘and even though she’s not with me physically now, she’s always around’. She laughs uproariously and puts on a spooky voice. ‘She’s aaaalways heeeere!’ It’s been a few years since Monica lived with her daughter when Saoirse was away from home, but FaceTime keeps them closely in touch. It was her mother’s presence, she’s sure, that kept her from seeing the abusive behaviour in Hollywood that has come to light in the past year and a half. ‘I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t been around,’ Ronan says. ‘I’m sure I would have been exposed to that quite a bit, but she just protected me from all that. I wasn’t unaware that there were people in the industry who abused their power, or who were seedy or untrustworthy. But because of her I was never a victim and I’m very, very thankful. I didn’t leave home at 19 all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – I hadn’t been wrapped in cotton wool – but I had been protected.’
She knows the industry well – and she has ambitions beyond acting. Lady Bird and Mary Queen of Scots were directed by women: both of whom were making their first films. Does she want to direct? ‘I’ve always wanted to do it,’ she says. ‘I was more drawn to that as a kid than I was to acting. I love working with actors, but I always learn the most from the directors. It’s their vision you’re bringing to life, you have to adapt to their way of working. I like having to stretch myself to fit in with their requirements.’ There’s nothing she’s got planned – she’s looking forward to some holiday when Little Women wraps – but I am sure this is an ambition she’ll fulfil.
When not working she lives quietly at home in Ireland. The stability provided by her parents – she and I have a little bonding moment about both being only children – carries over into a sense that film sets and the red carpet are not the best ways by which to define your life. ‘I love going to work,’ she says, ‘but it’s lovely to have a normal life, and your friends and your family and the people who are close to you; you can get so wrapped up and disappear into the work bubble.’ She tells me about going to an awards ceremony – ‘I think it was at the Baftas,’ she says, because of course there have been so many – with that same best friend, Eileen O’Higgins. ‘I knew I wasn’t going to win or anything, but people do that thing when you lose, they come up to you and go, “Oh, you were robbed!”’ She rolls her eyes. ‘And I’m like, “Come on, let’s just have a glass of wine.” But when I didn’t get it, Eileen literally just held my hand, gave it a squeeze and said, “Love you, pal”. And I said, “Love you too”. And that’s better.’
That’s the real life that keeps her going. Even in a couple of hours’ chat on a chilly Massachusetts morning, it’s possible to understand how the quality of her work springs from that connectedness to an authentic self. ‘Do you want to see my bike?’ she asks eagerly before I leave. She’s got a green, sit-up-and-beg bicycle for pootling around town; the brand name, incidentally, is Brooklyn. I like to think of her, pedalling purposefully through the New England lanes. Given how much she’s done in so short a time, it’s truly wonderful to think of what Saoirse Ronan’s future holds for her – and for those of us who admire her work.