Savannah Film Fest: 'Brooklyn' Star Saoirse Ronan Reflects on Her Young Career, "Perfect" New Role

"I really lucked out that I got to do this," Saoirse Ronan, the 21-year-old actress, said to me on Monday night as I moderated a celebration of her young career on behalf of the Savannah Film Festival, presented by SCAD. The sit-down followed a Lucas Theatre screening of Brooklyn, the highly-acclaimed indie in which Ronan gives a deeply-moving performance — as an Irish girl who moves to America and finds herself caught between two men and two worlds — that will almost certainly return her to the Oscars as a nominee for the first time since she was 13. (The film opens in the U.S. next Friday.) "It was the perfect first fully-Irish project for me," she said.

Ronan first broke onto the scene in 2007 when, as a vindictive little girl names Briony, she stole the movie Atonement from bigger-name costars Keira Knightley, James McAvoy and Vanessa Redgrave. She had appeared in only one other film before — I Could Never Be Your Woman, opposite Michelle Pfeiffer — and chalks up her casting in the second film to a lucky break. "Unfortunately, it isn't just down to whether you're good or not. You need people around you who kind of believe in you and will put your name forward." The dialect coach from I Could Never Be Your Woman recommended her to director Joe Wright, and the rest is history.

Ronan had little time to celebrate her best supporting actress nom for Atonement — which made her the category's seventh youngest nominee ever — because she had already been cast in an even larger-scale project, Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones (2009). "It kind of did go over my head a bit," she recalls of the recognition. "More than anything, I was just kind of excited to be on a show that I had watched on the tele[vision] for so many years. To me, that's what the Oscars was. But by the time it actually happened I was on to Lovely Bones. The day after the Oscars happened, Mom and Dad and I flew back to New Zealand and I was doing the murder scene with Stanley [Tucci] the next day!" She adds, "I couldn't have picked a better murderer."

In the ensuing years, Ronan has worked across a wide variety of genres, starring in Peter Weir's period piece The Way Back (2010); the action film Hanna (2011), which re-teamed her with Wright; Geoffrey Fletcher's crime indie Violet & Daisy (2011); Neil Jordan's horror film Byzantium (2012); Andrew Niccol's sci-fi adventure The Host (2013); and Wes Anderson's Oscar-nominated comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). "One of the most important things for me, always, has been to do something different — always change what you're doing," she explains. "It's really important, I think, just for yourself, to keep changing and keep doing things you're just slightly scared of, that are going to push you out of your comfort zone."

No role has ever pushed her outside of her comfort zone more than Brooklyn's Eilis, Ronan said — because no role has ever hit quite so close to home. Though she was born in America, where her Irish parents spent a brief time living illegally, she, like Eilis, grew up in Ireland and then moved abroad by herself, experiencing a combination of wonderment and isolation while discovering herself as a young adult. For Ronan, returning to Ireland to film the project — just 20 minutes from where she was raised — made Eilis' emotions all the more relatable: "To go home in the middle of that process and make a film about home and about homesickness was overwhelming."

We sat down the day after the death of Maureen O'Hara, the first Irish actress to make it big in Hollywood, and Ronan reflected on O'Hara's impact: "I met Maureen, probably four or five years ago, and she was amazing ... That was our only kind of international actress, apart from Brenda Fricker ... She represented women at home for a very long time. We're a very feisty group of women in Ireland, full of character and color and all the rest of it." (Ronan also said she was so pleased that Brooklyn showcases so many developed parts for females played by so many great Irish actresses, including Brid Brennan, who, she said, is "like our Irish Meryl Streep.")

With Brooklyn, Ronan closes the book on her run as a child actress and opens another as a wonderful young-adult actress. She also becomes, after O'Hara's death, Ireland's most famous living movie star. But, not content to rest on her laurels, she is already preparing for her next challenge: the Great White Way. Like Eilis, she'll soon be moving to New York — to prepare to star in a revival of one of the great American plays, The Crucible, which opens in February. If you're interested in buying tickets to see her perform live, keep in mind that she will almost certainly have to miss one performance early in its run: the one on the night of Sunday, Feb. 28, which happens to be the night of the 88th Oscars.

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