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How ‘Brooklyn’ Mirrors Saoirse Ronan’s Own Coming-of-Age Story

The 21-year-old nearly won an Oscar at age 13 for 'Atonement,' and eight years later she's giving it another try in a drama that "couldn't get more personal."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Early in November, Saoirse Ronan was having drinks in a London pub with Irish author Colm Toibin when suddenly they were both overcome with the urge to sing. After all, they had reason to celebrate: Brooklyn, the Fox Searchlight drama based on Toibin’s 2009 novel and starring the 21-year-old Irish-American actress, had just opened to rave reviews (THR called it “a beautiful and moving film, classily and classically crafted”). So they set down their glasses, and in soft, reverent voices, began crooning an old Irish ballad called “The Auld Triangle.”

“It’s the kind of music that really silences people,” says Ronan, recalling how the bustling bar settled down dur­ing the impromptu duet. “It’s something that Irish people sing all the time — it’ll happen at a wedding; it’ll happen at a christening.”

Ronan and Cohen filmed a scene in Coney Island where the young lovers escape the city for a day. “I talked a lot about my character being like a dog and Saoirse’s being his owner because he’s so loyal — you can tell him off, but he comes right back,” says Cohen.

Apparently, it also happens in pubs when a promising child star (with an Oscar nomination at age 13 for her turn in 2007’s Atonement) arrives at the point in her career when she crosses over into full-grown actress.

As a minor, Ronan delivered several other memorable performances — playing a murder victim in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones and co-starring with Eric Bana as a teenage assassin in Hanna — but Brooklyn is her first attempt at carrying a serious adult drama. A coming-of-age tale set in the 1950s about a young Irish woman torn between two loves on different ends of the Earth: one (Domhnall Gleeson) back in Enniscorthy, her hometown in Ireland; the other (Emory Cohen) in Brooklyn, where she’s begun a new life as an immigrant (until a family tragedy brings her home). It’s the sort of bittersweet story that bets the bank (in this case, about $11 million, financed with 13 partners as an Ireland-Canada-U.K. co-production) almost entirely on the screen presence and acting chops of its leading lady.

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“It was obvious to me that the face of Eilis was the primary canvas we were going to paint this story on,” says Crowley, with Ronan, who recently won the best actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle. 

“She’d yet to give a performance that would take her from this younger bracket toward a more adult performance,” says Brooklyn director John Crowley of the actress he cast at the heart of his film. “It felt like a proper stretch for her.”

Finola Dwyer had just finished making An Education, the 2009 coming-of-age drama starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard, when she happened across Toibin’s just-published novel. “It spoke to me personally,” says the London-based producer, whose own mother had moved from Dublin to New Zealand in the 1950s. “You make your life somewhere else, but then your original home has changed — you can’t go back to how it was.” When she and producing partner Amanda Posey met with Toibin, 60, in London in 2010 to discuss optioning his book, the conversation naturally turned to who might play the lead role of Eilis. Even at that point, Ronan, then 16, was on the shortlist. “I remember looking her up because Colm Toibin had mentioned her the day we had lunch,” recalls Dwyer. “But she was still very much playing teenage roles.”

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Instead, the part was offered to Rooney Mara, who in 2012 was being offered everything thanks to her turn in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And Mara might very well have made Brooklyn if it hadn’t taken nearly two years to find a director. Even with a script by best-selling British author Nick Hornby (who also had written the screenplay for An Education) nobody seemed interested. “It’s about one person, but it’s about lots of things,” says Hornby, offering his theory for why the material left some filmmakers scratching their heads. “It’s deceptively simple, but the story itself is complicated.” Posey agrees: “There’s something in the material’s quietness that I think wasn’t that easy for some directors to understand,” she says.

Ronan (center, with Crowley and lead hairstylist Lorraine Glynn) prepares for a Christmas scene in the soup kitchen. “The drama in the piece is quite subtle compared to what’s out there,” says editor Jake Roberts. “So the challenge was to keep the audience engaged — to make sure the story mattered enough to them.”

One of the first directors Dwyer and Posey approached, even before Hornby had written a word of the script, was Crowley, a Tony-nominated stage and film director whose 2003 black comedy Intermission had been a breakout hit for Irish independent movies. At the time, Crowley was committed to another picture, the surveillance thriller Closed Circuit (that went completely undetected on release). But in late 2012, after Crowley had finished cutting Closed Circuit, the producers decided to circle back. They sent him Hornby’s script. “I felt this breathlessness for the first 40 pages,” he says of his reaction. “[Hornby] hadn’t overdramatized it. It’s a delicate story — a lot of its power rests on a gradual, incremental buildup of emotion.” Two hours after receiving the pages, Crowley was on the phone with the producers accepting the job.

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By then, though, Mara had moved on. And Ronan had grown up. “The script came around when I was 19, and I was just about to move away [from home],” the actress — who was born in New York but raised in Ireland — recalls in her mild Gaelic accent. “I was waiting for the right Irish project to come along, and then when I read this I thought you couldn’t get anything more personal.” According to Crowley, there never was anybody else he had in mind to play Eilis, and he told Ronan as much when they met for lunch at her home in Dublin. “She had proven herself at a young age as a brilliant screen actress,” he says. “I can still see her eyes watching through the glass in Atonement. She’s a great watcher, and so much of this story is about observing.”

At that same lunch, Ronan mentioned to Crowley that she was considering moving from Dublin to her own place in London but was nervous about the change. Crowley encouraged her, thinking it might put her in the right mood for the part. He was right. When they met again months later to begin preproduction, she seemed struck by homesickness. “Hovering between two spaces — you’re not from the country you’re living in, yet you don’t feel like you’re from your own home anymore — she was right in that space,” he says. “Seriously confused.”

“I had no idea the relevance the story would take on for me,” says Ronan. “It was the first time I’ve played someone whose emotional state was so similar to mine.”

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It took a little time to find the right actors to play Ronan’s transatlantic love interests. Casting director Fiona Weir met with several possible options, but Cohen, 25 (The Place Beyond the Pines), ultimately landed the role of Eilis’ Brooklyn boyfriend, a young Italian-American plumber, while Gleeson, 32 (Ex Machina), got the part of her Irish love, a thoughtful boy who runs the local pub with his parents. Meanwhile, preproduction went into high gear: Locations were scouted (Montreal would stand in for Brooklyn, with only three days of exterior shots of actual Brooklyn brownstones and the real Coney Island), while the script was given last-minute polishing (Toibin tweaked Hornby’s dialogue for added authenticity: The Irish don’t say “mom”; they say “mammy”) and costumes were fitted (with designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux using only real vintage clothing). Most importantly, Ronan learned how to eat like a proper Irish lass of the 1950s. “That was a huge hurdle for me,” she says. “I’ve just got awful table manners, really.”

The 35-day shoot began in Ireland, filming Eilis’ early scenes before she leaves for America as well as the scenes after she comes back to Dublin. Crowley thought it was important for the character to seem changed when she returns to Ireland, but not in any obvious way. So cinematographer Yves Belanger used different lenses to give the post-America parts of the movie a slightly different feel. “It’s subtle enough that the audience shouldn’t notice the change — just feel like the place is a little different,” he says.

Brooklyn is Ronan’s first Irish film — and the first in which she uses her real Irish accent. “I really wanted to be involved in lots of Irish projects, but I hadn’t found one that really spoke to me,” she says. “In hindsight, I felt like Brooklyn found me exactly at the right time.”

Crowley felt especially responsible for making sure his native land didn’t come across in any way like a Lucky Charms commercial. “Look, Irish culture can become cliched in a heartbeat,” he says. “You step an inch to the left or right and we’re straight into make-believe territory.” One scene in particular had Crowley worried. At one point in the movie, during a Brooklyn sequence, Eilis goes to a soup kitchen to feed elderly Irish people struggling to get by in America. A man stands up and begins to sing the traditional Irish love song “Casadh an tSugain” as the bustling mess hall goes silent. “Seeing an old Irish guy sing in a soup kitchen — you’ve got to really walk the line with that,” notes Crowley (who flew in well-known Irish singer Iarla O Lionaird for the scene).

That wasn’t a problem for Ronan and Toibin (who has a small cameo in the film) in the London pub last month. “We were sharing stories, all a bit tipsy, and out of nowhere he started to sing, and I joined in,” says the actress, whose performance in Brooklyn already has won an award (from the New York Film Critics Circle on Dec. 2). “It’s just a very Irish thing to do — there’s nothing more unifying than when someone does that.”