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“I would never change my name,” says Saoirse Ronan, the 21-year-old currently garnering best actress Oscar buzz for her performance as a young Irishwoman caught between two countries and two young men in John Crowley‘s Brooklyn. She’s already been nominated for Golden Globe, SAG and Critics’ Choice awards as we sit down to record an episode of ‘Awards Chatter.’ “When I was a child and nobody else was called Saoirse — for the record, it’s ‘Sir-shuh‘ like inertia, although people in Ireland actually pronounce it ‘Seer-shuh,’ so take your pick — I thought, ‘Oh, I’d like a normal name,’ just because I was a kid. But the older I got, I decided I was never gonna change anything for anyone.”
(You can play and read the conversation below or by clicking here you can download it and past episodes on iTunes — recent guests include Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart, Eddie Redmayne, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Charlotte Rampling, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Olivia Wilde and Benicio Del Toro.)
In spite of any linguistic challenges related to her name, Ronan has, in just a decade in the film business, established herself as one of the finest actresses of her generation.
Born in the Bronx but raised not far from Dublin, she is the only child of Irish immigrants who spent a few years in New York — “They were illegal for three years,” she notes — before returning to their homeland. While in America, her father, a construction worker and bartender, stumbled into acting, so she grew up surrounded by the theater community, while her imagination kept her company. Once resettled in Ireland, her father mentioned to his agent that she might be a good fit for a child’s part in an upcoming Michael Caine film. She auditioned and didn’t get it, but was on her way: She soon landed another role, on an Irish TV show.
“As soon as the cameras started to roll, I felt like it was right,” Ronan says. “There’s so much adrenaline that you get from it, and just being a part of something with a group of people — working on one scene at a time or one shot at a time — is an amazing feeling.” An international career began soon thereafter when she was cast in two films, one a big studio production in which she played the daughter of Michelle Pfeiffer. “It didn’t faze me,” she remembers. “I didn’t ever feel starstruck or intimidated or anything like that. I just wanted to do a good job.”
The real game-changer, though, was her third film: “When Atonement came along, that’s when I realized I couldn’t ever give this up,” she says of the period piece drama directed by Joe Wright and also starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy and Vanessa Redgrave. The dialect coach from the Pfeiffer film had recommended her to Wright, so she was invited to audition, sent in a tape, got a callback and scored the part of Briony, a little girl who tells a lie that rocks her family. “I just cried I was so happy,” she recalls. She worked on the film for five weeks and, at just 13, was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar — only 11 people before or since have been nominated at a younger age — for a film that was itself a best picture Oscar nominee.
Suddenly, Ronan — despite never having studied the craft of acting at all — was one of the most in-demand young actresses out there. “I just learned on the job,” she says. “My approach to work has always been pretty much the same — I mean, it’s kind of evolved a bit, but it’s very much based on instinct.” She barely had time to appreciate her success. “By the time all the Oscar stuff happened and the BAFTAs and all of that, I was actually in New Zealand in a hole somewhere with Stanley Tucci getting ready to murder me,” she says with a laugh, referencing her follow-up project, Peter Jackson‘s The Lovely Bones (2009).
That was followed by a stream of other projects, from across the genres, in which she did great work. Among them: Peter Weir‘s period piece The Way Back (2010), Wright’s action flick Hanna (2011), Geoffrey Fletcher‘s crime indie Violet & Daisy (2011), Neil Jordan‘s horror flick Byzantium (2012), Andrew Niccol‘s sci-fi adventure The Host (2013) and Wes Anderson‘s comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), which won the best picture (musical or comedy) Golden Globe and was nominated for the best picture Oscar.
Along the way, Ronan’s hasn’t necessarily become a household name, but her work has impressed people far and wide. For example? One of her biggest fans is, of all people, American singer-songwriter-poet Patti Smith, who approached her at the party following the New York premiere of The Host. “I think she came along just kind of when I needed her, really,” Ronan says. “She was kind of like a guardian angel or something. We were doing a lot of press, and I was still getting used to all of that, and she just said hello to me and took my hands and looked at me and said, ‘Just remember, it’s about the work — it only ever can be about the work, and as long as you remember that, you’ll be fine.’ It was amazing.”
As the most famous international actress of Irish descent since Maureen O’Hara, Ronan constantly has been approached to do films about Ireland, but she deliberately bided her time, waiting for the “right” one. It finally came in the form of Brooklyn. She had read and “loved” Colm Toibin‘s 2009 novel a couple of years before she was sent Oscar nominee Nick Hornby‘s “brilliant” script, and connected to it deeply because “it was a very, very similar story” to her parents’ experience — and increasingly to her own. “I related to it in every way,” she says of the journey of Eilis (pronounced “Ay-lish“), a young woman in the 1950s who leaves Ireland for America and finds herself torn between the two countries and young men she comes to know and love in both. “Every way.”
Indeed, when she signed on to the project, she still was living with her parents in a small Irish town not far from where the film is set and was shot. But between then and the start of production, she moved to London, determined to begin life as an independent adult — but found herself “incredibly homesick.” The production brought her back to Ireland, and very near to her parents’ home, whereupon she found that, as Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, “You can’t go home again.” As she puts it, “Your relationship with home changes — and with your parents even and your childhood and where you grew up and where you want to go next. It all changes.”
In addition to feeling down about that, Ronan felt a heavy weight on her shoulders about telling a story that meant so much to her and to so many others. “I felt a huge responsibility to not mess it up for everyone, for the first couple of weeks especially,” she says, noting that, unlike all of the other projects she had done, she was not escaping into someone else’s skin, but rather exploring a character very similar to herself. “There was nowhere to hide. I wasn’t in heaven, I wasn’t a vampire, I wasn’t an assassin,” she emphasizes. “This was the hardest thing for me, to be able to play someone whose identity was so similar to mine. I mean, this felt like it was my identity, and I was still kind of coming to terms with that myself.”
Reflecting on the eight-week, $11 million shoot, Ronan admits, “It was the first time I felt fear,” adding, “I really didn’t think that I’d get through it most days.” She smiles and continues, “That’s why it’s so amazing that this [the celebration of her performance] is going on!” She adds with a laugh, “To be able to walk through that fire and have all of this happen? I’m still pinching myself and I’ll continue to pinch myself.”
Brooklyn had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it was acquired for a record $9 million by Fox Searchlight, which released it in the U.S. on Nov. 4. Critics universally have hailed Ronan’s performance, marveling at how, in the course of just 112 minutes (most of them shot of out sequence), she believably and affectingly transforms her character from a wide-eyed young girl to a knowing young woman. (“I got to wear dresses and sunglasses and lipstick,” Ronan says with a chuckle. “Probably for the first time people actually went, ‘Oh, she’s female! She’s a woman! She’s a girl!'”)
Ever since the film’s unveiling, Ronan — who, with this performance, has guaranteed that she never will be thought of as a child actress again — has found that the film has touched people to a degree she had never seen with any of her earlier films. “I’ve never had such a fulfilling experience,” she says. “People absolutely look at this as their story. And it is their story, you know? It’s their story as much as it is mine.”
Brooklyn was released by Fox Searchlight on Nov. 4. Awards voters are being asked to consider Ronan for best actress.
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