TORONTO – Everyone has a word or phrase they probably use too much. For example, my friends will tell you I’m prone to use the word “literally” in conversation way too often. Or, when doing interviews, to say “I’m curious” about three or four times to a subject (eke). She might be embarrassed to read it, but Saoirse Ronan has the distinctly British habit of saying “brilliant’ during conversation just as much as I say “literally” (perhaps more actually). It’s partially because she’s just coming out of her teenage years, but it also a sign of her impressive enthusiasm regarding her work.
Ronan, a former best supporting actress nominee for “Atonement,” was in Toronto this past week for the world premiere of Neil Jordan’s “Byzantium.” The vampire flick premiered to positive reviews at this year’s fest and was snatched up by IFC Films only a few days after its debut. Originally intended as a stage play, this original story from the mind of writer Moria Buffini (“Jane Eyre”) tells the tale of two female vampires from the beginning of the 19th Century who have been traveling around Ireland (and who knows where else) trying to survive. Unlike other vampire flicks the rules are different for the bloodsuckers in “Byzantium.” They aren’t super-strong. They can’t fly or jump tall buildings with a single bound. They don’t burst into flames when hit by sunlight. They aren’t cold to the touch. Nor are they allergic to garlic or scream in pain at the presence of a cross. They are just like you and me except they just happen to be immortal thanks to sucking the blood of, um, you and me.
“Byzantium” features Ronan and the always delightful Gemma Arterton (“Clash of the Titans,” the underrated Tamara Drewe”) as her “sister.” The superb cast is rounded out by Sam Riley (probably the most commercial film he’s made so far), the always fantastic Tom Hollander, a too skinny for comfort Caleb Landry Jones, ready to explode Thure Lindhardt, a transformative Warren Brown and everyone’s favorite new stock villain actor, Johnny Lee Miller.
The night after the premiere Ronan sat down to talk about the vampire world of “Byzantium,” the appeal of starring in a movie adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s “The Host” and Kevin Macdonald’s intriguing “How I Live Now.”
HitFix: During the premiere last night, there was a moment when you walked off the stage and someone yelled out ‘I love you!’ You got a big laugh when you yelled back, ‘I love you too!’
Saoirse Ronan: I know. That is so nice.
Does that happen often? Is that surprising to you?
I have that happen a bit, but I don’t know. IWhenever anyone says that I think it’s so lovely. It’s such a nice thing for them to say and it sounded like she really meant it as well, so it was nice.
I was looking over the films you’ve made over the past couple of years and even though you’ve mostly worked in the indie world it seems as though you’re starting to really gravitate toward the action genre. When you get those scripts are those the ones that appeal to you the most?
No, not at all. I mean ‘Hanna’ obviously was an action film kind of through and through. It was great, but I’m not really drawn to action films. I mean, I love doing stunts and things like that and that really excites me, but I think there just happens to be quite a bit of physical activity in the films that I’ve done and quite a bit of running and things like that.
Well, I was looking at ‘City of Ember’ and ‘Hanna,’ ‘Byzantium’ and ‘The Host’ so, it does sort of seem to be a trend.
Yeah, sure. No, I mean it hasn’t been kind of like a plan or anything like that. It’s just the way it has turned out I suppose.
What about ‘Byzantium’ appealed to you? Was it the vampire aspect? Was it Neil Jordan? Or, did something pop in the script when you read it?
I liked the idea of playing a teenager who was 200 years-old and was sort of stuck in limbo and a bit saddened by this burden that she had. I liked that and I was very excited about the idea of playing the piano actually because I’ve always wanted to learn and finally got the incentive to learn for the movie.
Surprising. I assumed you must have just been a piano player and they realized that when casting you…
Really? Did you think that?
Yes, you were great. Are you faking it or is it real?
No, I played.
So, you learned it just for this movie.
Yeah, I learned that piece in about 10 weeks and usually that’s a piece that it takes 10 years for a piano player to get to, so it was quite [challenging]. I can’t play it like a proper pianist, but at the same time it was brilliant to do it. I loved it, so I’m going to go back and do it again. [Also,] I really wanted to work with Neil, not only because he’s a brilliant, brilliant director, [but he's] made some brilliant films over the years that have really shaped things quite a bit I think. They’ve been so different. And, also because he is Irish as well and I wanted to work with such a great Irish director like that.
How is he with his actors? I’ll assume he probably doesn’t like this, but many cinephiles think of him as a great visualist. And yet, he has always pulled out great performances whether it was like Cillian Murphy in ‘Breakfast on Pluto’ or Juliane Moore in ‘The End of the Affair.’ How does he work with actors compared to some of the other directors you’ve worked with?
Well, the amazing thing about Neil is that he is very, very humble as a director and doesn’t feel like he should get in the way of actors being actors. He’s very respectful of what we do, which is lovely. I mean, basically he steps back and he asks you questions about what you think of a certain scene, what you think you should do here or what do you think this means? [He's] constantly asking questions to help us figure it out and it really felt like we were all working it out together. And whenever you needed him he would be there to help, but most of the time he would actually step back and let you just kind of a have a play really. And he really respected your choices.
One of the things that I thought was really well done is your character’s bond with Gemma’s character. Did you guys come up with a larger back story for the two creatures at all? How they might have been surviving all these years or did you feel it was on the page?
I felt like it was all in the script to be honest and I mean the whole film is the back story really and luckily we had all those facts about what [our characters] had been through and where she came from and all that kind of stuff. I think in rehearsals like [we discussed] what happened to Gemma’s parents and things like that. But, I mean everything was pretty much on the page for us and luckily Gemma and I got on from the off and she is very warm and was very maternal towards me. So, that came very naturally to us anyway, that whole mother, daughter relationship.
What was it like doing the actual vampire scenes? You sucked the blood of a lot of very old people which must have been a little strange.
It was a bit weird.
When you got the script were you like, ‘Oh no, I don’t fly, I don’t do anything’? Were you disappointed at all that some of the traditional vampire traits weren’t part of the story?
No, I wasn’t. I was glad actually because that has been done so much. That would have been one of the things that probably would have frightened me off from the script, but the fact that it was so different and really have none of the characteristics except for the fact that we suck blood out of humans and that other vampires in other movies have had and-
But they have to ask you inside. Right?
Yes, they do. I’m glad you noticed that. I really liked that there are little traditions there that they stick to, which I think is quite charming and quite nice.
Yeah, it is. And so you went from filming this to shooting ‘The Host,’ correct?
As someone who hasn’t really jumped into the studio movie world, what made you go to do something like ‘The Host’?
I loved the concept. I think it’s an amazing concept and I really liked the book and just the idea of creatures coming onto our planet and trying to perfect our race and our world and get rid of any negativity in any way, which of course would never work really because suddenly you’re taking away human nature and human spirit and all these different things. But it raises a lot of questions like that and that was really, really interesting to me. Then they said that they [brought on] Andrew Niccol to do it, who has made brilliant films in the past that have conceptually been mind-blowing and beautiful. So, he was perfect for it and I mean the main producer on it, Nick Wechsler, was fantastic. He brought everyone together and Stephanie and everything. So, there were a lot of things there that really attracted me to it.
Do you know what you’re going to do next or have you shot anything since ‘The Host’?
I did. I shot a film with Kevin Macdonald called ‘How I Live Now.’ I’m very, very excited about that.
What is it about?
It’s about this girl from New York who is — it’s going to sound mad now, it is mad, but it’s brilliant — who is sent to live with her cousins and her aunt in England in the country for the summer because her father and her stepmother have just had a baby. She is a bratty kid and she’s a typical kind of New York teenager. She wears a lot of makeup and has piercings and has bleach blonde hair and wears a lot of leather. She seems quite tough and rejected at the same time and so she goes over the England and a war breaks out. Terrorists attack and her aunt [is killed] because she is involved in all that kind of stuff, so the kids are on their own in this house in the country. She and her cousin fall in love and then they’re separated. They promise that they’ll meet back at the house to get back to one another. So, she and her younger cousin, who is a girl, are separated from the boys and they’re trying to get back to one another. It’s the most beautiful love story.