Long walk of fame
SHE is, depending on where you look, the new Emma Watson, the new Kristen Stewart or even the new Keira Knightley.
And yet, what sets 16-year-old Saoirse Ronan indelibly apart from her branded big-screen peers is that she can really, and properly, act.
An Oscar nominee at 13, for swiping Atonement entirely away from Knightley as her spiteful younger sister Briony, she then shouldered Peter Jackson’s effects-filled The Lovely Bones alone, somehow producing a BAFTA award-nominated performance from within a garish computer-generated afterworld drama. Besides a set of piercing blue eyes, she is chameleonic on camera, and has not yet performed a single role in her own round, flat and very Irish accent (she is based in County Carlow).
Elsewhere, opposite seasoned A-listers such as Michelle Pfeiffer (in I Could Never Be Your Woman) or Catherine Zeta-Jones (Death Defying Acts), she is the one who consistently holds attention.
Thus, in her new movie, The Way Back, it’s business as usual for Ronan, who is typically hidden under a headscarf and a thick Polish accent throughout. She plays a perky 1940s street orphan who joins escaped prisoners Ed Harris and Colin Farrell on their 6500km trek from a Siberian gulag to freedom in India. It’s another knockout turn and helps to humanise the macho theatrics of Farrell and co as she wheedles out their humanity with subtle exchanges and gentle interrogations. Her director, the six-time Oscar nominee Peter Weir (Witness, The Truman Show, Master and Commander), is clearly mesmerised and describes how “she has knowledge beyond any acting course, or anything you can learn through observing. She can discuss incredibly sophisticated changes in direction for her performance. But then she steps off set and is suddenly her age again.”
And true, the most remarkable thing about Ronan in person, here in a quiet Covent Garden hotel, is just how much “her age”, or even below her age, she seems. Though 16-going-on-26 in appearance (long limbs, lip gloss, blonde bonce and those icy blue eyes), she gets most excited when recalling her off-camera shenanigans during the Sahara desert shoot of The Way Back, giggling, “We’d raise our walking sticks in the air and go, ‘Weeooooahhh!’ and then we’d start stabbing the sand without hitting the other person’s stick! It was brilliant!”
Or when talking about her brief flirtation with kohl-eyes and silky minidresses at last year’s various The Lovely Bones premieres she cringes, “I did vamp it up there for a while, didn’t I? I was going through a stage where I liked eyeliner and it became a bit ridiculous!” Or mention boyfriends and dating and she doesn’t know where to turn, squirming, “I’m not really into the whole disco thing. I prefer to just relax at home and hang out with friends. I definitely don’t go out on the hunt for blokes or anything like that! Although, at my age, I suppose you’d expect it to start happening soon.”
The sweet, childlike ingenuousness seems initially at odds with Ronan’s increasing clout as a Tinseltown player — she was, for instance, responsible for getting her Atonement director Joe Wright hired to shoot her new big-budget assassin thriller Hanna (“I said to the producers, ‘Why don’t you ring up Joe Wright?’ and they did”).
But it is her father, Paul, also an actor, encountered later that day, who is quick to contextualise these seeming contradictions and put the life of his only daughter into perspective. “There has been an awful lot of work that has gone into looking after Saoirse, and making sure that she’s still just Saoirse and not some product,” he says, before explaining how either he or his wife, Monica, and sometimes both, are with Saoirse at all times — on set, during press trips, at premieres, the works. They even monitor her reading material.
“We talk about everything she does, and I will vet scripts even before she reads them, to make sure they’re appropriate for her. I know we’re living in the modern world, but we have to do what we can to keep her shielded from everything but that which is age-appropriate.
“She’s been a brilliant kid from the start, and we want acting to add colour to her life and not take anything away from it.”
The brilliant kid began, originally, in the mid-1990s in New York, where Paul, a butcher by trade, was then a struggling actor (he had bit parts in The Devil’s Own and The Boxer). When she arrived, Ronan was immediately named after a painting her aunt once bought from a Republican prisoner: Saoirse, the Gaelic word for freedom.
“I think it’s lovely that the prisoner had his passion and was able to turn that passion into art, and that’s how I got my name,” she says, again with fantastic innocence, devoid it seems of any notions of the Troubles, Republicanism or wider political narratives. Instead, she leaps quickly on to the pronunciation of her name, which remains a perennial bugbear (she was misspelt as “Sarise” on the Golden Globes poster for Atonement), though one not entirely aided by her own ruminations on the subject. “Basically, my dad pronounces it ‘S-air-sha’, which is really the right way. But loads of people in Ireland pronounce it ‘S-eer-sha’ which I like as well. And I actually say, ‘S-ir-sha’, just because it’s easier for people.” Got that?
“S-ir-sha”, who was born in New York, made her debut, aged two, as a toddler in a pram staring up at her father, in the immigrant drama Exiled. However, the allure of boom-time Ireland and the pull of extended family brought the Ronans back home a year later, to a tiny village in Carlow. She doesn’t know exactly how acting began in her bones, but she thinks it might have something to do with feeling utterly comfortable in the video diaries that her father regularly made of her life. “I’ve never been shy of the camera,” she muses quietly. “Never.”
She began acting aged 8, playing a grieving daughter in the Irish TV soap The Clinic. Other bit-parts followed, but it wasn’t until she landed her first heavyweight role, as the coolly vengeful Briony Tallis in Atonement, that everything changed. In that film she was astounding, and effortlessly earned the boo-hisses of a million audience members when she sent James McAvoy’s chirpy intellectual to his doom with one of the coldest line-readings in movie history, “I saw him. I know it was him. I saw him with my own eyes!” The Oscar nomination (for best supporting actress) was the icing on the cake, she says, but it was making the movie itself that mattered.
“From that point onwards I thought, ‘Maybe this should be my job? I know I can’t give it up now.’ ”
She says her life since Atonement has been transformed immeasurably, and yet not. Yes, she can work the red carpet, and yes, she now calls Susan Sarandon (her The Lovely Bones co-star) a close friend (“She’s just a really interesting person”) but she also still lives in a modest rural house by a river, with a family dog, where she is rigorously home-schooled — “I have a great tutor, who lives a couple of fields away”.
And yet you can’t help wondering what will happen when Ronan, who admits to coveting a home in the Manhattan Beach area of LA, is released from parental supervision and encounters an adult world that can quickly turn white-hot talent into Lindsay Lohan-style public travesties. “Well, I certainly haven’t been offered drugs, and I’m never around bad influences,” she notes. “If I ever was I’d know how to detect it, and I would stay away from those kind of people.”
In the meantime, she’s got Hanna on the way, a movie in which she plays a pint-sized assassin opposite Cate Blanchett, and for which she endured three months of heavy mixed martial-arts training (“I’ve seen bits of the finished film already, and it does look very cool, if I do say so myself”). Plus there is the matter of her personal happiness that she is ultimately keen to articulate.
“I think it was Barbra Streisand who said it best,” she says, beginning the kind of statement you can only get away with if you’re Saoirse Ronan. “She said the happiest moment of her life was not working on a film or being on a red carpet, but being on top of a mountain in Asia and looking down at a garden full of flowers.
“Well, I think that’s true. As human beings we all appreciate the same things. And that doesn’t mean making movies.”