Saoirse Ronan: ‘I can go anywhere. I have a lovely place to come back to’

The 24-year-old Irish actor on Little Women, awards season and her sense of home

Krampus has been and gone. Office parties are done and dusted. Christmas will be behind us before we know it, and that can only mean the peculiar Irish season has arrived in which all of our Oscar hopes are, once again, pinned on Saoirse Ronan.

Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards won't be announced until January 13th, but in recent weeks the 24-year-old Irish actor has picked up a Golden Globe nomination – a good predictor for the Oscars – for her portrayal of Jo March in Greta Gerwig's Little Women, the eighth film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's much-loved 1868 novel. It's Ronan's fourth Golden Globe nomination, following nods for Atonement and Brooklyn, and her best-actress win for Lady Bird.

Ronan is wearing a brown jumper and matching short playsuit with polka dots – the kind of outfit you have to be a movie star to pull off

Sipping ginger tea and honey in a London hotel while on the promo circuit for her latest film, Ronan is wearing a brown jumper and matching short playsuit with polka dots – the kind of outfit you have to be a movie star (working with the stylist Elizabeth Saltzman) to pull off.

"I think my first introduction to Little Women was through the 1990s film adaption, which I absolutely love," Ronan says, referring to Gillian Armstrong's version, starring Winona Ryder, Gabriel Byrne, Kirsten Dunst and Claire Danes. "I loved all the girls in it, and they've obviously all had wonderful careers since.


"I was in my early teens when I started to read the books, and that just highlighted how relatable and how current these books will always be. I don't think it's any coincidence that Louisa May Alcott chose to write about four very different characters who have different perspectives on what success is, and what love is. And the result is that, as you return to the books, you can find yourself in any of these girls at any given time."

Little Women is Gerwig’s third film as director. Following on from their collaboration on Lady Bird, it establishes Ronan as the film-maker’s preeminent onscreen translator. The pair held hands and giggled their way through much of Lady Bird’s promotional tour. Gerwig once claimed that Ronan “made her feel 15 again”. They’re still bouncing off one another.

"It was funny because John" – John Crowley, who directed Ronan in Brooklyn – "obviously knows me so well, and we have such a good working relationship," Ronan says. "And he came along last night to see Little Women and he loved it. And he said – and this is quite unusual for a director to be excited about you to be working with another director – there's this wildness and excitedness when you guys are together. But it's also very, very focused. And I think that's what it is between the two of us. As Greta always says, we can't always know what the thing is, but we know what we're aiming towards. And we know that on that journey we're going to have fun. Because we know each other so well and we like one another. And that makes you feel a little bit safer to make a choice that you wouldn't usually make.

“I found that more with this film than with any other projects I have done. I was trying different things from one take to the next. I was trying messier things. And she allowed me to do that, and made me feel like I had the time and luxury to do that. My perfectionist brain wasn’t going: no, no, no; this part is working, so let’s keep doing that. So our relationship has evolved to be even more collaborative. People ask me was it really nerve-racking to take Little Women on. But it wasn’t because it was with her. I knew that she would make something brilliant.”

Little Women amplifies Ronan's place in the starry constellation surrounding Gerwig, the director's Oscar-nominated partner, Noah Baumbach, and his close friend Wes Anderson. That team has collaborated on many features, and their shared aesthetic sensibilities create casting overlaps: the American actor Timothée Chalamet and Ronan – who have starred together in Gerwig's last two films – will both appear in Anderson's incoming The French Dispatch. Ronan has also worked with that film-maker on The Grand Budapest Hotel.

"I'm lucky with the people I've worked with," she says. "When you're lucky enough to find people who you really love and who you really like being around, you do your best work. I've been around the business for long enough that I can choose to make films with the people that I like. I realised that more and more over the last few years, especially doing Mary, Queen of Scots" – the 2018 historical drama directed by Josie Rourke, with Ronan in the eponymous role, alongside Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I.

“We all came away from that film feeling really, really close, and knowing we all wanted to work together again. As we move into that next stage of our careers, that’s the goal. That I don’t have to take a job for the sake of it, but because it’s with the people that I trust.”

Gerwig was approached to write the script for the latest Little Women adaptation in 2016, during the shoot of Lady Bird. She immediately asked the Carlow-raised actor if she wanted to be involved. She did, but on one condition. She only wanted to be in Little Women if she could play Jo, the unconventional and second-oldest March sister.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the awarding body for the Golden Globes, failed to give Gerwig a nomination for directing Little Women, something Ronan has lightly railed against. (Others have despaired that the women who directed The Farewell, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Booksmart, Atlantics, High Life, The Nightingale, Hustlers and several other mooted contenders were also left out in the cold.)

When the conversation started about female directors, people would ask me, Is it important for you to work with them? I had never really thought about it, as it was already happening. That's obviously a place we all need to get to

"I am eternally grateful to Greta Gerwig for her guidance and partnership, and for her fierce perseverance that brought this incredible cast together and created an environment for us to become a real family and tell this very special story," Ronan said in a statement after the announcement of the nominations. "My performance in this film belongs to Greta as much as it does myself, and I share this recognition completely with her."

The press release has been characterised as “salty” or “pointed”. But Ronan is far too clever to say much about the Gerwig snub, or about the Screen Actors Guild’s subsequent shutout of Little Women. When asked about it by this newspaper, Ronan couldn’t be more diplomatic. “It’s a fiercely competitive year,” she says with a shrug.

At a moment when there’s a great deal of chatter about women directors, Ronan can look back at a 12-years-and-counting career in cinema that features plenty of them.

"It's never been a conscious thing for me to work with female directors, because I just have always worked with female directors," she says. "The very first film that I did was with Amy Heckerling [I Could Never Be Your Woman, in 2007]. The fourth film that I did [Death Defying Acts, also in 2007] was with Gillian Armstrong, who also made Little Women back in the '90s. And then I worked with Nikole Beckwith [Stockholm, Pennsylvania, in 2015] and Josie Rourke [Mary, Queen of Scots], and now twice with Greta.

“It was interesting when the conversation started about female directors, because people would ask me, Is it important for you to work with them? I had never really thought about it, because it was already happening. And that’s obviously a place that we all need to get to.”

By 2011, at the age of just 17, Ronan could already discuss the influence that Stanley Tucci, James Gandolfini and Peter Jackson had on her technique. She had no formal training yet had worked alongside Michelle Pfeiffer, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Keira Knightley, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett.

She previously described her first job, on RTÉ's The Clinic, in 2003, to this newspaper as the logical place for her to be: "I remember my very first day. I remember arriving with my mam and feeling quite nervous. There were lots of trailers and people buzzing about, and we weren't too sure where to go. But once the cameras started to roll I relaxed. I knew it was okay to make believe and just to do what I was doing. I've always enjoyed it. For me, being in front of a camera is the easiest thing in the world."

Ronan, who was born in the Bronx in 1994, the only child of Paul and Monica Ronan, Irish immigrants, had a peripatetic upbringing. (Hence her unfairly maligned accent, a product of home-schooling and having a mum from Cabra and a dad from Crumlin. ) She sings out the order.

"I was born in New York. Then we moved back to Dublin for a bit. Then we went to Wexford. Then we went to Carlow. Then we went back to Dublin. But within that time I've worked in America and in the UK and New Zealand for maybe six months at a time. So, as a family, we've always moved around. I think that's just sort of in my nature now."

She retains certain personality traits she associates with being an only child. She talks to herself a lot. She likes her own headspace. And she's fiercely guarded about her private life. Her Twitter presence ended almost as soon as it began, in 2009, as she was uncomfortable with self-promotion. Earlier this month she finally shut down rumours that she had been dating her Mary, Queen of Scots costar Jack Lowden. It's more information than she's comfortable with imparting. She suspects she would have been reticent about such matters whether she was famous or not.

I think I share a lot – a lot – with the people I'm closest to. But I don't really see the need for anyone who doesn't know me personally to know anything about my life that isn't my work

“I think I was always going to be very private,” she says. “I think I share a lot – a lot – with the people I’m closest to. But I don’t really see the need for anyone who doesn’t know me personally to know anything about my life that isn’t my work. Work is all I’m comfortable talking about with people that I don’t know.”

Against that, she notes that, although she didn’t have the boisterous home-life of the March sisters, she has never been a hermit.

"I didn't have brothers and sisters, but I've always been around other kids," she says. "My mum was a nanny when I was a kid when we were in New York. And even when we moved back to Ireland she looked after kids, in particular my best friend Christopher, who was with me every day after school. So I had experience of the contrast between being a kid who daydreams, and who likes being on my own, and [one who] loves being with other kids too."

In the days before we meet she has appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers, claiming that "I'm going back to Ireland for a bit and preparing myself for the cold, and I'm just going to sit in my pyjamas all day."

She will have to do so at her parents' house. Last month she sold her Greystones residence, having hardly spent any time there because of work. She currently commutes to Ireland from her house in Notting Hill, in west London, and continues to play an active part in Irish life, turning up in May for a talk at Scoil Chaitríona in Drumcondra, in north Dublin, as part of the Penguin Talks programme.

“We’re all going to be together over Christmas,” she says. “It’ll be nice. And I’m always going to be in Ireland in some capacity. It’s my home. My family is there and my dog is there. So I can go anywhere in the world knowing I have a lovely place to come back to. I’m over in the UK a lot, but it’s just 50 minutes on a plane to get back. My friend Eileen – she’s from the North – she lives over here; she goes back and forth too. It’s easy.”

I would really like to start getting into making my own stuff in the next couple of years. I just need to give myself a kick up the bum to do it

Her Irish Christmas is happening at the end of a six-month break from acting. That’s quite a holiday for someone who has made up to four films a year since 2007. What has she been doing with herself?

“That’s the big question,” she says, laughing. “What are you supposed to do? I’ve done some press stuff and I’ve just been waiting for the right thing to come in. I’m trying to write a bit. I would really like to start getting into making my own stuff in the next couple of years. I just need to give myself a kick up the bum to do it. I did a cooking course over the summer. So I know how to brown meat and make pastries. It’s a bit like with acting. I was always able to follow a recipe to the tee, but, having been thrown into a class environment, I’ve learned to chill out a little bit and have fun with it.”


Directed by Joe Wright, 2007
Lovers Robbie (James McAvoy) and Cecilia (Keira Knightley) are kept apart by the lies of Cecilia's younger sister Briony.

The Lovely Bones
Directed by Peter Jackson, 2009
Ronan plays 14-year-old Susie Salmon, who, having been raped and murdered, watches her family (played by Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg and Susan Sarandon) and the perpetrator (Stanley Tucci) from the afterlife.

Directed by Joe Wright, 2011
A girl raised in the wilderness of northern Finland by her ex-CIA father (Eric Bana) is trained to be an assassin.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed by Wes Anderson, 2014
Ronan is a baker named Agatha and the love interest of lobby boy Zero in this 1930s fantasy.

Directed by John Crowley, 2015
A young Irish woman who emigrates to Brooklyn to find employment has to choose between life in New York with her Italian husband, or her hometown of Enniscorthy.

Little Women
Directed by Greta Gerwig, 2019
Skipping between time periods, Saoirse Ronan's Jo requires as much of Greta Gerwig and Louisa May Alcott as it does of the literary heroine.

Little Women is released on St Stephen’s Day

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic