Saoirse Ronan: ‘I’d like to play Countess Markievicz, so I can use my own accent’
Having worked half her life, Saoirse Ronan is finding her early 20s scary and exciting
Saoirse Ronan is such an obliging interviewee, she has taken to writing her own headlines. “Women: they just don’t get on,” she quips during her live Q&A with activist Sinead Burke at Google’s Dublin headquarters on Friday.
They are talking about Mary Queen of Scots, in which Ronan stars as Mary, to Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth I. They star alongside one another, but don’t share much screen time. “They kept the English court and the Scottish court apart, because Margot and I didn’t want to see each other.” She means the characters, obviously.
“Don’t put that up out of context,” Burke tells the audience, while Ronan gives a wicked grin and delivers her headline about catfighting females. She knows how this is going to play out.
At moments like this, even among an audience mostly made up of Googlers, for whom neither extreme youth nor extraordinary self-assurance are distinguishing features, it is hard to believe that Ronan is still just 24. Then again, she is now at the point where she has spent more time in the limelight as out of it.
She has been in the film industry over half her life. She was twelve in Atonement, “only a baba”, and it was her third film. Long before that, there was RTÉ’s The Clinic, with Amy Huberman and Chris O’Dowd. “So many people started out on that show,” she tells the audience in the Foundry, Google’s in-house theatre, where the audience includes mostly Googlers – yes, there are the obligatory man buns and ironic glasses – as well as aspiring filmmakers, and journalists.
“It’s like our Neighbours,” Burke adds.
You also forget how young she still is when she describes having the kind of minor identity crisis most people don’t experience until their forties. Like most twentysomethings, she says, she is still figuring out who she is. But then, “I got to a point a few years ago, where I thought, ‘Is this sort of all I can do?’ It’s great to have work, but you don’t want to be defined by that one thing either.”
It was interesting, she says, to see that when “I did reach that point and start to give the rest of my life a bit more time, how relaxed I became at work”, and how the different parts of her life began to feed into each other, and made everything a bit more enjoyable.
“Work is something that I do take very seriously, and I’m definitely a perfectionist,” she says. But it’s also “play, it’s imaginary, and there’s something really wonderful about being able to disappear into another world.”
The role of Mary Queen of Scots resonated with her because it offered a compelling concoction of power and femininity. “It was really important to show that Mary expected to be the leader and wanted to be the leader, but she was a woman, and she enjoyed being a woman. And I also enjoy being a woman. And that’s something that was still new for me, at that age, in my early 20s.”
That time, a woman’s early 20s, are “an exciting and scary time”, she says. So she was frustrated at the lack of parts for women that reflected that age. “That was a frustration that I had in my late teens. For some reason we weren’t being written about, and I didn’t know why.” It’s one of the reasons why she jumped at the chance to make this film – even if she didn’t anticipate all of the physical challenges the role, and particularly the exquisite costumes, would present.
Sometimes you can get too in your head about things
“We weren’t allowed to sit on chairs with backs. We had these swivel stools we had to lift our skirts over and squat on.” Wearing corsets for hours on end changed her shape, she tells Burke, a contributing editor on Vogue. “For about a month and a half [after filming finished], I had this little hourglass, this little Kardashian thing,” she says.
One of the over-arching narratives of the film is the politics and policing of women’s bodies, something the film pushes loud and long against. There is one scene where Mary gets her period. Burke asks about recent comments by the director, Josie Rourke, that she had to fight to keep that scene in, how she had to “fight for a period in a period movie.”
“I can’t think of many other films that have shown that,” Ronan says. “Even when I was younger, I don’t know about you, nobody around me would say the world ‘tampon’ or ‘period’,” she says, to a smattering of titters from the audience.
“Few nervous laughs out there,” she notes wryly.
“Anyway, it’s a new thing to show something very natural and very, eh, regular on screen.”
Cue nervous shrieks.
Reviewers have noted that the film has a lot to say about female bodies, and violence, and power, and sexual pleasure, and the implications of motherhood. Ronan was aware of the resonances with the debate about the Eighth Amendment referendum, which was ongoing during filming. “For me as an actor, it always needs to come from an emotional place, and hopefully that can become something political,” she says.
“The Repeal vote happened after we had made the film. And so after being immersed in that world for a few months, where you’re playing a character who has ultimate power, that will be taken away from her at the drop of a hat as soon as she has a kid, or a son, it just made it ever more personal. Even though of course I’m very protective over my own body anyway, to play somebody who didn’t have that, who wasn’t afforded that, made it even more personal somehow.”
Ronan’s advice to other young people making their mark in her industry, or any industry is “focus and love for what you do. And a really, really good work ethic.”
She appreciates her generation’s interest in mindfulness “but sometimes you can get too in your head about things. You can become too obsessed with what’s going on with you.” Instead, she’s putting attention and energy “into the people around you, and you’ll get so much back from that.”
The Q&A ends with a segment featuring questions submitted by Googlers. Ronan is asked what classic movie she’d like a role in the remaking of. The answer is unpredictable, one of the things Burke said earlier she loves about Ronan: the sequel to Bridesmaids. Failing that, she’d quite like to play Countess Markievicz. “Or Queen Medb. So I can just use my own accent.” If anyone was to write a song about her, she’d like it to be Stevie Nicks.
She would consider doing some prestige TV, like Big Little Lies or True Detective, and she’s currently bingeing on Schitt’s Creek on Netflix. “I didn’t know if I’d be allowed to say that,” she says, betraying a puritanism about even the passing hint of a swear word that can only be accounted for by half a lifetime in Hollywood.
And then, of course, comes the – given where we are – inevitable question about the last thing she Googled, and the last thing she watched on YouTube. The answer to both is the same: the documentary on Bros. It really is hard to believe she’s just 24.