Saoirse Ronan: ‘I don’t know where I am from. I’m just Irish’
The three-time Oscar nominee on fame, Hollywood scandals, and the abortion referendum
You wouldn’t guess that Saoirse Ronan carried the expectations of a nation on her narrow shoulders. The art of being Saoirse is, perhaps, the art of not seeming disconcerted. Her acting conceals effort. She appears to drift through performances on waves of unpretentious sincerity. Without kicking up scandal, causing kerfuffle or exposing any aggressive elbows, she has secured three Oscar nominations before the age of 24. (Jennifer Lawrence is the only other person to have managed that feat.)
Her turn in Atonement scored a best supporting nod in 2008. Two years ago, during the annus mirabilis of Irish cinema, she was nominated in the best actress race for Brooklyn. Now, up in the same category for playing a difficult teenager in Greta Gerwig’s wonderful Lady Bird, she has her best shot yet at the title.
When I meet her, I’ve just come from fellow nominee Daniel Kaluuya at another press bash. He said to say hello.
“Ach, I love him,” she burbles. “I said it to him the other day: ‘You don’t seem fazed by it at all.’”
He doesn’t seem fazed? What about her? Since awards season kicked off at the beginning of autumn, she has cruised through every media appearance with a class of amiability that you just can’t fake. She seems utterly unshaken.
“Well, you have to if you can,” she says. “But also you need to be a secure enough person. And you need people around you to say: ‘Remember who you are.’ It’s easy to get wrapped up in it. To get consumed by it. That’s all we are doing at the moment. The good thing for me is that it’s the second time proper.”
Ronan was 13 when she was nominated for Atonement. So she wasn’t pushed through all the rigours of the awards gauntlet.
“Yeah, it’s two-and-a-half times. Ha ha! Having been through that, you know it will end in March and you will move on to the next thing. At this stage, it can feel like it will go on forever.”
Ronan curls up and folds her arms about herself. Blond and sleek as an ear of wheat, permanently interested, she gives off an ageless vibe. She still looks like a kid. But she has the ordered mind of a fun younger aunt.
Experience matters. She has been in the business for an implausible 15 years. Born in the Bronx, the daughter of two supportive Dubs, she moved home with the family when she was just three. As long ago as 2003, she made a striking appearance in the upmarket RTÉ soap The Clinic. Watching those scenes now, one is struck by how fully formed the talent appears. The lack of self-consciousness is startling. But many child actors drift away after promising starts. Ronan stuck at it.
I wonder if her dad, Paul Ronan, ever tried to warn her away from the business. As an actor himself, he knows how hard it can be.
“Well, he was a jobbing actor,” she says. “I don’t think so. I think he was excited because it was something he loved and I evidently loved it too. I think he was protective. And he knew the dangers of that environment. But he never exactly warned me off.”
Ah, “the dangers of the environment”. Few of us had illusions about the ubiquity of predators in the entertainment business, but the Weinstein affair and its satellite scandals have confirmed what a shark tank that world can be. Some of the most squalid scandals have involved young people. I have heard Ronan say that she has so far avoided such dangers. Was she lucky? Was she protected?
“I think I was protected,” she says. “I have worked with great producers. There are some that will take advantage if they can. I don’t even mean sexually. I mean they’ll get you to work overtime if you’re a child. They’ll not protect your safety if you’re in stunts or in scenes that could turn sexual. But my mam was brilliant. Everyone loved my mam. She was always fiercely protective of my rights. Not in a way where she was mollycoddling me. She let me do the work I wanted to do.”
We haven’t seen her falling out of nightclubs. She always hits her consonants even when interviewed at the later stages of awards ceremonies.
“I was very lucky,” she says. “Cast and crews have parties. They go out and they have drinks. I was never exposed to any of that side of it. So I wasn’t exposed to anything else.”
Ronan progressed steadily through increasingly challenging jobs as she edged towards her teenage years. Amy Heckerling’s I Could Never Be Your Woman, which placed her alongside Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd, was a rom-com of the most ordinary stripe, but many reviews noted the extraordinary chemistry between Michelle and the largely unknown juvenile actor. The story really begins when a smart casting agent put her up for Joe Wright’s Atonement. Her first Oscar nomination followed.
That campaign must seem like a whirl to her.
“I was doing The Lovely Bones with Peter Jackson at the time. He was already an old hand at the Oscars. He said: ‘It will go by so quickly,’” she says. “It was a different experience to a couple of years ago. Nobody knew me. I was this new person. Whereas now it’s more fun. Because we all know each other. We know each other’s work.”
From then on, Ronan was of great interest to the Irish media. Yet the hungriest jackals have had difficulty digging out even the tiniest grain of dirt. How dare she always be on time? How dare she remain polite? How dare she seem largely unaltered by fame?
A few fat-headed crackpots did eventually decide that there was something funny about her accent. Professors in advanced semiotics would struggle to discern what the supposed problem is here. The tide of bilge on the issue on social media seems to be powered by an inexplicable suspicion that she sounds “too Dublin”. Both of her parents are from the city. She was home-schooled. She has lived in Howth, Co Dublin. She now lives just outside Dublin, in Co Wicklow.
“Well I was born in New York,” she says. “But then I moved to Carlow. I went to school there. All my family are from Dublin and I have a Dublin accent. I don’t know where I am from. I am just Irish.”
It’s funny. Americans are enormously relaxed about being from a bunch of places in the US. The Irish still want to establish if you’re a Northerner or a Corkonian or whatever else.
“That’s so true,” she says. “I never thought about that. In Ireland we all want to have a fixed notion of who we are – ‘I grew up here so this is how I react.’ And we can’t always do that. I don’t know if you’ve read that Gloria Steinem book, My Life on the Road, but there’s this bit where she talks about how we have a migratory history. It makes sense that we move and never quite want to settle. I am like that.”
We can, however, say she’s Irish. Nothing juices up awards season more deliciously than some British media source claiming Ronan or Colin Farrell or Mickey Fassbender as one of their own. We love to spot those outrages.
“Yeah: ‘I’ll f**king catch them out!’” Saoirse cackles in imitation of an outraged punter.
I assume she is philosophical about such transgressions.
“Well, I’m not [British],” she says. “So I always correct them. I am proud of where I come from. I am proud of the work we’ve done. We can now stand in our own right as film-makers and actors. But, yeah, I do truly love it when people get so protective. That makes me smile.”
When she was nominated in 2008, Ronan was hindered by the prejudice against juvenile performances. Brie Larson, competing for the Irish film Room, always looked like winning two years ago.
As this season has moved on, Frances McDormand, up for Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, has pulled away, but Ronan is still in with a decent chance. People just love Lady Bird. Women, in particular, see endless echoes of their own youth in the relationship between the volatile title character and the flinty, but decent, mum played by fellow nominee Laurie Metcalf.
Is there anything of her relationship with Monica, her own mother, there?
“I have a great relationship with my mam,” she says, before addressing a plot point in the film. “We are great mates. One of the similarities – and mam picked up on it as well – is that, when we were younger, my dad and I would go to open houses. We could never afford them, but we’d pretend we were going to buy the house. But I’m lucky that I have a very good relationship with her.”
There must be a lot of Greta Gerwig in there. The film is set in that actor and writer’s home city of Sacramento at about the same time – the millennial years – she was about to leave school.
“As a personality, Lady Bird is not who either of us were,” she says. “I was always very outspoken. I was always very sure of my principles. That’s like Lady Bird. But Greta and I were both rule-followers and people-pleasers. Getting to play Lady Bird was like having your alter ego handed to you. So she was the person we wanted to be.”
I wonder if it requires a stretch to get back into the mentality of a 17-year-old. Five years is a long time when you’re Ronan’s age.
“It is a lot. And it’s a stretch. It’s not like I am in my late 20s and have a clear vision of my teenage years. Because I am only just out of them I don’t have a clear idea what that was. You are still processing it. The physicality of being a teenager is important. I am gangly naturally. So acting awkward was easier as I am that way anyway.”
Various pressures come with Oscar season. Suddenly she is expected to have an opinion on everything and to feel comfortable being pressed on those opinions at every corner. The Weinstein aftermath crops up on the red carpet. When addressing Irish press, she will – as I am about to do – be asked about the upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment.
“I will be voting when the referendum happens,” she says in a more cautious voice. “I was coming into my womanhood when that discussion was being had after the marriage referendum. And I know so many people who have been affected by this situation. I just feel everybody has a right to their own body. Everyone has a right to make their own decisions.”
That seems clear. But Ronan has more. She has clearly thought this answer through.
“People totally have a right to be pro-choice or pro-life,” she says. “But I think it will be an empowering thing for the people of Ireland to get out and make their own decision on the topic. More than anything else – regardless of how you vote – we need to be given the chance to have our voices heard. Since the marriage referendum, Ireland has definitely taken a turn. I do feel it’s become more of a modern, cosmopolitan place. It’s such a turnaround. I feel like there is a turning point with our generation. Women are being empowered in a way they haven’t before.”
It’s been a busy time for Ronan. This year we will also see her in an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and opposite Elisabeth Moss and Annette Bening in a film of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Those are in the can. Ronan – who says she can’t even watch telly when she’s working – will next be taking a “wee break” to read, travel and watch films.
“I love being in Donegal where they genuinely don’t care. They’ll say: ‘I didn’t even know it was you until your one told me,’” she says with a laugh. “I remember the first time I got recognised when I was back in Carlow. Somebody went over to me mam and said: ‘Are you the one that does be in the papers?’”
She chortles in a characteristically unselfconscious manner.
“That’s who I was.”
The one that does be in the papers.
Oscars: Who Saoirse Ronan is up against for best actress
Ronan is probably the second favourite. She won at the Golden Globes for actress in a comedy or musical and with the New York Film Critics Circle. If she triumphs at the Baftas on Sunday the race is on. Best odds: 7/1
Nominated for her role as an unstoppable, bereaved mother in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDormand has won most of the big early awards: SAG, Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice. This is her fifth Oscar nomination. Won best actress for Fargo. Best odds: 1/7
Nominated for her lovely turn as a mute woman entranced by a sea monster in The Shape of Water. The film is slight favourite for best picture. So you never know. This is her second nomination. Best odds: 12/1
Up for her incendiary turn as skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. Fading a bit after a strong start. But not out of it. This is her first nomination. Best odds: 25/1
Streep is good in The Post, but the unshowy performance always had “likely nomination, no win” written all over it. It’s her 21st nomination (gulp!). Best odds: 50/1
Lady Bird is in cinemas from February 23rd