Interview: Saoirse Ronan on Brooklyn
Irish-American actress Saoirse Ronan shot onto the international film scene when, at thirteen-years-old, she starred in Joe Wright’s Atonement. The film earned her an Oscar nomination, and she has been doing great film work ever since. Ronan experimented with genre films and did some great supporting work in films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel and Lost River, but her latest film Brooklyn is something entirely unique. Sure to get Ronan her second Oscar nomination, the John Crowley’s film follows Eilis, a young woman who leaves her family in Ireland to live in Brooklyn. Homesick at first, Eilis eventually finds her way and falls in love, but a tragedy requires her to come home, where she faces a life changing decision. We spoke to Ronan before the film’s Canadian Premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Scene Creek: Like Eilis, you also went on the journey from Ireland to America. Is Ireland still home for you?
Saoirse Ronan: Ireland, that’s where I’ll raise my kids, that’s where I’ll settle down or whatever. I reckon that could change, but I don’t think it will. New York is a really huge part of me, it’s where I was born and I lived there until I was 3. It very much made my parents into the people that they are. My mom, who I’m basically a clone of, is a fiercely independent woman who’s very hard working and that really kind of came out of her when she went to New York. She had to work hard, she had to be independent and she had to rely on herself. They were over there on their own; the Irish community, they all really kind of supported each other. I have a huge respect for both places because it’s made me who I am. It’s funny because I was born there and my mom was very adamant about having me in the States because they had been illegal, they didn’t have a visa for a few years. Then mom got it and dad didn’t and they got married over there and she said, “You know, if she were ever to come back to America, I wouldn’t want her to have to go through this.” And of course I did and it’s great! So there’s the fact that I can call myself someone who comes from both places, it is a real gift that they gave me.
SC: When Eilis moves from Ireland to Brooklyn, she is forced to no longer be a cared for young woman but one who is fully independent. In a sense, she is forced into her adulthood. Would you consider this to be similar to the journey you are on as an actor, going from being famous for playing younger characters to playing adult roles?
Yeah. I wasn’t even thinking about it in relation to the journey that Eliis goes on, even though I was very much in that place in my own personal life. I had never played kid roles, and I had never been in kid films, so I’d always just thought of myself as an actor really. But when I got to be eighteen and nineteen until now, it was tricky to showcase that you are ready to move on to that next step of taking on roles that are a little bit more mature. So Brooklyn came along at the right time for me. I don’t know if it happens more with female actors or not, but definitely from eighteen to now, people would have known me from something I did when I was fifteen, and I didn’t want to rely on something I had done that long ago. I always wanted to work, and I always wanted to do the things I’m passionate about, but i definitely needed another film for the stage that I’m in now.
SC: This is one of the very few films were you get to speak in your natural Irish accent. What was that like and how do you feel about having to use put on accents in different films?
I’ll never lose my Irish accent. I always want to sound like a leprechaun! Accents really fascinate me more than anything else. It’s always the first thing I think about, the voice of a character really defines who that person is I think. I love that. It’s almost like a musical instrument when you use it in the right way, to hone in on different sounds and just how your mouth works and things like that. Even with a Canadian accent, a Canadian accent is more kind of forward I think than an American accent. An Irish accent is very out here, Scottish accent is kind of a bit more defensive, and it comes out of this community. I think it really reflects the way they sound. There’s not a danger of me losing my accent for sure. Thank god I started out with doing accents because I wouldn’t work otherwise, I wouldn’t get a job! Grand Budapest Hotel was the only other time I used an Irish accent. She wasn’t from Ireland necessarily, but that was just something that Wes wanted to do, but Brooklyn has been the only time I’ve played someone who’s from where I’m from. I just think it’s really exciting to be able to jump in to all of these different worlds through the way you speak.
SC: Were you able to find any sources of reference to help you prepare to play Eilis?
The one thing that John gave me was Philadelphia, Here I Come! by Brian Friel, even though it’s told from a male perspective. It’s the day before he moves away and it’s kind of about how his family and friends began to protect themselves and pull back a little bit. There’s the scene in the film where Eilis is just sailing off and her mom walks away, because she can’t face that. I think that’s something we do quite a bit at home. I Facetimed my Mom this morning and she was starting to cry as I was getting off. That play was the only thing that I read apart from the novel. Then I just spoke to my mom about it. I just asked her questions about how it felt when she moved away. It meant an awful lot when she saw it back at Sundance because she said it really captures the feeling and the fear and the excitement that you have when you’re going to a new place that you know nothing about.
SC: You’ve worked with Irish directors before. Is there a sensibility you pick up from working with other people who are Irish?
Yeah. When Irish people get together, whether we know each other or not, we’re very familiar with each other. I just did a job in New York and at the end of my shoot, me and a mate went to one of the U2 gigs at Madison Square Gardens. We were hanging out with everyone afterwards and their whole crew was Irish. I’d never met these people before, I’d never met Bono, but it was like we’d known each other our whole lives. That’s kind of the way we are. I don’t know whether it’s because we’re a small country and we’ve all kind of had to stick together a bit, but there is definitely that very familiar kind of family sense. I have found that with my directors, with Neil Jordan and John, that we’re just very straightforward with each other. It’s like your cousin is directing you or something.
SC: In March you’ll be making your Broadway debut in The Crucible. How did that come about?
I’m really nervous! It was Scott Rudin that approached me about it. He produces like everything anyway, but he produced Grand Budapest and loads of films that I’d done, but I never met him. We were doing a Q&A in New York for Grand Budapest and this man came up to me and it was Scott. I only met him for a few minutes and he was really lovely and then he just emailed me the next day. He said, “I’ve got this play that I really want you to do.” I was ready for theatre then. I had been asked to plays when I was younger. Theatre is different. I didn’t want to rush into it, but I was ready to do it then. I’ve been attached to it for a year and a half but I couldn’t tell anybody about it.
Brooklyn is now playing in Toronto and will expand across North America in the coming weeks.