Jason O’Mahony talks to the talented Saoirse Ronan about her already impressive list of acting credits and her role in Neil Jordan’s latest vampire tale, Byzantium.
One of the brightest stars of the Irish film firmament must surely be Saoirse Ronan, the young Irish actress who came to worldwide attention in 2007’s Atonement.
Ronan was at the Kerry Film Festival recently to pick up the Maureen O’Hara Award, which is presented annually to a lady that has excelled in film. Ronan is in good company with Oscar®-winning actresses Brenda Fricker and Juliette Binoche picking up the Award in 2008 and 2010 respectively, and writer and director Rebecca Miller and actress Fionnula Flanagan receiving it in 2009 and 2011.
‘It’s a real honour to win an award like this, particularly one that’s named after such an iconic person,’ says Ronan. ‘Maureen has had a massive influence on Irish actresses and especially on young Irish actresses. She achieved so much at such a young age and went on to have a very distinguished career.’
It’s certainly no leap of faith to suggest Ronan will achieve as much in her career. She’s already picked up Oscar® and Golden Globe nominations for her role as Briony Tallis, the troubled young 13-year-old in Atonement and has won an IFTA Award in each of the last five years for Atonement, Death Defying Acts, The Lovely Bones, The Way Back and Hanna. It’s hard to believe she’s only just turned 18!
The success, however, has clearly not gone to her head. She comes across as a wonderfully down-to-earth young lady and laughs off any talk of imitating the iconic O’Hara. ‘I’ve been very lucky so far, but Maureen is a legend. I’m a massive fan of her work; The Quiet Man, for example, is just brilliant filmmaking; a real classic. And for any Irish actress to be involved in a film that was so huge, well, it’s a real proud moment for other Irish actresses and, I suppose, for all Irish people.’
Ronan will next appear in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, playing a 200-year-old ‘sucreant’, or vampire, trapped in the body of a teenage girl. ‘Neil is amazing to work with; he’s quite humble as a director. He doesn’t want to step on the toes of actors and he has such a respect for what they do. He allows them to make their own decisions,’ says Ronan. ‘He’s great with the actors, whenever you need him he’s unreservedly there for you yet he’ll also stand back and allow you to make your own choices.’
Such generosity of spirit in directors is important to Ronan. In fact, she sees the actor/director relationship as key to both her work and her decision-making process when choosing her roles. ‘Overall, I would say the single most important thing to me when deciding on a script is my relationship with the director,’ she says. ‘Obviously the script definitely needs to be strong or, at the very least, have the potential to be fantastic once it’s been polished. I think that’s an important point because even if the script isn’t quite there from the very start it can be refined and, as actors, we can bring something to it, especially if you’re working with a strong director who is open to ideas.’
These ideas often come about through the rehearsal process, which is very close to Ronan’s heart, ‘I enjoy doing rehearsals because you get to spend time with the other actors and with your director. You’re bouncing about from costume fittings to dialect lessons to reading through scenes and it really feels like the entire project is coming together in those few weeks. You get very enthusiastic during rehearsals.
‘One of the things that first struck me about Neil was the amount of questions he asked us. As we were rehearsing, the finer points in the story were still being worked out. We’d go over a scene and he’d look to the actors and genuinely ask, “What do you think of that? Do you think that’s how it should be?” He always wanted to get other people’s opinions. He’s very generous like that, he wants the project to work as well as it can and is very open to feedback, which is a wonderful environment for an actor.’
It takes a director at the very top of his game to be so open and collaborative and Ronan is lucky in having worked with some of the very best directors in the business. Peter Jackson cast her in The Lovely Bones on the strength of seeing an audition tape. ‘That was a complete shock, it had never happened before. We sent off the tape and were thrilled when we got the call,’ says Ronan. ‘Making that tape, actually, was one of those times where the emotion totally took over. My dad does all my audition tapes with me and directs them and we did one of the scenes where Suzie is in heaven and talking about the horrific things that happened to her: the abduction, the rape. It was really harrowing; the emotion just flowed and I was shaking when we had finished the tape. It was a fantastic experience and it must have worked because I got the part!’
While other actors find it difficult to summon deep wells of emotion, Ronan can seemingly tap it at will and is equally adept at playing a genetically modified killing machine in Hanna as she is at playing an abducted and frightened young girl in The Lovely Bones. Her roles have encompassed a wide gamut of emotions that would tax an actress twice her age but she’s as joyfully down to earth about it as she is about everything and is happy to talk about her process.
‘I tend to go over things in great detail the night before important scenes, and make sure I’ve learned my lines. I’ll always go through things in many different ways in preparation but, on the day, I prefer to do it on my own. It’s sometimes good to go through the lines with the other actors, particularly if a line isn’t sinking in. But I do prefer to go off to a quiet place on my own to work on the emotional core of the character,’ she says. ‘I go off on my own, I don’t say anything, I don’t look at anything but I do this thing where I kind of pace backwards and forwards and that seems to really focus my mind, almost like a moving meditation.’
And, despite many of her characters going to quite dark places, she finds the work immensely gratifying. ‘It’s very satisfying to do scenes like that; to allow yourself to feel such deep emotions and to become totally involved in the character,’ she says.
‘I love doing scenes full of trauma, I like doing upsetting scenes because it’s an event for me. I just did a film, How I Live Now, and I played a girl that’s a spoiled brat. So it was actually great for me to be able to just let myself go. Obviously, I don’t have a life that’s in any way similar to hers but I could let out all the anger and all the frustration through her. So I found it cathartic.’
How I Live Now is directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) and details the story of American teen, Daisy (Ronan), who is sent to live with English cousins on the eve of the breakout of World War III.
Ronan also likes to do a number of different takes: ‘I’d hate to have only one or two takes to get it right because if you know the director is going to allow you to try it a few different ways it really frees you up to try different things; it also relaxes you.
‘And, generally speaking, even if the director is happy with it after a few takes, I still like to try a few more just to really get it as good as it can be. I mean, I love doing scenes where the takes will go on for quite a long time because it really frees you up to make it as natural as it can be.’
Ronan draws inspiration from other naturalistic actors and is a huge fan of Ed Harris, with whom she worked on The Way Back and William Hurt (whom she worked with on the upcoming The Host, the latest film to be made from a book by Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer). She’s also a big fan of Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Meryl Streep.
Saoirse Ronan is a breath of fresh air, a young actress who looks back in such awe at the canon of acting greats that it keeps her grounded about her own substantial achievements. Maureen O’Hara paid a glowing tribute at the ceremony. ‘I’m thrilled that Saoirse Ronan will be honoured with the Maureen O’Hara Award this year. She is a remarkable actress who has given so many magical performances at such a young age. She truly represents the very finest that young Ireland has to offer. Her talent and dedication to her craft are an inspiration to all our wonderfully talented young actors pursuing their dreams in film. Her work and theirs makes me so proud because we’re the best in the world. It bodes very well for the future of the Irish film industry but, more than that, it speaks of the inherent strength in young Irish people and promises a bright future for the whole country.’
And with that Ronan bounced up to collect the award, won over the entire audience with her natural charm and returned to her seat next to her mom and dad, the accomplished actor Paul Ronan, as seemingly unaware of the effect she has on the audience as she is of her staggering talent.
Maureen O’Hara was right; with young Irish people like Saoirse Ronan the future looks bright indeed.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 143 in 2012.