It’s late on a Friday night, yet the infinitely charming Saoirse Ronan is still vivacious and graciously eager to chat. Her bubbly energy is good news, as a very busy few months are ahead for the young and exceptionally talented Brooklyn star.
Having just received her second Oscar nomination (first was for Atonement in 2007/08 as a Best Supporting Actress,) the new Best Actress nominee still has weeks to go until the Academy Awards on February 28th; a period through which she’ll continue to champion her film Brooklyn and performance as Eilis Lacy; a smart, sensible and competent Irish immigrant in the early 1950s Brooklyn. Not to mention the fact that she has an upcoming Broadway debut with the Ivo Van Hove-directed Arthur Miller play “The Crucible,” in which she will play Abigail Williams. With “The Crucible” rehearsals kicking off soon and previews set to begin on February 29th ‐ yes, one day after the Oscars ‐ Ronan said she moved to New York City just two days ago. As she told me later during our conversation (following a screening of Brooklyn at The Museum of Modern Art and a lively on-stage conversation with MoMA’s Chief Film Curator Rajendra Roy,) she is ready to “settle in and make it her own.” As Ronan sees is, “New York has its arms open.” And who can argue with that?
The John Crowley-directed Brooklyn had its world premiere exactly one year ago at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015. During the conversation with Roy, Ronan recalled they were initially worried about how the film would be received in Park City, as Brooklyn didn’t necessarily fit the edgy festival’s bill as a “cool Sundance film.” But she found the overwhelmingly positive response ‐ both in Sundance and since then ‐ simply incredible. “Every single person has found a personal connection to it,” she told Roy. And the rest is history for Brooklyn, which also scored Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations at this year’s Oscars.
As she voiced in various interviews, Eilis’ story has been personal to Ronan as well. Her parents were hard-working immigrants in New York City starting from the 80s. Ronan was born in The Bronx, and moved to Ireland with her parents when she was 3. Then there was the period where she lived in London during the year between being cast for Brooklyn, and the start of the shoot. When the production began, Ronan was dealing with intense feelings of homesickness of her own. But she moved on, and the experience made her stronger.
Being an immigrant myself in New York City, I talked to the actor about the film’s rich themes around immigration, identity and home. Generously reminiscing over our comparable and universal experiences in moving away from home and offering up her views on the state of female driven/directed films and other content, Ronan was exceptionally bighearted, curious and articulate with her enchanting brogue.
Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Tomris Laffly: Congratulations on your Best Actress Oscar nomination and the success of Brooklyn.
Saoirse Ronan: Thank you.
You’ve done the Oscar rounds before for Atonement as a very young teenager. How is your experience different now vs. then?
I think I’m aware of what goes into this whole aspect of the industry a little bit more. I wasn’t really part of it when I was a kid because I was away working in New Zealand when the nominations came out, when I was 13. I hadn’t really done anything for it. For ages I assumed, “Oh, that’s it. You just get nominated.” I guess with this, like you (because I know you’ve been very supportive of the film,) I’ve been with it from day one. I signed on a year before the film was even made so to have gone through each stage with the film up until now, it means more.
I remember my mam said it to me when I was younger that to get an Oscar when you’re too young, when you’ve only just started, it’s wonderful but what that award could represent or what a nomination could represent later on in your life is [what’s really] incredible and meaningful. We see Leo and Martin Scorsese; when they are finally recognized, that represents a body of work. So I think just because I’ve worked for over half my life at this stage, it means a lot more to me.
The sense of “community of women” in Brooklyn is astounding. I expected ‐ when I was watching it for the first time ‐ that somebody was going to be a villain. But women are just supporting and not one-upping one another. They’re not pit against each other.
No, they aren’t.
I’m wondering if that’s one of the aspects that jumped out to you. Why don’t we have more “female community” movies like this?
I don’t know, because I think it really does influence how women in real life respond to each other and the kind of relationships they have with each other. I know even when I grew up, the films and the TV shows that were out in the 90s glamorized the popular girl and really debunked the kid who was smart or who liked math or science or whatever. It’s still going on a bit in pop culture now.
As you say, there is camaraderie and a sisterhood between all of these women. Really to me, -even though the romance between the men is a big part of the story and it drives the story forward and gives us that split that we need- it’s the women that bring the heart to it. What the film is about is one person being kind to another and helping this girl to take the next step forward, become the woman she’s supposed to be.
Then we finally get to the end of the film where she’s empowered enough because of, not only people picking her up and helping her, but also because of the likes of Mrs. Kelly. That allowed her to get to the stage where she’s able to make a choice for herself and accept that she’s going to have to sacrifice one thing in order to have another.
As an immigrant who came here about 16 years ago, I was a wreck when I saw this movie. Then I realized that wound was very open in me still. But watching this movie was therapeutic. I felt healed in a way. You voiced in other interviews that you were living in London and were homesick while making Brooklyn. I am wondering if it had similar powers on you as you were acting it out.
Ultimately it did. At the time I felt like I was completely out of control when it came to emotions. Like your reaction…that’s exactly it. You feel like a wound is wide open and you can’t protect yourself at all. When I was making the film, that’s how it felt. I felt very, very vulnerable. I’ve been very used to playing characters that are so different to me and I’ve been able to manage what I’m doing, while still organically allowing things to happen and controlling them to a certain extent. Whereas with this, I felt like it was completely out of my hands, because it was so close to me and what I was going through simultaneously.
I found that really overwhelming and genuinely, for the first couple of weeks…sometimes I would panic. I just felt like I was out of my depth because I was in London and I was still getting used to living away from home just like you did when you came over here. To go back to your hometown in the middle of that kind of experience and act out the experience of another person who was going through the same thing as you in a town that you haven’t lived in since you were a kid and that never crossed paths with your work was really weird.
It’s scary in a way. Art and life, imitating each other.
Yeah, it was scary. I was really nervous because when I was a kid, I’d go away to work and I’d go onto a film set in LA or New York or London or Bulgaria or wherever. And then I’d go home. At that stage I was still living in the country and I lived 20 minutes away from Enniscorthy where the film is set. I’d go back to this place where nobody from that town was in a film or on the telly or anything like that.
All of a sudden, 8 years later, they had crossed over and there was a lot of attention being put on me. You just didn’t want to fuck it up. You didn’t want to let anyone down but you just have to get on with it. That was the biggest lesson that I got from Brooklyn. I was genuinely scared when I was doing it and I got to the point where it was going to affect my work if I let that carry on so I had to just push it aside and knuckle down and work.
It did help you to deal with it, ultimately.
It made me stronger. I definitely felt like it made me stronger.
The film is bookended with a really specific advice: “You have to think like an American.” What does it mean to you, as someone who can look at it both from the outside and even inside?
From the outside, America is full of people that have confidence. I’m just about to do “The Crucible” [on Broadway] now and to see the genesis of this world, of this land, and to see how so much of it was driven on just hope. Nothing else but hope and belief. The people who came over here initially had to have belief in themselves. Whether it was you or myself or our families or our ancestors that came over here, you needed a certain amount of belief and gumption and a thick skin in order to survive. I think that has culminated into a culture of very confident people.
That’s something that Eva Birthistle’s character at the start says that to her and then I pass that advice on at the end to this young girl. And I think that’s what they’re saying. You’ve got to believe in yourself. Whether you do or not, you’ve got to walk in here and look like you believe in what you’re doing and you believe that you can get through it, even though you feel like you’re just about to fall apart. I think that’s something Americans have that a lot of other people don’t have. Sometimes it’s a good thing and a blessing, and sometimes it’s a curse. But I do admire the Americans for that. There is this inherent belief in it that drives them forward.
Throughout your career, you’ve been in command of your facial expressions very distinctly. I think it was your director John Crowley who said during Brooklyn’s New York Film Festival Q&A that you could have also been a great silent era actress because of that, and I completely agree. I’m wondering if there’s something specific about your approach to acting. How do you plug yourself into various emotional zones so well?
My mam talked to me years ago when I was on a film just after Atonement. I was really sad when I wrapped on Atonement. I was really missing everyone and missing the experience because it was so brilliant and really special to me. I went onto the next film and didn’t really have an awful lot of dialog. At that stage I didn’t know how to make that work to my advantage or to create a character in another way; whether it’s through your eyes, facially or just by getting yourself into the right mindset as opposed to just forwardly explaining what you’re thinking or what you’re feeling.
I think there’s so much exposition in a lot of films and it’s great to be able to take advantage of the fact that a camera is being directed at your face and it’s not going to miss a beat and if you just think it and feel it, it’ll probably show. I said to my mam, “I’m worried because I don’t really have that much to say and I don’t know how to make the character work and I don’t know how to make this girl come to life.” She said, “You know, you don’t need to say anything in order to tell a story. All you need to do is just think and use your face and different gestures.” I think subconsciously that actually became part of how I work.
So… your school of acting is your mum.
Is my mummy, yeah.
Even what you just said, about when you came over to New York, it’s little snippets like that and when people share things like that with you ‐ whether it’s a bit of wisdom or an experience that they’ve been through, you take that and you can learn from it. I remember her saying that to me and I think it always stuck with me. I didn’t consciously go, “Okay, that’s what I’m going to set out to do. Then I’m going to play characters that can express themselves in other ways,” but I think why wouldn’t you?
It’s great to speak as well but it’s also brilliant to just use your body and your face and your eyes to communicate with people. I know we’re doing an interview right now and so I’m talking a lot and then you’re listening and responding. The whole point is that we talk to each other. But in real life, we don’t spend our whole time explaining everything to everyone how we feel. We just get on with things and I think it’s lovely to just take advantage of that. I’d love to do a silent film. I remember when John [Crowley] said it, I was really chuffed because I’ve always wanted to do a silent film AND a musical.
They’re definitely not out of reach for you. So, is there a director that you would like to work with next? You already worked with such an impressive list of names.
Todd Haynes does amazing work. I haven’t met him yet throughout this whole thing, but I was watching an interview that he did the other day about Carol and he just seems like a real actor’s director and I’d like to work with someone like him. I’d like to work with Wes [Anderson] again because every film that he does is different, so you always know you’re going to have a different experience.
Do you also have any females in mind?
I’m not going to say what it is yet, but the film I’m doing after the play is going to be with a female director.
Oh, that’s great!
I’ve also gotten to work with people like Nikole Beckwith who’s a really a good friend of mine. She directed the film that I did just before Brooklyn [Stockholm, Pennsylvania] and I should mention it more. Working with Nikole right before Brooklyn really helped. She’s a true feminist filmmaker and I think working with someone like her right before I went into Brooklyn where so much of it is about female interaction really helped me to embrace that more, be excited about it and I want to celebrate that. She’s really helped me an awful lot. But I have noticed over the last two or three years that there’s a lot more female directors.
There are definitely a lot more [names] and talk [of female directors] in the industry. It’s not something people can hide from anymore.
The show Transparent… It’s women that kind of run that show; like Nisha Ganatra, whom I’ve talked to a bit.
TV seems to be so ahead.
It’s so ahead. SO ahead. I really do think it’s because the women in comedy started to reign. When you look at the actresses in SNL ‐ like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler ‐ I think when we saw them doing well, then Tina got her own show and she wrote the show and she produced the show and other women suddenly…the floodgates opened. Amy and then Tina were able to do their thing. Amy Poehler was able to do Parks and Rec and then Amy Schumer came along with her film Trainwreck. I think it really is the women in comedy that have been leading the way for the rest of us.
As you were saying before, it’s still very unusual for a film to consist of more than one scene that just has women in it and it’s just female interaction and they’re not catty with each other and it’s not necessarily sexual or anything. It’s just one woman talking to another and helping each other. I think we’ve been tricked almost into thinking, “Oh yeah, we’re feminists now.” Filmmaking is feminist because we’ve got female heroines and we’ve got women who are leading films.
There’s such a deeper angle, and a conversation that needs to happen.
Yes, [because these women are] surrounded by men still. It’s great to see all these female superheroes and all these women leading the way. I’ve done it in films too but even some of the films I’ve done, you’re surrounded by men some of the time. I really hope that that starts to change because even I just know from the relationship I have with my mam and my auntie Margaret and all of the female friends that I have in my life, they are the ones –[through] the conversations I’ve had with them- that helped me learn, more than anything.
It’s so true. The last few years, there have been such a shortage, but this year, there are more women’s stories. And I do hope there are even more of them soon.
I hope so too.
I look forward to seeing your play. Have you now moved to New York permanently?
I don’t know. I’m going to see.
What are you looking forward to most about living in New York City?
Just becoming a New Yorker. Listening to the way New Yorkers talk… I want to be able to give directions to people. I want to be able to come along and just go, “Oh yeah, it’s on East 49th and it’s between so-and-so and so-and-so and you know that little place on the corner?” That’s something that New Yorkers do more than anyone else.
You want to be an insider.
I want to be an insider. I want to go, “Oh yeah, I found this great little place down an alleyway somewhere and if you give them the secret pass code then they’ll let you in and it’s actually a fuckin’ arcade,” or something like that. I want to be able to really settle in and make it my own. I feel like I can. New York gives that to people. New York just has its arms open, regardless of the likes of Trump. It keeps its arms open to everyone. I love that about the city and that’s because of all of us, between ourselves and our families coming from all these different places.
We’re a part of the backbone.
Yes! We really are! That’s something I haven’t found as much anywhere else. That’s why I think I feel so happy here. It really makes me so happy to be here because I think, “Yeah, this is my city just as much as it is anyone else’s.”
It is, and I’ll give you a secret.
What is it?
Harlem will be the new Brooklyn.
That’s what I think! I’ve heard that! And Queens is very cool, isn’t it?
It is cool. It’s the borough that’s perhaps a bit more under the radar. I suspect Queens residents might be smartly keeping it a secret.
[Laughs] But yeah, I’ve heard that about Harlem. So, did you ever think about going back home though?
Maybe a little bit. But you know how it is. You say you’ll just stay for a year, and then you figure you’ll just do this one more thing, and then you meet someone, and then before you know it, it’s 5 years. And so on.
Then you’re a New Yorker.
That’s exactly right. That’s most people’s story I guess.
Same thing [with Eilis]. Who knows what would have happened if she wasn’t married to Tony and she’d gone back home and she didn’t have anything tying her to New York? I think she needs him in order to give her that push to go back to New York. She needs that responsibility, almost and that tie to New York.
Definitely. But even without him, you can see that she is both an insider and an outsider [back in Ireland].
As soon as you move away, that’s the way you’re always going to be.
Exactly. Something is different but you don’t quite know what.
I’m sure you found that. For me, that was the saddest thing about moving away. I realized I’m never just going to be completely at home [in Ireland] again. There will be a part of me that will only feel comfortable and safe there because at the end of the day, home is home and Ireland will always be my absolute home. But there is another part of me that wakes up when I’m in New York that Ireland won’t give me. I think everyone has that.
That makes you a richer person.
Absolutely. Once you can wrap your head around that, it’s great.