The young Carlow-based actress Saoirse Ronan is on the brink of Hollywood stardom, thanks to her Golden Globe-nominated performance in Atonement and her upcoming starring role in the next Peter Jackson movie, The Lovely Bones. In her first ever in-depth interview, she spoke exclusively to Hot Press about her sudden rise to fame.
Read the Saoirse Ronan story by Jason O'Toole, featuring interviews with Saoirse and her father Paul Ronan, in the new issue of Hot Press.
Jason O’Toole: Did you always want to be an actress?
Saoirse Ronan: You hear people saying they wanted to act since they could talk, but when I was younger I was thinking about school and playing with my friends and things like that. It was only really when I started to act in The Clinic – and I experienced it – that I knew I wanted to act. Before that, I had done school plays and I did one short film with my dad.
You grew up seeing your dad in films and TV shows, so the movie business must be just part of your normal life, right?
I was a baby when I went on set with dad. It was great that I was able to go on set and see what it was like. So, I wasn’t like completely clueless about how films were made. But when you do it yourself you really realise what it is like. You have to think about what way you tackle your character and what way you deal with people on set. It was handy that I had been on a film set before and I suppose if I hadn’t, you know, it would have been a lot more daunting when I was on the set of The Clinic. I was nervous the first day on The Clinic, as you would be.
I heard Brad Pitt held you as a baby, is that true?
I don’t remember! I know I met him because dad worked with him on The Devil’s Own. So, yeah, I think he did hold me. And Mam and Dad said he’s a lovely, lovely guy and that he was great with me.
Do you have to pinch yourself when you think about all these big roles you got during the last two years?
Definitely, yeah, I do. I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to work with all the actors and actresses I’ve worked with. It has been brilliant. But I haven’t really had any time to sit down and go, “Wow!” Sometimes when I’m on the set of The Lovely Bones, I think how I am with these people who made The Lord of The Rings. They won like, I don’t know, 20 Oscars for it or something mad like that. It is amazing that these people are my friends now and not just the people who made The Lord of The Rings. It is mad but I am kind of used to it now.
Can you talk me through how you got into making Hollywood movies?
When I was eight I just went to Dublin for an audition for The Clinic. I met the director and I read through some stuff and I actually read for a different part. It was weird because I thought I was playing one part and then I ended up playing a different part. Then I did Proof - that’s where I met Hubbards Casting, they were casting I Could Never and that is how it all started. When I went to the audition in London I found out that some of it would be made in London and some of it would be shot in Hollywood. They just kind of said, “We are staying in London and then we are going to Hollywood.” That’s how it started off, really.
In America, do people have a problem pronouncing your name?
They have the biggest problem in the world pronouncing my name! You’d want to hear the stuff they come out with. There is so much stuff about “learning to pronounce her name. How do you pronounce her name? This is how you pronounce her name.” They are just so interested in how to pronounce my name. I hope everyone here can pronounce my name!
Do you like Hollywood?
It’s OK. I wouldn’t live there. As I said to Mam, I might buy a house there but I wouldn’t live there. Maybe it’s because I’m Irish – I don’t know – but I’d prefer to live where I am now rather than in LA. And, you know, it’s a nice place but I’m not really (pauses)… an LA lover.
I see you have your own fan website now.
Yes, I do. I was delighted with that actually. Very nice. It’s kind of cool having a fan site. If I want to find out about myself – because I don’t know half the stuff that all these people on the Internet know – I just say, “Right, what am I doing tomorrow?” and I’ll go onto my fan site. It is mad, though, how much they know, you know? It’s a bit freaky.
It’ll probably get worse as you get bigger…
Do you get bothered by the paparazzi?
No, I’m fine at the moment, which is good. I hate the paparazzi. I’ve never had it or anything, but when we were in Venice we where going to a party and Kiera (Knightley) was with us and they (the paparazzi) were on boats trying to take photos. It’s just mad. Luckily that hasn’t happened – yet.
What about autographs?
No, no autographs yet.
Well, there was this guy in Philadelphia… and it was a bit odd actually (laughs). He had an Atonement poster and he was waiting there for me to sign it, so it was a bit weird. That was my autograph. So, I’m delighted with that, now.
Only one autograph?
No, no, no – at the premiers and stuff I’ve done autographs. But, you know, outside of that.
Do your friends look at you differently now that you are a big star?
My real friends don’t. My best friends don’t and they are the only people that really matter. I mean, there’s been a few people who – and it’s understandable, really – a few kids who don’t want to (laughs) really talk to me or anything. I don’t know whether that’s because I’m in movies now or they just don’t like me – I don’t know! But some of the boys and stuff have been a bit odd, but it’s really…
I thought the boys would be nicer to you now that you’re a…
(Interrupting) That’s what I thought too! I think I have a few admirers in my new school! No, I’m only joking! But, yeah, it’s understandable though… I’ve been away for a while…
Generally, do people treat you differently when they meet you?
We were in town a few weeks ago, or a week-and-a-half ago, and there was this guy in Costa – you know the coffee shop? – and he had a newspaper and he looked at the newspaper and then he looked at me and then he turned away really quickly like, you know, I had a big wart on my face! (Laughs) And then he was trying to like make up an excuse to his daughter: “Oh, do you see that picture up there, doesn’t that look like that girl in the newspaper?” So, there are a few people like that, but it’s kind of funny.
Is acting work or fun for you?
It’s not work, it is more of a passion. It is so much fun and it is really – especially when I do dramatic scenes when I have to cry and stuff – makes you feel great at the end of the day. You feel like you are really after doing something good and you are after accomplishing something. Acting is one of these things that I can’t really describe – it’s just like, why do you love your mum and dad? You know, you just do.
How do you select your roles?
I don’t like to play characters who have been done before, if you know what I mean? There are some young actors and actresses – I’m not saying they’re all like this, but there are some – who kind of play the same roles over again. So, I kind of like to have a bit of a variety. And the likes of Briony Tallas (Atonement) and Susie Samon (The Lovely Bones) they’ve never kind of been done before, so people will remember them.
I’m sure your parents must help you pick out the roles?
Yeah, especially my dad because he’s an actor and he’s got a lot of experience. He’d read the script as well and we’d talk about it and I would tell him whether I liked it. It’s really great that dad is able to give me tips and stuff. And then Mam as well – she is really supportive.
As the roles get bigger, do you find yourself under increasing pressure?
It’s really nuts what’s happened over the past couple of years and especially now that Atonement is out, it is really big. But you can’t really think like that because then you’ll lose it. You have to take it as it comes and every role is different and every film is different. I’m just thinking about the character and what way we are going to do it and stuff, so you can’t really or else you’ll go mad. You know, if you get really, really excited about it you’ll probably like pass out or something. So, I have to be kind of calm – but still excited though.
Is it difficult being away from home?
In 2006, it wasn’t as difficult because I had breaks in between. I did Atonement and then I had a week in between that and Death Defying Acts, so even that was OK because I got to come home and see my friends and everything. But in 2007 for City of Embers and The Lovely Bones, it went straight in – it was like I finished City of Embers on the Friday and then I went over to America to do The Lovely Bones on the Saturday.
But making City of Embers in Ireland must have made it easier for you?
City of Embers was up in Belfast and people were saying, “You can go back to Carlow to see your friends.” But it is about five hours away, so we couldn’t really because they were in school and I would be wrecked on the weekends. So, I didn’t get to see them at all. I got really, really homesick when I got to America. When you are away, you realise how much you miss your home. I just missed the Irish food and the Irish people and everything, but it was great though.
Your Mam travels with you, right?
Yeah, she goes away with me everywhere.
You are going to New Zealand soon to continue work on The Lovely Bones.
I’m going in a couple of weeks. I actually can’t wait to go. I heard great reports about New Zealand. Loads of people that go there seem to just want to move there.
I understand that you desperately miss your dog when you’re away from home.
I did. I’m missing her a lot more now because she actually ran away a week ago. My nanny and granddad were minding her and she ran away and she is either in Dublin somewhere in a nice house or I didn’t know, I don’t want to even say it, but she’s gone, I think.
How are you coping with school?
Fine. I haven’t been back yet. I’m in my secondary school now but I’m not going in there till March. But we have a tutor on set, so it’s not like I’m falling behind or anything like that – but I’m not actually in school.
You are probably getting a better education from having a tutor. As it means that rather than being a overcrowded classroom, the tutor can focus on you.
Yeah, you do, but when you’re not with your friends and when you are not with other kids, it can kind of be hard.
So you must really miss your friends?
I do, yeah; especially this year because it has been seven months and I haven’t been home. I just couldn’t wait to see my friends. That was the most important thing for me – to see my friends and we want to go shopping and just do normal things that I haven’t gotten to do while I was away. I miss them so much. They are thrilled (for me). Before any of the films came out they were delighted for me but they didn’t realise how cool it was and now that Atonement is coming out and is getting so much press and everything they’ve got like posters and…they are delighted. They are so excited.
Do you get nervous auditioning for roles?
You know, I think everyone gets nervous, really – but not petrified. When I went for my first film I got really nervous because I’d never done anything like that before, but it got easier and easier. It’s better now because I start to get to know more people as well, like casting agents and everything. But I still get nervous a little bit about meeting the director. I’d be nervous about whether he’s a nice guy or girl and whether they think about the character the same way I do.
How did you get the part for The Lovely Bones? I’m sure hundreds of young actresses were dying for that particular role.
I know. It’s like the dream role. There is a fantastic casting agent called Jenny Jay and she had cast me for Atonement. She had seen me for a couple of more things as well, so I knew Jenny and she must have gotten into contact with my agent and I just went on tape for it and we sent it off. A couple of weeks later my two agents wanted to have a conference call. So, we just thought that it was about City of Embers because I had just got a role in that film. They rang up and they said: “Now, are you sitting down? They want you for The Lovely Bones!” It wasn’t one of those kind of things where we were jumping up and down and screaming all over the place because it is a Peter Jackson movie. We were just sitting there trying to think of what they said. I don’t think we ever jumped around because we are still kind of amazed that we are even working with these people.
It must have been nerve-racking to meet Peter Jackson?
Not really, because Peter is such a great guy. You see, I went on tape for The Lovely Bones and they hadn’t met me or anything and they gave me the part. I hadn’t actually met them yet. I had to keep it top secret though because obviously it is a Peter Jackson film. It is a really high profile film and we had to keep it a secret who the cast was. I was on City of Embers up in Belfast and I knew about The Lovely Bones but I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone for about two weeks or something and I was just in agony – I just wanted to tell everyone, “Oh, look – I’m in the new Peter Jackson movie.” But then I went over and I met him, Sam Walsh and Phil Boynes and they are just the best people in the world. For three people who have accomplished so much they are just really down to earth and really lovely, normal people. The great thing about them is that they bring everyone from all their other films on their next project, so they are all like a big family and everything is really comfortable…
How did you prepare for your part in The Lovely Bones?
I didn’t read the whole book. I read bits and it is just the most beautiful book. Once I read the script I just cried because it is so sad, but it is such a beautiful script though the way they did it. Peter and Sam and Phil they are really great and they really get you into the role.. I’m doing voiceover the whole way through, so that really helped as well to understand her even more because we went the whole way through the story, from beginning to end, and that really helped. I’m not like a method actor or anything like that. But I suppose you’ve got to understand the character as best you can
So, if you are not a method actor, how would you describe yourself?
When I say I’m not a method actor, you know, I don’t go around off set in an American accent. I don’t do anything like that. If I’m doing a pretty heavy scene and we are on set and we are rehearsing then I’ll be thinking about it and stuff because you kind of have to, but I’d be thinking about it and I’d really try to get into it. But I wouldn’t tell the crew not to look at me or anything while I’m in the zone – I’m not one of those people.
It must be very hard to go home after a day’s work and be cheerful after working on something like The Lovely Bones, which is a very depressing story?
Sometimes, yeah. I mean, a few times, actually, I’ve been thinking about the story and I’ve just cried. You see, it’s a sad story but it’s turned into something that is really beautiful. She’s able to… Susie has to learn to let go and that’s kind of what the film is about – her letting go and her family learning to let go. And that’s kind of what we all have to do when somebody passes away. So, yeah, sometimes I just go home and I get a bit sad, but you would though, wouldn’t you?
And with Atonement, did you have to fight for that part?
I suppose I did – a little fight for it. I went on tape like The Lovely Bones and I sent it off and then they wanted to bring me over to meet Joe (the director) and I read with the girl who is playing Lola. I got called back and was trying on wigs and things like that. And Joe and I got on really well. Then my agent, Lisa, rang and she said, “Listen, it’s down to you and another girl.” And there was this other film that I’d been offered and she said, “Do you want to go for that or do you want to go for Atonement?” And she told me that Atonement was going to be an amazing film. So, Joe and Jenny wanted me so they had to fight for me a little bit and they did.
In a recent interview, you described Kiera Knightly as your hero…
She is definitely one of them. Vanessa Redgrave is as well. Vanessa is amazing. I didn’t get to do any scenes with Vanessa because we were playing the same character. But we got to do rehearsals and everything and that was just fantastic. Besides her being such a talented actress, Vanessa is just amazing. She also does a lot of charity work, as does Susan Sarandon. So, I like that they do that – that they put money to good use, you know?
So when you get older to you want to do charity and political activism type of stuff?
I’d love to. You see, that’s the kind of thing that I think I learnt from them – how to use your career to your advantage. Is that how you say it? You should look up to them instead of these people who are going out at all hours and they are on drugs and everything.
Kiera and Vanessa are experienced actresses, so I’m sure you must have learnt a considerable amount from them. Did they ever pull you aside and give you some tips?
People have asked me before: Did they give you any tips? Really, I don’t know how they can do that because we are all playing different characters. We are all just kind of thinking about playing our own characters. But I think just being around them and seeing the way they were on set and they way they were with people… Kiera, James and Vanessa, everyone. We used to all have lunch together under this gazebo when it was lashing raining outside and they are just really down-to-earth people.
While you are obviously disappointed in not winning the Golden Globe for Atonement, you must have been thrilled to even just get nominated?
Yes. I was trying not to think about it because I was doing The Lovely Bones and I was wrecked – I still am – as well because it was coming to the end of the shoot and I knew the day before that they were going to be announced the next day. And it was kind of at the back of my mind, but I was trying to put it out of my head because if you get excited you could be disappointed, so I didn’t really want to think about it. I think everyone on set of The Lovely Bones knew before I did! It was like I didn’t have to tell anyone on set or anything. When it happened it was just – we were just jumping around… oh, it was brilliant. And everyone rang us. Like everyone in Ireland rang us – the time difference was just gone out the window.
There is talk now of maybe an Oscar nomination for you?
I’m trying not to think about that either! It’s great though.
You made another film last year called The Christmas Miracle.
I think it has gone onto DVD, which isn’t a good sign. But, you know, it is a nice film and it was a good experience. The kids on that were great. There were these two boys who are so funny. I think they were a year and two years older than me and they kind of looked after me a bit. They were the like the highlight of that film for me.
You have signed up to CAA, one of the biggest agencies in LA
I did that at the beginning of last year, I think. I’ve lost my memory – I can’t remember, but I think that was at the beginning of the year. It was the best thing ever. They are all really lovely there and it is actually this woman called Hilda from Clare. So, when we went over to LA we hadn’t heard an Irish accent in ages and ages and then we were talking to her and that was great. And Chris my agent is brilliant.
Speaking of accents, you haven’t used your Irish accent in films yet, would you like to?
I think so, yeah. I’d like to try it. I mean, It’s a bit weird because I haven’t done it in such a long time. The last time I did it I was nine or something. I think it would be nice to kind of…actually, an actress said this to me: “It’s great doing your own accent because it’s kind of one thing off your mind, that you don’t have to think about.” You don’t have to have a dialogue coach coming up to you and giving you notes on how to say a certain word, and you can just focus on the acting. I’m used to doing it now. I’ve got half of my brain for the accent and half of it for the acting! But it would be nice to not have to think about it.
I read that playing with your dolls as a child helped you learn the different accents. Is that true?
I used to have my Polly Pockets and I used to like… it was kind of like a soap opera. They used to have affairs with different Polly Pockets and then they’d have babies with other Polly Pockets, but I had these two dolls that weren’t Polly Pockets – you know Arthur? That TV programme? Arthur. He’s a little animal fellow – and I used to watch that when I was younger. And I got a toy when I was a baby, so I kept that and I used to play with Arthur and then I had Woody from Toy Story. So they all had boyfriends and they used to have like American accents, so that’s kind of where the accents came from.
It must have been funny experience when you finally got to meet Tom Hanks, who voiced Woody, when he visited the film set of City Of Embers, which his production company financed?
Yeah, it was a bit. When I was a baby I grew up with those kind of films and meeting those people is just amazing.
If you didn’t get into acting, what would you have thought about doing?
I definitely want to be an actress now. But if I hadn’t doing acting, I like arts. I would’ve liked to be an artist or maybe a writer. I like to write stories, which I suppose is like scriptwriting really. I prefer the creative stuff to the logical stuff – like maths! (Laughs)
What do you want to achieve in your acting career? I presume you don’t want to be remembered just as a child actress.
I hope that this happens: I’d like to be known as an actress who does films that make you think about life and how things are in the world. I want to do a lot of charity work because I think if more actors and actresses do charity work then maybe, you know, the public will realise that there are problems in the world and we need to get them sorted out. So, I’d like to do things like that – like Susan Sarandon and Vanessa. I’d like to be like them because they are fantastic actresses. They would be role models for me.
What do you do for fun?
Shopping – number one! In my old school – I don’t know what it’s like in my new school – we used to do loads of brilliant sports like basketball and tennis and swimming, GAA, soccer, loads of stuff. Actually, I got a Nintendo Wii for Christmas and it’s brilliant. I love it. It’s not like one of those things were you are sitting in front of the telly and you’ve got Super Mario jumping around and you are just trying to collect points. You can actually play tennis and golf. It’s brilliant. Anyone who gets it has to love it. So, I love doing that as well on a rainy day. And just being with my friends and – when my dog was here – being with my dog.
Do you like sports?
I love doing sports. We are in the country and we have fields all around us, so you kind of have to be a sporty person.
Do you watch football?
I don’t really watch football. I suppose I support Manchester United. My dad, granddads and uncles support Man united, so I’ve just kind of gone with them. I love watching the rugby last year when Ireland were playing against England. I liked that match. Actually, I like playing rugby as well. I prefer playing the sports.
Do you like books?
I do. There are a lot of people who are able to read books in a day, unfortunately I’m not really like that, which is a bit of a pain. I could get down and read a book if I was really interested in it, then I’d keep reading. My best friend reads 60 pages in 10 minutes or something stupid like that. Well, it’s not stupid, it’s actually really intelligent. I actually love the book City of Embers. There is a great book that I read a few years ago called The Secret of Platform 13. I like books that are exciting and that make you think about things as well. I like things that have a twist – like Atonement, which I haven’t read obviously, as I’m a bit young. But everything comes together at the end instead of at the start or in the middle. There are little things that don’t mean anything when you see them and then you think about them at the end of the film and how that comes into the film.
What type of music do you like?
I like loads of different kinds of music. It’s more kind of the songs. Coldplay, Snow Patrol, KT Tunstall, Fleetwood Mac. Loads of different people.
They’re good bands. I was afraid you were going to say the Spice Girls or something like that.
Do I really sound like a Spice Girls fan? (Laughs)
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