- 22 Jan 08
Unheard of a year ago, Carlow teen Saoirse Ronan is the actress of the hour in Hollywood. Here, she and her actor father Paul Ronan talk about her remarkable rise.
The 13-year-old actress Saoirse Ronan was sitting, accompanied by her parents, waiting for a conference call. Her new representative from CAA, arguably the biggest talent agency in the US, was scheduled to ring. The Ronans assumed the phone call was to discuss the mundane task of fine-tuning the contractual details for Saoirse’s latest co-starring role, alongside the legendary comedian Bill Murray, in the big budget sci-fi movie City of Ember. But the call turned out to be anything but routine.
They heard the agent’s voice boom out of the loudspeaker: “Are you sitting down for this?” There was a dramatic pause, before the agent revealed what was mind-blowing news: “They want you for The Lovely Bones!”
Again, there was silence. Had they heard that right? Did Saoirse’s agent just say that she was actually being offered the lead role in the new Peter Jackson movie? It was one of the most sought-after parts in recent years, with literally over a thousand young actresses fighting it out for the opportunity to star in the eagerly anticipated adaptation, by the Lord of the Rings director, of Alice Sebold’s hugely successful novel.
It took a while for the news to sink in. “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,” reminisces Saoirse. “We were just sitting there trying to think of what they said. It’s like the dream role. I don’t think we ever jumped around – because we’re still kind of amazed that we are even working with these people.”
Jackson selected the Carlow-based teenager for the lead role after viewing an audition tape. Apparently, Jackson was so impressed with Saoirse’s innate acting skills that he immediately called up the casting agent to reveal that he’d found “the perfect actress” for his next blockbuster. In fact, Jackson didn’t meet Saoirse until she flew over to the US to start filming.
“There is a fantastic casting agent called Jenny Jay,” Saoirse explains, “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 went on tape for The Lovely Bones – and we sent it off. They hadn’t met me or anything when they gave me the part.
“I had to keep it top secret though – because obviously it is a Peter Jackson film and it is a really high profile. I was on City of Ember 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’!”
For those unfamiliar with The Lovely Bones, it is the story of a 14-year-old, brutally murdered rape victim, who narrates her story from heaven, as she looks down on her family as they try to cope with the tragedy. It is a taxing role for a 13-year-old to play, to say the very least.
“Once I read the script I just cried because it is so sad, but it is such a beautiful script. I’ve been thinking about the story. You see, it’s a sad story but it’s turned into something that is really beautiful,” Saoirse explains. “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 and I’ve cried a few times, but you would though, wouldn’t you?”
Immediately after wrapping up filming for City of Ember in Belfast last year, Saoirse jetted off to Philadelphia with her parents to start work on the voice-over narration of The Lovely Bones. In the end, Saoirse spent almost nine months of 2007 away from home. “In 2006, it wasn’t as difficult because I had breaks in between,” she says. “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 last year, I finished City of Ember on the Friday and then I went over to America to do The Lovely Bones on the Saturday. City of Ember was up in Belfast and people were saying, ‘You can go back to Carlow to see your friends’. But it’s 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 was 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.”
In recent interviews, Saoirse revealed that she also missed her dog. But when she got home at Christmas, the dog, unfortunately, had absconded. “I’m missing her a lot more now," she says, sadly. "My nanny and granddad were minding her and she ran away and she’s 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.”
Saoirse is now halfway through filming The Lovely Bones, but she still sometimes finds it a surreal experience to be working on such a big-budget film. “I haven’t really had any time to pinch myself. I haven’t really had any time to sit down and go, ‘Wow!’ Sometimes when I’m on the set, I think about 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 Lord of The Rings. It is mad – but I am kind of used to it now. 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.”
The past two years have been phenomenal for the young actress, with the result that she is now one of the hottest properties in Hollywood. Saoirse has produced an impressive body of work during the past two years. She has six films under her belt already and was nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category at this year’s Golden Globes for her portrayal of Kiera Knightley’s younger sister in Atonement. Unfortunately, Saoirse’s dream of strolling up the red carpet at the award ceremony this week were scuppered. The striking Hollywood screenwriters picket of the ceremony prompted the television network to cancel the show, after it was made clear that no Hollywood actor would cross the picket line.
But despite not being able to savour the moment in the Golden Globe limelight what’s clear is that Saoirse Ronan is now, indeed, a rising star.
Recalling the moment she learnt about the nomination, Saoirse told me: “I was trying not to think about it because I was doing The Lovely Bones in Pennsylvania and I was wrecked – I still am – as well because it was coming to the end of the shoot and I knew that the nominations were going to be announced the next day. 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. But then when it happened we were just jumping around. I think everyone on the set of The Lovely Bones knew before I did! And everyone in Ireland rang us – the time difference was just gone out the window. Oh, it was brilliant.”
While she was unfortunate not to win the Golden Globe award, there is no doubting that there will be other award possibilities in the near future. To begin with she has ben nominated for an IFTA as Best Supporting Actress in Atonement. There are also whisperings about a possible Oscar nomination for her part in the movie. And we’ve got to remember that the last five movies made by Peter Jackson have bagged Oscars in almost every category. So, even now, it might be worth a bet with Paddy Power on Saoirse earning a Best Actress nomination for The Lovely Bones.
Her father Paul Ronan is also an actor. He has starred alongside Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own and also had a leading role in the final series of Ballykissangel. Even knowing the ropes as he does, he admits that he is still flabbergasted by his daughter’s swift ascent. “No matter how talented anyone is, it is a surprising rise by any standards,” Paul reflected when the family finally got back home for a short break at Christmas, before jetting back off to New Zealand this month so Saoirse could continue work on The Lovely Bones.
“She has surprised the hell out of all of us. I’m not surprised that she is an actor, but I am surprised with the speed because it rarely happens to any actor, of any age, of any sex, of any nationality. I wake up every morning with a smile on my face – happy for her. We are just walking on air. In fact, her whole family are walking on air. My brother Bobby has been battling leukaemia for two years – he’s doing great now. The news that Saoirse was giving him from time to time was one of those things that was giving him a lift – so it’s been great for him.
“Everybody is getting such a kick out of it. I’m happy that it has happened to such a good kid and happy that she is handling it so well. I wouldn’t be happy if she was getting all this success and it was turning her head and was affecting her; then it would make me really very unhappy. I’d pull her out of the business as quickly as I could if I thought that was happening.”
As the roles get bigger, Saoirse is refusing to allow the obvious increased pressure get to her. “You can’t really think like that because then you’ll lose it – you’ll go mad,” she proffers. “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. It’s really nuts what’s happened over the past couple of years and especially now that Atonement is out, it is really big. 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.”
In fact, Saoirse was born in the Bronx, New York in 1994. Her parents had emigrated to the States in the late ’80s, because of the high level of unemployment back home in Dublin. Her mother Monica (neé Brennan) from Cabra had worked as a child actress alongside Maureen Potter in the Gaiety, but hasn’t acted since. Paul, who is from Ballymun, was working in a New York bar when he was persuaded to take up acting by Chris O’Neill, an actor from The Riordans.
It was this thespian influence that had Saoirse acting – literally – while still in the pram. She got her first film role when she was about one year old in a film called Exile, in which her father played the leading part. Soon afterwards, her parents briefly discussed getting Saoirse seriously into the business. It didn’t pan out. Paul recalls: “We thought she was the cutest baby in the world, as you do when it’s your kid. So, we thought, ‘Ah, we’ll put her in for an ad and we’ll see how she gets on’. Years ago, in Manhattan, we’d brought her in for one of these auditions for, I think, a tyre or something. She was only a baby – not even a toddler – and I walked into the room and it was full of women and crying and screaming children – and they were all trying to get their kids to sit up straight. I saw the look on Saoirse’s face when she saw this – a look of sheer terror – and me and Monica looked at each other and went, ‘Nay, this is not for us. No way. We are out of here’. Straight away. We didn’t even have to ask each other. We didn’t want any kind of fear or anything negative for Saoirse.”
The Ronans moved back to Ireland when Saoirse was about four-years-old.
Saoirse used to accompany her father onto the sets of films and TV shows he worked on. When she was only about two-years-old, the Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt used to pick Saoirse up and play with her between takes on the set of The Devils Own. Unfortunately, Saoirse can’t remember meeting Pitt. “I know I met him because dad worked with him on The Devil’s Own. And Mam and Dad said he’s a lovely, lovely guy, and that he was great with me,” she explains.
She says that being around the film sets as a child proved to be ideal training. “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,” she says. “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. It did help in that way.”
Her father remembers how she was constantly mimicking accents. “From a very young age, she had shown a remarkable imagination with accents and with inventing characters and just enjoying life – she was a very happy child,” Paul says. “She was literally able to go into the corner with a bunch of toys and do plays with her dolls, and having them all doing different accents. I used to get such a kick out of just listening to her.”
Saoirse agrees that playing with her dolls as a child helped her learn the different accents. “I used to have my Polly Pockets and it was kind of like a soap opera,” she recalls. “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. 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.”
Her innate talent for accents has paid off. So far, Saoirse hasn’t used her own accent in any of the movies she has made. But she would like to use her own accent in a film? “It’s a bit weird because I haven’t used my Irish accent on film in such a long time,” she says. “The last time I did it I was nine or something. I think it would be nice. 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.”
Saoirse’s second foray into the acting world was when, at the age of six, she starred alongside her father again. “It was a short film I put her in that was never released called Keep Talking,” Paul recalls. “She was great in it. At the time, the girl directing it saw Saoirse hitting her marks, and moving on action, and being quiet when she was supposed to be. She had to do a scene where she pretended to climb over a big back garden wall and it was one of these pebble dashed walls. So, Saoirse would start the scene kind of hanging off this wall, try to keep her knees out, and then jump down – and she’d hit it every time,” he says.
Saoirse enjoyed making Keep Talking, but she didn’t consider acting as a possible full-time career. She explains: “That was for, like, a day and I was dressed up as a clown,” she says. “It was a brilliant role, though. You hear people saying they wanted to act since they could talk and everything, 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. I did The Clinic when I was about eight and before that I had done school plays and things like that.”
“Now,” she continues, “Acting is not work, it is more of a passion. It is so much fun – especially when I do dramatic scenes when I have to cry and stuff, as you feel great at the end of the day. You feel like 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.”
Paul says he was reluctant to “ever push her in anyway or even nudge her towards the business”. The upsetting audition experience back in Manhattan had stuck in his mind. However, Paul eventually decided to get Saoirse some more acting experience after various people had commented on her obvious abilities. “I felt it was the right time,” he recalls, “because she had such confidence with people and such a great imagination and exuberance. People used to look at her and go, ‘My God! She’s special’, just by the way she acted around people and carried herself. My agent Lisa-Ann Campbell said, ‘Bring her in and I’ll meet her whenever you are up in Dublin’. I brought her in one time – not to bring her in specifically – and Lisa Ann said, ‘She is just adorable. She is amazing. We’ve got to put her out for stuff’.”
The first role Saoirse auditioned for was a part in The Comedians, starring Dylan Moran and Michael Caine. Her Irish agent recalls how Saoirse “really impressed” the casting directors but, unfortunately, she was deemed too young for that particular role. “She didn’t get that, but Lisa-Ann called up with an audition for The Clinic for her. She went in for the audition – and bang, got it,” says Paul.
Saoirse recalls: “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.”
Saoirse earned rave reviews for her work in The Clinic and was cast the following year in another RTÉ drama, Proof 2. During the first week of shooting, the director Thaddeus O’Sullivan took Paul aside and declared, “ Saoirse is going to be a major star.”
Paul, who had worked with Thaddeus on Ordinary Decent Criminal, figured that his director friend was being kind. “I really thought that he was just being nice to me because he knew me and he was a friend. I said, ‘Yeah, thanks, Thaddy’. But he said, ‘No, really – she is a star’. He said ‘look at this’ and he showed me some of the daily rushes and he said, ‘Look at the way she does this scene. She would have been playing the lead role in my last film. She is a star. You just watch’.”
The director’s predication was correct. “Basically she hasn’t not gotten anything she’s gone for since then,” Paul reveals. “She has done six movies in two years and has turned down about four as well. There are scripts coming her way now, where people are not even talking about auditions and stuff, but they are talking about, ‘Will you do the film?’.”
It was while making Proof that Saoirse met Hubbards Casting, who invited her over to London – at her own expense – to audition for the new Michelle Pfeiffer movie, I Could Never Be Your Woman (set for release in 2008).
Saoirse was extremely nervous for that audition. “I got really nervous because I’d never done anything like that before, but it got easier and easier,” she says. “I do still kind of get nervous sometimes. I get nervous about meeting the director a little bit because 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. You know, I think everyone gets nervous, really – but not petrified."
Her next major role was as Kiera Knightley’s little sister in Atonement. Her performance in the film, for which she got rave reviews, made Hollywood sit up and take notice. When I interviewed Jonathan Rhys Meyers for hotpress back in November, the actor spoke glowingly about her performance. At the time, he said: “I’m delighted for Saoirse Ronan. She is one of a few very beautiful, very smart actresses emerging from Ireland at the moment. She is superb in Atonement. It is a beautiful movie. Saorise Ronan – I was really like, ‘wow!’ She is beyond fucking good. I have never made a performance like that.”
However, it was almost a part that Saoirse didn’t take. At the same time, a major Hollywood studio offered her a colossal three-movie deal that would have financially set her up for life. But she, along with her parents, could immediately spot the downside: she would be virtually tied exclusively to that particular studio until those three films were completed, which would mean she’d probably be in her late teens before completing the contract. Besides, she felt that the role in Atonement was a better choice, as she knew it would fully demonstrate her acting abilities.
Saoirse recalls the decision to take the film: “I went on tape, like The Lovely Bones, and I sent it off and then they wanted to bring me over to meet Joe (Wright – director of the film) 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.
“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 Tallis (Atonement) and Susie Salmon (The Lovely Bones), they’ve never kind of been done before, so people will remember them.”
Paul adds: “We have turned down some really big ones for smaller ones. Rather than snapping at money, Saoirse has guided us through what roles she loves. She knows when she likes a role herself. She reads through the script and we’ll talk about role selection. I’d read the scripts of course – and the agent would – and we’d talk among us to see what is the most suitable. It is a collaborative effort.”
Working on Atonement, Saoirse says she learnt a lot from Kiera Knightley and, in particular, the veteran actress and political activist, Vanessa Redgrave. “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, 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, do 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.
“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. I’d like to be like Susan Sarandon and Vanessa because they are fantastic actresses.”
Paul admits that their lifestyle has dramatically transformed since Saoirse’s acting career took off. “Monica went over and accompanied Saoirse when she did Atonement. So it did disrupt our lives because it separated us and we are never really separated."
Paul also admits that he is wary of the fame side of the acting game. “It is worrying,” he says. “Any parent would feel the same. All you want is for them to be happy and have a good, full, normal life and to turn into a good person – that’s all you want for them. When we were in Venice, I saw that same scared look that she had when we walked into that baby audition. I kind of got a glimpse of that when she stepped onto the red carpet at a pre-premiere photo shoot of her and Kiera. They were standing to the side, but as soon as she walks on they’re screaming at her. I kind of saw a little bit of fear on her face when she saw that, and it is daunting, when you go on and next of all there is like a sea of flashing lights and voices behind those lights shouting at you – it has got to be weird for a 12,13-year-old kid.
“Stardom and fame and all that stuff can be a help or a hindrance in life – I’m just hoping that it will be a help to her. As it goes along, I think we are doing OK at the moment – but you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”
Despite all the glamour associated with being a rising Hollywood star, Saoirse is still very much a typical, down-to-earth teenager who loves sports (she is rugby mad and a Man Utd fan), listening to music (she is a big Snow Patrol fan), playing with her Nintendo Wii, and, more importantly, shopping with her friends. When she came home for Christmas, she told me: “The most important thing for me is to see my friends and go shopping and just do normal things that I haven’t gotten to do while I was away.”
She is so articulate and balanced in her approach that it is almost impossible to believe that she has just started secondary school – though, to date, she has had to do most of her study ‘on the road’. I ask do her friends look at her differently now that she is being recognised a real star – at least one in-the-making?
“My real friends don’t and they are the only people that really matter,” she says. “I mean, there’s been a few people who – and it’s understandable, really – a few kids who don’t want to really talk to me or anything (laughs). 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 think I have a few admirers in my new school!
“No, I’m only joking! I’ve got four best friends and they treat me the same, so they are really the only people who matter. 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 out and is getting so much press and everything they’ve got like posters and… they are delighted. They are so excited.”
Also on hotpress.com: an exclusive web-only Q&A with Saoirse Ronan