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Sundance 2015 Interview: Saoirse Ronan on "Brooklyn"

The poised, gifted Irish actress Saoirse Ronan took hold in larger public consciousness with her brilliant turn as the fanciful and tormented young fabricator Briony in Joe Wright's excellent 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan's "Atonement."

The precocious 13-year-old earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her judicious and sharp turn. She promptly launched a promising and highly unpredictable career that has shrewdly moved between intimate art house titles and larger budgeted works with leading directors such as Peter Jackson ("The Lovely Bones"), Wes Anderson ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") and Wright (“Hanna”).

The 20-year-old actress continues to impress with two first-rate performances in two radically different works that each had world premieres at Sundance. She plays a young Irish émigré in "Brooklyn," John Crowley’s emotionally buoyant and highly accomplished adaptation of Irish novelist Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel of the same name.

Ronan also stars in Nikole Beckwith's "Stockholm, Pennsylvania," playing in the festival's dramatic competition.

Set in 1952, "Brooklyn" explores the emotional and social repercussions of exile and loss in telling the story of Eilis Lacey (Ronan), a young woman of restricted opportunities who leaves her coastal Irish village for New York. In her expressive and highly tactile performance, Ronan suffuses the part with grace, toughness and a wounded pride as she oscillates between desire and freedom, sacrifice and hope.

In an interview, Ronan talked about her emotional connection to the material, her family's own experiences as émigrés, her creative background and a career that shows no limitations.

You were actually born in the Bronx, but your family returned to Ireland when you were a young child. The material of "Brooklyn" must have resonated very deeply with you.

SAOIRSE RONAN: I was three and a half when we moved back. This movie is really my mother and father's story. They made the journey over to America in the 1980s. They struggled and it was hard, and there were times they were doing well with work and there were times they were broke. My mom, Monica Ronan, worked as a nanny, and she really wanted to stick it out. She's a very independent and strong woman. New York really made her who she was.

My dad, Paul, did a load of different jobs, and he ended up working in a bar. This Irish actor named Chris O'Neill was part of a theater group and they went to the bar one night after a performance, and long story short, my dad was discovered by Chris and got his first job in the play 'Da,' and he was bitten by the bug and moved us. It's been great to be brought up around actors.

I get asked a lot if it helped for my dad to be an actor, but I never wanted to be in a situation where I was sat down and told this was what to expect. I was always surrounded by creative people. I was always surrounded by people in the theater, actors and directors, since an early age.

The parallels to "Brooklyn" are pretty striking.

Straightaway, with this film I had such a connection to New York, the experience that [my parents] had. I loved the spirit and energy of the place. If you're coming from a small town in Ireland and you were never exposed to American people and American culture, it can be absolutely terrifying. About 10 months ago, I moved away, to London, and I went through that experience of my character. I was excited but also I felt very scared about the new experience, after being away from the security of home and your parents.

I moved to London when I was 19. There were times when I just cried and cried because I was homesick, and I missed my mother and the Irish people. I can understand what that feels like.

How did you mediate the different material in shaping the part, the novel, the script and your interaction with your director, John Crowley and the other actors?

The book really helped when it came to the stuff we don't focus on in the script, like her relationship with her father, which very much informs her relationship with her mother and clarifies her relationship with her sister, which is so close. It was good to get the understanding of the background and what had happened in the past. It was great to have a sense of the text, the origins of the story. It was an absolute pleasure to read [Tóibín] because he really captures the spirit of what it means to move away from home.

Like he proved with "An Education," or "Wild," Nick Hornby has an acute ability to honor the source material but also locate his own film language.

The script was so beautiful. I read it about a year before we shot the film, and I loved it. This was the project I wanted to work on. I was very impressed with how Nick captured the Irish spirit and sensibility, who we were and how we spoke to one another and he didn't make it one-dimensional. He didn't make us stereotypical like others have done in the past when it comes to Ireland. I think it was great to have a real story. I noticed when I went back to it a year later when we shot the film, I had changed so much in that time. I'd gone through all of these different emotions, what I spoke of before, on leaving home, and I understood everything on a much deeper level.

How would you characterize your collaboration with the director John Crowley?

He made me understand the script in a whole new way. He revealed all of these facets of the story to me that I hadn't thought of before. He said something to me that I'll never forget. He said, "Ultimately this movie is about a choice she has to make by the end of the film, and she's experienced enough and gone through enough to stand on her own two feet and recognize what the right thing for her is and it's up to her to make her own decision."

In Joyce’s "Ulysses," one of the characters famously says history is a nightmare from which we’re trying to awake. In Irish culture, there's a pronounced sense of how the past is constantly superimposed over the present.

In Ireland, for a long time, the past really did define us. A lot of people couldn't move on from it. There's always been a sense of mourning, and the culture that was very much bruised by the repression that we suffered in Ireland. We had to fight through it. Our only way to survive it was to tell stories. We're very good at it. Our imagination and ability to share our experiences with each other is something we're very used to and something we've been doing for a very long time.

Is there a way you convert thought into action? A performance like this allows you to take all of your training and beliefs to shape character and emotion.

I didn't train. That's not my background at all. I don't have a theory. I just rely on instinct and the direction I've been given. I work with the script I've been given, and if there are any references or research that I can do. That's great and very informed. I've never been technical to where the emotion comes from or how to get there.

It must be very liberating, having the freedom to inhabit the characteristics and instincts of people who might be your exact opposite.

That's all I've ever wanted to do was to play somebody who was completely different from me. I have another film at Sundance, "Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” and Jason Isaacs said something the other day, and this is always the answer I give. As an actor you're basically putting yourself back into the mind of a child, I think. Being uninhibited and kind of fearless with your own emotions and be able to accept them and work with them. It's what makes children so magical, but how they do it makes it very effortless.

For me that's what I've tried to do, and how it's naturally come out to me. When I was a kid, I pretended that I was in a completely different world. I was just in my backyard, or I could fly or I was in "Harry Potter" and if I went past this tree, I was in a whole different world. When you can capture that again and again that's the key to it.

You were nominated for an Academy Award at 13, which is obviously not the normal career trajectory of most actors. In these last six or seven years, how have you been able to navigate the vicissitudes of the industry and also achieve your own artistic and career satisfaction?

I think it was easier in the way when I was a kid because there's less expected of you. When you reach your teenage years, that's when it starts to get complicated and you have to watch out for people trying to change you. I was very lucky I was kept away from it. I had a great mom, and she balanced it so well. I knew what the industry was and I wasn't exposed to it for so long it would [negatively] affect me.

It was only the creativity that flourished and had a chance to breathe and live. With the results that is still my priority, always has been and always will be. I was very lucky to work on films I did when I was younger that were creatively driven. I wasn't in that mindset when I was a kid, and I'm certainly not now.

"Brooklyn" suggests the next movement of your career, away from ingenue roles and taking on more adult material exploring themes of sexuality or perhaps a harder emotional edge.

I'm excited to be moving on to the next stage. I think this was a great way to start that next moment, a transition for that of playing a young woman who has so many experiences that turns her into the woman that she is and gives her the life she has. That's a very grown up thing. I'm more than ready to move on. I've been working since I was 10. I played a kid when I was a kid, and now I'm almost 21 and ready to move on.

I'm getting more and more passionate the older I get.

You left as a young child, but having been born here, is there a part of you that feels American?

I do. I really do. Especially when I'm here. I naturally adapt to the American way of speaking and communicating and just the culture and all that kind of stuff. I love America. I think it's a very deep country, and also very fascinating and I think sometimes it gets a bit of a bad rap. It's had a huge impact on my life and my parents' lives, so I will always have a special place for America.

Patrick Z. McGavin

Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and critic. His film writing has appeared in the British magazine Empire, Stop Smiling, Time Out Chicago, Cineaste and LA Weekly. He also maintains the film blog,

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