What is it about this starry-eyed young actress that makes directors see a monster? Saoirse Ronan, soon to be 17, stars in the new action-thriller Hanna as a single-minded child assassin targeting the CIA, in particular an ice-cold agent played by Cate Blanchett; and in her next film, Violet & Daisy, she plays the comedic version, as a bubble-gum popping, gun-slinging hit-girl. After making her breakthrough in Atonement, earning an Oscar nomination for playing a unforgiving, heartsick young girl who ruins the lives of two adults, she became the go-to actress for sinister characters with a sweetheart veneer. Even in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, as the victim of a child-murderer, the Irish actress was the centerpiece of the darkest of storytelling, narrating the aftermath of her own demise, including the story of the man who slayed her.
Hanna delves deep into another disturbed psyche — of a little girl who has only learned two things: how to survive and how to kill. Directed by Joe Wright, who also guided her in Atonement, it is a surreal and truly grim fairy tale (accompanied by a techno Chemical Brothers score) about a young woman reared in the wilderness who is finally unleashed on Blanchett’s wicked step-mother-figure. Hanna is simultaneously Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, joined into one.
“She’s not a very human person,” Ronan concedes. “She’s grown up as, not cold, but she’s quite detached.” Wright had Ronan’s hair bleached blond, including her eyebrows and eyelashes, rendering them almost invisible and lending the character an eerie blank expression. “It was done to have the center of the face be the eyes,” she says. “If you’ve seen Atonement, you can see Joe focuses a lot on my eyes. I guess he wanted to do that on this as well. He wanted to take away everything that took away from the blue of my eyes.”
Ronan’s eyes may be the movie’s most intense special effect. And let’s face it — they make the rest of us look like our eyes are two raisins sunken in bread dough — a comparison that makes Ronan laugh and say she’s flattered. A sense of humor is not something Hanna the character shares with the actress who plays her
“She experiences everything very honestly,” Ronan says. “She’s grown up in the place where she is surrounded by wildlife and animals and no other person except this man. So she doesn’t have anything to take reference from.” When given the choice to return to civilization and find this mysterious CIA woman, she’s as eager to go as any teenager with a freshly acquired driver’s license (something Ronan is about to get in real life.)
What separates Hanna from other child assassins — like Hitgirl in Kick-Ass, or Natalie Portman in The Professional — is the character’s naïveté. “I find with Hanna, she’s an animal,” Ronan says. “That kind of innocence is really different from what we’ve seen connected to other killers before her. The younger action heroines we’ve seen have always been quite cute and a little bit cocky, and come up with these really cool catchphrases after they shoot someone in the head. And it’s all made quite light.” The actress shrugs. “Maybe that’s why people will like her, because she’s not cool. She doesn’t have cool purple hair. And she doesn’t wear a cape.”
She gets to play that side — the cocky, catch-phrase-y kind of gunslinger — in Violet & Daisy, an independent movie that hasn’t yet set its release date. Directed by Geoffrey Fletcher, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Precious, Ronan plays Daisy and Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Bledel is Violet, two pretty young things who are also contract killers. “I was worried for [Fletcher] to have an actor who had just done a film where I am a killer. But you’ll see when Violet & Daisy comes out, they couldn’t be more different [from Hanna],” Ronan says. “Daisy is a really, really sweet girl. She’s not a natural killer like Violet is. Violet is a bit messed up, and she’s quite tough on the outside. She’ll face anything. And she seems quite cold, but she’s been through an awful lot.”
This time, Ronan plays the mother figure. “Daisy’s the one who keeps them together and keeps everything intact. But it’s bizarre.” How bizarre? “Well, they meet at a doll hospital,” Ronan says. “They are the best of friends and live together and don’t really mix with the outside world. They have their own little world. And everything is poppy and fun and about puppy dogs and dresses. They’re taking on this job because they want to get this dress that their pop idol has. Her name is Barbie Sunday.”
Ronan is more circumspect about another potential role, reteaming with Jackson on The Hobbit, though it’s a safe bet she will turn up. “Well, according to IMDB,” she says, coyly, “I’m playing an elf called Itaril. But I’d love to be in it. Pete and I want to work together again. It’s something that hopefully we’ll work out.”
Ronan says she felt like she changed on Hanna. On previous movies, she tended to sit quietly and just do as she was told. But now she feels more invested, more in control of the story she’s helping to tell. “I’m surprised it happened on this film, because I didn’t think it would. But I felt like I walked away from that film more grown up.”
In some ways, she didn’t walk away at all. Hanna hangs with her, and as Ronan steps into adulthood, she wonders about the fate and future of her character. “A lot of people have been asking about whether we should do a sequel or not. I think it would be interesting because she is such a blank canvas.” After a long pause, she adds: “It’s probably a bit dramatic to say she would kill herself, but I actually wonder if she’d be able to handle it. She has no one.”
There’s a line in the movie where Hanna wonders if there are other children like her out there, whose lives were stolen solely to make them killing machines. It sounds silly, but maybe she’d become a kind of distaff Rambo figure, tough as nails, and waging a solo war on behalf of other innocents. Ronan laughs at any comparison between her and Sylvester Stallone. “But she could do something like that, couldn’t she?” Ronan agrees. “She’s really affected, and it’s a beautiful line when she says: ‘Were there other children?’”
Maybe someday, Ronan will return to the character. The future is wide open. All lives are a work in progress, even for a character trained to end them.
For more from Ronan, pick up this week’s issue of EW, on stands tomorrow.