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Brooklyn interview: Saoirse Ronan is all grown up

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Kerry Brown

Warning: Spoilers from Brooklyn lie ahead.

Saoirse Ronan made her mark as a young actress, earning an Oscar nomination at 13 for her turn as the trouble-stirring Briony in Atonement. The Irish-American actress went on to play, the eponymous teen trained to be an assassin in Hanna, and the lovestruck baker extraordinaire in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Now, Ronan makes the leap to more mature material with director John Crowley’s romantic drama Brooklyn.

Written by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn (now in theaters) tracks Eilis Lacey (Ronan) in the 1950as she emigrates from Ireland to New York, where she soon falls for the Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen). But when she temporarily returns to the Emerald Isle because of a family tragedy, romance also develops with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) — pressing Eilis to decide between the two men and their respective homes. 

RELATED: Go Behind-the-Scenes of Saoirse Ronan’s Brooklyn Transformation

Her performance has generated some early Oscar chatter, but she’s not thinking about it too much. “I don’t feel pressure, because the film is done,” she tells EW. Rather, Ronan addresses her passion for Irish storytelling, the film’s stance on female independence, and her leap into more mature material.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Brooklyn is a film that you seem to be especially passionate about. Why is that?

SAOIRSE RONAN: I’m so passionate about it because it took a lot to do it, it took a lot out of me to do it. I had never had that kind of experience before where I felt as vulnerable as I did — actual fear going into a film. It started out initially being because my mom and dad had gone to New York and had me over there. Then by the time we had actually made it, I had left home and was homesick and didn’t know where I belonged anymore, and I was in this new city. To go back home in the middle of that, not only to Ireland but to a town that represented my childhood, it was like [revisiting] a segment of my life that I kind of mourned. Everything was simple, and there were so many things you weren’t aware of, and the countryside in Ireland always represented that for me.

Did that initial fear help you in the process? It’s something that your character experiences, moving away from her family to a new, foreign city.

I think it did in hindsight, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. I was like, “I’m going to do a terrible job.” I was calling up my mom every single night, and I was convinced that I was just wrecking it. Everyone else was brilliant, and I didn’t feel like I could keep up. It definitely took me a minute to find my footing. Even in that way, when it came to work, it paralleled Eilis. It’s because, I don’t want to say it’s a simple story, but it’s just about a moment, a period in every person’s life that everybody goes through. Everyone goes through that sense of loss when they leave home, with relationships, with work, with finding your place in the adult world. I could compare everything that I was going through to the story.

Is there a moment that you can pinpoint where you felt you got over that fear? Where you felt: I have this, I understand my character?

Like Eilis, it was very gradual. The confidence very slowly grew, and usually it wouldn’t take me that long. I’m always quite self deprecating anyway, but I get over it and I get into it. Ireland threw me a bit. It was strange being at home, and having Irish people as extras. The scene that we have near the end of the film when she’s on the boat and she gives advice to this young girl who is in the same position she was in before, when it got to that point we were almost done, so she was clear in her own head about what she wanted, and I was too. It just very much felt like art imitating life, so all the struggles helped with the character too. It was probably a good thing.

You’ve said before that you’d been wanting to be a part of an Irish film for some time. Why is it important to you to tell Irish stories?

I’m so proud of where I come from. I’m very proud that I’m Irish-American, that I’m the product of two different nations coming together and the product of two people who went over to America not knowing what to expect. Then they brought me back home, and I grew up in this amazing country. I’m proud of the type of people we are. When you have an underdog that’s able to rise up and hold onto their culture and their identity, you have to give respect so to be able to showcase that pride or to celebrate my country through the work that I do is the best.

As an industry, I think we lacked confidence. There had been so many people in Ireland [and] from the outside who painted a certain picture of Ireland. Whether it was just all bad and it focused on one moment in our history or it was stereotyped and it was a caricature of what our people are like, it was two-dimensional and there was nothing really to it. I thought, “That’s not who we are. We’re more than that.” Then to get this script that was written by an Englishman who just really captured the spirit, the good points and the bad points of Ireland, and the good points and bad points of America, it was just the perfect first thing to do.

It sounds like Brooklyn could be a big step for Irish filmmaking.

It would be great if other young filmmakers see it and go, “Oh look, now that this film has been made, this gives us a kind of stepping stone.” Even if it wasn’t specifically an Irish film, just this story and the [classic and traditional] way it’s told, if you were to give this to any execs or studios they’d say, “There’s no market for that. What’s the demographic?” A lot of people looked at [Brooklyn’s] script and thought, “Nothing happens in it, it’s not dramatic enough, there’s no big explosions.” It would be so great, and I think the best filmmakers do it, to establish a world on screen and allow it to breath, allow it to exist. To be able to watch it in its regular state, watch what happens within that world, is more fascinating than anything else.

How did Nick Hornby’s script, and the novel by Colm Tóibín on which it’s based, inform your take on the character?

Nick writes women so beautifully, and Eilis, even if she’s kind of passive to begin with, she had this kind of sense of self that you can see in the script through just little statements that she makes — like about the rugby boy. She doesn’t want to end up with the kind of guy that Nancy ends up marrying. You can tell she needs to be pushed in order to allow herself to really blossom, and Nick plants those seeds with his writing. Basically, if you’ve got good writing in front of you, just like if you’re reading a good book, and you’ve got an imagination, and you’re able to empathize with something, it’s easy. Even though this was the most difficult thing in the world for me, it was very easy to emotionally invest in it because it was all there in front of [me].

With Colm’s book, I had read it a couple years before I even knew about the film. I didn’t really go back to it once we started rehearsals because we had this great script. The only thing I did go back and reference was the relationship that Rose (Eilis’ sister, played by Fiona Glascott) and Eilis have to their dad. He passes away, and we don’t really go into that in the film. I think the establishing shot of the family home is the three of them in silence eating dinner, and the mam is in the middle and you can tell she’s still mourning. She’ll probably never get over that, so I think it was important to understand why that dynamic was the way it was and why Rose almost took over as the mother.

Plus, Eilis wouldn’t have gone to New York in the first place. She would have stayed in Ireland, if it weren’t for Rose.

[Rose] was the one who decided [Eilis] was going to go and that was it. She didn’t want her to be the woman that was left alone, looked after her mam, never got married, never had a career, never had a life that was her own. Rose knew the only way that [Eilis] could ever have her own life that just belonged to her and was on her terms was if she sent her away. She’s an incredibly strong character.

Even though this is a period film, there’s such a contemporary resonance with the strong female characters. What do you think the film has to say about female independence, then and today?

To see a woman on screen who is faced with two worlds and two choices and can only pick one if she gives up the other, that is an incredibly daring thing. She’s strong enough in herself that she’s able to give one of those things up, and doesn’t fall back into the old routine. She’s gone through enough experience of living on her own, just basically surviving in this unknown city. She’s got help and she’s got people who are kind to her, but ultimately this strong woman starts to kind of blossom before our eyes and is almost dragged back down again but she fights her way back up and makes the decision that’s right for her. I think that’s an amazing thing to see on screen, and we don’t see that very often.

I remember doing the confrontation scene with Nettles Kelly, when she stands up and she states who she is, the woman that she’s become. I was so proud of her even in that moment, even as I was playing her. I felt very, very proud that I was getting to play a young woman like this, who knew who she was and was finally able to stand up to somebody who had dragged her down for so long. When it comes to the writing of the women in this film itself, they’re intelligent, colorful, funny women. There’s so many scenes in the boarding house that just consist of women interacting. You never see something like this on screen. Ultimately, it ends up with [women] stabbing each other in the back or somebody being a b—- to the other.

That doesn’t happen in this. Even with Nettles Kelly, you can see that she’s just intimidated by this girl, that whatever bitterness she has, it comes from fear of what she never had and what this young woman has. I think it’s so unusual to see scenes with a group of women just chatting and helping each other. There’s no spitefulness, there’s no backstabbing or anything like that. It’s funny and you want to watch them and you want to know more about them. They’re all colorful in their own way. It’s not like one is the cheeky, quirky one, and one is the smart, nerdy one. They’re all just great women who bring their own thing to the story.

This movie could be painted as being about a girl choosing between two guys, but it’s more about her choosing the kind of life she wants to live. That said, romance is still an important element of the film. How did you make this a story about Eilis’ independent life, while also keeping the romance alive?

A lot of romantic films that have been made are the fairy tale version, and they’re usually quite basic. What I like about [Brooklyn], and something that is quite contemporary, is how Eilis is able to take a step back from her relationship with Tony for a second when it’s going a bit too fast for her. I found that quite interesting that she actually took a step back, evaluated everything, and realized it was what she wanted, but she needed a second to make sure that this was the right thing for her.

I’ve found, and I think most people have found, that you learn so much from relationships, and it can really either help you come out of yourself or question yourself or re-evaluate things personally. [Tony] is the key to her blossoming. He gives her that confidence because he adores her and because he is very open about that, and she knows it, and she knows that she’s kind of this exotic bird to him. She comes from a place that he has no knowledge of, and so to him she’s unusual and different and she likes that. As soon as they meet she’s a little sassier, more confident — we’ve never seen her like that with a man before. We’ve never seen her interact with a guy like that before, so that dynamic starts to come about when he comes into the picture.

Then when she goes back to Ireland and meets Jim, that’s something that he’s attracted to and she’s aware of that, that she’s gotten more confident in her womanhood and her sexuality and all that. That allows her to really hold herself up high, so the romance is a huge part of it. It’s not everything, and it’s not just about which dude will she end up with. Domhnall had the toughest job out of everyone, because he had to try and level the playing field in four scenes, and he did. I think most people went into it and they genuinely didn’t know which way she was going to go, because he’s so good. They did such a good job, and you want to fall in love with them.

It’s very easy to fall in love with both of them.

It’s very easy, and to be honest, even though we say it a lot about female characters, it’s obviously more of an issue with female characters, you do sometimes have the guy in the film who’s just supposed to be a bit of a dreamboat and that’s it and there’s nothing to him. With this, it’s not like that. [Tony and Jim] are sincere and they’re dignified and they’re characters in their own right.

This film has you in a more mature role than we’ve seen you in before. Do you want to take on more mature material moving forward?

I was really ready for it around the time of Brooklyn. It’s frustrating being an actor who grew up being incredibly lucky to be a part of really good quality films with great characters that are really well written, even if they were for younger people. [Then], when you reach 18, 19, 20, suddenly you’re reading roles that are like the crush to someone else. Not in an ego way, but there’s no complexity to them all of the sudden.

When you’re 20 years old, you’re living on your own. You’re either in college or you’re in your own flat, and you’re figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing next. How do you live as opposed to just exist in a place? It’s such an interesting time to document, so where are all these stories? When Brooklyn came along, I didn’t know that all of this was going to happen with it, but it was definitely the right thing, and I wouldn’t want to revert back now. I’m very ready to go onto the next stage. 

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