Saoirse Ronan on Brooklyn, family & musicals

Saoirse Ronan, Ireland's best young acting export of the last decade, heads into adult leading roles with Brooklyn, an adaptation of Colm Tóibín's beloved novel. The Skinny talks to the star about immigrant stories, career goals and doing a musical

Feature by Josh Slater-Willams | 03 Nov 2015

“Oh God, I do really love Singin’ in the Rain. I loved Gene Kelly so much, and I loved watching him perform.”

The Skinny is chatting with Saoirse Ronan just a few hours before her new film, Brooklyn, has a red carpet launch for its European premiere at this year’s London Film Festival, and we’ve broached the topic of favourite movies from the era of the film’s 1950s setting. “What else did I love?” she continues. “I loved anything with Bette Davis. She was terrific. Maybe that was more late 40s, but she worked into the 50s as well. All About Eve would be 50s and I love All About Eve.”

The question is inspired by Ronan’s character in the film, who goes to see the aforementioned Kelly musical, swoons over Gary Cooper with a friend, and has a conversation about John Ford’s The Quiet Man, released in 1952, the year of Brooklyn’s setting.

Saoirse Ronan and Maureen O'Hara

At the time of writing, news has just come through that The Quiet Man’s female lead, Maureen O’Hara, has passed away at age 95. The Dublin-born star’s career really took off with Ford’s Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941), also set in Ireland, and despite becoming a US citizen as her Hollywood work prospered, she retained Irish citizenship and was publicly vocal about sharing her heritage and promoting her home country to the world, both on screen and off.

It may be a bit hasty to compare a Golden Age Hollywood legend with a 21-year-old performer, but reading up on O’Hara’s legacy does set off a few light bulbs in the mind regarding Ronan, in terms of her own career so far and her new film. Both actors have worked with some of the best filmmakers of their era. In Ronan's short career she's starred in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, Peter Weir's The Way Back and Neil Jordan's Byzantium. She's also worked twice with Joe Wright, in Hanna and Atonement, and for the latter she received an Oscar nomination, age 13.

This comparison's mileage may vary depending on whether you consider these directors comparable in quality to O’Hara collaborators like Ford, Carol Reed, Nicholas Ray and Alfred Hitchcock, but whatever your thoughts on these current filmmakers, it’s a pretty remarkable resume for someone barely out of her teens.

Saoirse Ronan as Eilis and Emory Cohen as Tony in Brooklyn

A primer on the new film first: Brooklyn is an adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s much acclaimed 2009 novel of the same name and is brought to the screen by Irish director John Crowley. Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who immigrates to the eponymous New York borough with the help of her sister (played by Fiona Glascott) and a church-related sponsorship for a life of “better” prospects.

Initially, Eilis is devastatingly homesick, but gradually she makes friends and finds romance with a young Italian-American man, Tony (Emory Cohen). But just as her new life and love prosper, disruption back in Ireland forces her to return home. While there, she subsequently develops feelings for a local man, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), and other forces seem determined to keep her around. It seems like the new, different life she has created for herself in the States has to be left behind.

Like Eilis (and O’Hara), Ronan has two very distinct lives either side of the Atlantic, and she reveals some remarkable similarities between her background and that of her character. “My mam and dad went over to New York in the 80s,” she tells us. “There was a really, really bad recession at the time at home and there was no work, so a lot of young couples and young people just moved away, mainly to the States. My dad was in construction and eventually became a bartender, and while he was there got discovered by this Irish actor who was part of a group of Irish rep people who would go into his bar after a performance – and so he ended up acting.

“And my mam was a nanny and she looked after a few different kids. And so they pretty solidly worked there for, like, 12 years and they had me. Mam was adamant about having me in New York because they had been illegal for three years, couldn’t go home in that time, otherwise they wouldn’t have been allowed back in. They got married in City Hall, just like Tony and Eilis. And so New York was always a very important place for me, even though I didn’t properly go back until I was about 14. But as soon as I did, I was convinced that that was where I wanted to be when I was older. It was always kind of inevitable that I would go back there... one day.”

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One of Brooklyn’s biggest strengths is that although its story has a lot of specificity to its particular tale of immigration, it successfully conveys a lot of universal truths and emotions regarding the upheaval of one’s life through change of place, and how our perceptions of home and family can radically shift as life throws us new chances and paths to follow. Ronan tells us she’s spoken to a number of journalists and audience members who’ve greatly identified with the film and her character’s plight, despite their wildly different backgrounds and their change of country maybe not being quite so extreme in distance as a boat ride from Ireland to America.

“Everyone wants to have a purpose,” Ronan muses. “Or a place. And so, suddenly, especially if you’re a kid and you’re moving around as well and you’ve got your friends and you’re still figuring out who you are, that’s a huge thing to know where your place is in the world.

“When you don’t have that for a while and also when you don’t know when that feeling is gonna go away, that’s what’s scary about it. There’s no time set for you. It’s not like, ‘OK, this is gonna last for six months and then it’ll be done.’ You don’t know, it’s different for everyone. Homesickness is awful and everyone hates it, but eventually it’ll pass, though you don’t know when. It’s just one of those stories I think that hopefully everyone can tap into... Everyone has their own immigrant story.”

We share our own immigrant story with her, about which she seems intrigued and inquisitive, and praise the film's tapping into something not covered extensively in similar films: that idea of displacement when you actually go back to that place you’ve been missing. “Yeah. Because then you’ve had all the – and I’m sure you’ve had it wherever you’ve gone – you have experiences then that are separate from that other place. And to go back there, no matter what, you’re gonna be changed in some way, you know. And you’re trying to fit back in and you’re trying to be like you were before, but you’re not. It’s tricky.”

Strong Performances

As adapted by Nick Hornby, Brooklyn doesn’t offer any weak links in terms of the characters surrounding Eilis. Where a less sensitive screenwriter might reduce the people Eilis meets to broad caricatures, particularly when it comes to the various issues of ethnicity in the story, every supporting player feels like a well-rounded person in their own right, with lives of their own, from Julie Walters as a boarding house matron, Mrs Kehoe, to Mad Men’s Jessica Paré as a work supervisor.

“You don’t see that very often,” Ronan agrees. “It’s one thing to have one lead performance that is quite strong, and we see that a lot in films and it’s great and people comment on it and all that stuff, but [it’s rare] to have every single person play their roles so well and have so many well-written characters – even if they only come in for a couple of scenes.

“Nick put it really well the other day,” she continues. “He said that when he’s writing he likes to be able to walk all the way around a character and see everything from their perspective and love their life. And I thought that was a really great way to put it, and it makes sense when you read his stuff because everyone along the way, whether they knock her down a bit or help her up, all of these characters are really essential to her moving forward.”

We throw in the suggestion that, though you wouldn’t necessarily want to deviate from Eilis’s story, you could plausibly follow a completely different film with nearly any other character in the movie as a lead and it would probably prove compelling. Ronan starts chuckling: “Well, they said for a while that if we were ever gonna do a spin-off, we’d do a spin-off of Ma Kehoe’s and all the girls in the boarding house.”

Despite the story’s tragedy and longing, Brooklyn is a surprisingly funny film, and the boarding house scenes play a big part in that. When we ask about other filmmaking routes she’d like to explore, Ronan seems interested in pursuing something more light-hearted.

“I’d love to do a musical,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to do one. I dunno if I’m a good enough singer but I’d still love to do it. I’ve always wanted to do comedy, but it scares me how hard it is. I mean, comedy is much harder than drama, so I know that that would be tricky. And directors-wise, I’d love to work with Lenny Abrahamson, the Irish director, and I quite like the idea as well of, just ’cause I love TV so much, doing an eight-part drama or something like that.”

One thing she’s less keen to do is stick with the teen roles she’s been so accustomed to. “You know, I’m in my twenties now and I would like the roles I take to kind of reflect that age. Unless it’s really great I don’t wanna go back too far, [though] it is a fascinating journey to see someone grow up and be introduced to the adult world. It is and, you know, so many films that we’ve grown up with and we watch all the time are kind of solely about that. But no, I’m ready to move on to that next sort of step now and play people who have already gone through that.”

When we go back to asking about her musical ambitions, there’s a hint of a mini-dance with her arms while she’s sat on the sofa of the Soho hotel suite – where she's still in a light-blue floral dress and high heels from a press conference earlier that morning. “I just like the idea of, like, doing a little dance routine and singing some songs, going into the recording studio, laying down some tracks. That’s the goal.”

Her distinctive, very expressive pale blue eyes, which have been used so prominently in films like Atonement and Hanna, grow particularly big as we discuss future endeavours like this. It’s an encouraging sign that, although her teen-star mantle is being put to rest, the spark that first drew the world to Saoirse Ronan shows no sign of fading with adulthood.

Brooklyn is released 6 Nov by Lionsgate