The Irish have always had a reputation as two-fisted drinkers and, as she entered the elegant conference room at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel, 21-year-old Saoirse Ronan seemed to be living up to that image. Until you saw what she was bringing in: a glass of orange juice in one hand and a cup of tea in the other.
She was trying to ward off sickness during the Toronto International Film Festival, she insisted. “My publicist always says, ‘I think you’re allergic to press,’” she joked to the half-dozen waiting journalists.
The feeling is not mutual, at least not these days. For her performance in Brooklyn as Eilis Lacey, a young woman from a tiny Irish hamlet who journeys to Brooklyn in 1952, in search of a more fulfilling life, Ronan is generating the kind of buzz that often leads to Academy Award nominations. “As portrayed in a luminous, astonishingly expressive performance by Ronan — whose lit-from-within face can convey hope and fear simultaneously in just one look — Eilis may be naive, but she’s intelligent and quick-witted,” wrote Washington Post reviewer Ann Hornaday, while Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune noted, “You watch intently, looking for clues to her character's true, yearning feelings. It's one of the most satisfying films of 2015.”
“Brooklyn rests entirely on Ronan’s shoulders as its hard-tested but resilient, deeply appealing heroine, and Ronan triumphs,” declared James Verniere of the Boston Herald. “… Now a young adult, Ronan is an old soul, whose eyes blaze with understanding and sympathy. The camera loves her.”
Audiences, too, have been held spellbound by Ronan, ever since her breakthrough role as the tiny troublemaker in director Joe Wright’s Atonement in 2007. She went on to star as Michelle Pfeiffer’s daughter in I Could Never Be Your Woman, the ghostly heroine of The Lovely Bones, the unstoppable young warrior of Hanna, a teen with a taste for blood in Byzantium, a survivor of a devastating war in How I Live Now and the pastry chef with the distinctive facial birthmark in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. But the proper pronunciation of her name remains a mystery to many.
“How do you think I pronounce it?” she asked, with a teasing smile. “I kind of pronounce it somewhere between sur-sha and seer-sha,” she said. “I get very confused about my name all the time. Sometimes I look at it when I’m writing down for people and I go, ‘Actually, a ridiculous spelling – so stupid.’”
Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel, Brooklyn tells a story that resonated with Ronan, a tale not too far removed from the experiences of her parents. Despite the lovely lilt in her voice, Ronan was actually born in the Bronx in 1994 and did not see the Emerald Isle until she was three, when her Irish-born parents returned home after an eleven-year sojourn in the States.
During the filming of Brooklyn, Ronan found herself unwittingly channeling the spirit of her “fiercely independent” mother.
“They went to New York in the ‘80s,” Ronan said of her parents. “There was a really bad recession in Ireland at the time; people say it was worse than the one that’s (now) going on. … That’s our trick, that’s our journey – the Irish always go to New York, or somewhere on the East Coast.”
Dad was a construction worker and a bartender, while Mom was a nanny. Her father made the leap into acting after some Irish Repertory Company performers encouraged him to audition for one of their shows. “He’d never even been to see a play before,” Ronan explained, but even so he landed the part and changed careers once more.
“This film is more than just a really lovely film to be involved in, with great writers and a great character and all that,” Ronan said. “It’s my heritage, really. And it’s a lot of people’s heritage. It’s interesting because the whole way through, I always thought, ‘It’s an Irish film, it’s for Irish people, this is for Ireland,’ and I was very proud of that. And it is. But then we went to Sundance [Film Festival], and the reaction we got from people who had no connection to Ireland at all, who had either just moved out of their mom and dad’s house and gone to college, or their child had moved away to school, or they had gone through that experience of a loss of a sense of home, which I think we’ve all gone through; I had gone through it when I moved away to London. It was hard and it was amazing and it was very exciting. But it was scary and it could be lonely, and you know you can’t go back. You can’t take a step back once you’ve made that trip.
“Brooklyn just really, really got that: I mean, literally, every major thing in the film, I would have to take a step back and take a breather, because it felt like someone was saying, ‘Remember when this was happening to you?’ or ‘This is happening to you right now.’ I’d never had that before. For me – sorry, I’m going on now – I’ve always played vampires or somebody who’s dead, a corpse, somebody who’s in a completely different situation to me. To then come back home was very overwhelming.”
Brooklyn tracks Eilis as she moves between her two worlds. While she’s initially a fish out of water in her new surroundings, she slowly finds her way and finds confidence and style along the way. She even dons sunglasses, which immediately set her apart from her old friends.
“The sun doesn’t exist in Ireland,” Ronan joked. “Nobody knows what sunglasses are: ‘What is this you speak of?’ I do think the fashion was a huge part of (her evolution). Also, an aside: The shape of the ‘50s clothes, really kind of encouraged women to have a womanly figure. Because you’ve got big skirts and fluffy blouses, women – more so than now – were encouraged to have boobs and a bum and legs. You know what I mean? And hips.”
Ronan welcomed the chance to convey Eilis’ transformation from timid youngster to maturity and she gives director John Crowley considerable credit for helping to shape her characterization: “He was the one who knew every little minute change that needed to be made from scene to scene, who knew exactly where I was at any certain point. … He really kept me on my toes the whole time, where I felt like I had to be on it because if I wasn’t I was convinced I was going to ruin it.”
Nor does she overlook the screenplay. “I was very focused, but honestly, I think it was because the script was one of the most amazing screenplays I’ve ever read. (Screenwriter Nick) Hornby is so good, and Colm is so good. The way these two men write women is incredible and, aside from a couple of scenes that were added, nothing was changed with that script. It was a really good guidebook to have all the way through.”
With Brooklyn behind her, Ronan is about to follow in Eilis’ footsteps: She is leaving her home in Ireland and relocating to New York next year. First stop: Broadway, where she will star in a spring production of The Crucible (“Have you heard of it?” she cracked, with a sly smile), alongside Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo and Ciaran Hinds.
“For me, New York was always the inevitability,” she said. “That was always where I wanted to go. But when I was 19, I wasn’t ready to go there yet. I knew it would be a big shift, to move away from home. I didn’t realize how much until I was living on my own.”
London was a good stepping-stone, she said, but “there’s no other city I fell more comfortable in than New York. I think it’s always been a part of me.
“There’s a huge part of me that feels very American, you know. I really relate to America. And there’s a lot of me that’s very Irish and very different to that, too.”