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Saoirse Ronan: Brooklyn's story of immigration is personal for me

Saoirse Ronan didn't have to dig too deep to play a homesick Irish woman living in Fifties New York for new film Brooklyn. The actress tells Keeley Bolger about awards buzz, pleasing her parents and finding her place in the world.

Published 06/11/2015

Love divided: co-stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis with Emory Cohen as her Brookyln love interest
Love divided: co-stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis with Emory Cohen as her Brookyln love interest
Saoirse Ronan as Eilis with Domhnall Gleeson as her Irish boyfriend
Novelist Colm Toibin
Saoirse Ronan

If Saoirse Ronan is excited about the awards hype surrounding her latest film Brooklyn, she's keeping a cautious lid on it. "I've been on both sides," says the 21-year-old diplomatically. "When it does go in your favour, and the film gets nominated for things and notoriety from fans and different academies, that's wonderful.

"But I've also been on the other side of it, where there's buzz before a film is already made and it just doesn't go in that way. People will still come up and tell me that they love a particular film that maybe didn't go down that route."

Of those hyped and decorated films you might recognise her from, there's jealous teenager Briony in Atonement, murdered schoolgirl Susie in The Lovely Bones, the eponymous teenage assassin in Hanna and love-struck baker Agatha in last year's Wes Anderson hit, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

And of course, there's also fan favourites in vampire flick Byzantium, World War II drama The Way Back and thriller, How I Live Now.

Scene-stealing as her performances have been so far (with a hefty 14 award nominations for her performance in Atonement alone), it's Brooklyn that heralds a new era for the actress.

Based on the book by Colm Toibin, and set in the Fifties, it tells the story of Eilis, a bright young woman who leaves her home in rural Ireland for New York, where work is plentiful for Irish citizens.

But when a family tragedy brings her back to Ireland, she finds herself confronting a heartbreaking choice between two men and two countries.

With Eilis at the heart of the film, Ronan felt a responsibility to do the story justice, not least because, "an entire nation was going to watch this and judge whether it really represented us or not".

And "universal" as the story of immigration is, it's also a deeply personal one for Ronan, whose breakthrough came in 2003 Irish TV medical drama The Clinic.

When recession hit Ireland in the Eighties, her Manchester-born dad Paul, and mum Monica, moved to New York in the hope of finding work. The couple stayed for 12 years, during which time dad Paul became an actor, Monica worked as a nanny and Ronan was born in the Bronx.

"They were illegal for the first three years, so they couldn't go back home," explains the actress, whose family moved to a small village in Co Carlow when she was three.

"That was hard. They didn't know when they were going to be allowed back home, because they didn't know when they'd get their visas. Eventually, my mam got through on the lottery system, but my dad didn't."

After chatting to a woman in the immigration centre, Ronan's parents decided to marry in City Hall ("They were going to do it at some stage anyway") so they'd both be free to leave and re-enter the States.

Deeply connected to Brooklyn's central story, Ronan was over the moon when she received her parents' seal of approval.

"When mam finally saw it at Sundance, she just said, 'It took me back to that place and emotionally, I remembered what it was like'. It was the greatest compliment I could have gotten off anyone," she smiles.

"She kind of adapted to New York straight away, but you miss home and there's always a part of you that will be missing."

Close to both her parents (even shooting her dad when he had a cameo in How I Live Now), she was, until recently, chaperoned by them at work.

Given that she's been working solidly since her schooldays, and is friendly and mature - having none of the precociousness associated with child stars (a label that doesn't really fit her) - it seems disparaging to suggest she is just coming of age.

Nevertheless, as mature as she is, Ronan is just 21, and the initial fledging from the family home in Ireland to London, and then to New York two years ago, was stressful.

"I was very much getting serious bouts of homesickness, even though I could go home whenever I wanted to and could call me mam six times a day," says the actress.

"It's the realisation that you can't go back to what it was. Even when you go back to visit, or even if you were to move back, it will never be quite the same again, because you're essentially saying goodbye to your childhood."

Luckily Brooklyn provided a good outlet for her feelings.

"Emotionally, I was very much in that place when we were making the film," she says.

"There was nowhere to hide really - it was all right there in front of me and it was all what I was experiencing myself." And there will be nowhere to hide when she makes her theatrical debut on Broadway in Arthur Miller's The Crucible next year, alongside Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo.

"I'm terrified," she laughs. "But also, I think I'm just afraid of the unknown. I have no experience on stage at all."

Although she might be "very scared" of treading the boards, she's pleased to be offered grown-up roles which take her out of the running for parts featuring "girls obsessing over their first kiss".

As well as this, to be coming of age is also exciting when there's greater discussion around equal rights for women in Hollywood.

"I can see it's starting to shift now," says Ronan, who rates Lena Dunham and Kristen Wiig.

"We're so complicated as creatures, and emotional. We deal with things in a very different way to men and, to me, that makes the perfect storyteller; someone who's quite complicated and always thinking and thinking out different outcomes.

"It makes sense that we create as much as men do."

And like those women, Ronan is forging ahead in her own right. "I'm going through my introduction to womanhood. It can be s**** because you're so emotional and stressed, but it's such an interesting time, because you're finding your place in the world."

  • Brooklyn is released today

Belfast Telegraph

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