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Saoirse Ronan: Ireland has some of the best actors in the world

She's up for a second Golden Globe for her latest role, has three Oscar nominations to her name - and she's still only 25. As the unstoppable rise of Irish actress Saoirse Ronan continues, she tells Paul Whitington about playing Jo in Little Women and how coming home keeps her grounded

Award-winning actress Saoirse Ronan
Award-winning actress Saoirse Ronan
Little Women director Greta Gerwig
Saoirse Ronan as Jo in Little Women
Saoirse Ronan with Laura Dern, Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh and Emma Watson in a scene from the film based on Louisa May Alcott’s much-loved book

By Paul Whitington

Greta Gerwig's adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, which was released on Boxing Day, has been acclaimed by the critics and is also, as they say, part of the awards conversation.

Saoirse Ronan, it seems, is never out of that conversation. The 25-year-old, who's up for a Golden Globe for Little Women, has already won one for Gerwig's 2017 hit Lady Bird, and also has three Oscar nominations under her belt - a fourth, for this film, would hardly be a shock.

The film's source material is close to her heart. "I always really liked those books," she says. "I read them when I was in my teens. Before that I had watched the 1990s film, with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon, which I absolutely love, and then at some stage I watched the Elizabeth Taylor one as well, with Katharine Hepburn playing Jo - and she's just so perfect for Jo. It just seems to be one of those stories that you return to again and again."

The real reason she did it, though, was director Greta Gerwig.

"I think if someone else had been doing it, then maybe I wouldn't have been as interested, because although it's such a special story it has been done eight times.

"The reason why I felt so adamant that I had to do it was because of Greta; I knew she'd do something different with it. Her touch is fresh, and different, I feel, from what everyone else is doing: it's like, very classic but very modern. It's not, like, edgy for the sake of it or anything."

There was only one role Saoirse wanted. "Yeah. I just tapped Greta on the shoulder and said, 'Listen, I know that you're going to do Little Women, and I need to be your Jo!' I hadn't even seen a script or anything at that point - I just trusted her taste so much," she says.

That trust was well-founded, because Little Women is a delightful, lush, urgent and emotional drama, which modernises Alcott's story in subtle ways without compromising its integrity.

Emma Watson is Meg March, Eliza Scanlen is Beth, Laura Dern is the unflappable Marmie and Florence Pugh the flighty Amy. But the engine of this film is Ronan's Jo, a proto-feminist who fiercely resists the inevitability of marriage and is determined to become a writer.

"I do love her bravery, and in the film when she's a kid, she says, 'I would rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe', which is something that Louisa May Alcott actually said. But while I felt it was very important to have her have this strength and this belief in herself, I wanted her to have the light and shade of also having self-doubt, vulnerability and even shyness.

"And, you know, it's obviously the hot topic of the day, but it's too easy to just put female characters on the screen that are strong and independent, and that's it.

"It's sort of stereotypical, and that's exactly what you'd expect of Jo, but I remember before we started rehearsals, Greta said to me, 'You know, I think when Jo's out on her own, she's shy - she's a shy girl. She shouldn't just be, 'Hey, I'm here', you know.'"

Gerwig's Little Women springs vividly to life in a series of chaotic domestic scenes in which everyone seems to be talking and singing and fighting at once. Were they hard to shoot?

"It was mad. And what you see in the scenes, it was like that and then some. Because, you know, we're actors, so we're all loud and emotional, and everyone was having a laugh the whole time and doing impersonations of people and making fun of each other, and I think Greta just sort of let that happen and let us embrace that - she didn't ever try and put a stop to it," Saoirse adds.

"So, it meant that we would be like 'blah blah blah blah' as we were coming onto set and she'd just go, 'Okay, and action'.

"Greta's an actor and she understands that sometimes it's important to keep that sort of feeling alive." It's been a funny few years for Ronan.

Between 2010 and 2015, she'd successfully negotiated that awkward bridge between child and adult acting, quietly impressing in films like Hanna, Byzantium and How I Live Now.

Then, in the space of 12 months, she appeared in a remarkable string of quality movies that launched her career into full-blown stardom.

"It was intense," she remembers. "Everything was kind of changing for me and it felt like I was just sort of floating above my body that year, because there was so much going on.

"There was so much work, more than I'd ever done, and finishing it, and having the work turn out to be good, I was kind of like, 'Okay, that's the baptism of fire'."

The toughest job of all was Lady Bird, Gerwig's comic drama loosely based on her own life as a precocious teenager in Sacramento, California; the character Ronan played was essentially Gerwig.

"It was so intense for me, not as much as it was for her, I'm sure, but it was the first time in years for me that I had done anything close to a comedy, and I love comedy so much but... I'm more confident doing comedy in my own accent. American humour is different to ours - it's just not the same, and for me to make something funny and know that it sounds funny, I find that quite tricky sometimes.

"Also, I'd never experienced working with someone where I really was such a huge fan of hers and then suddenly I was kind of playing some sort of version of her.

"Doing Lady Bird was brilliant but it was an intense thing in my own head, because I was younger - I hadn't done a lead really for a while, and I really felt like I had to earn my stripes a bit.

"Then I went into Mary, Queen of Scots and I was like..." she trails off, remembering perhaps the fatigue of a very intense year. "You know, I had been attached to that film for so long and it felt this different kind of participation, I think. Little Women was so different: I was working with this director where we had this relationship where I felt like I could be involved in a much deeper way. And we just had such fun with it, we really did."

Little Women is modern in ways, but doesn't wear its feminism on its sleeve. "I don't ever respond to that subject particularly well if it's too on-the-nose," she says, "and, like, it runs deeper than that so gives it a bit more intelligence, and a bit more grey.

"And Greta does that. Just doing stuff you think everyone will respond well to isn't good, and she hasn't done that.

"Yes, this is a film called Little Women and it focuses on four sisters and a mother but, like, there are fantastic male characters in there as well that are given so much time to just sort of feel things and be vulnerable and react, and she did exactly the same in Lady Bird.

"She's never one-sided, you know."

In 2020, Ronan will appear in Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch and after that opposite Kate Winslet in the intense romantic period drama Ammonite. What next?

"I feel right now that I shouldn't do period movies for a bit because I've done a few in a row. But then again, if the right thing came along I'd be like, 'F*** it'." A slapstick comedy, perhaps? "Good idea!"

Every time I talk to Ronan, I'm struck by how down-to-earth and grounded she has managed to remain. Going home regularly, she tells me, has always helped.

"I don't think anyone's let lose the run of themselves at home, and if I ever hear anybody Irish, like myself, who, as a producer said once, gives themselves a great welcome, I'm like, 'Ah lads!' It's sort of like the thing with women in film where you're like, 'We can't mess up because we're the minority, so whenever we produce anything or we're exported somewhere else, we need to do it better'.

"We have some of the best actors in the world, like Cillian Murphy and Daniel Day-Lewis and Charlie Murphy, Sarah Greene, all these brilliant people, and we're very supportive of each other because we come from a small place and we know how big a thing it is to, like, go out there.

"The other thing is, I come from a country of workers, in the sense that there isn't this big class system, you know. We all work, and that's what my Mam and Dad did, so they kind of raised me to have that same work ethic when I came to whatever job I had."

She looks around the grand hotel room. "So there's this appreciation for all this, and gratitude, but also, like - it's my job, you know."

Little Women is in cinemas now.

FIVE OF SAOIRSE’S BEST ROLES

Atonement

Saoirse was just 12 when Joe Wright cast her in his big-budget period drama based on an Ian McEwan novel. And she was compelling as Briony Tallis, a wealthy 1930s English teenager who mistakes a romantic tryst between her older sister and an admirer as rape. Briony's subsequent actions lead to tragedy, and a lifetime of silent guilt. "Remarkable" was how McEwan described Ronan's performance, which also earned her an Oscar nomination.

Hanna

In 2011, as she began her transition from child to adult roles, Ronan teamed up with Joe Wright again to make this visually stunning thriller - an action film with a twist. She is Hanna, a blonde, blue-eyed girl who was raised in the wilds of Finland by her father, an ex-CIA man who taught her how to defend herself. When he dies, Hanna must go it alone, something she proves extremely good at.

Brooklyn

"We had no idea what this film was going to do," Saoirse told me during our interview, and in many ways Brooklyn broke her through to the big time. She led the line in John Crowley's film based on Colm Toibin's novel as Eilis Lacey, a spirited young woman from 1950s Wexford whose decision to emigrate to America goes down like a lead balloon at home. But she goes anyway, and her life changes utterly. Amid the story's clamour, it was Saoirse's stillness that stood out.

On Chesil Beach

Dominic Cooke's drama didn't do much at the box office, but I really liked its quiet desperation, and Saoirse was utterly convincing as Florence Ponting, an uptight early-1960s English musician who has just married an eager young man called Edward (Billy Howle). And when they repair to a quiet seaside hotel for their wedding night, an excruciating dance of mutual incomprehension ensues.

Lady Bird

The performance, one suspects, that Ronan is proudest of. Greta Gerwig thought long and hard about who to cast as Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson in a comic drama based closely on her own young life. She chose wisely, and Saoirse showed innate comic timing playing a Sacramento high-school student who longs to move to "a city with culture", and is constantly at loggerheads with her high-tempered but well-meaning mum. After Lady Bird, anything was possible.

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