Actor Saoirse Ronan, who was nominated for an Oscar at the age of 13, talks about her latest role as an Irish immigrant to Brooklyn who is then called back home.
“I think that’s a real heroine, you know?” said Saoirse Ronan, in her soft Irish brogue. The actress, known for her ethereal blue eyes and her Oscar-nominated breakthrough role as Briony Tallis in 2007’s “Atonement” (she was just 13 at the time), was speaking of her latest screen character: Eilis Lacey, created by Colm Toibin in his novel “Brooklyn,” who leaves her native Ireland in the 1950s for America. In Brooklyn, Eilis slowly creates a new life for herself, like a tentative picture taking shape on a blank canvas — only to be called back to her small Irish town by her family, leaving her wondering where she really belongs.
“I remember John [Crowley, the film’s director] saying in rehearsals, ‘The film is about a choice. It’s about a woman being able to get to the stage in her life where she’s empowered enough in herself and who she is to look at two different worlds and realize that she can only make one choice — and make that choice,” Ronan said earlier this fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. “There’s something incredibly brave about that.”
Eilis is a quiet role in a gentle film — but Ronan (whose first name is pronounced SEER-sha) gives a subtle, layered performance that has catapulted her into the heat of awards season. On the page, Eilis can seem passive; as inhabited by Ronan, she’s outwardly calm but always conveying an inner turmoil, a constant wondering. It’s as if we’re watching Eilis grow up before our eyes.
Opens Friday, Nov. 20 at Pacific Place, Sundance, and Lincoln Square. Rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language.
For Ronan, the story has a personal connection: Decades ago, her parents made that same journey from Ireland to New York during a recession in the 1980s, in search of work and a better life. Her father went first — “I didn’t realize until recently, but my dad arrived in New York on the 4th of July,” she said — followed, months later, by her mother.
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“The bravery it took for her to do that, to go to a place she didn’t know, she didn’t have anyone there, apart from Dad,” Ronan said. “They stayed there for 12 years, and had me there, and became part of an amazing community there — they all really looked after each other.”
Born in the Bronx, Ronan has both American and Irish passports, but spent most of her life, like Eilis, in rural Ireland. She began acting as a child and landed the role in “Atonement” with a great stroke of luck.
“I was completely wrong for the role,” she said, smiling at the memory. “Briony is described as this brown-haired girl, with olive-y skin, more like Keira [Knightley, who played Briony’s sister]. And she was English. I was Irish.” But Ronan quickly learned a posh, cut-glass British accent (good enough to fool the film’s British screenwriter into thinking she was an English girl) and director Joe Wright “fought for me.”
“It’ll always be a very special film for me,” she said, noting that it’s been nearly ten years since “Atonement” was made. “That’s the one that made me fall in love with what I do.”
With “Brooklyn” — a film with which, perhaps, she’ll leave teenage roles behind — she’s happy to take on a role that’s “a representation of home.” Again, good luck intervened: The film, she said, took a few years to get off the ground, allowing Ronan time to reach the right age to play Eilis.
And it’s come at a time when Ronan’s life, like Eilis’s, is undergoing a change: The actress, who moved to London when she was 18, is about to relocate to New York after spending the past year in Dublin.
“I didn’t know Dublin well until the last year,” she said. “I just love it. It’s funny — I was so desperate to leave Ireland when I moved to London a few years ago, and now I just want my life in Dublin to continue. I think it was John [Crowley] who said to me, ‘Ireland is a nation of leavers.’ But whether it’s just emotionally or whether you physically move back, you always go back. It’s always a part of us.”