Grounded for life
Far-flung locations; Oscar nominations; red-carpet premieres; the harsh glare of a celebrity-obsessed media. Amid this whirlwind, Saoirse Ronan could hardly be expected to be an average teen. Could she? Donald Clarke meets the down-to-earth Carlow superst
EVEN FANS OF The Clinic and Proof were sideswiped by the rapid rise of young Saoirse Ronan. Before she whipped Atonement from under the noses of pros such as Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, the young actor, now 15, had done little else but play recurring roles in those RTÉ series. Here in Ireland, we like to hype our rising talent, but nobody saw that performance coming.
Then, to add to the surprise, she turned out to have an engaging way with the media. Unlike some child actors – who deserve to be sent to bed with no Baftas – she seemed to have mastered the act of seeming (or, let’s be fair, being) impressively normal.
In London to promote her role in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, Ronan has positioned herself in front of a plate of pasta and a soft drink. Curled up on the extravagant sofa, she has the aspect of a teenager ready to watch Twilight while scoffing her tea. Unfortunately, she has to look at me rather than Robert Pattinson.
Most 15-year-olds would find the interview process intimidating. I wonder how she manages to seem so relaxed. Did the mediatraining wonks get at her before her first junket? Of course, her father is an actor himself.
“Well my parents are still with me,” she says. “But no. I have only recently heard about the business of media training. I never had any. My dad did maybe give me a few pointers about how to answer question – and what subjects to avoid.”
Back in 2007, the attention that followed the release of Atonement – not to mention her subsequent Oscar nomination – must have come as a significant surprise. After all, the young Briony Tallis – the character Ronan played – only appeared in the first third of the picture.
Ronan is, however, the fulcrum around which The Lovely Bones spins. Based on a hugely popular novel by Alice Sebold, the film focuses on a child’s murder in a wiggy, spooky version of 1970s America. Following her death, Susie Salmon – suspended in a weird afterlife, whose slightly queasy decorations reflect her own teenage sensibility – watches as her parents, arguing and railing, seek to discover her missing remains. Meanwhile, the murderer, played by Stanley Tucci, continues to live right across the street.
Some actors can shake off such misery when they remove their costumes. Others carry it home with them.
“It did worry me sometimes – especially near the start of making the movie,” she says. “Sometimes I found it difficult to not imagine what a family like the Salmons would be going through. It’s hard. Their child is taken away and they just don’t know where she is. It’s awful to just have blood as memory and evidence. I would think of the other girls who were murdered in the story and I would get upset and cry. At the same time, I had to put that aside and carry on.”
Amiably gangly, with long graceful features, Ronan does come across like a typical teenager, but, as that answer clarifies, she has a very disciplined, focused approach to the work. True, she was born into the business. She was not, however, raised among a Barrymore clan or a Redgrave dynasty. When Saoirse Ronan came into the
Saoirse Ronan in Japan to promote The Lovely Bones: “Ronan does come across like a typical teenager, but . . . she has a very disciplined, focused approach to the work”