You may stumble over her name, but you’ll recognise Saoirse Ronan’s striking blue eyes. The star talks about her killer role in Hanna
Published Sunday Times: 24 April 2011
In the golden age of Hollywood, when Issur Danielovitch Demsky was transformed into Kirk Douglas and Virginia McMath was made over as Ginger Rogers, you could imagine some cigar-chomping agent putting his arm round Saoirse Ronan’s shoulders. “Look, kid, it’s not me, it’s the damn movie-theater owners. Ronan’s fine, we can live with that, but how about, I dunno, ‘Susie’ instead?”
With good grace for someone who probably gets asked this every single day, the actress politely enunciates to me: “You can pronounce it Ser-sha, which is how I usually pronounce it. Or Sair-sha, which I don’t really like. Or Sear-sha, which is quite nice. A lot of Irish people say that.” The lovely moniker — almost sung, in the gentle lilt of rural Co Carlow, where she grew up and still lives — means “freedom” in Gaelic. (Agent: “I got it, kid — Susie Freedom. Hey, we’re gonna stick ya in a western with Marion Morrison.”) There couldn’t be a more apt name for the actress — the ethereal star of the heavenly fantasy The Lovely Bones; Oscar-_nominated at only 13 for her near supernaturally chilling Briony Tallis in Atonement.
Lithe and pretty, Ronan has a mane of silky, honey-blonde hair and luminous blue eyes that the camera clearly adores. She is also engagingly chatty — so old pro, on the one hand, casually name-dropping her colleagues “Cate” or “Keira”; but equally prone, as befits someone of the provisional-licence generation, to tucking her legs under her on the armchair, nattering about her ageing border collie, Sassy (“We’ve grown up together”), or how Facebook is, like, so “last year”. She has the best part of a decade’s work behind her, so it’s easy to forget she turned 17 only this month. She was on Irish telly at eight, made her film debut aged 11 and was seasoned enough to handle being the sole female in Peter Weir’s gulag epic, The Way Back — one of a number of top-notch directors who have fallen over themselves to secure Ronan’s services.
“I still feel like a teenager,” she muses, twirling a golden tress around her index finger. “I have my friends from Ireland, and we do things that are completely separate from the work I do. But I’m mature, I suppose, because I’m around adults an awful lot, and I’ve seen more of the world than most kids my age.”
Hanna has never seen a person the same sex as herself, She’s fascinated by that. And boys and bikinis
For someone coming round the final bend of adolescence, her new film, Hanna, is incredibly timely. A radical departure, it marks a sort of putting-away of childish things, the cinematic equivalent of getting your bellybutton pierced. “The films that have been done well have all been dramas,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I liked the idea of trying something different.” It’s an unusual film, what you might call an art-house action flick — La Femme Nikita meets Run Lola Run meets Kill Bill. Ronan stars as the film’s titular assassin, the ultimate fighting machine — martial arts, weapons and all — released on a mission across Europe and North Africa to flail her fists of fury at the person who killed her mother.
Making it was no picnic. An intense physical routine had her training four hours a day for two months at the LA gym run by Dan Inosanto, a protégé of Bruce Lee. Most of the fighting/running/jumping on screen is her, including the whacks administered to her 6ft 3in co-star, Eric Bana. “Poor Eric, he didn’t want to hurt me,” she chuckles, “but I went full steam ahead, and I did get him a few times.”
If Hanna is a compelling film — and not to be confused with the current gymslip ninjette of Sucker Punch — then it’s also because it comes from the hand of the British director Joe Wright, who is no stranger to the costume romp (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice). Ronan got him the gig, bluffing the producers with an assurance that he would most certainly do the picture if they offered it to her, when, in fact, he was blissfully oblivious of the project. “Joe rang me up a few days later and said, ‘Right, get your arse in the gym.’_”
All flaxen hair, wolf furs and feral reflexes, Hanna has been brought up by her former CIA-man father (Bana) in a remote cabin in Arctic Finland. Contact with the outside world has been verboten, her tuition coming only in the form of fairy tales, learnt in a variety of languages. Hanna is not merely a teen terminator, but a latter-day Kaspar Hauser, an unworldly innocent who has lived in isolation from society. Her wide-eyed bewilderment is shown to best effect when she hooks up with an English family, who are camper-vanning back from Morocco, to avoid the gay neo-Nazi hit man on her tail (Tom Hollander). From their daughter, Sophie (Jessica Barden), Hanna gets a crash course in juvenility. “Hanna has never seen a person the same sex as herself,” says Ronan, who turned 16 during the making of the film. “She’s fascinated by that. Sophie shows her things she never even imagined: boys and parties and bikinis.”
Hanna has certainly never encountered a female as carpet-ingesting as her CIA nemesis, played by Cate Blanchett, an actress who has crossed paths with Ronan before. They were nominated against each other at the 2008 Academy Awards. Before that, Ronan’s actor father, Paul, had appeared with Blanchett in Veronica Guerin. At this point, it seems only right that Paul should be introduced, sprawled, as he is, on the sofa across the hotel room, there as Saoirse’s chaperone. His garrulous nature has made him unable to resist chipping in with a prompt, or an anecdote, where his daughter is lacking. (“She was very expressive and artistic as a child,” he enthuses, to the mortification of his offspring. “She used to do voices with her little dolls and make up stories.”)
Paul and his wife, Monica, had gone to live in New York during the late-1980s recession. Saoirse, their only child, was born there in 1994. A former Irish karate international, Paul worked in an East Side bar, where he was talent-spotted — “Dad always joked and was a bit of an entertainer” — and offered work on stage. The acting career took off. They moved back home when she was three. Though Saoirse was a presence on Paul’s sets from an early age — carried by Brad Pitt on The Devil’s Own, playing around with Colin Farrell on Ballykissangel — her own path into acting “wasn’t part of any master plan”, her father says. But when she demonstrated a knack for it, she was well placed to get an agent.
Her first film role, quite remarkably, was as Michelle Pfeiffer’s daughter in the romcom I Could Never Be Your Woman, which went straight to DVD in Britain (where much of it was filmed), not aided by the timber thespianism of one Graham Norton, who pops up as a costume designer. “I know, so random, wasn’t it?” she squeals. There had been reservations about casting a non-American (although, technically, she is one), but her audition impressed. The film’s dialect coach was off to work on Atonement next and so brought Ronan to the attention of its director.
The part of manipulative young Briony was never a given. There were concerns again over nationality. But she and her father home-videoed an audition in their front _garden, lying on the grass, with Paul reading back Keira Knightley’s part. (“The green dress on you, dad. Come on.”) In the end, Ronan stole the show, nailing the cut-glass RP to a T, leaving producers across Britain to ponder how they’d come to overlook this young “English” actress.
I don’t have to constantly be working. That’s not why I do it. I want to have a normal life
Ronan may not have any formal training, but she has a gift for accents — assorted American ones (including City of Ember, a fantasy film shot in Belfast), Edinburgh Scottish (Death Defying Acts, with Catherine Zeta-Jones), Polish in The Way Back and a kind of Mitteleuropean in Hanna. Does she have a good ear? “I must do, I suppose,” she shrugs. “I’ve been lucky to work with great dialect coaches. I suppose, too, that spending the first three years of my life in New York helped — I watched a lot of American TV.”
Given her general lack of fazability, she didn’t find the Oscars that big a deal, she admits. Her father recounts a story where they came out of the lifts at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, and Saoirse was tapped on the shoulder by a man who gushed that he loved her “little film”.
“Who was that weirdo?” she asked afterwards. “Kevin Costner,” Paul replied. Her biggest pinch-yourself moment was when she had dinner at Danny DeVito’s house, she says, because dad was a big fan of Taxi. “I went to the bathroom. The toilet was really low,” she quips. “I had to crouch down.”
If Ronan has one regret, it’s that The Lovely Bones got a critical kicking — “Which I didn’t think was fair” — partly for sanitising some of the more brutal elements of Alice Sebold’s novel. “I personally think the film is great. To make a film that is centred on heaven, and there’s this 14-year-old girl who’s been raped and murdered — people have to make allowances.” She remains friends with the director, Peter Jackson, recently hospitalised with a stress-related illness, setting back shooting on his brace of Hobbit films, with which Ronan had been linked.
University may feature at some point. Currently home-schooled, Ronan thinks she’d enjoy it — “New York, or maybe Trinity College Dublin”. In the meantime comes Violet & Daisy, in which she stars — would you believe? — as an assassin, one half of a duo hunting down James Gandolfini (“Tony Soprano,” she trills. “And we’re sent to kill him, which is mad”). “It’s so different from Hanna — a black comedy that just happens to have a bit of shooting in it,” she clarifies. After that may come Effie, an Emma Thompson-penned film about the wife of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, for which she has been up against her perennial rival, Carey Mulligan.
The key, she says, is not to get carried away. “People I’ve worked with have advised me not to move too quickly. You know, I don’t have to constantly be working. That’s not why I do it. I could do three films a year, but I’d just be absolutely wrecked at the end of it. I want to have a normal life, one that’s not just orbiting around acting. So it’s important to get home to Ireland to spend time with people who haven’t got anything to do with the film business. And that keeps you grounded. Definitely.”
Hanna opens on May 6