This story about Saoirse Ronan first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Saoirse Ronan was talking about the life she’s currently living between Ireland and London when she stopped and shook her head. “I keep forgettin’,” she said with a grin, “but I’m only, like, 23, y’know?”
Yes, we do know, because we’ve seen many of those 23 years on screen. The Irish actress became the seventh- youngest Best Supporting Actress nominee ever when she was nominated for “Atonement” at the age of 13, and then the eighth-youngest Best Actress nominee for “Brooklyn” when she was 21.
And now she has her third nomination, which comes for the title role of Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age story “Lady Bird,” which features her nuanced and affecting portrayal of a headstrong Sacramento high schooler desperate to leave her home for someplace with more culture and excitement.
This caps a heady and busy few years for Ronan, who went from “Brooklyn” and its attendant Oscar campaigning to a run on Broadway in “The Crucible” to “Lady Bird” to the upcoming “On Chesil Beach.” The easy shorthand on how to pronounce her name may be that Saoirse rhymes with inertia, but that’s a comparison that only works phonetically.
And in a year in which the focus has turned to women in film, Ronan is now a contender in what might be the year’s most competitive Oscar campaign, Best Actress, where she sits alongside Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Sally Hawkins (“The Shape of Water”), Margot Robbie (“I, Tonya”) and Meryl Streep (“The Post”).
When you made “Brooklyn,” about a young woman who was taking her first steps toward independence, you had recently moved away from your family home in Ireland and started living on your own for the first time.
But now you’ve followed it with “Lady Bird,” which means you’re backing up and playing a teenager who hasn’t taken that step yet. Is it odd to be going back to earlier times on screen?
You think it’s going to be odd beforehand. “Lady Bird” was the first time I played a few years younger, and I thought, “Oh, I’ve played an adult role now, I can’t take a step back with something like that.” Because there’s so many young actors, especially, who find it really difficult to make that transition, and I didn’t want to ruin any progress I’d made.
But you actually don’t ruin it at all. It just means that you’re able to jump back and forth between the two.
When I was making “Lady Bird,” I did think about how I’ve essentially played Lady Bird in the future already. In a roundabout way, I’ve already played what could happen to her, and one of the great things about doing that is that it gives you a better understanding of what you’re going through.
And it’s interesting how you might not realize it, but the choices you make professionally always reflect something that’s going on in your own life. At that time, the idea of home and growing up was very important to me — it was the thing that was driving me and defining me and all that. And it makes sense that for those two years, that’s what I was interested in in the work I was doing as well.
Do you feel as if you’ve gone through that phase now?
I do a bit, yeah. I do feel like I’m coming out the other side of it now. I went back to New York recently, and I remember I how I used to get quite anxious when I left home at first and was doing grown-up things I had never really done on my own before, even if it was just going to the supermarket. But I went to New York and hopped out to get money out of the ATM or something. And there just wasn’t a bother on me. I was relaxed, and it didn’t faze me being in a big city.
I don’t know, it’s just tiny little things that start to become more habitual, but they make all the difference. I’ve definitely kind of grown accustomed to living away from home now, and knowing that that’s my life now, to not be in Ireland most of the time.
Has what you’re looking for out of your work changed over the last few years?
Yeah, I think it’s always changing. Like what I was saying about how home was a fascination for me that really influenced what I wanted to work on. And I think that’s shifting again. The older I get and the more experience I have on film sets, the more I want to be involved in the creative side. I think what I need from a movie is shifting all the time based on what I need myself.
Did working with Greta Gerwig, a director who started out as an actress, change your thoughts on directing?
Yeah. Like, I’ve always wanted to direct. I think that was something that I kinda gravitated towards before acting. And then acting took over. But when I was a kid, I loved going on stage in school plays and stuff, but I really, really loved, like, writing scripts, getting the camcorder out and bullying all my friends into doing a film with me. And I’d direct it and I wouldn’t be in it.
But I only realized recently, because of Greta and because of the whole conversation right now with women in the industry — I think a lot of girls would probably say this, I don’t think I ever had a real belief that I could be a director. I always had it in my head that I could, like, try my hand at directing, do you know what I mean?
But seeing Greta be a great filmmaker and a very good leader who knows how to handle being in charge — you know, it’s the classic thing of, “She did it, maybe that means I can do it, too.”
When you were coming up in your career, were you always in situations where men held the positions of power?
Eh, no. I actually have worked with almost as many female directors as male directors. The very first film I did was directed by Amy Heckerling. And I’ve worked with Gillian Armstrong and Nicole Beckwith and quite a few others. I mean, I have worked with more male directors, but I’ve never differentiated the two.
But the female-to-male ratio on set is very unbalanced. It’s a man’s environment. There are 10 men to every one woman on a film set. And that’s crazy. It’s mad. Even last year, I remember I was doing a scene and there were 10 men on set and two women, and the film was about a woman. I do notice it, for sure.
But I do think that in the next few years we’ll start to see a difference. It’s very important to have female writers and directors and producers, but also, it’s such a refreshing thing when you see a female boom op, or a DP. To know that “Mudbound” had a female cinematographer was so exciting.
Your character in “Lady Bird” knows she really has to get somewhere, but isn’t quite sure how to get there or even where she wants to go, except out. As somebody who was on a career path from much younger than that, can you relate to the struggle she’s going through?
Thankfully, I never had to sit down and go, “Right, what the f— am I gonna do with me life?” I do feel very lucky that I realized what my thing was when I was young, and I got to do it and be involved in great projects.
But you also do reach a point where you’ve been doing one thing for a very long time where you think, “Is this the only string to my bow? Do I have anything else to offer in life?” When it becomes so much about that, because you’re doing well or you’re busy or whatever, it can very easily overshadow everything else.
So at a certain point I was very conscious that I needed to give time to my life off set as well. Because it can become an unhealthy bubble, and that doesn’t help your work either. I am still having to make a conscious effort to take time to do other things, and invest time in my relationships, my family and my friends and the people in my life.
The first time we met, which I think was in 2009 after “The Lovely Bones,” you were excited because you had just gotten on Twitter.
Oh, my God! I only went on it because Stephen Fry was on it. ‘Cause he was like, “Oh, Twitter, it’s fantastic, it’s a quick little thing.” And because he got on it, I got on it.
But these days, you don’t seem to worry about having a social media presence anymore.
Oh, no. It’s too much work for me and too stressful. I’ve developed a kind of distant relationship with my phone and technology over the last couple of years. I get why musicians do it, and journalists or people in the public eye.
But acting is a different thing, ’cause you’re not yourself when you’re working. I’m not me in anything that anyone sees me in. So for me then to get on Twitter and go, “Oh, I’ve had a terrible day” or “God, I’ve got such a headache,” I just don’t think people need to see that.
And self-promotion has always made me feel really uncomfortable. Even now, my hair is in the middle of being done, and we’re changing it, we’re coloring it, and even the fact that my hair is getting so much attention, I’m sort of like, “There’s too much attention on my hair! We have to stop talking about my hair!”
Do you still get the same things out of acting that you got when you started doing it?
I just enjoy it. I really enjoy the process of it, of finding something that works in a scene. I like the discipline. I like the sense of community on a film set, and the camaraderie with your crew and your cast and your director. And it’s all I’ve ever known. That is my home.
Film sets were to me what school was to other kids. For some kids, that was their safe space, their routine. That’s what film gave me, and it still does.
I feel very very calm and serene when I’m on a film set. Lights could be falling down around me, and everyone could be running around and shouting and we’re trying to make the day, and I just feel totally at peace with that chaos. And I think it’s because that’s what I’m used to.
Film sets might have been your school, but that means that when you play a part like the high schooler in “Lady Bird,” you have to convincingly be somebody who has gone through all the things you haven’t.
Yeah. It’s surprisingly easy to do that when you’re a child. I don’t know why. Kids play and it’s so uninhibited — they just totally believe that they are a fairy or a princess or an astronaut or a tree or whatever. It can be anything. A child has total blind faith in the make-believe. And I do think we have the ability to access that.
And at our core, everyone is a lot more similar, I think, than we realize. A character could have grown up in a different circumstance from you, or been in a different cultural or societal situation — but at their core, what do they want? They want to be loved, or they’re afraid. It’s usually those two things, I think. So at their core, a human is a human, y’know?