When she stepped out in front of an audience of millions on Saturday Night Live last December, Saoirse Ronan began by setting the record straight on her endlessly mispronounced first name, with a musical ditty that explained “Saoirse” rhymes with “inertia”. With its Gaelic jumble of vowels, it’s been butchered in multiple ways by talk-show hosts and spellchecks across the globe. The Irish 23-year-old’s impish stint as ringleader on the legendary comedy show previously hosted by the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Kristen Stewart was something of a clue to her currently soaring trajectory in Hollywood, but it was also the moment the gifted actress was finally allowed to be funny. With her ethereal looks, obsessive dedication and litmus-paper sensitivity on screen, most directors seem to have taken Ronan’s abilities too seriously to send comedies, or even just regular, messy teenage girls, her way. Carried onto a film set before she could walk, the actress christened “Meryl reborn” by Ryan Gosling has a habit of acting veterans twice her age off the screen, playing a kaleidoscopic range of strong, unpredictable characters and complicated misfits. There was the feral teen assassin raised in a frozen wilderness in Joe Wright’s Hanna; a southern gothic drifter in Ryan Gosling’s neon-drenched noir fairytale Lost River; a 200-year-old vampire in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium; a deeply homesick Irish immigrant in John Crowley’s Brooklyn; and the solemn upper-class English girl with impeccable clipped vowels whose single wicked lie precipitates tragedy in Atonement, a role that won her her first Oscar nomination aged just 13.
But as Ronan clowned her way through SNL sketches including a goofy role as an Aer Lingus hostess grappling with a surprise influx of small dogs, it became clear she has a knack for comic timing, too – and maverick independent film queen Greta Gerwig has harnessed it in her glowingly reviewed directorial debut Lady Bird. A brilliantly idiosyncratic high school coming-of-age story set in 2002 in the director’s native Sacramento, Ronan plays a wilful teenager rebelling against her mother and her monotonous hometown, all red-streaked hair and thrift-shop outfits, testing out her wings as she flings herself at adulthood. A complex mix of impulsive confidence and confused insecurity, Ronan’s portrayal of the titular character is by turns comic and heartbreaking. “I love comedy more than anything. I grew up watching brilliant comedies, and I knew it would be one of the hardest things to do,” she says today, sipping tea in a London hotel suite as rain drizzles down the windows. “I think films like Lady Bird can be more realistic than straight-up dramas because people don’t actually talk seriously all the time – we mask difficult situations in our lives with humour. Even at home, one of the best days out of the year will be going to a funeral, because everyone’s really fucking sad but you make light of it, and you have a laugh. It’s such a realistic trait.”
It’s a shock to hear her industrial-strength, treacly Irish brogue. A linguistic chameleon, Ronan has rarely used her own accent on screen, flexing her vocal chords from Valley-girl Californian to languorous southern drawl or Queen’s English. Her parents left County Carlow in the 1980s, in the midst of a devastating recession, joining the thousands leaving the country in search of work. They immigrated to New York, where Ronan was born in 1994 – she spent her infant years in a flat in the Bronx. Her mother became a nanny, and her father worked an array of construction and odd jobs including bartender – he was chatting with a group of Irish actors having a post-performance drink when one suggested he audition for a play. Soon Ronan senior was winning regular parts on the stage and screen, and when he was needed on set, baby Saoirse tagged along too: She hung out in the army barracks with Colin Farrell during the filming of Ordinary Decent Criminal, and in the Hamptons on The Devil’s Own set with Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt – the latter took to carrying Ronan around and feeding her strawberries.
In the late 1990s the family moved back to rural Ireland where Ronan’s fledgling acting ambitions were kicked off in the annual school play: “I went to a tiny country school, 50 kids in the whole school,” she remembers. “There were so few children that everyone got a part – sometimes kids got two parts because there were more parts than pupils. The play was the highlight of the year for me, I loved it. I used to get the script, highlight my lines and count all of them to check I was in the top five – ‘OK, I’ve got 40 lines, that’s pretty good going’.” At home meanwhile – lacking brothers and sisters – she was organising her Polly Pockets into an imaginary long-running television series of her own. “Like any kid I’d go off on my own for hours and come up with storylines. You know, ‘Let’s pick up from yesterday when so-and-so had an affair with so-and-so… ’”
“We mask difficult situations in our lives with humour. Even at home, one of the best days out of the year will be going to a funeral, because everyone’s really fucking sad but you make light of it, and you have a laugh” – Saoirse Ronan
She made her on-screen debut aged eight, in the Dublin-set TV series The Clinic: “I was almost run over by my Dad,” she says. “I had to run, upset, out of a funeral and into the road. The car stops but then I fall over anyway ... It was my actual Dad driving the car – for some reason they thought I’d be more comfortable doing the scene if he was driving!” Ronan was hooked, and two years after those inauspicious beginnings she was in Hollywood, playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s daughter in Amy Heckerling’s sickly sweet 2007 romance I Could Never Be Your Woman. But it was another film released that year that changed everything; director Joe Wright had trawled through audition tapes and elite private schools in search of a well-spoken, brown-haired young actress to play Briony Tallis in his adaptation of Ian McEwan’s sprawling novel Atonement. Briony – all deep waters and seething resentments – didn’t seem to have much in common with the cheerful blonde Irish girl who walked into his audition room. But Ronan’s faultless reading left him dumbfounded and she was soon on location at the rambling Stokesay Court in Shropshire, alongside the considerably more established James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. The experience marked a turning point, she says. “In terms of making me take acting seriously enough to pursue it as a career, it was Atonement – because it had so much gravity to it, the work was so good. I’d also auditioned for this action film, which would have paid a lot more and could have been a big commercial success or whatever, and it was up to me to decide which one I was going to do, and I chose Atonement… Honestly, my parents always left it down to me. And I’ve always had a good sense of what I wanted work-wise and otherwise, a good sense of what was right for me.”
Her instincts proved correct; the choice landed her on the red carpet at the 2008 Academy Awards as a contender for Best Supporting Actress, clad in a floor-length green dress she picked out to signal her Irish roots. She took her parents along as her dates, and although she lost out to Tilda Swinton that night, she remembers the free liquorice distributed to the audience as a highlight. At 13, Ronan was one of the youngest actors ever to be nominated, putting her in the company of child stars including Jodie Foster, Tatum O’Neal and Anna Paquin; and bringing the kind of overwhelming attention that in venerable Hollywood tradition has sent young actors still in the process of growing up spiralling into celebrity train-wrecks. Ronan has gracefully avoided those pitfalls, despite having her first-ever kiss on set and spending most birthdays she can count there, too. There have been no messy 4am nightclub moments – at least none caught on camera – and she’s quick to puncture any grandiose, actor-y statements with self-deprecating asides. That lack of pretension was fostered by making her base through those early years in Ireland, a solid 5,000 miles from Los Angeles’ clutches (“I just don’t think it’s a good place for a kid,” she says), and above all, by the anchoring presence of her mother Monica, who travelled with her, made sure she got to bed on time and is not cut from the nightmarish Culkin-mould of stage parenting. “Mam’s the type of person who is not fazed by stars or executive producers or people who think they’re more important than anyone else,” Ronan says with affection. “Mam doesn’t care about that stuff! She just wants me to be OK and healthy and happy and having fun. I obviously looked up to her so much and having someone like that around, I always knew what the goal was, which was to do good work and have fun doing it. She said, if you don’t enjoy it any more, don’t do it. She never put pressure on me.”
When the time came, Ronan made the often sticky transition from child to adult actor neatly with a single film: in John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn she grew up on screen playing Eilis, a lonely, post-war Irish immigrant in America, torn between her old life and new. The role seemed destined for Ronan, with its echoes of her parents’ own journey – and having just left home herself, moving into a London flat aged 19 to test out her burgeoning independence and abilities at home-cooking, she was able to channel her own feelings of displacement. “Brooklyn was really emotional for me because I’d never done anything so close before,” she remembers. She’s translated the unguarded instincts she had as a child into her adult roles; the quiet intensity she brought to Brooklyn lead to a second Oscar nomination, aged 21. On awards night she loyally chose green again, looking as though she’d emerged fully grown from the sea in a scaled emerald Calvin Klein gown. She was deprived of a gold statuette by Brie Larson that time, but if the film gods align, Lady Bird will make it third time lucky: the role has already netted Ronan her first Golden Globe.
“I’m definitely the type of person that likes to have a goal. If I’m in the gym, I like to know how many reps I have to do, and unless I’m about to die, I’ll get there” – Saoirse Ronan
Greta Gerwig first met Ronan in Toronto during the film festival in 2015, armed with a copy of the Lady Bird script: “I sat in her hotel room and read the entire script out loud with her,” says Gerwig. “As soon as I heard her say the words, I knew beyond a doubt that she was Lady Bird. It was so different and so much better than I had imagined… there was no other person who could have done it. It was hers two minutes into the read.” She was so convinced, Gerwig pushed production of the film back by six months to get Ronan on board – the actress was committed to her first theatrical role at the time, a Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s devastating drama based on the 17th-century Salem witch trials, The Crucible. Making her home in New York for the first time since she was a baby, Ronan was onstage doing the near-three hour play eight times a week. (Even as a kid, her work ethic made her beloved of directors: “I’m definitely the type of person that likes to have a goal. If I’m in the gym, I like to know how many reps I have to do, and unless I’m about to die, I’ll get there.” she says.) She remembers Gerwig sending her snatches of poems, lyrics and ephemera in preparation for their collaboration: “Someone said to me recently that I’m monogamous with work. When I’m doing a job, I can’t think about anything else, I can’t look at anything else, I’m just not able to do that,” she says. “But with Greta sending me all these snippets of the world we were going to be in, it began sinking into my subconscious.”
Lady Bird opens with a deadpan quote by that clear-eyed chronicler of Californian moods Joan Didion, on the steadfastly unglamorous hometown she shares with Gerwig: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” Over the months leading up to the shoot, Gerwig sent Ronan a selection of Didion’s essays on Sacramento, and a little book of Frank O’Hara’s New York-steeped Lunch Poems (“Oh god it’s wonderful/to get out of bed/and drink too much coffee/and smoke too many cigarettes …”). “She said Joan Didion would give me a sense of where Lady Bird comes from and the Lunch Poems are where she feels she’s destined to be – the life she’s destined to live, because it’s such a romantic view of New York,” explains Ronan. There was a playlist too (Justin Timberlake, Alanis Morissette) and a crash course in American high school life – almost entirely home-tutored after primary school, Ronan has never experienced the unique torments of secondary education. Instead she devoured episodes of Saved by the Bell, and classic 1980s John Hughes films like Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles to get herself into the romantic mindset of a 17-year-old girl. “One time we went over to Greta’s house in New York and went through her photo albums from when she was a kid,” Ronan remembers. “I didn’t really do school in a conventional way, so it was great for me to see Greta in a big high school sweatshirt with her hair all messy, see photographs of her onstage in the school musical, her with her best mate, with the guys she liked, just getting the look of that world.”
The coming-of-age story might be well-trodden terrain, but Gerwig has a singular and typically honest take on hers – even Ronan’s skin, which had recently suffered under the nightly attack of theatre lights on Broadway, is authentically teenage. And although there are a couple of romances with boys – one with a clove-smoking pseudo-intellectual played by another rising actor, Timothée Chalamet – it’s the curdled relationship between Lady Bird and her mother that forms the heart of the film, a beautifully real and occasionally painful look at the way families know how to hurt each other best. Navigating that slippery adolescent moment of trying on different personas for size, Lady Bird careens through a bumpy senior year at Catholic school, the annual musical, failed romances and parental frustrations, dreaming of college in New York from a bedroom plastered with scrawled poems and Bikini Kill posters. Shot in a palette of Northern Californian ice-cream pastels, the film is a love letter to Gerwig’s hometown, although she was also convinced real life was anywhere but Sacramento while she was growing up. The director has insisted the story isn’t strictly autobiographical, but Ronan admits she infused her character with the odd Gerwig-mannerism: “Greta is very connected to what she’s saying, she points a lot and uses her hands,” Ronan says, doing an uncanny impression of the director’s precise way of talking, accent and all. “That started to come out in Lady Bird. But she’s a combination of the two of us. We probably had elements of Lady Bird when we were her age, but neither of us were as ballsy as her. I think we both really wished we had been like her. Even though Lady Bird’s got a few little hiccups she needs to sort out and there’s some flaws there, you just know she’s going to be great.”
Were Ronan’s own teenage years as rebellious as her character’s? “No, I’m so cringe compared to her!” she laughs. “OK, this is the difference between Lady Bird and I: my one rebellion was I drew a sad clown on my wall when I was a kid – in pencil! There was this little tear next to this clown’s eye. And then underneath I wrote, ‘Brush your teeth and make your bed and then start your day.’ That’s what I wrote on my wall! Not ‘Fuck y’all!’ or anything, but ‘Make the bed’! So no, I wasn’t as gutsy as her.”
But working with Gerwig has re-awakened a long-held desire to direct that began in that same childhood bedroom, where Ronan remembers early skirmishes making her own music videos and DIY short films while still in single figures. (She describes one complicated plotline involving an Irish chef’s trashing of his own bakery to claim the insurance money that suggests the subject matter didn’t revolve around your average nine-year-old’s obsessions.) “Greta just nailed it with her first film,” Ronan says. “But it’s not even seeing that she’s done so well – it’s seeing that she enjoys it so much, that’s what started to make me think again about seriously doing it. Greta was saying to me, if you’re a storyteller you’re a storyteller – and if you work in film, you can tell a story in different ways … Greta, and the women in TV, are changing the entertainment industry. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham: these people who, because they weren’t getting the work, wrote it for themselves and it was so good and so funny that nobody could deny it. And it did well; it made money. It was never the case that we didn’t have the ability, it was really just about us feeling like we could, feeling like there was the support and the encouragement. From a kid I’ve always been, ‘Well if a boy can do it, I can do it.’ When I was a kid, I’d play Gaelic football on the boys’ team. I was like, ‘I can do it if they can!’”
“Someone said to me recently that I’m monogamous with work. When I’m doing a job, I can’t think about anything else, I can’t look at anything else, I’m just not able to do that… But with Greta [Gerwig] sending me all these snippets of the world we were going to be in, it began sinking into my subconscious” – Saoirse Ronan
One of the best sketches on Ronan’s SNL show was titled Welcome to Hell, a bubblegum pop video featuring Ronan with Barbie pigtails on a fluffy pink swing, delineating the long history of sexual assault endured by women. She says the stream of allegations hitting the film industry in recent months has been galvanising: “I was very lucky in that I was really protected, I wasn’t exposed to anything that would have damaged me because I had my Mam with me,” she says. “But at the same time, yeah there have been things said to me and female actors around me over the years, even recently, where I’ve gone, ‘you wouldn’t talk to the guy like that’, or, ‘if this director was male, you wouldn’t have spoken to him like that’. It’s like an awakening, because I think women included, it’s gone over our head a bit because it’s so embedded in us that it’s just expected and it’s the norm. Since Lady Bird and watching Greta soar, and having all these allegations coming out on top of that, it’s like a bus has just hit me. I’ve gone, ‘Fuck! This really needs to change lads, this is not OK.’”
Ronan’s choice of roles has long shown a marked disinterest in playing sidekick, ingénue, or romantic device written in to be rescued by Prince Charming, and that looks set to continue – she’ll step into the elaborately embroidered shoes of Mary Queen of Scots next in Josie Rourke’s portrait of the fiery monarch. There’s also a reunion with Ian McEwan on the horizon for 2018 – the author has adapted his doomed 1960s romance On Chesil Beach for the screen, a novel with perhaps the most excruciatingly repressed sex scene ever committed to the page. “So awkward!” she says. “We shot it for so long. So much of it takes place in the bed, and because there are bits where they almost do it and then they have a chat, we did it for days.” Added to another role, as Nina in a film adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, Ronan is jumping between centuries as much as she’s jetting between time zones: “To be honest by the end of last year everything was a bit of a blur,” she confirms. “But – have you read Gloria Steinem’s book My Life on the Road? I started reading it recently, and she spent her whole life travelling around, she never went to school and she says it’s actually quite unnatural for us to settle in one place and stay there our whole lives, because we’re migrators. For so long we travelled and roamed, set up camp for a bit and moved on. So what I’ve realised over the last while is, I’ll never know where I’m going to be next … but I’m open to it.”
Still, there’s one place she’ll always be – and we’re likely to find her there for decades to come: “There’s nothing I love more than being on a set,” she says, happily sinking into the enormous hotel couch and taking a last mouthful of tea. “From the very beginning, that very first day on set, it felt natural. I feel so zen. Even though it’s mad, it’s organised chaos, and I think I like the order of it. It doesn’t panic me at all.” She pauses. “It just feels like home.”
Lady Bird is in selected cinemas February 16 and nationwide February 23, 2018.
Hair: Recine for Rodin. Make-up: Peter Philips for Dior. Set design: Randall Peacock at The Magnet Agency. Manicure: Yuko Tsuchihashi at Susan Price using Deborah Lippman. Digital tech: Nick Ong. Photographic assistants: Nick Brinley, Maru Teppei, Kris Shacochis and Will Takahashi. Styling assistants: Molly Shillingford and Jessica Gerardi. Hair assistant: Kabuto Okuzawa. Make-up assistant: Kuma. Set-design assistants: Todd Knopke and Hisham Bharoocha. Producer: Gracey Connelly. Post-production: Dtouch NYC.
This full story originally featured in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of AnOther Magazine which will be on sale internationally from February 15, 2018.