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Irish-American Actress Saoirse Ronan Goes from "Brooklyn" to the Oscars


Once Brooklyn debuted at the 2015 New York Film Festival, it was on the path toward major award notices. There’s a universality to this story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) an Irish immigrant who finds freedom and self by coming to America during the 1950s. People can plug into it as a simple love story, but it’s also resonates as the journey of the immigrant that makes America great.

As a nation of immigrants, everyone has a story to tell somewhere along the lines of this film. Directed by John Crowley with a screenplay by famed author Nick Hornby, the film is based on the novel by Colm Tóibín. It showcases some best Irish talent besides Ronan including Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters, with the able production team of Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey

When Ronan set out on this journey within the film, the national dialogue about immigration wasn’t what it is today, which is now seeded with an antagonism that reminds us that every class of immigrants, at some point, faced racism or racist stereotypes about who they are. 

While two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Una Ronan was born in The Bronx on April 12, 1994, she landed in County Carlow when she was three years old. The only child of actors Monica and Paul Ronan, they tried  New York City at the time of her birth but came home. Then as a teen, she ended up in Howth, County Dublin.

The Irish-American actress made her screen debut on Irish TV’s RTÉ, in the 2003 prime time medical drama The Clinic and then in the mini-serial Proof. She had auditioned to play Luna Lovegood in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix but it went to Evanna Lynch.

At 12, Ronan attended a casting for director Joe Wright's 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2001 novel Atonement for the part of Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old aspiring writer who accuses her older sister's lover of a crime he didn’t commit. Starring alongside Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, Ronan impressed Wright on-set who then made her the lead in his 2011 spy actioner Hanna.

Her other film roles before Brooklyn included City of Ember (2008), The Lovely Bones (2009), The Way Back (2010), Byzantium (2012), The Host (2013), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

Receiving two Oscar noms — this year for Best Actress in Brooklyn and for Best Supporting Actress in 2007 for Atonement, she's also snagged three BAFTA Award nominations, two Golden Globe nominations, two Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, and one Satellite Award.

From her 2015 NYFF premiere on, Ronan's been happy to talk about this role that celebrates something of her own personal histroy as filtered through the experience of an earlier generation of Irish newcomers to the U.S.A. As she explains in this Q&A conducted at a MoMA screening, it gave her a chance to look inward and learn from it -- something that helped her prepare for her upcoming Broadway debut in the revival of Arthur Miller's award winning The Cruciible.

Q: This wasn’t a typical award-oriented film…

SR: We had no idea that was going to happen. To this day, [being nominated] has been one of the highlights of this whole adventure. It’s a very traditional type of film, not exactly edgy and raw, there’s nothing cool about it.

S-Ronan brooklynQ: Your character has an amazing journey, but you’ve taken one as well. In the year that you’ve been on the road promoting this movie what have you learned about her or yourself?

SR: When I learn something about her it helps me. So I learn something from realizing all these layers she seems to have and it's taught me. One of the main lessons that Brooklyn, and John [Crowley] particularly, has taught me is that I could be quite lazy, just read the script and learn the lines and play a character, but I realized that the more and more I read from this that there are so many secrets that can come into the mix that you can delve into. 

When we started to actually talk and share with people, that’s when we began to realize the power of development. Journalists were coming up to me, and usually it gets pretty repetitive when you’re dealing with press all the time and talking about the same thing, but with this, the reason we haven’t gotten sick of it isn’t that it’s done so well so far, but also that every journalist has had such a personal attachment to it. 

Every single one has said, “I’m in a long distance relationship, so I relate to it for this reason” or, “I’m a parent who was left alone when my kid went to college.”

People are able to appreciate [this film] from different perspectives. But one of the things that I loved about Éilis Lacey and I realized more was that this is… One of the qualities I love the most about her is she’s got such a strong will. There’s a real echo in here and it goes with her little top knot.  

She has a really strong sense of self and it’s important to see a female character [like that] on screen. We don’t see it much when a young man comes up to her and says, “I’m in love with you, don’t worry, let’s get married”, she doesn’t melt and go, “Ok, let’s do all the things you suggest we do.” She needs time to think about it. 

It’s not that she doesn’t have feelings for him and reciprocates this love, but I like that she’s created this world for herself and she doesn’t necessarily want to compromise that straight away. So that was something that was very helpful for me to hold onto, even when dealing with press and becoming more and more apparent in the industry side of things. It’s a weird world and it’s a world that, ironically, filmmakers aren’t actually used to.

Q: She goes through an arc, committing to her immigration to the United States. How did you work out the racism and other elements into that character set a while ago.

SR: It was a while ago, but I don’t think it would have been right to look at it, and I know that’s not what you’re saying, political standpoint. It had to be incredibly personal and intimate and I think that’s why [it works] right now, because it’s an incredibly heated discussion, as it always should be, but it is right now for the wrong reasons. 

To have a film where people can at least empathize with one person and apply that to the mass of people that are fleeing their homes. I was in London before Christmas doing rehearsals and I saw migrants just in the park, there was about 40 of them under a tree, it was cold and they had nowhere to go, and it baffled me. Especially Ireland, some people have had such a strange reaction to it. 

We’re a nation of immigrants — it’s something I can personally empathize with and it’s something I hope the film will do, so people can look at it in a more intimate individual sense and give some heart to the stories of these people that are making the exact same journey, if not worse, right now.

Q: Did you know any Irish immigrants of that generation before or speak to any in preparation for this role? 

brookSR: I didn’t know any before, but I’ve met a lot since and heard stories from people who ultimately went back to Ireland and who are at home [there]. There was one woman who’s actually from [Eilis'county], and, I think it was around 1951 or '52, that she decided she was going to go to America. She actually had a very good job, so she was going to go over there and going to work, which was just unheard of then. Even when my family went over, that’s what I drew from because it was their story that I grew up with.

Q: Your parents immigrated...

SR: I was born in the Bronx as I’m sure you can tell; you got that from me. My story is in reverse of Eilis. My mom and dad went over in the '80s; there was no work at home in Ireland and a lot of people say the recession back then in Ireland was worse than it is now, though it was pretty bad a few years ago.

A lot of young couples and young people left. My dad and his friend went ahead of my Nan over to New York, and then herself, and the friend’s girlfriend followed. 

They went there to work and spent about 11 years here. I’ve taken my mom to places in Manhattan since then when they were just in the Bronx. I’ve taken her to places in Manhattan she had never been to before. 

So I grew up appreciating what the struggle was like, but certainly didn’t realize the longingness and grief that came with it until I knew it. I was in a much more fortunate position than Eilis, getting a nice flat in London.

And it was in that time, maybe a year before I did the film, before I signed up and there was a year where I moved away. But it’s a completely different perspective when you’re in the middle of it and trying to overcome… We don’t know what it is. 

It’s like being in this new city, now what do I do; exist in the same place? But I didn’t have a purpose there. Brooklyn gave me that. So to go back afterwards really help me to overcome all the fears I had before I left to do the shoot.

Q: You’ve done historical dramas and fantastical films. You worked with Joe Wright on Hanna to great success and then you did a fantastical film with Wes Anderson. Does it   charge you to flip back and forth? 

SR: I wouldn’t want to be known for anything except working consistently. That would be one of my great fears, apart from forgetting my lines, is just being known for one role. The first one I did I was 10 and a couple years later I had a taste and that was around the time Atonement came around. 

I got this other action film and I knew I didn’t want to go down that commercial route just for the sake of exposure, even when I was a kid. I always felt like I had to do something that makes you feel something. 

It takes me in different directions, whether it’s the action genre or a romance it means you’re stretched all the time. I feel that as an actor I wouldn’t be method or anything like that, but I learned the most working with different types of directors where I stretch myself and adapt; that has helped me learn so much. It's kind of like when you actually play a character, you’re getting to know and pick up so many new perspectives.

Q: Any secret stories you want to tell us about the shoot working with John Crowley?

SR: It’s been great [nervous laughter]. John and I almost fell out forever one day. We did so many bloody dinner scenes, over the course of two days we must have done eight dinner scenes; we ate so much. We were properly eating too, it wasn’t like in a movie where you dance around with a fork and pick it up and put it back down. I hate it whenever I see people do that. We were properly eating. It must have been the third dinner scene of the day, which is a lot. 

When you’re doing a dinner scene you have to coordinate with six, seven, eight people, multiple different angles, everyone gets a bit tired and a bit angry near the end, and that’s where we were. We were also near the end of the shoot as well, and we were eating stew. 

We had a fork, a spoon, and a little knife for bread. So Jane Brennan and myself, who plays the mother Mrs. Lacey, we went to eat with our spoons, and, I don’t know about you, but when I eat soup, I do it with a spoon, I don’t do it with a fork.

John came up to me — he was getting a bit grumpy, and I was getting a bit grumpy — and he was like, “Do this, do that, it’s easier for us if you’re using a fork when you eat the stew.” 

I looked up at him and said,“What?”

“Just use your fork.”

“Hold on a minute.”

So we get into this huge argument about whether to use a fork or spoon, I ended up using the fork, but to me, it doesn’t make sense at all. So if I look bitter at all in that scene it’s because of the director.

brooklynQ: Using a fork makes no sense.

SR: It makes no sense! What are you supposed to do with soup? I don’t understand.

Q: You had two dashing men — Emory Cohen as Anthony "Tony" Fiorello and Domhnall Gleeson as Jim Farrell. Gleeson’s now in everything; he’s having his Star Wars moment. Each one has a distinct character with a different frame of mind, so what was it like having these two actors informing your character? It seemed fun.

SR: It was for different reasons. We started in Ireland, so we did the beginning and close to the end was three weeks. I had to fall in love with one actor then another. Domhnall has the same sort of attitude as me towards work, we had good craic. That’s not the drug [but the Gaelic word for fun].  

Domhnall and I knew each other for years and there were a couple of little things we tried to do together and it just never happened.

When Irish people get together there’s a very familial atmosphere, it’s very personal and familiar with each other even if you never met them before, so it was very relaxed. 

With Emory and I in Montreal, we had the girls for a few days but then it was just me and him and we had so many scenes were it was just the two of us. The scenes I shared with him were some of my favorite to shoot, dramatically speaking, because they are some of the most life changing moments for her.

And he’s wonderful, really magical. He was so committed and would have done anything to make John happy. He had a lot of integrity and I really respect that. But we work in different ways. 

We’re both coming at it from very different angles and because we have that yin and yang dynamic it really worked. The characters have that on film — they’re very different from each other and come from different sorts of backgrounds — and they get together because of that, so that’s where the attraction comes from. I can definitely identify with the conflicts she has as an Irish person in America. 

I’ve certainly felt that, even from being on film sets. You can kind of own your Irishness a little bit more when the person you’re with isn’t well up on Ireland or where you’re from. You can milk it a little bit. It gives her this charm and extra bit of confidence that she steps into when she meets this guy, it’s pretty instant.

Q: You brought that inner strength to your interactions with him.

SR: As soon as we met I was pulling him up on everything. He took it but he had no choice really -- to be honest. The dynamic just naturally established itself instantly. Whereas with Domhnall we had known each other for a period of time and we were very familiar with each other anyways, and that really worked for our characters because in this film Domhnall represents home and that total security to her and familiarity. It really was like life imitating art when it came to the dynamics.

Q: So romance is still cool — who knew?

SR: Who knew? Cool is cool. We had a screening and [at the time] it wasn’t necessarily the one to watch but people were intrigued by it. The response we have had from the very beginning was so amazing.

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