Ahead of the release of Brooklyn on November 6th, we had the pleasure of sitting down with the inimitable Saoirse Ronan, otherwise known as an Irish acting force with which to be reckoned. Since blowing us away with her turn in Atonement, Ronan, now 21, has graduated naturally onto more mature roles, impressing both critics and audiences alike with every move she makes. Here she stars as the lead protagonist in the film adaptation of Colm Toibín’s much-loved novel, Brooklyn. A national treasure, Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis, who, on the advice of her beloved sister, sets off for New York City in pursuit of opportunities that her hometown in Ireland can no longer offer. As was the experience of many Irish emigrants in the 1950s, when there was no such thing as Skype or mobile phones, Saoirse’s character is consumed by the most crippling homesickness until she meets a charming young Brooklynite. If you haven’t read the book, we don’t want to spoil how the story evolves, but rest assured, you’ll feel the full spectrum of emotions during this epic, Irish movie. Resonating on so many levels with Saoirse’s own experience, it seems her decision to take on this role was set in the stars. Here’s how our conversation unfolded, and you’ll just have to use your imagination to hear that famous Irish lilt of hers.
This is a story with which everyone will be able to relate. Given your own upbringing, was this role a no-brainer?
It was such a no-brainer, yeah. I was waiting for the right Irish project to come along y’know. I had done Byzantium with Neil Jordan, but it was an English character and an English production. I read it and just as soon as I’d finished it, I realised it was my mam and dad’s story. And everyone else has been able to look at it and go ‘that’s my mam and dad’s story’ or ‘that’s my story’ and even, y’know, people have come to me, and they’re in a long distance relationship or something and they’ve been able to identify with it in that way, so it’s a very relatable story anyway.
And you were born in the Bronx?
Yeah, I was born in the Bronx, check me out, me, hip-hop and JLo all originated from The Bronx. But yeah, I knew it was the right story for me to do, but from the time I had signed on to when I actually made the film, about a year had passed and in that time I moved away and so I was homesick. All of a sudden I was going back to a place that I hadn’t been to in years, where I grew up as a kid and was making a film about home and it was amazing.
Was it easy to step into that mindset then, given the similarity of your own situation?
It actually wasn’t, no. It was hard because you have nothing to hide behind when you’re playing someone like this. As characters, we’re not the same but emotionally where she’s at was just exactly where I was and to be surrounded by the type of people I had grown up with was a lot and so it did take me a little while to actually relax into it. I think I was so emotional about all of it, and it was almost like somebody coming to you and articulating exactly how you feel and you kind of being knocked off your feet by that because somebody understands! It feels like the biggest feeling in the world when you’re homesick.
Obviously Colm’s original story is such a national treasure, does that give you an extra level of pressure to do it justice or is it more motivation?
Both. That’s always the goal I think; to do the people around you and the story itself justice. But with this I didn’t feel as much pressure when it came to the book’s reputation but more the fact that, as you said when you came in, this is our national identity, this is our story. This was important for all of us. And even bringing the film home now, it feels that it belongs as much to all the people who are coming to see it as it feels ours. To be able to openly share it is amazing, but at the same time I felt the pressure to just not mess it up.
It’s very rare to come across a story where you’ve got two potential love interests, and one of them isn’t a bit of an arsehole.
I know! I know! I just had to follow the script and not think about who I wanted her to end up with. But then when I watched it, and I wasn’t going to watch it – the men around me persuaded me to watch it –
Wait, you don’t watch your movies?
I hate watching anything that I’m in. I hate it. I hate it. The only thing I’ve enjoyed is The Grand Budapest because I’m not in it that much. I really didn’t wanna watch this. But we were at the Lincoln centre in New York, and it just felt like it was the right place to do it. I knew I didn’t want to watch it on DVD or on a telly, d’you know what I mean, and the music was a big part of it so it had to be on the big screen. But yeah, you’re right, back to the boys, it’s very unusual. We’ve seen the love triangle a lot and it’s been a very popular thing for a while now but to have two men where it’s not like ‘which hunk will I choose’ or ‘will I go for the bad boy or the good guy who really loves me’, we’re with this amazing guy in New York who is so adoring of her and is such a sincere guy, and then we go back to Ireland and we’re with this other person who’s also incredibly authentic and incredibly genuine and isn’t just like a small town guy. He wants a life that’s bigger than Enniscorthy and he has dreams and ambitions and I think she’s as equally drawn to that, y’know?
Your line of work takes you away from home a lot. What do you miss most about Ireland when you’re not here?
I miss the tea. Because the water and the milk is better here.
Barry’s or Lyon’s?
Oh, Barry’s. Definitely Barry’s. It’s just not the same when you’re away. I miss Sunday dinners, but I try and do those when I’m away. People-wise, I guess I miss my mam. I miss my mam more than anyone when I’m away.
Does it get any easier? You’ve been doing this for quite a few years now.
The initial leaving doesn’t get any easier. It’s still just as bad. Like the dread that you get a couple of days before you leave home doesn’t get any easier, at least that’s what I’ve found. But you get used to it, and you adapt and once I’m away, I’m grand. I just get pangs. It’s the anticipation. I don’t like change either, ironically, I actually don’t like it, so I get quite anxious before I go away.
How important is it to you to hold on to your Irishness in Hollywood?
It’s really important, it always has been, it’s a big part of who I am. And I actually think it’ a great way to stay grounded, to remember where you’ve come from and the type of people that you come from.
Do you notice other people in the same kind of work getting carried away with the success? Do you consciously try to stay grounded or do you think that’s part of the Irish thing?
I think there is a bit of consciousness to it, I mean, I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to be an arsehole (she laughs), so hopefully I won’t be and hopefully I’m not. But I think even from when I was a kid, this was all I wanted to do. I wasn’t the type of child that wanted a lot of attention around me, so I was never in it for that. Honestly, when it comes to that or the financial side of it, it doesn’t even come into it for me, it’s just about working.
You’ve always been a natural in front of a camera, though.
Yeah, I’ve always followed my instinct but by the same token I’m aware of what the camera’s doing, and it’s sort of like a little dance that you have with this thing. I really enjoy that and y’know, you do see people getting carried away, and maybe they’re lovely and sweet but they don’t have anyone around them to tell them to cop on, and I have those people around me, so there’s no fear there.
So this was your first time working with Domhnall Gleeson, I adore him, and fell in love with him in About Time.
Me too, me too, oh my God, those jumpers, that’ll do it for any woman.
Well the two of you are considered among our proudest Irish exports, we always want to shout about you to the rest of the world and claim you as ours, so how does it feel to be that emblem or ambassador of national identity on behalf of the Irish people?
Oh my God, wow, I’m an ambassador? Well, I’m so proud of that. I mean the only time that that pressure has ever gotten to me was doing Brooklyn and that was because I put that pressure on myself because it was an Irish film but honestly apart from that, to be able to rep it for everyone at home and do work away that isn’t specifically Irish, it’s international, and then be able to come back and work at home as well, it’s hugely important to me. As I get older and maybe want to branch out more into other aspects of filmmaking, I’d love to be more involved in producing Irish films because I think it’s really important that we have a strong industry. We’ve got great talent.
Is there anyone in the Irish industry you’re dying to work with?
Lenny Abrahamson, I’d love to work with him, he’s deadly.
Lenny, are you reading this? What advice would you have for other young Irish actors hoping to achieve what you’ve achieved?
It’s really important that you know why you’re doing this. You have to know what your purpose is, in a way. Really it should only be about the work that you do. That goes for anything, whether it’s acting or music or writing or whatever, it should be for the joy you get when you actually get to work, and if it’s about anything that comes from the exterior, then you should stop doing it. That stuff goes away.
How do you keep yourself zen and chilled out when it all gets too much? What centres you? She sighs and smiles with recognition.
A chat with the mammy. Honestly without mam I’d have had a breakdown by now. She’s brilliant, and she’s my filter and you need to have someone who you can just talk through everything with, even if it’s the silliest notion in your head. I’m one of those people as well where you just need to get it out of you. It’s so important, if you’re stressed about something, get it out, be honest about how you feel. It makes me quite uncomfortable when people pretend that everything’s okay all the time because it’s not natural, and it’s not healthy and you have to share things with the people around you. Also, breathing is really important. And, genuinely (she starts to giggle again) tea helps me. It just really relaxes me. It gives me a bit of energy, but it also calms me down a bit. Another thing that really helps me now is to physically move your phone into a different room or turn it off after like seven o’clock. Seven or eight o’clock I just can’t be near any technology, it really stresses me out. So that’s everything I do.
Any life mottos?
I really thought you were going to say ‘drink alcohol’ when you hesitated there.
Yeah, drink alcoholic tea.
Saoirse Ronan stars in Brooklyn, which hits Irish cinemas on November 6th.