Saoirse Ronan is an extraordinary girl with an extraordinary talent. She was on a film set before she could talk, acting by eight and received her first Oscar nomination at 13. Six years on, she’s almost as much a part of Tinseltown’s iconic history as the gold statuette that she will undoubtedly call her own some day. Despite her increasing fame and critical acclaim, sitting in a suite in The Soho Hotel, in the heart of London’s theatre district, Saoirse comes across as a sweet, bubbly girl next door who just happens to have the world at her Converse-clad feet. She’s charming and eager to please, in a Labrador puppy sort of way. Scratch the surface, though, and the 19 year-old’s sense of self assuredness and lack of naivety hints at a life lived largely in an adult world. It’s fitting then, that her latest film, Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, sees the Carlow native play an ancient teenager: a 200 year-old vampire who lives off her victims’ blood. Lest Twihards looking for another fix get too excited, this is no cinematic crowd-pleaser, but a dark, emotionally-poetic and highly evocative horror film that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. “When I first heard about it, it was in the middle of all the vampire craziness, so I was worried it was going to be commercial, but it’s very much art house,” she explains. “When Neil does something like this, he’s so passionate and capable, he’s so good at it. We had been trying to find a film to do together for a while.”
The film, which also stars Gemma Arterton, Jonny Lee Miller, Sam Riley and Caleb Landry Jones, was shot in Hastings, Dublin and Bray, Co Wicklow. “My favourite part was working in Ireland and working with an Irish crew. For a start, everyone already knew how to pronounce Saoirse, so I didn’t have to go through any of that shite,” she says laughing. “It was just nice to work with your own, I’d never really got to do that before.”
Byzantium, which takes inspiration for its title from the work of one of Saoirse’s favourite poets, William Butler Yeats (another favourite is Sylvia Plath “because she’s so twisted and messed up”) gave the Irish actress a chance to showcase a new professional maturity. In one scene, she screams obscenities at Gemma’s character, a moment which left some of the crew speechless. “I know, yeah,” she giggles, recalling the moment on set, ” I came up with that. I didn’t suggest that I say the C-word, but Neil isn’t one to shy away from profanity and he said, ‘You need to shout something at her, you need to attack her’. At the time, I was 17 and I was like, alright, grand and I did and it was great because there is such venom in that line. Gemma just burst into laughter because she had no idea where it came from.”
Talking about her move into more adult roles, Saoirse is considered in her response. ” This was a bit of a departure for me in a way, but I guess (the character) is still a young girl, and I’m not too worried about that, really. I think if I’d been playing a lot of Disney roles, then I would have been. I see these people who are clearly so desperate to prove themselves as young adults, which I completely get, but I felt like I never really had that, it’s just happened naturally. I did things where I played a good person, a soulful person, and I was kind of desperate to play someone who did curse a lot and who was a bit more like me, a bit more human and current. I was very lucky then that I got to do How I Live Now (due for release in October). I cursed all the time and I wore a lot of leather and my hair was bleached and it was great. it’s down to luck as well, when these roles come around.”
Some of the roles to which she refers are her ones in Atonement, The Lovely Bones, Hanna, The Host and, of course, more recently, Byzantium. With a litany of hits such as these decorating her CV, it’s natural comparisons are drawn between her and other young stars. But fame, although helpful to land parts, isn’t really in Saoirse’s game plan. You’re more likely to find her out surfing or in a pub in Dingle (her go-to getaway destination) than hitting the headlines for falling out of an LA hotspot. “I don’t have any interest. I think it’s really simple to avoid the distractions,” she explains. “It can be very distracting, but the thing is that all that other stuff is so different to what we actually do, and being on a film set, getting up at five o’clock in the morning and working. I spent last summer on a farm up to my knees in cow shite and it was brilliant. It was so different to go from that to doing premieres and all that sort of stuff,” she says, in a very pronounced Irish accent we seldom get to hear onscreen.
“I don’t think of myself as famous,” she says sincerely. “A lot of people talked about fame around the time The Host came out, but I don’t really put myself in that category, I don’t really think I am famous. People know films I’ve been in and I’m glad about that, but I very much feel like an actor.” When asked if she finds being recognised unnerving or flattering, she concedes it’s a bit of both. “I mean, when someone comes up to you and says I loved you in this film you were in and it was my favourite film, that’s really nice. I’ve never had anyone come up and be negative, which has been great,” she says, hesitating slightly before adding, “It’s been fine, but that kind of attention I do find strange, I have to say. Some people do just see you as this person who is on a pedestal and I’m not really comfortable with that kind of attention. I don’t want it from anyone.”
Unlike her contemporaries, Saoirse has yet to sit her Leaving Cert, a decision she’s put on hold until she knows what’s next. “It depends where I’m going to college. I was thinking about New York University but I don’t know when, eventually…it’s something that I would like to do. I’m realising more and more that it’s harder to make plans. It’s impossible to make plans, whether you’re working or not.” In the meantime, developing a wide and varied skill set is what she currently counts as extracurricular activities. Who needs PE when you’re mastering martial arts, or music class when you’ve a world-renowned piano teacher helping you nail Beethoven in record time.
“I’d always wanted to play the piano,” she says about her skilled performance in Byzantium. “Neil gave me this sonata and said, ‘This is what I want your character to be able to play’. I think he thought I’d learn a bit of it but I learned the whole piece. It usually takes about ten years before someone reaches that level, so I was nervous about it, but i did it.” You can’t help suspect that the determination she applied to those sheets of music is reflective of her ambitious nature and a part, at least, of the secret of her success. “When it’s work, especially, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I do feel like I have to do it. If you’re playing a character, you have to learn every single skill they have if you want to convey it properly. I’m not method or anything like that, but when it’s something like horse riding or martial arts, or playing the piano, it’s such a big part of the character, I just want to do it well.”
Although she works with stylists for special events, sitting cross-legged in front of me in head-to-toe Urban Outfitters- black skinny jeans, white tee and dark green silk bomber jacket, Saoirse likes showcasing her own unique style with an urban edge. Cue her up on the subject of fashion and the teenager is instantly engaged. “It is something I think about. I love clothes. I’ve never been a real girlie girl but I love style. I just like putting outfits together and when you’re dealing with designers and things like that, it does really feel like an art form, in a way. When you come across things like Simone Rocha’s stuff, which are so tailored and so crisp and very different, and when you hear her speak about what inspired her – her granny and the Aran Islands- it’s art.” Saoirse recently donned the Irish designer’s creations for the IFTAs. “It’s been nice to be suddenly open to that world,” she says before checking herself. “I’m not in the fashion industry and I’m not one of those kind of actors who would want to be suddenly focussing on fashion more than film, but I do respect fashion a lot more now.”
Another hot topic of conversation is her upcoming role in Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut. “He’s a lovely guy,” she says laughing in a way that implies she’s already used to fending off bribes for the actor’s number. “He’s very charming. I’m very excited about working with him, but not in that way. I think he’s a great actor, though. What’s interesting about him is the choices he’s made as an actor so far have been very unpredictable. I do find there are a lot of very young actors who are very self-aware and you can see that onscreen, but you don’t get that with him, and I think that’s why women respond so well to him. He’s written this brilliant story and he’s going to do something really great with it because his imagination is brilliant.” And with that, our time is up. She jumps out of her chair to give me a warm hug and wishes me a safe flight home. Not a hint of child-star syndrome anywhere in sight.
Rosaleen McMeel’s interview with the star originally appeared in IMAGE magazine, June 2013. Photography by Rex Features.