For Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn” is personal.
Never mind that the film, adapted from Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name, is set in the early 1950s – four decades before Ronan was born, a decade before even her parents were born.
As a story of a girl transitioning to womanhood, a story of an immigrant in a strange new land, a story of loneliness and empowerment and family, the heartbreakingly beautiful “Brooklyn” resonated with the Irish actress.
“It was the first time in my career where my personal life and my character’s life paralleled in every way,” says Ronan, who stars as Eilis Lacey, a country girl who leaves Ireland for New York to find a job, to find freedom. The picture is just about a sure thing to garner best picture and best actress Oscar nominations, along with many other kudos.
“Certainly, the experience of leaving home was something that I had gone through myself,” says Ronan, who quit Dublin for New York several years ago. “And the relationship with America, with New York, was something that I could really appreciate ... . It was important to me.”
Ronan, whose given name is the Gaelic word for freedom (it’s pronounced seer-sha), was born in New York. Her parents, both Irish, had, like Eilis (say eye-leesh) in “Brooklyn,” moved there to find work. Although Paul and Monica Ronan returned to Ireland four years later, something indelible happened to their daughter during their stay in America.
“I have these sort of nonspecific memories,” explains Ronan, who is 21 now, and was all of 3 when her parents took her home to Ireland. “They are really more sensorial, emotional memories, but they couldn’t have happened anywhere else. I remember them happening in New York, and I think, because of that, when I eventually started visiting New York in my teens, the connection that I had to the city was just so powerful, so strong. It really made me feel that this was the city I wanted to end up living in.”
New York was also where her parents married, and where her father began his career as an actor.
“These kind of major life events happened to my mum and my dad in New York, and ‘Brooklyn’ was a way for me to celebrate that on screen,” she says. “It’s the story of a young woman who takes a journey very similar to my parents’.”
Always the kid
One of the youngest actresses to be nominated for a supporting actress Oscar – she was 13 when her pivotal performance as Briony Tallis in “Atonement” was recognized by the Academy – Ronan went on to star in the disappointing “The Lovely Bones” (a teenage abductee), the crazy-violent “Hanna” (a teenage assassin), the underappreciated “Where I Live Now” (a sulky teen brat in an apocalyptic war).
Always the kid.
“It was a lovely and delightful surprise to have a script like ‘Brooklyn’ show up,” Ronan says. “It’s been quite frustrating, I have to say, even when I turned 18, 19 ... there just weren’t that many roles out there. The only young women that were being written were subservient to somebody else, usually – the friend, or the daughter that is in the background, or the sister that is in the background.
“It’s out of your control, and you just have to wait for that right script to come along.”
“Brooklyn,” adapted by Nick Hornby from the Toibin book, was that script. As he has demonstrated with “An Education” and “Wild,” the British writer has a deep empathy for and sensitivity to female protagonists.
“Here was this intelligently written, emotionally perceptive script,” Ronan says. “I feel like Eilis is the role for me that hopefully will bring me into more adult roles now. She’s somebody who changes and evolves ... . There’s so much to think about and so much to work out with her.”
Ronan says she met Hornby only at a read-through before director John Crowley and his cast and crew began production last year in Ireland. Novelist Toibin, on the other hand – she has a scene with him.
“Colm was actually one of the immigrants in the scene on Ellis Island,” she says. “He’s standing in front of me, before I walk to the immigration officer’s desk ... and he took it so seriously. I’m not even sure he knew I was there.”
A love story
Pivotal to the drama of Toibin’s novel and the screen version, too, is the choice Eilis faces when she falls in love with an earnest, upbeat Brooklyn guy (Emory Cohen), and then finds herself returning for a family crisis to Ireland, where she meets a steadfast young Irishman (Domhnall Gleeson), who begins to court her.
“There are so many films where there’s a love triangle, and it is as basic as, ‘Will she pick the good boy or the bad boy?’ “ Ronan observes.
Not so in “Brooklyn.”
“It’s incredibly complex. This man, Jim, Domhnall’s character, he has so much dignity,” she says. “He represents the life that she’ll never have in Ireland, but the life that she wished she could have had ... .
“To me, it was like she was being pulled in two different directions ... and regardless of what choice she makes, she will have to sacrifice one for the other.
“And for her to find the strength to do that, well, it was empowering. It’s the point in the film where she truly becomes a woman.”
Ronan, whose Agatha, the bakery worker with the giant birthmark on her face, was one of the essential players in Wes Anderson’s 2014 opus “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is now turning her attention to the stage.
In the new year, she begins rehearsals in New York with Ciaran Hinds, Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw on a Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Ronan is Abigail Williams – sort of “Atonement’s” Briony, all grown up, but still full of fateful accusations.
“I’ve never done theater, and so I have to try this,” she says, admitting to massive “fear and terror.”
In September, someone asked Ronan whether she had started thinking about “The Crucible” at all.
“I looked at him, and I said, ‘It’s all I’ve thought about for the last year and a half. It’s there at night when I go to bed, it’s there when I wake up in the morning.’ “
“I’m doing a play, I’m doing Arthur Miller, it’s going to be live, there is no room for error,” she says.
“But it will be great to feed off the audience every night and know that each night is sort of written on the wind, and once it’s done, it’s done. That’s very exciting, I have to say.”