Saoirse Ronan is only 25, yet she's been acting for 16 years, has racked up 28 films and won a Golden Globe. Now, as she takes on the role of her career this Christmas, Jessamy Calkin discovers she's only just getting started.
There is a clip on YouTube of Saoirse Ronan delivering a critique of Michelle Pfeiffer, after she appeared in a film with her. "At the end of the day she's only a person, who is brilliant at what she does," said Ronan insouciantly. She was 11.
Fourteen years later, drinking a cup of tea in a little Italian deli in West London, the Irish actor, whom Ryan Gosling has called the new Meryl Streep, still has the same measure of self-possession. A low-key look - jeans, a black jumper, no makeup, a beanie hat, which she pulls off to reveal scruffy blond hair with a bit of leaf stuck in it - and a direct, artless gaze. Despite the fact that she is now regarded as one of the most talented actors of her generation, no one recognises her. But since the only other person in the cafe is about 107, I think we can forgive him.
Saoirse ("rhymes with inertia") Ronan is a cool customer but she has snap. It's easy to forget that she is only 25. She has made 28 films, including several corkers - Joe Wright's Atonement, John Crowley's Brooklyn, Josie Rourke's Mary Queen of Scots - but it was Greta Gerwig's wonderful Lady Bird, about a rebellious, ambitious teenager growing up in Sacramento, that earned Ronan her third Oscar nomination, worldwide recognition and a Golden Globe.
Now she is working with Gerwig again, starring in her spirited adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic, Little Women, this season's hottest film - with a cast that includes Timothee Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, James Norton and Meryl Streep. Ronan nabbed the prize part - that of Jo March (she said she wouldn't be in it if she couldn't play Jo), the unconventional one of the four sisters who refuses to adhere to the mores and confines of 19th-century America. The one who doesn't want to get married and wants to be a writer. The film is a colourful whirl of glorious costumes, sparky dialogue, and plenty of momentum to carry you through the cheesy bits. The changing relationships between all the siblings and Chalamet's Laurie (the rich boy-next-door), are brilliantly rendered - they wrestle, hug, squabble, slap each other ... It is a joy to watch.
On set, says Ronan, "It was just carnage. We were very loud - talking over each other - and we were on top of each other all the time. We were comfortable with each other. The fighting was written into the script but that was also just what we did. Florence and I would wrestle and hit each other; and Eliza [Scanlen, who plays Beth] taught me how to knit. It was really interesting when we came together how everyone had a role - we all brought something different to the group - and that really kind of mirrored the characters we were playing."
Gerwig, who wrote and directed Little Women (the eighth adaptation of the book to have hit the screen so far), is the perfect person to shake it up and carry it out of its mould. With her offbeat pedigree in both writing and acting (Frances Ha, Lady Bird), she looks at the book through a different lens. "It was Greta's film and everyone completely trusts her taste," says Ronan. "She allows everyone to shine, but it's very much a movie by Greta Gerwig. And so much of her as a film-maker has been in these two movies she's made - they couldn't have been made by anyone else, I don't think."
Ronan knew most of the cast already and she and Chalamet are good friends - they were both in Lady Bird and will next year appear in Wes Anderson's new film, The French Dispatch. "We actually really got to know each other when he was doing the press for Call Me by Your Name and I was doing Lady Bird [they were both nominated for an Academy Award], because we were at every party together, every dinner, every award show, everything. I do really love acting opposite him. He's really exciting to work with ..."
They have done cover shoots together and were a funny double act on Graham Norton earlier this year. Does she fancy him?
"Noooo!" she hoots.
Really? Why not? Everyone else does.
"Because I know him! And he's just like this little puppy dog."
Ronan can remember the exact moment when she knew unequivocally what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. It was during the shooting of her third film, Atonement, adapted from the book by Ian McEwan. She was 12 years old.
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She plays Briony Tallis, a young girl from an upper-class family in 1930s England (Ronan's incredible ear for accents helped her get the part) who tells a lie, the implications of which end up ruining the lives of two people. There is a scene in which she gets very upset that the play she's written is not going to be put on. She feels like her chances of becoming a playwright have been ruined and it's the fault of her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper's son Robbie (James McAvoy). Ronan had to cry and rage. "It was the first time that I'd had to do something really emotional like that. Joe [Wright, the director] was so brilliant with me and the combination of being with these amazing people and getting to play this fantastic part - I was absolutely buzzing afterwards, and I just thought, 'I have to keep doing this for ever.'"
She was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her performance and appeared on the red carpet in emerald-green Alberta Ferretti (she didn't lose any sleep the night before and thought her stylist had done a good job, she assured the interviewer). The film was a critical triumph and Ronan's career took off, even though when she watched it for the first time, she had Wright on one side of her and her parents on the other, taking it in turns to cover her eyes and block her ears during the nasty bits.
At the end of the shoot she was heartbroken, she says. "In despair. I just couldn't get it out of my head. Even though I was going straight on to make another film. It is quite an intense thing even now, when the film wraps, but when you're a kid it was devastating. I thought I would never see these people again and I adored Joe and I loved James - not to mention the crew.
"My mam would say, 'You'll see them again, you'll do another job and feel the same way about it - just chill out. Calm down.'"
Since then her career has never waivered. Unlike some child stars, she's been in the ascendant all the while. She started acting aged 9. Her father, Paul, was an actor and they needed a child for a television series he was in, so Ronan just went along. She never went to drama school or had any training but a couple of appearances in films followed (including I Could Never Be Your Woman, with Pfeiffer).
That was the beginning. "Acting was something that I just took to. I liked the whole chaos of it but also somebody being in charge of what was going to happen, and saying, 'I need you to do this and this,' and me saying, 'Okay, I'll do it.' I liked the discipline that came with that. And the fact that within that discipline you could be emotional and creative - I loved the dichotomy of that - the juxtaposition of those two things."
It is an astute analysis of acting that is fairly typical of her (she could have just said, "I liked pretending to be someone else"). Directors have spoken about her meticulous preparation for roles, and she likes rules.
It was her mother, Monica, who accompanied her to all the films (until she was 19) and kept her feet on the ground when she started to be very successful, although she is naturally quite a level-headed kind of person, she thinks. "I am, yeah. I am a worrier, though - I've been like that since I was a kid. But Mam had been through the highs and lows of the acting industry with my dad and she wasn't fazed by the glitz and glamour or power - she doesn't care about any of that.
"So I grew up respecting the work but not being blinded by all the other gubbins. Because of her I am very level-headed. You have to be."
An only child, Ronan was born in New York - her parents had moved there from Ireland in the 80s to find work. Her mother did some cleaning and nannying and her father worked in a bar, where he was approached by an Irish actor, "who saw how chatty and charismatic he was and suggested he audition for a play he was doing. Dad said he'd never been in a play before and me mam said, 'What have you got to lose? You're in New York.'"
When they returned to Ireland in 1997, Paul Ronan carried on acting and her mother continued with nannying and cleaning. They lived in Dublin initially, then moved to County Carlow, where Ronan went to a small school - with friends that she still has today. "It was a really lovely childhood. I just loved the countryside and we were always outdoors."
When she started getting acting parts, she travelled with a tutor. Is there anything she regrets giving up for the sake of her career? "I was home-schooled, so not having a school life is probably the one thing. But I still have friends from my childhood."
In 2014, she was cast in Brooklyn. It was an Irish film, based on an Irish book (by Colm Toibin), with an Irish director (John Crowley) and an Irish cast. She is passionate about Ireland (she publicly supported the abortion referendum recently), and shooting the film had particular resonance. The story - of Irish girl Eilis Lacey, who moves to New York to find work and a new life in the 1950s - reflected her parents' move in a different era. The homesickness Eilis feels, Ronan herself felt when she was on set. "It was the most emotional I've ever been on a job. I was 20 and all my hormones were all over the place. John was a massive support, as was Morna Fergusson, who did my makeup - she really took care of me and I don't know if I would have got through Brooklyn without her."
When it was screened at Sundance in 2015, it was a wild success. "There was a massive standing ovation and a big battle between studios to acquire it. During the after-party I can remember Weinstein's men in suits just standing there looking at us and another studio lurking in another part of the bar - they all desperately wanted it. Hollywood just wanted to push this film into the world.'
Hollywood was right. Fox got it and the film did lavishly well at the box office and won several awards, including a Bafta for best British film, as well as earning Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for Ronan.
It was also where she met her best friend, actor Eileen O'Higgins (who plays Nancy). It was O'Higgins who went to the Golden Globes with her when she won best actress for Lady Bird,and it is O'Higgins who accompanies her to all the screenings of her films and holds her hand when she can't bear to look. "I was so nervous going to watch Lady Bird because I was properly convinced that I had destroyed the film. I just gripped on to Eileen's hand, but after the first few minutes she said she could feel my grip starting to loosen."
When Brooklyn was such a success, she needed to get a stylist. Ronan had never been much interested in fashion, but in 2016 she started to work with the go-to Hollywood stylist, Elizabeth Saltzman. "And as soon as I met her she showed me a rail of about five different outfits and none of them were what I'd asked for. I had told her beforehand, 'I don't like pink and I don't like flowers or sparkles.' I came in and she had a pink sparkly Chanel top and floral pants and none of it was what I would have picked. But I knew from meeting her that I could trust her - and I put them all on and I loved them. You need someone who gets you and who wants to push you a little."
So now you're never out of florals?
"Yeah, as you can tell," she says, gesturing to her black jumper and jeans. Her friends say she dresses like a primary school teacher. "I have a dress that is blue, with big red cherries on it. My mate said, 'Off to mark the exercise books again, are you now?'"
Ronan has a dry sense of humour, enhanced by her Irish lilt and she would very much like to do more comedy. Her heroine is Kristen Wiig, and Bridesmaids is one of her all-time favourite films - she can recite whole chunks of it. "Comedy is the scariest thing to do, but it's always been my favourite thing to watch." She thinks she could do it in an Irish or an English accent, but not an American one - "because it's a different sense of humour".
She would also like to do more theatre - she was in The Crucible on Broadway three years ago. Her next film to be released is Ammonite - a historical drama about the fossil hunter Mary Anning - starring Kate Winslet (Ronan plays Charlotte Murchison, Winslet's love interest). She is not a person who likes to have a lot of things lined up - though, she says, she's fairly useless when she's not working.
Ronan lives in West London, but goes back to Ireland whenever she can to see her family and the dog. They have just sold their house in Wicklow and are going back to Dublin. And she loves West Cork. "There's an eeriness about it. It's like the end of the world."
The Irish press are obsessed by her, constantly reporting on her movements; she gets recognised a lot in Ireland and can't go on the Dart (Irish train) any more, "because I get a bit panicky". If she could, she says, she would like to stop at the current level of fame she has attained. "I get recognised a bit more now - the Tube is tricky sometimes."
She never reads anything about herself, or says she doesn't, but she couldn't really ignore the messages she got from her friends recently, who had read about her "bad behaviour" at the Met Gala. The story went that she was ejected after being caught with concealed "naggins" of vodka in her handbag. "'Party was shite anyways,' fumed Seersh, sitting on the kerb in Manhattan eating a garlic cheese chip while trying to contact her friends to see if they wanted to head somewhere else. .."Disappointingly it turned out to be a fake-news website, Waterford Whispers but quite a funny one. This, she says, is the best rumour she has heard about herself recently. She steers clear of social media and is famously private about her love life.
And then she's off. She's going home, then to the cinema. At the end of the day, she's only a person. A person who is brilliant at what she does.
Little Women is released on Boxing Day.
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