Saoirse Ronan’s First Sundance

By
Photography Emma Brown

Published February 2, 2015

ABOVE: EMORY COHEN AND SAOIRSE RONAN IN BROOKLYN

“I think Sundance is one of my favorite festivals to go to even though it’s manic,” says Irish actress Saoirse Ronan. “It has more of the atmosphere of what it’s like on a film set—it’s not glamorous, there are no big, glitzy premieres, we’re all dressing the way we’d dress if we were going to work,” she continues. “I think it’s good for people who aren’t in the industry to see that all that stuff on the red carpet is such a small part.”

This year marks Saoirse’s first time at the festival, and she’s hardly slacking. The 20-year-old is promoting two very different films, both of which have already sold to distributors. In Stockholm, Pennsylvania, Ronan plays a young woman who was kidnapped and imprisoned for the majority of her life; in Brooklyn, the Oscar-nominated actress is Eilis Lacey, an Irish girl who, struggling to establish an identity for herself in her hometown, decides to immigrate to New York.

While both films were well reviewed at the Sundance, Brooklyn received a standing ovation. An epic bildungsroman, the film is sentimental without being sickly sweet. It isn’t until Eilis opens at drawer and the audience collectively gasps that you realize how enraptured you are.

Directed by John Crowley, with a script adapted from Colm Tóibín’s book by Nick Hornby, Brooklyn co-stars Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent. Domhnall Gleeson (Unbroken) and Emory Cohen (A Place Beyond the Pines) play the two men Eilis must choose between.

EMMA BROWN: I know you don’t like to watch your films. Have you ever watched one?

SAOIRSE RONAN: I have done, I just never get anything out of it. Apart from The Grand Budapest Hotel, just because that was so much of Wes and there was so much that I wasn’t in. With Brooklyn, I made the decision as soon as I made it that it’s just too close to home for me to sit down and watch. I would have been a mess. I sent my mum in instead and she was a mess.  [laughs] But it was great; it was lovely having her here. She’d gone through that—it was her journey too.

BROWN: Oh, really?

RONAN: Yeah, my mum and dad went over to New York in the ’80s. There was a bad recession at home in Ireland, there was no work, so they went and it was very tough. Amazing as well—it made them who they are. Especially my mum, she is very independent and I think New York made her like that. It was a pretty scary thing.  Even in the ’80s compared to all the technology we have now to communicate, when she was boarding the plane and her sister dropped her off, the last thing she said to her was, “Well, this is it now, kiddo.” She didn’t know when she was going to see her sister again. So my mum and dad, they both went through that fear and not knowing what was going to be at the end of that journey.

BROWN: Did they meet in New York?

RONAN No, they met in Ireland and they were together for a good few years. Dad and his friend decided they were going to go over and work because a lot of people were doing that in the ’80s, like they always have done, really. It’s been going on for generations. It feels very important to me as an Irish person to be in a story like this. Anyway, so mum went over and they were both illegal. Then mum got her Green Card and they got married over there, and they had me. Then they came home when I was about three.

BROWN: I read that the scenes in Ireland were filmed in your hometown. 

RONAN: It’s close to where I grew up; it’s about 25 minutes away. Enniscorthy was the town we would visit to go to the cinema because we didn’t have a cinema for so long. I used to go there all the time. It was mad because I think one of my grandfather’s grandfathers worked in the mill that’s in Enniscorthy as well. A lot of the extras that are in the dance hall scenes and the church scenes and stuff, a lot of them I recognized from when I was a kid—I went to basketball practices with them and sports days. So it was very much personal life and home crossing over with work.

I think in that year from when I signed up to when we actually made the film, it took on a whole different meaning for me. We started to rehearse and we started to shoot and every single day it became more and more meaningful for me. I could relate to it even more. It’s the first time I’ve played a character where every single thing she went through in the script I went through at that time.

BROWN: You mentioned that you had wanted to do an Irish project, were you just waiting for the right one?

RONAN: Yeah. Exactly. I’m very much for strengthening our industry at home. It’s great now there’s a lot of work happening but I think with Irish film in particular, the views were starting to get a little stereotypical and we were pigeonholing ourselves a little bit. We needed to get out of that, so when Brooklyn came along, it was the perfect platform to showcase a good Irish story and to showcase what we can do. We have a weld of amazing actors at home—really brilliant—and they don’t have a chance to show that on an international stage.

BROWN: Pigeonholed in terms of theme? The Troubles and the IRA?

RONAN: Yeah. We’ve done a lot of films now about the IRA, we can move on from all that. I loved ’71 because I think it showed a very honest trail and what it was actually like. It wasn’t one-sided. I really respect [’71 director] Yann [Demange] for what he did. But we have done a lot of those things. We’ve [also] done a lot of those things where, as you say at home, it’s very diddly-idle—set on a farm and everything’s charming and great and superficial. In general, that was American productions’ take on Ireland, which is fair enough, but I think it’s our responsibility to show that we’re actually pretty great story tellers and we were put down for so long as a country that story telling and imagination was what pulled us through.

BROWN: Eilis has to make a choice between Domhnall’s character and Emory’s character—do you think people will be very invested in who she chooses?

RONAN: I know what you mean because there’s so many modern films where the fans take one side or the other. I’m hoping this isn’t going to be like that; I’m hoping it isn’t that kind of film at all. What I would love for the audience to take from it is to understand why she was so stuck in the middle and confused. Tony completely adores her and will do anything for her and is willing to set up a whole life for them in New York. He’s made that decision as soon as they meet, whereas it takes her a little longer. But for her to go home and the idea of having a life with that’s 10 minutes down the road from your mum and your best friend, there’s a real conflict to that. And he’s also really good guy. I hope that people at least don’t know which way she’s going to go.

BROWN: What I liked was that it felt as if she could have been happy with either one of them—there was no soul mate.

RONAN: Exactly.  What we didn’t want to do was for it to be, “This is the only option and the only thing that will make her happy.” Life isn’t like that. One thing that John said to me in rehearsal, which really struck me and has stayed with me to this day, is that it’s very much about the choice that she makes. When she goes home, it’s a life that was meant for somebody else —she’s essentially stepping into Rose’s shoes and it’s something that’s been predetermined for her. Whereas her life in New York is her own and it’s something that she’s created for herself.

BROOKLYN WILL BE RELEASED LATER THIS YEAR VIA FOX SEARCHLIGHT.

For more from the Sundance Film Festival 2015, click here.