Saoirse Ronan on Brooklyn, Broadway, and Riding the Subway

By
“When I Came Back,
It Instantly
Felt Right”
Saoirse Ronan on seeing Santa in the sky and returning to the city of her birth.
Photographs by Erik Madigan Heck

Eight years ago, Saoirse Ronan made her first impression on U.S. audiences in Atonement as Briony, the confused, vengeful girl whose lie sets the plot in motion. That watchful, unsettling performance won her an Oscar nomination at age 13. Since then, she has made a couple of film appearances per year at most (a child assassin holding her own against Cate Blanchett in Hanna; a clever baker in The Grand Budapest Hotel), staying more or less above the Hollywood fray (thanks in large part to the grounding influence of her parents — her father, Paul, is a working actor). That may prove tougher now: At 21, she’s again an Oscar nominee, this time as a leading actress, for her performance as Irish immigrant Eilis in Brooklyn. Ronan’s own immigration experience was the opposite of Eilis’s: She was born in the Bronx and lived there until she was 3, then moved back to Ireland. But now she’s returned to the city that has such a hold on her imagination to make her Broadway debut in The Crucible as Abigail Williams — a confused, vengeful girl not unlike her first big role. We talked to her about going onstage for the first time and discussing child stardom with Jodie Foster. Her name, by the way, is pronounced Sir-sha. —Rebecca Milzoff

“We moved back to Ireland when I was 3, so only certain things stick out in my head, but the memories I have seem kind of vivid. It’s just little things, like I remember one time my mom took me to the supermarket and she bought marshmallows and beer [laughs]. And the supermarket was a good walk away from the apartment, and we were in the Bronx, so there were hills, and I remember she put the crate of beer on the pram that she used and then she was like, ‘Here, you sit on top.’ So I sat on top of the crate of beer! She’s a great mother, I promise. And I remember one Christmas, when, to this day, I’m convinced, I was looking out the window and I saw Santa Claus in the sky with all his reindeer. Mom and Dad have video footage of it, and my dad was at the other window out of my sight ringing these bells. Whatever kind of time I had here, it has given me a very strong connection to the city. When I came back, it instantly felt right. There are things about the city that are new that you have to get used to, but it doesn’t get me down, it really just excites me. I feel like with New York, more than anywhere else, any struggle you have, any hurdle you have to overcome, everyone else has faced exactly the same thing. It makes you feel like you’re never really alone, you know? New York is made up of every other country; there’s hardly any native New Yorkers here, really. Half of the cast in our play are Irish and English. I actually feel closer to Ireland here than I did when I lived anywhere else.

When you go to L.A., everyone has an idea in their head of what L.A. is or what Hollywood is, and it’s just not like that at all — it’s just a big desert where everything’s spread out. I feel like you come to New York and it just exceeds your expectations. Every now and again, you just go, ‘I’m in New York. This is fuckin’ great.’ I did that the other day — I was on the subway and I thought, The last time I was properly on a subway train I was 3!

I do feel like if they took a cloth to scrub them a little bit it wouldn’t hurt [laughs]. Even the subway train we had in Brooklyn — I had no idea that’s how it would have been 50 years ago, but Jesus, can you imagine in the summer how hot it would’ve been?

I’ve only hung out in Brooklyn a little bit, to be honest. We only did two days shooting for Brooklyn on Clinton Street, and I’ve gone back there since — I have friends who live in Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill. I imagine if I were to stay here after the play, which I most likely will, that’s where I’d go. It’s got such a lovely feel, doesn’t it? Such a nice neighborhood feel.

I literally have never, ever, done a professional play before. I had done school plays when I was 5 to 12 — a tree, an evil queen; I think I played a bumblebee. But apart from that [no] theater at all. I was always cautious about taking on a play when I was younger. I knew from my dad’s own experience that you really need stamina. He never went to school for it. Mom and he just came over to work — a lot of that generation chose work over college because it was kind of the more realistic route at the time. And Mom became a nanny and my dad started working in a bar. And a lot of Irish actors would go in and they got to know him, and one of them eventually asked him to audition for a play. He just learned on the job. I think it was the best way for both of us — it shaped how we work. So I was aware that to take on something like that when you were just a kid, to me it would’ve been just a bit presumptuous. But I’ve always said that when I was about 21, that’s when I’d do a play.

Ben Whishaw and Ronan in rehearsals for The Crucible. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

I only just started rehearsals. You feel everything. Your brain just doesn’t stop. It’s different from film — usually my preparation is learning my lines and then going on set and trying different things out, and hopefully you capture it and then it’s done, out of your hands. Whereas with a play, it’s constantly evolving. There’s no real respite. You’re thinking of every possible [meaning] one line could have.

Abigail is almost like Briony if she was about 16. I think with Abigail, there’s this sense of abandonment that all the girls have. There were so many attacks on these little Puritan villages, and so many of their parents were killed — so that sense of authority they’d get from parents is gone. John Proctor kind of gives her that purpose and makes her feel like she’s stronger and bigger. A lot of the [orphaned] girls back then were swapped around from one household to the next; once they got to a certain age they were sent to live with a different family. So you’re surrounded by this fairly cold community, with rules for everything, and she’s a teenager becoming a sexual creature but she’s still a child in some ways — there’s just loads to think about, and I’m still bloody figuring it out, and I know I will be for quite a while.

We rehearsed a scene today where gradually everyone quietly starts to turn on each other and looks as though they could kill someone, and you see how, like in ­religion, it can become so extreme when you follow it to the letter. Suddenly you’re not able to be human, almost, you know? Of course they ended up taking people to court if someone looked at them wrong, or blaming someone for the loss of their child, or whatever it is. I started reading this book by Stacy Schiff, and to know that at the time, some men got into Harvard based off, like, the amount of meat that was given by their fathers to the college! A whole round of beef would pay for a year’s tuition. It’s mental.

It’s funny, I didn’t really feel [some of the pressures of Hollywood] when I was younger. I feel it a bit now, and I could see a change when Hanna came out, because it was the first sort of commercial success I’d had, apart from Atonement, and I was very young then — a lot of that went over my head. Part of it was that I’d grown up outside L.A., so I wasn’t exposed to the competitive side of that world, where you feel like you have to do a thousand and one things in order to keep up with everyone else. I didn’t have that pressure of feeling like I needed to be exposed more or do a big studio film in order to get more work. It was down to the type of work I wanted to do. At the end of the day, it’s sort of like your portfolio. A piece of work is something you put time and hard work into, and you want to be able to stand next to it and say you really believed in it. 

I was talking to someone who started out as a child actor, last night, and went on to do incredible things, and we were both saying it was a huge, huge influence to have our mothers with us when we were young and mothers who came from more of an ethical standpoint than a business one. To have someone with you from 10 to 19 when you’re on a set, who has perspective and is only there to look out for you, it really means that you have a more realistic way of looking at this entire world. [It was] Jodie Foster. She’s absolutely amazing.”

Styling by Rebecca Ramsey; hair by Ted Gibson for Jed Root; makeup by Aya Komatsu at BRIDGE using CHANEL Beauté; nails by Elena Capo at the Wall Group.

*This article appears in the February 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

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