Interview: Saoirse Ronan, actress
Seventeen-year-old Saoirse Ronan has already been Oscar nominated, but she won't let stardom get in the way of acting in films she likes
DEPENDING on who you ask, she's hotter than Emma Watson, more grounded than Kristen Stewart and smarter than Megan Fox. But what really makes people take notice of 17-year-old Saoirse Ronan is her acting talent
Peter Weir, who directed her last film The Way Back, called her "the Meryl Streep of our times." Ronan is as excitable as any teen, chatting about her dog Sassy, a concert she's going to, and waves her new nail-polish at me, which is a vivid green. But she's aware of her clout too; earlier that day it was reported that she's to star in a movie called The Host, based on a novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. "Oh, that's not right," corrects Ronan in a matter-of-fact manner. "That deal's still to be locked down." There aren't many teens who call the shots like that, but Ronan has a more impressive movie CV than many actresses twice her age. For her new film Hanna, she even hand-picked the director.
Intrigued by the story of a teenage assassin bent on a personal mission of revenge, she pulled the film into production by pitching in the name of Joe Wright, the British film-maker who steered her to an Academy award nomination in Atonement.
"It felt so cheeky," she acknowledges, "but I thought he'd be a good choice for Hanna even though he'd never made an action movie before. I love working with Joe because we know each other so well. If I did something that didn't feel like my best, I'd be able to just look at him and he'd know I wasn't happy, and let me go again. For Hanna, I told him I was determined to find him some work."
And what did he say? "That I had to get my butt into the gym and start training."
Playing a ruthless assassin who kills without remorse or hesitation took hours of strength training and martial arts classes, with lengthy scenes of meticulous mayhem filmed in both the heat of the Sahara desert and the frozen tundra below the Arctic Circle.
"The toughest day was during the first week, when Eric Bana and I had to shoot on a frozen lake. It was minus 30 degrees and the film crew were in their big puffa jackets and snow boots complaining that it was freezing. But the whole time Eric and I were in front of the camera just wearing bits of deer fur and fingerless gloves. It was so cold, and for one shot, I had to run over the ice. I thought I was going to die but I managed about 400 yards. Then Joe said, 'Can we do it one more time?' So I did. The only thing that kept me going was that I kept thinking, 'Hanna wouldn't give up, would she?'"
Hang on, I say. I don't remember seeing you run across a lake. Ronan grins helplessly; "It ended up as like five seconds of the film. And it was the toughest thing I've ever done."
Born in New York and raised south of Dublin, one of Ronan's favourite pastimes as a child was playing with her dolls: the difference being that their storylines were influenced by Coronation Street, so her collection of Polly Pockets were constantly embroiled in extramarital dalliances or unwanted pregnancies.
Her father Paul encouraged his daughter's theatrical side. "I was always a bit of a performer," says Ronan. "My dad had a camcorder and I always wanted to be in front of it. So being on a film set makes me very happy."An actor himself, Paul Ronan took his toddler daughter to work with him to meet Brad Pitt on The Devil's Own, and Cate Blanchett on Veronica Guerin. "I don't remember much about it," she says lightly. "But everyone was very nice to me."
Now her father vets her scripts before his daughter sees them, and makes sure that "she's still just Saoirse, not some product".
After an unsuccessful experiment with secondary school brought unwelcome pressures from other pupils, she's now home-schooled in the countryside where her tutor lives "a couple of fields away".
Her first acting role was in a soap called The Clinic, but Ronan never seemed to be a child actor. Most of her characters are precocious and complex: the jealous little sister in Atonement, a murder victim in The Lovely Bones, a tough Russian orphan on an impossible journey in The Way Back.
"I like my characters to be ones I think about long after I've finished reading the script," she says.
Atonement landed her an Oscar nomination, although Wright had thought she was too blonde, too Irish and too cheerful to play the brooding Briony depicted in Ian McEwan's novel. He gave her the role anyway.
For Hanna she became even blonder, bleaching out her eyebrows and eyelashes and donning a white-blonde wig in order to blend with the snowy Finnish landscapes. "You can't just dye your eyebrows and lashes back," recalls Ronan. "So I had to just wait it out. I would forget about it until I walked down the street and someone would stare at me. If you don't have eyebrows, you don't really have a face."
So Saoirse: who is scarier? A teenage assassin like Hanna, or those girls on My Super Sweet 16, who expect their parents to throw them lavish birthday celebrations, or else? Saoirse shoots out the broad grin of a committed MTV fan. "Definitely those Super Sweet 16 girls," she says enthusiastically. "If they don't get a Merc for their birthday, they are deeply unhappy. And I tell you what - I would not like to be their dad if they don't get the car they want."
At the same age Lindsay Lohan was already attracting headlines as a movie babe, but Saoirse Ronan seems both older and younger than her Hollywood counterpart.She's patient when hair and makeup people style her hair and blot away the signs of a 22C afternoon in May with another layer of powder, but it's the self-applied nail polish that she wants to show off. Rather than going clubbing into the night, she goes to music festivals with her pals. There's no coy talk about dating because "I don't have a boyfriend."
Nor does she seem to have a star's sense of entitlement; she auditioned to play Irish witch Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films but when she got knocked back, simply shrugged and moved on to the next job. And although she adores Lady Gaga, she's horrified at the suggestion that she could just pick up the phone and invite herself round. Instead, she practises Poker Face dance routines while waiting for film setups, and spent her last birthday grooving in the mosh pit at a Gaga concert. On the other hand, few teenagers bring along their director to a gig and make him join in.
"It was a bit frustrating because, strictly speaking, he'd invited himself along really and he didn't loosen up enough. We were all dancing around while Joe was on his phone the whole time," she says gleefully.
"I don't think Joe will ever be a Gaga monster."
• Hanna is on general release
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east