If you still haven’t seen Brooklyn, by pretty much unanimous opinion one of the best films of the year, don’t wait too much longer—it’s likely to close this week. And if you have, here’s my rather overdue interview with star Saorise Ronan, the young Irish actress who in person defines the phrase “lighting up the room.” You may have seen her previously starring in such films as The Lovely Bones, Hanna and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Our conversation (conducted at the Toronto International Film Festival) started by verifying the correct pronunciation of her name—she says “Sirsh-uh,” and rattles off a seemingly endless list of ways people are prone to mispronounce it. “I deal with it so often that I don’t even want to joke about it anymore,” she laughs. “You could make something up, I’ve probably been called it. “
You were born in New York City to Irish parents, but primarily raised in Ireland. How did your upbringing connect you to that of Eilis in the film?
Ireland, that’s where I’ll raise my kids, where I’ll settle down. But New York is a really huge part of me too. It’s where I was born, I lived there until I was three, and it made my parents who they are. My mom, who basically I’m a clone of, is a fiercely independent woman. That really came out of her when she went to NY, she had to work hard and be independent and rely on herself. And the Irish community all supported each other. So I have a huge respect for both places—It’s made me who I am.
I was born there – my mom was adamant about having me in the states. My parents were illegal, but she eventually got a visa. She didn’t ever want me to have to go through that. So the fact that I can call myself someone who comes from both places is a real gift that they gave me.
But Ireland is home?
They’re both home. Ireland is where I went to school, where my family are, my roots. It’s like two different personalities. Who I am in New York — I’m moving there next year for a job and I’ll probably stay there as the next chapter in my life. It’s just been a matter of waiting for the right time. I moved away to London when I was 19, that was a more sensible first step. But New York was always the goal.
John Crowley, the film’s director, talked about this being a role that will movie you from bing a well-respected child actress to a well-respected actress.
I wasn’t thinking of it in relation to the journey she goes on. I never played kid’s roles, or in kid films, so I just thought of myself as an actor. When I got to 18, it was tricky to showcase that you were ready to move onto taking roles that were more mature, that reflected where you were at personally. I don’t know if it happens more to female actors, but for awhile if people knew me it was for something I did when I was fifteen. I didn’t want to rely on something I’d done so long ago. I needed another film for this stage that I’m in now.
It becomes more involved as you get older, you become aware of how the machine works. My approach toward the actual work hasn’t changed that much, it’s very much based on instincts—I don’t work in a method way or anything like that. But I can see how through your career you change for different roles. As you get older and your life experience grows, it comes into play for how you approach a role. It did with Brooklyn. It was vey much like, this is what I’m living through now! So it was less of a journey to step into that place. But the industry and business side of it, being aware of how people operate, how not everyone has the same goals—that’s a good learning curve, to know what to watch out for.
This is the first film where you used your natural Irish accent. Do you find it fading away when so much of your work requires you to use different accents?
There’s no danger of me ever losing my Irish accent. I always want to sound like a leprechaun (laughs). Accents fascinate me. It’s always the first thing I think about, finding the voice of a character, to find who that person is. It’s like a musical instrument when you use it in the right way, how your mouth works to find a sound, the placement of your voice. Even with a Canadian accent, it’s more forward than one from the States. Thank god I started out doing accents, cause I wouldn’t have worked otherwise. Grand Budapest, that was the first time I used the Irish accent—she wasn’t from Ireland necessarily, but that was something Wes wanted to do. Brooklyn is the first time I’ve played somebody from where I’m from. It’s really exciting to be able to jump into all these characters from everywhere.
Do you feel more Irish when you’re in America and more American when you’re in Ireland?
Sometimes I do. Over here, like what Eilis goes through –the Irish are celebrated, so we love coming here, people like us here, they’re really welcoming here. And that’s lovely, so I enjoy being the Irish one here. But there have been stages – not so much now, but when I was a kid I was the outsider, the black sheep. Not only was I not from Ireland originally, I wasn’t from the county I grew up in, I always had a Dublin accent, but I didn’t grow up there. I remember one of the kids saying to me my first day at school, you’re from America, you’re weird! And no one would talk to me my first few days at school. So I always had a sense of not being from one place. And I kind of love it now, cause it means I have two homes. And that’s really fantastic.
Is there an Irish sensibility in the Irish directors you’ve worked with?
When Irish people get together we’re very familiar, whether we know each other or not. I just did a job in NY, and at the end of the shoot me and a mate went to see U2 at Madison Square Garden, and we were hanging out afterward cause the crew is all Irish. I’d never met Bono before, but it was like we’d known each other our whole lives. Maybe because we’re a small country, so there’s that family sense. So I have found that with Neil and John that we’re very straightforward – it’s like your cousin is directing you.
When we’re away from home we find each other. You’re always going to find someone from home and that’s lovely. Brian Dennehey was on this job that I just did and he’s very Irish, he loves to talk about Ireland, I felt closer to home there than I had in other cities because you feel open to talk about your home and celebrate it. And that’s a nice feeling.
John Crowley said that he had trouble researching a female immigrant’s perspective of this era. Were you able to find any sources?
The one thing John gave me was Brian Friel’s play Philadelphia Here I Come. Even though it’s from the male perspective, it’s about the day before he moves away, and it’s about how his friends and family pull back a little to protect themselves. In the film the way mam walks away because she can’t face [Eillis’s leaving]– I think that’s something we do. That and Colm Tóibín novel were all I read. But I spoke to my mam about it. She saw the film and said it meant a lot to her because it captures the fear and the excitement that you’re going through.