When Saoirse Ronan walks into the Old Poland Bakery in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, the 15-year-old actress looks every bit the schoolgirl. That is, if she went to school. Since her Oscar-nominated performance in Atonement two years ago, Ronan has been too busy to attend regular classes. “I tried to go back recently,” she says, “but I felt like I was in a zoo. I felt like there were 20 kids crowding me, teasing me.” Still, all things considered, Ronan’s life has been fairly normal. Her parents travel with her wherever she goes. She refuses to move to Hollywood and doesn’t much care for fame. “I try not to read much press about me,” she says in her sophisticated Irish brogue. “Most people are nice, but then you have really mean people who are like, ‘Who’s prettier: Saoirse or Dakota Fanning?’ I hate when they compare.”
This Christmas, Ronan co-stars in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel The Lovely Bones, as the film’s brutally raped and murdered narrator. Ronan, who will also appear with Colin Farrell in The Way Back, Peter Weir’s upcoming war drama about escapees from a Siberian gulag, says it was difficult to film the scenes in which Susie looks over her family from the afterlife. “I was surrounded by a blue-screen most of the time, so I had no idea what Peter’s heaven was going to look like. My family is Catholic, but I don’t know if I believe in a god.” Before Ronan has the chance to get into her personal theology, her lunch arrives, and her otherworldly eyes light up. “I’m so excited!” she says, finally sounding her age. “I’ve never tried chicken noodle soup before.”
What was your initial reaction when watching the film? Did you have any idea what it might look like? I knew that whatever happened, Pete was going to do something incredible with it, because he always does with all of his movies. The waiting process to see this movie has been almost two years. But since I hadn’t seen it until recently, I’d never really thought of it as a movie, as a finished film.
How do you try to understand a character like Susie Salmon, someone whose life experience is so vastly different from yours? When you put it like that, it actually sounds quite difficult. But I’m pretty good at understanding people in everyday life, and that’s one of the most important things about becoming someone else on camera. I also think it’s important to have a good relationship with your director. If you don’t have that then I don’t think you can portray the character in its entirety, the way it deserves to be played. Although Pete’s style of directing is different from any other director I’ve worked for, it just works. He talked to me about loss. It wasn’t exactly about death, but more about having something taken from you and never getting it back.
The Lovely Bones is an adaptation of a fictional story, but it’s also based, however loosely, on Alice Sebold’s life. Were you conscious of that during filming? I wasn’t really. For me, Susie was completely separate from Alice. I wanted to create for Susie her own identity. She became a part of me for two months, not in a method acting kind of way but as if became her friend. I knew everything about her, and how she would react to something.
Did you discuss the story or your character with Alice? I haven’t met Alice. I think they invited her on set, but she never came. I thought it was great that she didn’t want to get in the way of Pete’s interpretation of the story. It seemed to me, from what I heard, that she really respected him and his vision.
Were you able to leave the tragedy on set? Sometimes I’d come home from work and get really upset because I was so close to Susie. As a human, as someone with a heart, of course I got upset. But I tried my best to leave it there.
Tell me about your working relationship with Stanley Tucci, who plays your murderer in the film. Stanley is one of the sweetest guys. He is very kind and funny, really easy to be around. And it was important for us to be that comfortable with each other in order to go into those uncomfortable scenes. After we finished the cornfield scene [during which Stanley’s character murders Susie Salmon], I went over to him and gave him a hug. He had his arm around me and we walked off and had a chat.
What’s it like when you’re at home? The Irish are a proud group of people. I mean this in the most modest way, but everyone loves Ireland. We’ve got a very good reputation and even though we’ve had some trouble in the past, I think that’s made us more proud of who we are. We’ve really fought for our country and for freedom. I have to say that the stereotypes people have set for us kind of annoy me. Sure, there are a lot of people who drink in Ireland, but there are also a lot of people who drink in Britain and everywhere in the world.
But how normal is your life at home? Have you been affected by fame? It’s not as normal as it was before I started acting. I’m quite well known in Ireland, so people recognize me.
Does that happen when you walk down the street? Yeah.
Has that started to happen in America? It’s happened a few times, but America is a lot bigger than Ireland. A lot of people know me over there. It’s quite odd when you’re walking through the town you grew up in and people start to look at you differently, people that I know, people that I don’t know, or people that I’ve seen on the street before and recognize. I’m really happy that my acting career has taken off, but at the same time, I’m not doing it for fame.
How has your film success affected your school life? It’s changed quite a bit. When I was nominated for an Oscar, I was working on Lovely Bones and I couldn’t start secondary school with the rest of the kids. I had planned to go back to school after Easter but it didn’t really work out. I’m not going to delve too much into it, but it just didn’t work out at all, for me at least.
Because the other kids knew about the movies you were in? Yeah, I felt like I was in a zoo. I felt like there were 20 kids crowding me, teasing me. It was just a bit mean. There were some good kids, too.
Was a film career something to which you always aspired? I’ve read stories of child actors, the ones who start working at 3 years old, but I can’t see how acting is something you aspire to do at 3 years old. You’re playing with your dolls and you’re eating food. That’s all you care about and I think it’s silly to say otherwise. But I’ve always been an entertainer and my dad is an actor. When I was about 6 or 8, my dad said to his agent, “Maybe you could hook her up with a few things.” So she did and I got this part in an Irish Drama. And then I did another show that I liked even more. From there, I was in a movie with Michelle Pfeiffer [I Could Never Be Your Woman] and things just kind of took off.
Since you weren’t raised in Hollywood, can you recall your first introduction to a major celebrity? So far, it was probably at the Oscars. I was in the front row with all the nominees and Jack Nicholson came on stage to present some award or something, and I swear I looked up his nose. I was that close to Jack Nicholson! I don’t get star-struck—I’m not into that kind of thing and I don’t believe you should treat anyone as a superior—but to see someone like him, who you’ve grown up watching, who’s so good at what he does, it was a big slap in the face.
Young Hollywood is such an interesting demographic because it can bring out really great things in people, really creative things, but then it can also breed monsters. I see so many kids who get famous really fast, and even though sometimes I might get a little envious that someone is more well known than me, I like the way my career is going at the moment. It’s building slowly, which is kind of what happened to Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansen. My parents are with me everywhere I go and my dad is an actor, so he has insight into show business. They both keep me really grounded.
But this really does seem to be your breakout moment. You must be taking advantage of it, no? For someone my age, I’m getting paid really well. But compared to Miley Cyrus, I’m getting nothing. But she’s Miley Cyrus.
Now there’s a role model! You said before that Kiera Knightley was someone who you held in high esteem. I really like Kiera. She’s gotten a lot of poo from the press, about her image and stuff, which a lot of the girls do. I respect her because she doesn’t pay attention to any of that.
Have you ever read anything nasty about yourself online? Not from the press, no. But there are really mean people on IMDb message boards, who are like, “Do you think she’s pretty?” Or, “Who’s prettier: Saoirse or Dakota Fanning?” I hate when they compare.
Since you’re not looking, I read today on there today that you look like Chloë Sevigny. I have to say I don’t think I look like her at all. People compare me to so many different people. Why can’t I just be who I am? I don’t really think I look like anyone. Do these people have nothing better to do? If you’re not a journalist and you’re not actually sent to write about these people, why do it?
At the other end of things, you have a fan site, which seems kind of sweet, unless a 40-year-old man runs it—or Stanley Tucci! The people who run that site are quite genuine. And I think it’s very sweet what they’re doing. It’s not like their adults. They’re teenage girls… I think. I would never do that for anyone—if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing, I’d still prefer to do things that I’d benefit from.
Ronan wears top by D&G. Sequined top by Tory Burch. Photography by Billy Kidd. Styling by Bryan Levandowski. Hair by Charlie Taylor. Makeup by Lauren Whitworth using YSL Beaute.