Saoirse Ronan: ‘Brooklyn was the first time ever, professionally, where my personal life and my character’s life ran parallel in every way’

The Irish actress on returning to her family's roots for her latest film, which is already attracting Oscar buzz

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Actress Saoirse Ronan didn’t need to research her latest film role, she lived it. Brooklyn, based on Colm Toibin’s bestselling novel, is about a young girl who leaves a small town in Ireland for New York, in search of a better life.

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“This is the story of my people. There’s barely a family in Ireland that doesn’t have someone who emigrated. My Mam and Da were economic migrants,” says the 21-year-old in a broad Irish accent seemingly unaffected by almost a decade in the Hollywood fast lane.

Saoirse was just 13 when she earned an Oscar nomination for Atonement in which she starred alongside Keira Knightley. Since then she has appeared in numerous high-profile films including Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and action thriller Hanna.

But on meeting her, like any normal, well brought-up young person, the first thing she does is provide me with technical assistance. I have a new phone and don’t know how to turn on the recording app. She takes it from me, presses a few buttons in rapid succession, then hands it back with a big smile across her lightly freckled face.

We start by talking about Toibin’s beautifully wrought novel. It starts with Eilis, the heroine, waving goodbye to her beloved sister and mother as she reluctantly boards a ship to America. She has to leave because there’s no work in 1950s Ireland. But on arrival in New York, she aches with homesickness.

Saoirse’s own parents made the same journey in the 1980s. Her dad started out labouring on building sites, while her mum worked as a nanny and a cleaner. “They lived in a terrible little apartment in the Bronx and because they were illegals, they were really badly treated and did some awful jobs.”

She gets quite angry as she tells the stories passed down by her parents. There was a time when her mother went to clean a huge brownstone house on the Upper West Side for a rich old lady who then refused to pay her, claiming it was a trial run.

“Another time my Da was called to the Waldorf Astoria because the hotel sewage pipes had burst and he had to literally shovel shit out of an elevator shaft for several hours.”

Ronan with her parents in 2010

Her father eventually got a job in a bar off Broadway frequented by actors. One day an Irish actor called Chris O’Neill came in and asked if he fancied a part in a play he was doing. It was a turning point for Paul Ronan. Within a few years he was a professional actor, often taking his young daughter on set with him. “If it wasn’t for Chris, neither of us would be acting today,” smiles Saoirse. 

Within a couple of years of Saoirse’s birth, the Ronans moved back to Ireland because they wanted to be closer to family and bring up their daughter in the countryside. In an extraordinary coincidence, they settled 20 minutes away from the small town of Enniscorthy, where Toibin grew up, and where the heroine of the book and the film (released in cinemas from today) comes from.

As a little girl, Saoirse visited Enniscorthy on the weekends because it had a cinema and a sweet shop. She never imagined that one day her own face would be up on that big screen.

“It was strange filming there. The day we wrapped, the mayor threw a big party and invited everyone from the town including my former primary school teacher who I hadn’t seen for years. They even created a sort of museum with photographs of the shoot.”

In the mid 1990s when the Ronan family moved home, the economy was booming. By now, Paul Ronan was appearing in TV series such as Ballykissangel and The Tudors. His daughter was eight when she was cast alongside him in a primetime medical drama on Irish television.

By the time she’d finished primary school, Saoirse had been cast in Atonement. Acting became a full-time occupation, taking the Ronan family to and fro across the Atlantic, although with a great deal more comfort and luxury than the first time around. About a year before she did Brooklyn, Saoirse moved to London to live in a flat on her own.

“I needed to leave Ireland. I love it but I needed to be anonymous. I was recognised quite a bit at home and I was very aware of growing up in an industry where everything is done for you.

“On a film you are picked up in the morning, you are told when you are working, your meals are provided, your clothes are washed for you and then, to go back to your mum and dad’s house where the same thing happens, it didn’t feel like a natural way to move into adulthood. So I told my parents I wanted to know how to pay my own bills, cook a meal, do my own washing – but it was tough.”

In London, she found anonymity but felt lonely and homesick. “By the time I did Brooklyn, I was like an open wound emotionally. I felt very vulnerable. It was the first time ever, professionally, where my personal life and my character’s life ran parallel in every way. It was like being forced to stare at yourself in a mirror close-up and not being able to look away.”

The result is an extraordinary performance, which could put her in the running for another Oscar nomination. Saoirse shrugs at the thought and rolls her eyes. “Of course I’m glad they’re pushing it but I’m wary of this stuff. You can have loads of hype and nothing happens.”

Next year she will move back to New York to make her debut on Broadway, playing Abigail in a new production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. It’s another rite of passage for the young actress who has grown up on a film set but never taken acting classes.

“I will have to train my voice for the theatre but I feel it’s something I ought to do. Other actors have told me that there’s nothing better than being on stage when you have the audience eating out of your hand. That’s special.” 

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Brooklyn is in cinemas now