The crux of Brooklyn is so simple that it’s profound: A young girl grows up.
In Hollywood, however, that journey—as TMZ, Us Weekly, and a red carpet’s worth of cautionary tales remind us—is much more fraught.
“Child Star Gone Wild” is a headline so common through the years—stars acting out, stars sexing it up, stars growing up too fast—that we’ve been practically suffocated by it as a culture. Well, Saoirse Ronan, aren’t you a lilting Irish breath of fresh air?
The 21-year-old actress has been one of the busiest young film stars ever since she was nominated for an Oscar at age 13 for Atonement, delivering one of those subtle and judiciously sharp performances that are as unsettling coming from such a precocious girl as they are impressive.
Poise and innocence darted out of her piercing blue eyes in transfixing competition, a battle that continued in the following years as Ronan gave life to characters full of youthful angst, wonder, and surprising depth in films like The Lovely Bones, Hanna, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
It was a perfectly formidable collection of roles for a young, talented actor. But then something happened. Saoirse Ronan grew up.
“You do feel incredibly lucky, I think, for something like this to come along at just the right time when it comes to work and what kind of work you want to do next and how you want to move on to the next stage of your working life,” Ronan says about Brooklyn.
By many critics’ accounts, Brooklyn is a “coming out” of sorts for the star as an adult actress. She’s so bewitching in it—delivering a human, grounded performance that’s admirably resistant to inauthenticity or histrionic fireworks—that her name is on many pundits’ preliminary shortlists for the Best Actress Oscar this year.
After years of being assaulted with faux-edge, misguided smut, and over-aggressive raunch from young stars superficially trying to prove their adulthood, Ronan announced herself as a mature leading lady in maybe the most surprising way we’ve seen. She let her emotions be the things that seemed more grown up.
In Brooklyn, Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, a girl living in the small country town of Enniscorthy, Ireland in 1952. Fearful that Enniscorthy is threatening to stifle Eilis’s potential, her sister arranges for her to move to America, where she will have a job at a department store and a room at a Brooklyn boardinghouse.
Suffering from crippling homesickness, it takes a while for Eilis to blossom, which she eventually does like a genuine Irish rose: She enrolls in bookkeeping classes, falls in love, and thrives. Tragic events end up taking Eilis back to Ireland, where she finds her newfound gumption and strength have made for a renewed kind of life in the homeland.
As Eilis comes of age, she’s faced with a choice: Brooklyn or Ireland? Where is home? Where is happiness?
The screenplay is by Nick Hornby, who in his previous films An Education and Wild showed a knack for charting the emotional experience of a woman facing the terrifying excitement of coming into her own and starting a new life. And the film, directed by proper Irishman John Crowley, is a gritty and gorgeous Irish ballad: bittersweet, abundantly impassioned, and as bleak as it is hopeful.
It’s the kind of film that demands you see its star in a new light.
When asked if she ever felt tempted to follow in the well-tread footsteps of young Hollywood actors and commit to an edgy role just to prove she was grown up, Ronan says, “I was very, very aware that I did not want to make that decision because I saw a lot of other people do it and I didn’t think it would work for me. I was very, very aware of not objectifying myself just to prove that I wasn’t a kid anymore.”
She’s protective of Brooklyn and of Eilis, not just because of what the film means for her career but because of the uncanny ways it has mirrored her own life.
The story of an Irish immigrant with roots in New York and the Emerald Isle resonates not just because Ronan was born in the Bronx, before moving back to Ireland when she was 3½. The movie, really, is a version of her parents’ story. Paul and Monica Ronan journeyed to New York in the 1980s.
And the story of a young woman striving for independence but weeping over homesickness, nostalgia, and sentimentality, struck a chord for Ronan, who went through Eilis’s own emotional transformation when she moved on her own to London at age 19, and came out all the better for it.
“To play a character who is going through the same thing as you emotionally means that there’s nowhere to hide really,” she says. “Because of that I was scared. It meant so much to me because the feeling of homesickness and not really knowing where you belong anymore was captured so beautifully. It was the most important thing to do the writing justice, and then just to do justice to everyone in Ireland and every person who’s ever gone through this.”
With Brooklyn now in theaters, we chatted with Ronan—both of us briefly distracted by a sunset over New York’s Hudson River so beautiful it could’ve been a shot in the film—about how she’s managed to escape the Child Star Curse, coming of age in Hollywood, feminism, strength, and her rom-com moment at Sundance. (It’s not what you might expect.)
If you look at cinematic history, we’re awash in coming of age stories of young men. But it’s rare for there to be a story like this featuring a woman coming of age and into her own, especially when we’re talking about that time in Irish history.
Especially to play a woman in that time who overcomes so much independently. She does of course have a relationship and get married, but the life that she builds for herself very much comes from her own courage and gumption. I love the shot of her when she’s in the classroom in New York and she’s the only woman there. It’s actually then, I think, as someone who eventually watched the film, I started to see a change where she was a little more confident when it came to talking to men. She’s an independent woman and I think to showcase such independence in that time when that was unusual is exciting to see on screen.
It’s especially exciting when you look at it through the prism of today’s culture when feminism and equality is such a major topic of conversation. It’s astonishing that Eilis was doing this 60 years ago.
Yes. Exactly. It’s even a struggle for us now to have this equality when it comes to our work, when it comes to pay, when it comes to just respect in the modern world. It’s still a struggle. It’s not entirely equal. To watch a woman at that time—even when it comes to her love life, she’s the one who holds the reins. Even though this man is professing his love for her, she doesn’t just fall at his feet. She needs a second to digest it.
As someone who’s around the same age that Eilis is in the movie, was there anything she did or the issues that she faced that you took on in your own life and affected how you view the world?
I think it’s making a decision that is totally right for you and knowing and accepting that, most of the time, once you become an adult and a woman, one of the things about being a grown up is that you’re going to hurt someone and you’re going to have to sacrifice some things. It’s not as easy as just living in a fairy tale and having the best option laid out in front of you. Usually in life, no matter what decision we make, you’ll usually sacrifice something else for that decision. So I think because she was going through that at the same time as me, it just made me feel like I wasn’t alone, I suppose.
The film helped you see things in your own life more clearly?
It’s kind of the equivalent of someone coming up to you and you’re kind of in a state of confusion as to who you are and what you want from your life. And then someone comes along and perfectly articulates how you feel. Even you can’t quite do it and they nail it for you. There’s something overwhelming and quite life-changing about that. It’s really eye-opening when someone is able to come up to you and say, “I understand you and I understand how you’re feeling and you need to know that it will be OK.” And then Nick’s writing, especially in one of the last scenes where she turns to the young girl who’s about to make the same trip as her and she goes, “You’ll feel so homesick you’ll want to die, but there’s nothing to do apart from enjoy it.” That one little chunk I was so nervous about saying on screen because that piece of writing meant so much to me. He just got it. He really got it. And so the whole shoot was kind of like that. It’s very emotional to have the outside, through your work, essentially tell you what you’re feeling.
Coming of age and growing up is scary and exciting and beautiful, and requires the freedom to be all those things. Brooklyn really captures that. But do you think working from such a young age and being a part of the Hollywood movie industry has given you any more or less of that freedom, so you could experience all of that?
This is the thing: I don’t really see myself as someone who’s part of Hollywood, whatever that may mean. Meryl [Streep] made this speech the other night at an awards show. She said, “I’m an actor out for hire. That’s my job.” I’m an actor. I work, and then I go back to being a person in my life. I think as I’ve gotten older it’s become more of a social thing. There’s so many friends that are involved in work that are also involved in my personal life. I know when I was younger I was very anxious about not having that, and worrying about never having that normality that a lot of people have when they grow up. So I was just trying to figure out how I could experience that. It’s hard when you’re a teenager and you’re still living at home and everyone is in secondary school and high school, and that’s a more formative time than primary school. When you start to come out of that, that was my time to know in myself that I was ready to try my hand at being independent and live on my own.
Why did you decide to move out on your own?
It was for a couple reasons. I wanted that independence. I knew it was going to be scary. I knew I was going to be out of my depth. I didn’t realize exactly what it would feel like when it came to that loss of a sense of home. I knew, again, kind of like with work, it was something that scared me so I knew I needed to do it. Because Hollywood is not a part of me or my psyche I never wanted to be the kind of young person who had been working from an early age who, when she wanted a cup of tea, a cup of tea was made for her. Who was told what time she’d be picked up at. Whose clothes were cleaned for her, whether she was on set or back at home with her mom and dad. It was very important to me that by the time I got to age 18, 19 that I completely pushed myself out of my comfort zone and basically, I guess through not feeling comfortable, adapted to adult life. And that’s what I did, and it worked. You have to have that experience. And it’s up to you make it happen.
You mentioned how this came along at time when you were ready for something different in your career. There’s been a lot of talk about this movie as your “coming out” as an adult actress. Historically there’s a tradition of child actors, when they’re making a transition to more adult roles, to over-aggressively lean into it, with overly sexy roles or overly edgy roles. You’re doing this more organically, but did you ever feel that temptation?
No. I was very, very aware that I did not want to make that decision because I saw a lot of other people do it and I didn’t think it would work for me. I didn’t want my work or the quality of the work I had done up to that point to suffer because I needed to prove to everyone I’m older. It’s hard when you’re waiting for that role to come that will take you to the next stage, but you just have to be very, very patient and keep waiting for the right thing and keep reading scripts and audition and going to the meetings and all of that. I was doing all of that stuff, and Brooklyn was one of the easier ones, honestly. [Director John Crowley] came on board and asked me if it was something that I would want to do. We met up about it and that was kind of it. But I was very, very aware of not making—not objectifying myself just to prove that I wasn’t a kid anymore.
How did you resist when so many other stars couldn’t?
I have too much respect for myself, I suppose, and the films and the filmmakers that I’ve worked with. To suddenly let that become secondary to just proving that you’re not a kid anymore, that couldn’t be the case for me. For me it was very much always about waiting for an emotionally mature role to come along. It always has to be about the emotion and I hope that comes across with Eilis. It certainly felt like that to make it. She becomes a woman. We have a very innocent sex scene in the film, but that’s it. It’s very much about change in herself, and we watch that happen. And for most of that she keeps her clothes on.
Your parents made a journey very much like the one your character takes in the movie. What was it like to watch this with them? What was their emotional reaction, seeing their daughter in this movie do something so similar to what they had done?
It meant the world to me. It really did. It was more important that they liked it, more than anyone else. I just wanted them to be proud of it and to be happy with the perception and the projection of their journey. My mom saw it first. She saw it at Sundance 10 months ago, which to this day was the most magical thing there’s been in this whole experience so far, because none of us expected to get the reaction we got. It was amazing, and she was there for that. It was like we were suddenly in a rom-com or something. I hadn’t watched the film and I wasn’t going to watch the film. I was backstage for two hours waiting for it to finish. I came out on stage.
We got a standing ovation, which was amazing. And I saw my mom in the audience and she saw me and everyone else just faded away and I jumped off the stage like fuckin’ Richard Gere or something. Jumped off the stage and ran to her and we both just hugged each other and cried. I think we were both just really proud of each other. She’s just as proud of me as I was of her for actually making this trip. Whatever I went through in London moving away for the first time wouldn’t have been as tough as it was for her to leave her family and leave her sister. To just work for 10 years, you know? I’m very, very proud that we got to see her story on screen and I got to be a part of it.