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Interview: Saoirse Ronan on How I Live Now, the Comforts of Tea, and More

The actress spoke with us about her new role in How I Live Now, what she looks for in a part, and her biggest vice in life.

Interview: Saoirse Ronan Talks How I Live Now
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

When citing established actresses whose working styles she strives to emulate, Saoirse Ronan doesn’t hesitate in name-dropping titans: Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Meryl Streep. At 19, this New York-born, Irish-bred dynamo, who nabbed an Oscar nomination for her work in 2007’s Atonement, has already acted opposite two of her three heroes, squaring off against Blanchett in Hanna and recently wrapping production on The Grand Budapest Hotel, co-starring Swinton. It isn’t hard at all to imagine Ronan rising to the ranks of these screen queens, nor does it sound like an especially lofty ambition when she mentions them as influences. Though some of her films have missed the mark, Ronan has made choices that have afforded her great dramatic opportunities, and while it’s tempting to describe a young actor as precocious, such a term would be grossly underselling Ronan at this point. She’s an established, bona fide actress in her own right—one of very few leading ladies under 20 who can carry a film, and one of fewer still who can confidently look forward to a lengthy, prestigious career.

Ronan’s latest film is How I Live Now, an adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s World War III-themed novel, directed by Kevin McDonald. Playing a girl named Daisy for the second time this year (she previously starred as Daisy the assassin in Violet & Daisy), Ronan adopts the persona of which she’s managed to craft multiple iterations: a strong-willed, angsty survivor who lets the actress show her dark side without compromising her integrity. In real life, Ronan is an endearing mix of work ethic and feistiness, professing her commitment to her craft while delivering zingers about a shirtless Ryan Gosling and her character “[not taking] any shit.” Still, the gal is hardly your standard case of innocence lost, as her biggest vice is a daily cup of tea.

In How I Live Now, Daisy is rebellious, yet she’s established a set of rules for herself. This seems reflective of you: You’re taking on edgy work that’s showing your grit and maturity, but you haven’t done anything that’s, shall we say, vulgar. Do you have rules that you set for yourself, like Daisy?

Hmm…I do and I don’t. I’m not necessarily drawn to a certain type of film, but I don’t want to do anything vulgar or distasteful. Unless it’s very much a part of the character, [the work] doesn’t really need that. So, in that sense, I guess my taste is a little bit more specific. But I don’t really have rules. I think it’s just kind of based on instinct, and whatever sticks in my mind after I’ve read a script. If I’ve read something and I’m still thinking about it hours or days after, and acting out scenes from it, then I know that I probably want to do it.

Well, it does seem like you are, to paraphrase Daisy, “taking risks and stepping outside of your comfort zone.”

Yeah, I hope so. You know, when you take risks as an actor, I think the default thing for a lot of people is to do something kind of racy, or really out there. And I don’t think that’s the way to necessarily go about it. I think by stepping out of your comfort zone and taking risks, you’re doing something you haven’t done before. And, to me, that comes down to playing a completely different character, if you can, every time, and being involved in different sorts of films and different genres. You’ve gotta keep it fresh. My main fear is I don’t want to become lazy, so it’s good to keep changing things.

Well, you certainly don’t seem to be lazy. In terms of the volume of work we’re seeing from you, I think it’s safe to say that 2013 is your biggest year yet. Five films, by my count. I know you can’t really control release dates, but is there any downside to all of that? Are you tired? Do you fear people might tire of you?

No, I mean, I suppose Byzantium, The Host, and How I Live Now all came out this year. It was only three films, wasn’t it? Oh no, Violet & Daisy was released as well, you’re right.

And then there was Justin and the Knights of Valour, which was voice-only.

Right. No, I’m fine. I’ve done a bit of press for them, but it hasn’t been too crazy. For The Host, it was kind of full-on, but I’ve been fairly relaxed. I made two other films this year, but they were, in a way, very casual. One [The Grand Budapest Hotel] was with Wes Anderson and was very much an ensemble piece, and the other one, How to Catch a Monster, was an ensemble piece as well. So the workload wasn’t quite as intense as I’m used to usually. Really, two or three films a year, max, is the amount that I can see myself doing. Because it’s hard to enjoy what you’re doing when you’re tired, and you’re jumping straight from one thing to the next. You don’t really get a chance to breathe. So it’s been lovely that for the last few months, I’ve just had time off, really—time to just read scripts and research future projects.

Would the Daisy of Violet & Daisy and the Daisy of How I Live Now get along? What would one think of the other?

Oh, I think Daisy of How I Live Now would hate Daisy of Violet & Daisy. [laughs] I don’t think they’d get along very well. Daisy from Violet & Daisy is very sweet, and a little bit airy and spacey, whereas Daisy from How I Live Now doesn’t really take any shit. No prisoners. She has a pretty tough attitude.

How I Live Now is also one of a couple of dystopian-type films you’ve done lately, and those stories really just seem to be the flavor of the moment. Any thoughts as to why that is, and why you’re drawn to those stories?

Ah, the dystopian thing. I’m drawn to them to a certain extent, and I was drawn to the films I did, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to do too many of them. Because there are a lot of them floating about. I think they’re very popular now because there’s that kind of threat of the world being very badly damaged, whether it’s because of natural causes, or man-made causes, or whatever. So I think that’s a pretty realistic fear now for people, and it’s kind of at the back of everyone’s minds, hopefully, most of the time. It makes sense that we see that in pop culture, I suppose.

Do you have any character requirements? Is there something that must jump off the page at you if you’re going to take a role?

Well, clearly, I always need to have a gun, in at least one scene! [laughs] No, there’s never any character requirements, they just have to be interesting. They can’t be wooden. A character can start off being a bit bland, and then it can be added to and changed a little bit, but if that’s not going to happen, I don’t see what would be very interesting about playing the part. And also, if you look at actresses like Cate Blanchett, and Tilda Swinton, and Meryl, I think that the key is that the characters that they play, quite a few of them, could easily have been men. And I think that’s always something I look out for, in a way—that this is just an interesting person as opposed to necessarily being a woman. It’s amazing to play women, but I’m looking for someone who has something about them that makes them a very interesting character, not just the girl next door.

I loved the part at the beginning of How I Live Now where, as an Irish actress playing an American, you break the American accent to make fun of, and mimic, the accent of your character’s English cousins.

Yeah, I know! [laughs] And I found it really hard to do a bad English accent, because obviously Daisy’s not supposed to be able to do an English accent properly. That was quite difficult to do.

I’ve interviewed a couple of your peers, and any time your name has come up, they’ve all said that you have an uncanny level of professionalism. Where does that come from?

I don’t know. I’ve always been one of those people who’s a bit of a perfectionist, I suppose. I always have to try to do the best I can with everything I put my hand to. So I guess that comes into how I work. And I respect the work, and I respect the other people who are on set. I remember years ago, when I was working on Atonement, there was scene we were doing that was one of the most important scenes in the film, and I was kind of messing about before having to go into this very serious state. And Joe Wright, who I really looked up to, said, “Okay, Saoirse, you have to be serious now. You can’t be joking around.” And he didn’t get cross with me, but it was stern. And whatever it was about that kind of gave me a bit of a shock, and I thought, “Oh, okay. I guess there are times when I can’t be messing about that much.” And that’s always stayed with me since. But I’ve always respected what I do and what other people do on set, and I guess that just increases as I get older.

That said, even though you’re known to have this beyond-your-years professionalism, you’re still a young, 19-year-old woman, and you’re starring, like you said, in How to Catch a Monster, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut. This is the kind of opportunity millions of girls would scream about. Does that sort of thing affect you at all, or did you just approach it like any other job?

Yeah, no, I just approached it like any other thing. I mean, the thing for me about Ryan is I’ve never really seen him in that way. I met him when I was much younger, and we were supposed to work together. He was going to play my dad.

Oh, right—in The Lovely Bones?

Right. So I always kind of have that in my head when I think about Ryan Gosling, really. [laughs] And when it came around to actually working with him I just got to see even more that he’s the coolest guy. He’s so bright and just really fun to be around. And he didn’t take his shirt off, so we didn’t have to worry about that. [laughs] He was very professional.

[laughs] Thank god. And then Mary, Queen of Scots is on the way for you. I don’t know too much about it, but it looks like it might be your biggest role yet.

Yeah, definitely. I suppose it will be. It’s going to be out next year, and I’m frightened, but very, very excited about it. And I’ve learned a good bit about Mary now and I feel very passionate about her, and just Scottish history and culture. I love Scotland as a country. It’s very similar, in a lot of ways, to Ireland. Just learning about what they went through, and what she went through, has all been quite emotional. So that’s next year, and Susanne Bier will be directing, which is really exciting. It’s kind of an all-female production. There’s a female writer, Penny Skinner. It’s a real feminist film.

And Mary’s one character who probably isn’t so easily reimagined as a man.

Yeah, I don’t know in Mary’s case. She’s very much a woman. [laughs]

Getting back to How I Live Now, another thing Daisy often discusses is willpower. What’s one thing that’s the greatest challenge for your own willpower?

Umm…I have to have a cup of tea everyday. Just have to have a cup of tea. That’s a big habit of mine. It’s something that I can’t really resist. And also, when I go to the cinema, I have to eat popcorn. Can’t fight it.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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