Saoirse Ronan is a bit of a chameleon.
Off-screen the young actor comes across as soft-spoken, well mannered, delicate and demure, but not on screen. For anyone who has seen her movies — many of them about a girl or young woman coming into her own — it is crystal clear that she is also an emotional powerhouse.
That power, in part, is why Saoirse (pronounced “Sir-sha”) Ronan is still coming down from a whirlwind awards season, during which she won a Golden Globe for her leading role in Lady Bird, a coming-of-age story about the complex mother-daughter dance and finding your true self amid teenage angst.
At the tender age of 24, Ronan has already been nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actress for Lady Bird and Brooklyn, and Best Supporting Actress for Atonement. She has also been nominated for four BAFTA Awards (the British Academy of Film and Television Arts).
Admiring critics around the world have called her performances graceful, playful, evocative, fragile, and wise beyond her years. Even she considers herself to be “an old soul” who feels more mature than her actual age.
And with her triumphant performance in Lady Bird still lingering, Ronan already has complex roles in two new movies opening this month — an adaptation of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and then On Chesil Beach, a drama about the fragility of young love and marriage amid the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
First out is The Seagull. Directed by Michael Mayer (A Home at the End of the World),the film follows aging, aristocratic actor Irina Arkadina, played by Annette Bening, on a visit to her brother’s Russian country estate.
Irina brings with her Boris (Corey Stoll), a famous novelist and ladies’ man. Nina, played by Ronan, is a free-spirited, innocent girl from a neighbouring estate who falls in love with Boris. At the same time, Irina’s playwright son Konstantin (Billy Howle) is head over heels in love with Nina, who is initially flattered when given a major role in his new play, but rejects him to pursue Boris and fantasizes about becoming an actress like Irina.
It’s a timeless tale because of the range of human emotions portrayed — insecurity, fear, hope, longing and unrequited love.
“Nina is a bit of a dreamer,” Ronan explains over the phone from New York.
“I believe that Nina is stuck in one place and desperately yearns for something new and different,” she continues. “While she seems filled with love, she is also a sad girl who looks at her life and feels that something is sorely missing.”
On Chesil Beach, Ronan’s second movie this month, is based on an Ian McEwan novel. In 1962 England, Florence and Edward, played by Ronan and coincidentally Billy Howle again, are on their honeymoon at a sedate hotel near Chesil Beach. As the prospect of consummating their marriage approaches, their conversation becomes tense.
This insightful drama about two people, from two different worlds, shows us what happens when a seemingly idyllic romance collides with issues of sexual freedom and societal pressure, leading to an extremely awkward wedding night.
It’s no secret that most of Ronan’s movies have been period pieces; that’s not about to change. After The Seagull and On Chesil Beach, her next movie is the 16th-century drama Mary Queen of Scots, which comes out in November and co-stars Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I to Ronan’s Mary Stuart. “I truly enjoy the chance to do a lot of research into a specific period in order to tell an inspiring story,” says Ronan.
The only child of Irish parents, Monica and Paul, Saoirse was born in the Bronx, New York, but her family moved to Dublin when she was three years old and she holds dual American and Irish citizenship. (In 2013, she purchased a home in the Dublin suburb and former fishing village of Howth.)
She made her acting debut in the Irish TV medical drama "The Clinic" in 2003, but her breakthrough came as a precocious 13-year-old in Atonement just four years later, followed by such noteworthy movies as The Lovely Bones, Hanna, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Brooklyn and of course Lady Bird.
When not immersed in a film role, Ronan says she likes to be “a regular girl,” spending time with family and friends, and doing a bit of good, like her work as an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
When she started acting at age nine, she and her “wonderful, supportive mother” often stayed in hotels where they were pampered, but Ronan says she prefers homemade breakfasts and pouring her own tea.
“I like to stay in an apartment or a house when I am making a film, just to be able to do my own washing and go to the supermarket to get a pint of milk,” she says. “Even though I am working long days; it’s important that I look after myself.”
So, what gets her excited about making a movie?
“If I have an impulse to kind of live through that character, and if I am still thinking about it, and starting to imagine that I’m that character, then I should probably do it,” Ronan says. “But it all comes down to believing in what you are doing; because if you don’t, it can feel like torture.”
The roles she does pick often epitomize a young woman finding her own footing and becoming comfortable in her own skin, something Ronan can connect with even as her career continues to soar.
“I believe that young people go through a whole process of practicing being a grown-up, and trying on different characters in order to figure out which one fits,” she says, “and practicing that persona until it becomes you is definitely relatable.”
The Seagull hits theatres May 11th
On Chesil Beach Hits Theatres May 25th