Saoirse Ronan Talks Growing Up & Paying Her Bills

Saoirse Ronan, who was nominated for an Oscar at age 13, recently had to master the art of living on her own for the first time.

"Jesus, I mean, my TV was cut off once," the Irish actress told Refinery29 at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. "I said to Mom, 'You know, I'm gonna pay the bill.' She said, 'Well, when were you supposed to pay it?' And I was like, 'Well, yesterday, but I'll pay it.' She was like, 'No, they’ll cut you off if you don’t pay it on time.' It was amazing. It was my first step into my life on my own — my more grown-up life that’s just mine."

The experience of moving away from home — mishaps and all — is the beating heart of Ronan's new movie, Brooklyn, which is based on the novel of the same name by Colm Tóibín. Ronan, 21, stars as Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman in the 1950s who leaves her small town to start anew in New York. Despite the opportunities afforded to her in America, Eilis battles intense homesickness, but then falls in love with a Brooklynite (Emory Cohen). While Ronan’s work on-screen has impressed audiences for years (2007's Atonement earned her that first nomination), Brooklyn could land her a second Oscar nod — this time, for Best Actress.
“I think in lots of ways, she’s been waiting for the kind of role where she could really prove the scale of actress she is,” Brooklyn director John Crowley told us over the summer. Though Crowley praised the "intensity of her gaze" and "incredible emotional reserve" in her work, he also noted that offscreen, Ronan is an “extremely funny” woman obsessed with a certain blockbuster comedy. “Her biggest disappointment in me is that I never get the quotations from Bridesmaids that she throws my way,” he said. (By the by, the Kristen Wiig movie was reportedly the theme of Ronan’s 20th birthday party last year.)

The actress' unguarded humor was on display when we sat down with her. After discussing our favorite types of doughnuts — "I like the little frosted dough-ball things," she said — we segued into a discussion of Brooklyn, Broadway, and more.

How did this movie come your way? It does feel like just such a perfect role for you.
"It did feel that way, and I think that’s why I felt an awful lot of responsibility to get it right. I really wanted to do an Irish film, work with an Irish director on an Irish story — something that was authentic and really told a different story compared to the ones that we've heard about Ireland so far. I mean, so many people focused on, like, one part of history for a really long time. I'm fascinated with that story, but I wanted people to see what else we could do. We started in Ireland, and we shot in the town that’s 20 minutes away from where I grew up. It was like home and work all of the sudden colliding. That was quite overwhelming."

Have you ever had an experience like that before?
"Never."

I can't remember the last time I heard you actually use your real accent.
"Only on Grand Budapest Hotel. Apart from that, I've never used my Irish accent in a film. Never. So, it was really important for me to find the right script to do. When I signed on, I was thinking about moving away [from Ireland], so I had said to John when I met him, 'Listen, I've been thinking about moving to London.' He lives there. I was tempted so much to do it, and I really needed to get out of Ireland at that time and kind of just look after myself, pay bills, and be a bit more anonymous, and just have more of a regular experience. In the time [between when] I had signed on to when I made the film, I had moved out and I had gone through what Eilis goes through. So, it was like I was just going through that journey, and I went through it with her as well."

Did you change your attitude toward Eilis after moving away?
"When I had read the script, I thought, Great, this is a well-written script. It's a strong female role. It's Irish. John is gonna do it. It'll be great, you know? But then when we made [the film], so much had happened to me in that year personally that it took on this whole new meaning. Everything else that I've done pretty much had always — and I wanted it this way — been very, very different to me, to my situation, to my upbringing, to my character. I loved playing people that were just so completely different to who I was. I had done that so much that I was ready to then do something closer to home. The experience of reliving what I had just gone through on the screen was overwhelming. It was like somebody holding up a mirror an inch from your face, and you're not able to look away and you're like, Fuck. It's scary."
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Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.
Were you living with your parents beforehand?
"Yeah. I left the country. I went to the U.K. That was my mom and dad's story. They moved to New York in the '80s. They had me there, and I grew up knowing what it was like for them over there and what their experience was like. People have kind of been saying to me, 'Was there anything that you found as, like, a personal tie-in to the story?' Everything, every day, everything we shot, everything I said, everything I did — it was just very real for me."

Did you move in by yourself or did you have roommates?
"No, I live by myself. I don’t like living with anyone."

Yeah, I'm with you. I live alone, too. Once you start you can't go back.
"I like having the control over, like, when people are allowed to come into the flat. You know what I mean? At the same time, it means that you're on your own. You're paying your own bills. There's no one else to fall back on. It's like having a solo career instead of being in a girl band."

Yeah, totally. No one to remind you when the rent is due.
"Exactly... I worked away from the age of 10, and so my mom was always with me up until I was 18. That was great, but this was like a new period for me where it was mine. It was scary, and I had days where I really missed home and I was sad. But I also, you know, you have to just kind of get on with it. Like with Eilis near the end of the film, she's been through so much that she can look back and go, 'Oh, I got through it.'"

It was like somebody holding up a mirror an inch from your face, and you're not able to look away and you're like, 'Fuck.' It's scary.

Saoirse Ronan

Do you feel like you grew up faster because you were working?
"I don’t think I grew up too quickly, because I do think there's a difference between being too grown-up for your age and just being wary and mature and exposed to life outside of the schoolyard.

"My mom was so amazing. I was aware of different personalities and how different people behave and how different people work from a very young age, but I wasn’t exploited by it. She created the perfect balance of me being able to be a part of the people I was working with, but also knowing that we weren't going to live with the cast when I was 12 years old. We were going to have our own house, and she was going to make dinner every night and breakfast every morning and get me to bed at a certain time. I think in retrospect now, I got my independence that I needed at the right time for me, which was around 18 or so. I was ready to do all these things. I was ready to go out on my own.

"I had such a strong basis to be on my own, even though it was like,'Oh, shit, I'm hungry and I have to buy my own food with my own money and cook it and then clean up.'"
Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.
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I was going to ask, do you cook?
"Yeah, I do. I really like to cook. There's this website that we have at home called BBC Good Food. And so a lot of chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson and the Hairy Bikers, they put recipes up. And so I ended up cooking things from scratch all the time and I loved it. I'm not an adult by any means, but I'm so glad I threw myself into it, because the fear that I had was growing up in an industry where everything is done for you. I worked, absolutely. But if I wanted a cup of tea, somebody made it for me. We are being picked up every morning and dropped off, and you don’t really have to think about that stuff. I didn’t want to grow up like that. I didn’t want that to be my reality. It just gives you perspectives on things."

You haven't really done an Irish film before. Was that by choice or by happenstance? Were you offered films about Ireland that you said no to?
"That was exactly it. I had been offered a few things over the years, and they just didn’t speak to me. Especially in the States, I think, there's a certain perspective that’s kind of been created of Ireland of like, everyone lives on a farm, everyone sounds like a leprechaun. We're a very modern country. We're very forward-thinking. Even though this film is set in the '50s, it's classy and it's sophisticated and it's intelligent and it's well written. The people that are involved in this, I'm so bloody proud to have worked with all them, because we've had a chance to showcase what we can do and to go, 'Look, we can make good films.' So that’s why I kind of held off, because I wanted to find something like that. Even still, I didn’t expect this. I didn’t expect this kind of reaction."

You're going to play Abigail Williams in The Crucible on Broadway. Are you moving to Brooklyn?
"I want to move to Brooklyn, I'd love to. But I don’t think they’ll let me, because the theater is gonna be in Manhattan. So I'll probably have to go to the West Village or something like that."
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