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Saoirse Ronan: in the limelight

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Being nominated for an Oscar, becoming friends with Ryan Gosling and getting styled by Grace Coddington could be overwhelming for most teens. Stylist meets the young actress facing her future straight on

Words: Julia Maile

Saoirse Ronan and I have something in common. As teens, we both appeared in a film directed by Peter Jackson. Sure, Saoirse played the lead role of Susie Salmon in the 2009 film adaptation of Alice Sebold’s international best-selling novel The Lovely Bones, whereas I was an extra in his – ahem – ‘lesser known classic’ The Frighteners. Saoirse’s ethereal, compelling performance as the murdered teenager saw her nominated for a BAFTA. I was on-screen for precisely six seconds. But hey, we’ve technically both been there, done that, so I’m claiming it.

By age 19 (as Saoirse is now), it’s fair to say our paths had diverged somewhat further. While I spent my teens studying for exams and watching Neighbours, Saoirse spent hers building up an impressive CV acting alongside Hollywood’s great and good, including Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon and Diane Kruger. Born in New York, she moved to Ireland aged three and accompanied her actor father Paul on sets, before rising to prominence playing scheming Briony Tallis alongside Keira Knightley in 2007’s Atonement.

The role saw her nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar and led to appearances in a slew of films including the title role in 2011’s Hanna, where she played a kick-ass teen assassin alongside Eric Bana, and not one, but two lead roles as both a human and an alien in the adaptation of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer’s The Host which opened earlier this year.

Today, Saoirse (the Irish name means ‘freedom’ and rhymes with ‘inertia’) and I have met at London’s Soho Hotel to discuss her latest role, as vampire Eleanor in Neil Jordan’s film, Byzantium. Dressed casually in skinny black Joe’s Jeans with an UrbanOutfitters cardigan and Doc Martin boots, at first glance she looks like your typical teenager. But then I see them: her incredibly piercing, almost luminescent, pale blue eyes. The same ones that have stared back at me from film posters and DVD boxes. In real life, they’re just as arresting and give her an otherworldly presence. Does she find all the attention paid to her eyes frustrating? “No,” she shrugs. “An actor’s eyes are the most important thing when you’re watching a film.”

ABOVE: Saoirse with Gemma Arterton, her co-star in vampire fantasy film Byzantium

Although she’s smart, articulate and wise beyond her years, Saoirse stays playfully teen-like during our chat telling rapid-fire jokes and exclaiming loudly as hailstones unexpectedly start falling outside. In her thickly accented Irish brogue she speaks warmly of her ‘mam’ and dad, who’s been kindly helping us organise pictures for this feature. Clearly her parents have been a key factor in keeping her grounded. However, her decision to film this year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, co-starring Edward Norton and Jude Law, without them acting a chaperones for the first time, she says, was liberating. “I want to be able to look after myself.”

“I felt strongly about making my own food and doing my own washing. I wouldn’t go down the route of having an assistant. I don’t want to be like that; I want to be normal.”

While her life to date has been anything but normal by typical teen standards, it’s reassuring to see Saoirse has zero chance of having a Bieber-style meltdown. She’s smart, more-than-a-little-talented and knows exactly what she wants…

In Byzantium, you and Gemma Arterton play vampires who have lived for hundreds of years. Does eternal life appeal to you?

No, I’d like to know what it felt like to live for eternity, but the whole point of life is that you die eventually. It’s not really a life otherwise.

That’s quite profound. Are you afraid of the occult?

Pete Jackson told me a story where himself and Fran Walsh had seen a ghost in a flat they were renting. She was this screaming actress who had been booed off stage. That freaks me out as these are people I trust who wouldn’t lie. For a long time I was really afraid of spirits. My mam would say, “They can’t hurt you” but I still didn’t like the idea of being able to see anything like that. I don’t think appearing in The Lovely Bones – where I’m basically a ghost – made me more frightened of them, it’s more the stories I’ve heard.

ABOVE: Saoirse in 2009's The Lovely Bones

If you could go back to another era, when would you go back to?

The Seventies, because I love the music from the era. I love Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Jackson Brown, Joni Mitchell and Carole King. My mam listens to a lot of that stuff and my dad does too. The fashion from the Seventies was a bit dodgy though.

How much does fashion interest you?

It’s nice to get to work with stylists like Grace Coddington [who styled Saoirse for the cover of the December 2011 issue of US Vogue] and see how genius their creations are. In lots of ways fashion and film – like music and film – go hand-in-hand. It’s an art form and when they’re put together in the right way, they can be very beautiful and powerful. So if it’s connected to film, that’s great, but I’m not suddenly going to start doing campaigns. I’m an actor first and foremost.

How does a country girl who grew up in County Carlow, Ireland, adapt to life in LA and New York?

I think everyone changes all the time depending on who you’re with and what kind of company you’re in. I was born in New York and I feel at home there, but sometimes I take on their attitude. I’m still me but people either shrink when they’re in New York, or they adapt and take on the attitude. You want to be able to handle yourself there more than any other city, because that’s the way New Yorkers are. I’m not necessarily more confident, just a bit more ballsy. But I don’t change when I’m in LA – I wouldn’t want to get into the whole LA psyche so there I’m very much Irish.

Has working from such a young age made you mature more quickly?

Yes, but I don’t think I ever lost that child-like quality. I was never one of those kids – and I’ve seen them – who acts like an adult on set. I don’t want to be that kind of person. I enjoyed it too much to be that serious. But I’ve always been quite mature because of the way my parents brought me up. They were very good at talking to me like a person rather than a baby and I was around so many actors and directors from such a young age because my dad is an actor. I was more comfortable with adults rather than actually being an adult child.

Do you feel you’re in limbo now going from teen to adulthood?

No, I think I’m exactly where I should be. I’m aware when you’re 19 you do get offered more grown-up roles or roles for a 16 year old and it’s about trying to find the balance between those two. You have to be careful. I’ve never really played kiddy roles and that’s helped me. And personally, I do feel like a teenager. It’s nice at the moment; everything feels good.

Kirsten Dunst said kissing Brad Pitt when she was 11 in Interview With The Vampire was awkward and Kate Moss regrets posing nude at 16. Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve felt uncomfortable?

Really only once or twice and my mam was there and put a stop to it. I won’t say what it was, but it wasn’t anything big. The only thing that could have been very uncomfortable would have been if the rape scene had been left in The Lovely Bones, but it wasn’t. That was a decision that Pete [Jackson] and Fran [Walsh] made from the off so I was very lucky I’ve never been put in that position.

ABOVE: Saoirse attracted rave reviews for her performance in 2007's Atonement

Over the years you’ve worked with some huge stars such as Keira Knightley and Rachel Weisz. Does it take you long to win them over?

I don’t try to win anyone over. The director is the person I want to impress. But it was lovely working with women like Rachel Weisz, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Susan Sarandon, particularly when I was younger before I got used to how certain actors have got very different personalities and you need to know how to handle that.

You’re in Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, How To Catch A Monster next. Have you met him yet?

Ryan was supposed to play the dad in The Lovely Bones so I met him years ago. I’m going over [to Detroit] next week to start filming and I can’t wait. His ideas are so cool, as they’re not traditional filmmaking. He knows what he wants, but is very loose and free to try different things.

Is he as ridiculously gorgeous in real life as everyone thinks he is?

To be honest, and I’m not just saying this, I don’t think of him that way. Maybe it’s because I met him when I was 14. He’s a great actor. But yeah, everyone goes a bit loopy for Ryan. I was on the Urban Outfitters website and I was like, “Is that a colouring book with Ryan’s face on it?” It’s a phenomenon.

You seem unfazed by most things. I hear you even won a bet with the crew on the set of The Host by jumping off a balcony…

They brought me on set and said, “Now listen, you’re going to be in a harness and you’ll be completely safe but you don’t have to do the stunt.” And I said, “No, it’s fine, I’d prefer to do it” because they can cover it from more camera angles. And the second assistant director said, “I’m so glad because we all had a bet you wouldn’t do it.” She was the only one who thought I would, so I was glad she got 40 bucks out of it.

Byzantium is in cinemas nationwide on 31 May

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