“I’m away to America,” Saoirse Ronan tells us, hiding her character’s nervousness behind a wall of sheer moxie in Brooklyn, the most stirring film of 2015. Don’t fight us on this one: You’ve either already seen it and rocked a smile-cry for two hours, or you’re going to (and you’re in for a treat). A wrenchingly beautiful Irish immigrant drama, Brooklyn does double duty, re-creating the 1950s-era borough in all its melting-pot diversity (and Dodgers-loving Italian boyfriends), while also giving the 21-year-old Ronan the kind of role—romantically conflicted, blooming, courageously open—that transforms young stars into icons.
Ronan, who was born in the Bronx to Irish parents and moved to the Emerald Isle when she was three years old, can’t really be compared to her peers—even the exceptional ones. She steals busy movies, like The Grand Budapest Hotel, with her classical, silent-era stillness. She possesses a lilting brogue that can win over even the most cynical cinephile. And with her Oscar nomination for Brooklyn—her second, the first being for a dazzling run, at age 13, in 2007’s Atonement—Ronan is the second-youngest performer in all of movie history who can call herself a two-time competitive veteran of Hollywood’s biggest night.
Now the actor wants to change things up. “One of the things I am very conscious of is doing something different every time,” she tells me in a corner booth of Alphabet City’s Ace Bar, where she’s just played pool and darts like an after-work regular. In late March, the actor takes on Broadway with the tricky role of Abigail, the vengeful Salemite of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, under the direction of high-concept theater heavyweight Ivo van Hove (A View from the Bridge, Scenes from a Marriage). There’s also her upcoming leading role in Lady Bird, the first feature directed by indie It girl Greta Gerwig—a film in which we can only hope Ronan becomes an eccentric new cousin to Gerwig’s Frances Ha character.
Maybe most radically though, Ronan is here to stay. She’s signed a lease for a West Village apartment, signaling a seriousness that has her shunning the West Coast in favor of tougher gigs that are sure to come. And as she talks about the Smiths, late-night restaurants and the thrill of putting down roots (or at least finding a decent local hang), Ronan can pass for another hopeful arrival in the most electric town on the planet. She wears her fame loosely, as if nobody’s told her how big she’s about to be.
You must be blindsided by Brooklyn’s success.
I didn’t expect any of this to happen at all because it was an Irish film, and there were Irish actors in it! [Laughs] When we started to screen it, I saw the universality of the story and how it was really for everyone.
Are you proud to be an Irish actor?
Yeah. I’m incredibly proud. I’m really happy that there’s a movement to the Irish film industry with films like Brooklyn and Room. Over the last while, there have been a lot of films about Ireland made by Hollywood. And it’s a very commercial, two-dimensional view of Ireland.
It’s the outside looking in.
There’s this sort of portrayal that everyone lives on the farm and talks like, “Tee tee tee, ta lee ta de”—everyone talks like a leprechaun. Everyone’s sort of upbeat and airy-fairy, and, of course, it’s not like that. Especially in Dublin; there’s an awful lot of real grit to that city. It’s a beautiful city, but there’s a lot going on there—a lot of drama. That’s what people love. People love The Commitments and My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father and all these different things, and you know, they’re not necessarily about the potato famine. There’s so much to tell within the country, and we’re incredible people. We’re starting to get the gumption to say, “We’re just going to make what we want to make: something that’s true to us.”
Speaking of gumption, The Crucible’s Abigail is a doozy of a role to pick as your Broadway debut.
I’m realizing that more and more every day. We’ve only had the first week of rehearsals. This isn’t just my Broadway debut: I’ve never done stage before. It’s very scary, but I’m very lucky.
What kind of relationship do you have with Ivo van Hove so far?
I think he’s kind of feeling everything out, and so are we. He’s got an incredible mind, and you can tell he’s always thinking. I think his process is different from the norm—there’s no sitting around talking about the scenes. Five minutes after we all got there, we were all up on our feet doing Act I.
And there was no kind of, “Well this makes me feel this way” or “This makes me feel that way.” I guess he just doesn’t want to waste time. He’s completely opening my eyes to the endless possibilities of theater. Because with theater, the technicality comes into it with the language of a writer like [Arthur] Miller. It’s something that needs to be paid attention to: Why did he put a comma here instead of there? And I know that Miller really agonized over the records of the Salem witch trials.
[Miller] meant his play as an indictment of McCarthyism. Do you see the play resonating today in any way?
I try not to think about it politically too much. Because what Miller does well is use politics as a framework for the story, which is ultimately about human nature. How when people are tested, they can turn on each other. And I guess that’s always relevant. If you were to look at the migrant crisis in Europe—let alone Trump and all the shite he’s coming out with—and how certain cities or countries are embracing these people and others aren’t, it’s disappointing.
There’s a connection between Abigail and your Atonement character, Briony, who also points the finger but a lot more innocently.
Absolutely. But Ivo thinks it would be wrong to just villainize Abigail. And obviously, I can’t do that. We do need to see her as this young girl who destroys an entire town, but we also need to remember that, at that time, there were so many attacks: Her parents were killed right in front of her. I don’t know if you’ve read The Witches [Salem: 1692], have you?
I was just about to bring that up.
That’s the only thing I’m reading, apart from the play. It paints such a great picture of just what it would have been like. In particular, I think, for a girl to lose her father, who essentially would have been like God in the house.
Is witchcraft something you believe in?
No, I don’t think so. They didn’t have the explanations for everything. And so magic, for hundreds of years, was used as reason. These girls were essentially going through posttraumatic stress. And this kind of psychosomatic thing starts to take over them. Also they’re hitting puberty and suddenly becoming sexual.
That’s basically a real-life possession of your own body. Stephen King made Carrie and a whole career out of that idea.
Yeah, exactly! It’s true though. Being a hormonal young person, it is sort of a possession that takes over the body because they suddenly have so many changes that they don’t know how to handle. When that’s being repressed and seen as evil, that will manifest.
Abigail has some pretty major scenes of possession. How are those going for you?
It’s actually kind of exhilarating.
Is it really physical? Whirling and screaming?
I didn’t want to do that. I had always pictured, just in my head, that there would be a line of girls that kind of just stand there and stare out at the audience and are kind of hypnotized. Ivo likes silence. He likes things to be quiet. And he’s not into a lot of shouting or volume or any of that kind of stuff. So when we did it the other day, that’s what I did. It was a different kind of hysteria. It was almost like possession.
It’s interesting because when I think about a movie like Brooklyn, I also think of it as very close to a silent film. It’s sort of what you’re talking about here, this idea of expressing yourself without the histrionics.
I’ve always enjoyed not talking in films. I like dialogue, but I really prefer to cut one of my lines or say, “We don’t need that.”
“I think it was Emma Thompson who said to me years ago that if you’re going to portray normal people, you need to have a normal life.”
Photograph: Ben Rayner
That’s different from what most actors would say. When did you learn to trust your face to tell the story?
I think it was very early on. I remember saying to my mam, “I’m worried because I’m trying to figure out how to do this, and I don’t know if I have enough to say.” And my mam said to me, “You don’t need to say anything in order to tell a story.” And I think that was something that subconsciously stayed with me. Also, it sounds stupid to say, but when a camera is in the room with you, it’s kind of like the one person you can really trust. Because you know that the camera is just going to stand there and watch you and listen to you, and whatever you do or say, it’ll pick up on it.
Is your mother an actor?
My dad is an actor. My mam’s a normal person.
She gave you really good advice. How important is it to you to tell women’s stories?
It’s more important now that I am a young woman. I mean, Jesus, I don’t want to go into a film and have an agenda or anything. But I think it was Emma Thompson who said to me years ago that if you’re going to portray normal people, you need to have a normal life.
I know that a lot of people resonate with Brooklyn as the story of a young woman who comes into herself, into her own choices. Are roles like Eilis’s rare?
Yeah. I think so. I don’t want to pigeonhole it either—there’s been so many men who have come up to me and responded to it just as strongly as women have.
That would be me.
And I wouldn’t want to comment if a male actor were to say, “Yeah, this is just for blokes.” People now especially would be pissed off about that. But yeah, from a female actor’s point of view, there aren’t many roles out there like Eilis. And I think what needs to change is—just like the whole race issue—there needs to be more diversity. Only when there’s more diversity will we have different perspectives on how to make a film. And I really do feel like with the women in comedy—Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham—they’re killing it, absolutely killing it. They’re the bosses of what they’re doing, the masters of their own domain.
Is there a difference now between when you were 13 and Oscar-nominated and the Oscar process these days?
Now there’s a lot of ground to cover, it seems! [Laughs] I have more of an appreciation, definitely. Cate Blanchett [nominated for Carol] was actually in the category that I was in when I was younger as well. We do everything together! Again, my mam said to me years ago that she didn’t want me to win the Oscar because I was too young.
Oh, Mom. She thought it would have been too much too soon?
Yeah. And also because of Dad—she had spent so many years seeing other actors who were very hardworking and just hadn’t been given the break. After you’ve put in years of hard work, the award or the nomination represents something much greater.
But weren’t you a little bit disappointed back when you were 13 and you lost?
I actually wasn’t because I knew I wasn’t going to win. To be honest, by the time they got to my category, I was starving. [Laughs] You don’t get fed when you go to the Oscars. The ceremony is three hours or something, and it was our very first awards show, so we didn’t know to prepare.
I’ll tell you this: This time I’m going to have a burger or something beforehand. That’s what we were thinking about more than anything: “All right, grand, Tilda [Swinton]’s up there getting the award. Can we go and get a burger and chips now?” [Laughs]
You just recently moved to New York. Do you want to become a New Yorker?
Well, I am, kind of. I was born in New York.
I heard this story—you recently called yourself Saoirse from the Bronx.
Saoirse from the block, like J. Lo.
But you moved to Ireland when you were three.
Yes. [Laughs] Okay, fine. Point made.
Is there something about the city that you resonate with?
There’s an energy that’s palpable here. I feel like everyone else that’s on the street with me has gone through exactly what I have because there are so many people who aren’t from New York but live in New York.
It’s a city of transplants. That’s what Brooklyn is about. Everyone is coming to a new place that they don’t realize is home yet.
That’s such a good way of putting it. You go to it and you don’t realize it’s going to be home, and for some people, it isn’t—I mean, I don’t talk to those people [Laughs]—people who don’t get New York. But I never wanted to just be, you know, a child actor who grew up in this unrealistic world where, okay, you’re working hard, but everything’s done for you. I wanted to have a real experience of someone who hates fucking paying their bills and washing their clothes, but you just have to do it because that’s what you do. It’s lovely to be able to walk out on the street or go to a bar and be sitting next to, you know, a taxi driver or a lawyer.
I’m impressed that you said taxi driver, not a livery driver. How do you say the street H-o-u-s-t-o-n?
[Correctly, with a how] Houston.
Listen to you.
[Laughs] Can I just say? Anything below Houston is the Lower East Side, and anything above Houston is the East Village.
Wow. I’m going to have to call you for tips about New York.
New York was always where I wanted to go, but I wasn’t ready when I was 19. So London was the first step for me, and it was all very daunting. You would go through your loneliness, trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing. I remember the first week I was there, sitting on the couch, and I was hungry, and I thought, I’m hungry; I have to have dinner soon. And I realized, Oh, I’m going to have to make my own dinner. [Laughs] I’m going to have to go to a supermarket and buy the food!
If there’s anything NYC does well, it’s delivery.
Now I kind of know what to expect a little more. And I’m also in a city that I just love so much.
The Crucible is at the Walter Kerr Theatre; previews begin March 1, show opens March 31. $79–$340.