For Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn is art imitating life

In her first role as an adult, the 21-year-old garnered a Best Actress nomination for her performance as an Irish immigrant in 1950s New York

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 March, 2016, 4:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 March, 2016, 4:00am

For Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn is personal.

Never mind that the film, adapted from Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name, is set in the early 1950s – four decades before Ronan was born, a decade before even her parents were born.

As a story of a girl transitioning to womanhood, a story of an immigrant in a strange new land, a story of loneliness and empowerment and family, the heartbreakingly beautiful Brooklyn resonated with the Irish actress.

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“It was the first time in my career where my personal life and my character’s life paralleled in every way,” says Ronan, who stars as Eilis Lacey, a country girl who leaves Ireland for New York to find a job and freedom.

“Certainly, the experience of leaving home was something that I had gone through myself,” says Ronan, who left Dublin for New York several years ago. “And the relationship with America, with New York, was something that I could really appreciate.”

Ronan, whose given name is the Gaelic word for freedom (it’s pronounced seer-sha), was born in New York. Her parents, both Irish, had, like Eilis (say eye-leesh) in Brooklyn, moved there to find work. Although Paul and Monica Ronan returned to Ireland four years later, something indelible happened to their daughter during their stay in America.

“I have these sort of non-specific memories,” explains Ronan, 21, who was just three years old when her parents took her home to Ireland. “They are really more sensorial, emotional memories, but they couldn’t have happened anywhere else. I remember them happening in New York, and I think, because of that, when I eventually started visiting New York in my teens, the connection that I had to the city was just so powerful, so strong. It really made me feel that this was the city I wanted to end up living in.”

New York was also where her parents married, and where her father began his career as an actor.

“These kind of major life events happened to my mum and my dad in New York, and Brooklyn was a way for me to celebrate that on screen,” she says. “It’s the story of a young woman who takes a journey very similar to my parents’.”

One of the youngest actresses to be nominated for a supporting actress Oscar – she was 13 when her pivotal performance as Briony Tallis in Atonement was recognised by the Academy – Ronan went on to star in the disappointing The Lovely Bones (a teenage abductee), the crazy-violent Hanna (a teenage assassin), the underappreciated Where I Live Now (a sulky teen brat in an apocalyptic war).

See the theme? She was always the kid.

“It was a lovely and delightful surprise to have a script like Brooklyn show up,” Ronan says. “It’s been quite frustrating, I have to say, even when I turned 18, 19, there just weren’t that many roles out there. The only young women that were being written were subservient to somebody else, usually – the friend, or the daughter that is in the background, or the sister that is in the background.

“It’s out of your control, and you just have to wait for that right script to come along.”

Brooklyn, adapted by Nick Hornby from the Toibin book, was that script. As he has demonstrated with An Education and Wild, the British writer has a deep empathy for and sensitivity to female protagonists.

“Here was this intelligently written, emotionally perceptive script,” Ronan says. “I feel like Eilis is the role for me that hopefully will bring me into more adult roles now. She’s somebody who changes and evolves. There’s so much to think about and so much to work out with her.”

Ronan says she met Hornby only at a read-through before director John Crowley and his cast and crew began production in 2014 in Ireland. Novelist Toibin, on the other hand – she has a scene with him.

“Colm was actually one of the immigrants in the scene on Ellis Island,” she says. “He’s standing in front of me, before I walk to the immigration officer’s desk, and he took it so seriously. I’m not even sure he knew I was there.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Brooklyn opens on March 10