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Saoirse Ronan grows out of teenage roles with 'How I Live Now'

"How I Live Now" star Saoirse Ronan talks about wanting to play a real teenager, not reading the books she's filming and longing to play old biddies.

Saoirse Ronan plays a teen trying to survive during war in "How I Live Now." Credit: Getty Images Saoirse Ronan plays a teen trying to survive during war in "How I Live Now."
Credit: Getty Images

Since playing an unwittingly mischievous young girl in “Atonement” — a role that made her one of the youngest ever Oscar nominees — the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan has been working steadily. In addition to “The Lovely Bones” and “Hanna,” she's had five films this year alone, including “The Host” and “How I Live Now,” in which she plays a bratty teen visiting England just in time for war to break out. She will soon appear in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” And incidentally, it’s pronounced “Seer-shuh.”

The novel has been classified as Young Adult, but for the genre it’s pretty grim: People die or are put in perilous situations, are left with PTSD, etc.

I liked the fact that it’s realistic. It’s quite hard-hitting, in the sense that there aren’t a lot of big effects shots. Everything is very suggestive. I guess the grimness comes with that. Nothing’s tied up at the end in a pretty little bow. But it’s very hopeful and very full of love.

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Your character is also very angry and sweary for YA, too.

I loved the idea that she would curse and that she was angry and just kind of modern — just a very current, abrasive kind of girl, very cold to people and not very likable at first. I hadn’t done that in awhile. I had played a few characters that were ethereal and part of a supernatural world. When I finished “The Host,” I was like, “I need a script where I’m just playing a girl I would run into on the street.”

How much did you fall back on Meg Rosoff's book, especially considering adaptations often alter the source?

That was actually the reason I didn’t read the book. The characters were changed. All of our ages were slightly altered.Usually I don’t read the book. I’m hoping to play Mary, Queen of Scots next year, and for something like that I would do the opposite and read as much as I could.

Your parents used to be pretty involved in the projects you picked. How hands-on are they now?

My parents aren’t my agents or anything like that. They weren’t my managers. They were my mom and dad. My mom would always come away with me when I was working, and my dad’s an actor as well. It was basically the case when I was sent the script, we’d all read it so we could talk about it. It was a bit more relaxed.

You still live with them, in Ireland. Do you get a chance to get back there much, given how much you work?

I do. I haven’t really been working much this year. I’ve done more press than anything else. I’m kind of missing home because I haven’t been there in awhile. I think I get more Irish when I’m away — more Irish, and hopefully a bit more charming.

Director Kevin Macdonald switches between narrative films and documentaries. How do those two sides inform how he directs on set?

He has a good balance between practicality and realism. With a film like ours, we didn’t have a big budget, and we worked with a lot of kids, we worked with a lot of animals. So it was kind of like a documentary, in the sense that we just had to shoot what we could when you could. He was very good at adapting to that.

Are you eager to get out of teenage roles?

I think I’m getting there, yeah. I was lucky when I came into film. I never really played kiddie roles; I was always the child in an adult environment in adult films. It can be tricky when you’re a teenager to find a really good character to play, but there are a few out there. When you enter your early 20s, there’s just an abundance of great characters to play.

That said, some actors play teens into their early 30s.

They do, yeah. I don’t think I want to do that, though. I want to get to the stage where I’m playing an old biddy and I’m making a cuppa tea, and that’s all I have to worry about. That’s the dream.

You’ve worked with a lot of great directors. I imagine when Wes Anderson rings…

You just say yes! I couldn’t believe it. I was really shocked. I love Wes, I love his films. And you never forget that you’re in a Wes Anderson film when you’re working on a Wes Anderson film. There’s all these beautiful sets that have been built, and you’re very much a part of his world.

 
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