Saoirse Ronan overcame ‘Lady Bird,’ jet lag and priceless pebbles to make ‘On Chesil Beach’
Irish actress Saoirse Ronan and director Dominic Cooke talk us through the luscious romantic drama "On Chesil Beach."
Saoirse Ronan had been eyeing the leading role in Ian McEwan’s romantic novel “On Chesil Beach” for quite some time before she was eventually cast. Having shot to prominence with her Academy Award-nominated performance in 2007’s “Atonement,” which was also based on a novel by McEwan, the Irish actress clearly had a professional and personal affinity for the author. It was more than mutual.
“I remember the first time that Ian came to the set of ‘Atonement’ everyone was so nervous, because it was the person who had created it all,” Ronan tells Metro. “Because I was so young that hadn’t sunk in. So for me, I was like, ‘Oh come on, it is only Ian. Come with me I will show you around the set.’ We got along straight away. We clicked and stayed in touch for all of these years.”
But when McEwan was developing “On Chesil Beach” with director Sam Mendes back in 2010, Ronan was just 16 years old, which was too young for the part of Florence. She’s newly married to Edward, and the film primarily focuses on their honeymoon and the fact they are both terrified of consummating their marriage while simultaneously flashing back to reveal how the duo fell in love.
But the movie industry can work in mysterious ways. So while Mendes’ decision to swap “On Chesil Beach” for the James Bond thriller “Skyfall” pushed it into a five-year period of development hell, it also gave Ronan time to grow into the character. “I was the right age when it all came together,” Ronan recalls, while the director’s chair had passed to Dominic Cooke, who says she was the obvious choice.
“I instantly loved the script when I read it,” Cooke says. “I quickly got on board, and around that time ‘Brooklyn’ had come out, and I thought it was a no-brainer that she should do it. Once she committed to doing it, things started to snowball quickly.”
After “Brooklyn” Ronan was very much in demand, though. So much so that for one “very tricky week” she had to combine shooting “Lady Bird” in California and New York with rehearsing and filming “On Chesil Beach” across the pond. “I was shooting ‘Lady Bird,’ I wrapped in Sacramento on the Saturday. Flew into London on the Monday morning. Went straight to the readthrough. Did four days of rehearsals for ‘On Chesil Beach.’ Then on the Thursday flew back to New York. Friday morning at, like, 5 a.m. we started to shoot the ending of Lady Bird.
“And then I flew back and started ‘On Chesil Beach’ on the Monday. So it was an insane week. It is tough. People do that all the time, and I don’t know how they do it.”
Through this chaos, Ronan was able to jump back into the mind of Florence with the assistance of a violin, which plays a pivotal part in the film and the story. “What helped, though, was to practice the violin, which kept Florence in the back of my head. Being able to know how to handle the violin and have a relationship with it gave me a good doorway into the character and the film.”
For Cooke, though, no one but Ronan would have sufficed for the film. “The thing about Saoirse is she has a great sense of storytelling but is still completely in all of the scenes and in the moment. She has a great sense of the story and what is important and the function of the scene, she’s really adept at being able to tell the story and the character really well.”
There were more complications to production, though, most notably from the titular beach, which they had to fight to film on. “It is a site of special scientific interest,” explains Cooke. “So for a big chunk of the year you can’t actually even go there. At either end is fine, but this specific strand where we filmed you can’t go, because there are so many rare birds breeding there.
“To get across that lagoon took us ages, because the water is shallow and we had to be so careful not to disturb anything. But it was special. They are very strict about not touching the pebbles.”
That was something McEwan himself learned the hard way, as he was fined over $2,000 after he admitted to taking some of the pebbles from Chesil Beach and keeping them on his desk while writing the novel. “It did seem a little over the top, asking him to return two pebbles,” Cooke says of McEwan’s offense. “But they have these rules to stop other people taking them in large quantities.”
Even after production there was one more minor setback, as it became clear that “Lady Bird” and “On Chesil Beach” were scheduled to be released at the same time. Cooke and his team decided to make way for Greta Gerwig’s feature film debut, which is now looking for a very wise decision. “I finished on it about a year ago. We decided to delay it because ‘Lady Bird’ had come out. The discussion is a lot about Saoirse, and you can’t ask an actress to promote two films at the same time.
“So one has to go first. And they had shot that first, and it just seemed like the honorable thing to do. I think it has worked out really well, because ‘Lady Bird’ was fabulous and such a great success, so that has helped us.”
You can see how “On Chesil Beach” compares when it is released in New York on May 18, before it extends across the country over the next few weeks.