Extraordinary Women

‘Extraordinary Women’ is a series of interviews with some of society’s most inspiring and intriguing women. It is an attempt to redefine the conversation around women in the media, without sensationalism but instead to authentically listen to and record their voices.

Saoirse Ronan

Whilst many of us were grappling with the consequences of secondary school, at thirteen years of age, Saoirse Ronan was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress. Throughout her adolescence, she carved out an eclectic curriculum vitae selecting ‘The Lovely Bones’, ‘Hanna’ and ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ as vehicles to demonstrate her craft.

However, what makes Saoirse an ‘Extraordinary Woman’ is not merely her impressive bibliography but her honesty, humour and authenticity, the love and admiration she has for her mother and her dedication. It was an honour and a privilege to interview Saoirse for this series. Put the kettle on, it’s worth your time.

How would you describe yourself, both personally and professionally?

Oh God. Personally, when I set my mind to doing something, I am very, very focused on it and won’t stop until I have achieved it. In an emotional sense, I’m very honest, particularly with the people around me. Honesty is incredibly important to me and as I get older, I’ve become increasingly more aware of that. Honesty, not just in the sense of what you say to others or how they respond to you, but how honest you are with yourself. It’s not an easy thing to do being emotionally honest with myself has been vital both personally and professionally. For example, if I’m in the middle of a take and don’t feel that the scene is true to me, I have to stop. I have to re-do it because I would feel like an imposter if I carried on with a take that didn’t ring true to me.

Being emotionally honest with yourself is not something we inherit, were you conscious of developing that skill?

Growing up, I was surrounded by adults who spoke to me, not as a child or someone who was beneath them, but I was treated as an equal. They respected me. As you know Sinéad, I’m an only child and in a way, my imagination was my best friend growing up. It comforted me if I was experiencing loneliness or if I was ever a bit lost. That mix of emotion and imagination, in a way, became my lifeline. It’s what you depend on and I think that’s the reason why I place such value in honesty.

I’m not an only child but I am the eldest and for the two years where it was just me, before my siblings arrived, I relied on my imagination too. So much so, I had an imaginary friend – please tell me that you had one too [laughs].

Did you actually see them?

I don’t think so. My parents tell the story that I would sit at the bottom of the stairs and talk to them.

NO! You were one of those kids… [laughs]

I still am! [laughs]

I didn’t have an imaginary friend but I really wanted one. When I was younger, I was desperate for a little brother or sister.

Do you know why? 

I think it was because every other kid had siblings. It was only me and my best friend who didn’t have a brother or sister. That probably made our bond stronger as we latched onto each other and we’re still the best of friends – even now. So no, I never had an imaginary friend, but I would very much disappear into my own world. I talk to myself.

Walking down the street, there’s Saoirse talking to herself… [laughs]

Stop. I’m desperate for talking to myself [laughs].

Talking to yourself, does that tie into your relationship with your imagination?

Absolutely. It’s a survival mechanism. You internalise situations, assess them on an emotional basis and you’ve a firmer grasp on it.

That must be essential when you’re in character?

Yes, as an actor or a writer, you’re continuously questioning how you feel, how you should react and how present you are within the scene.

Personally though, that continuous questioning can almost be to your detriment.

Yes, especially if you’re a worrier. I bet you’re a worrier [laughs].

I would be the type of person who questions most things, I try to get a deeper understanding and not accept everything, merely at a surface-level. But sometimes, that can spoil your enjoyment and you have to switch off.

Exactly. I’m a worrier too, I always have been. Have you read ‘The Alchemist’?

 No. Should I?

You have to! One thing that the book taught me is to take a step back from everything, be objective and bring yourself back to the present. It’s such a difficult thing to do but it helps. There’s great freedom in that.

It gives you perspective.

Definitely, it helps you to realise that you’re such a small being in this huge world.

Eh, I feel like that anyway [laughs]…

You just had to go there, Sinéad. Me trying to be sentimental…[laughs]

I couldn’t help myself! We better talk about ‘Brooklyn’, though. You received your first Academy Award nomination when you were 13 but how do you think you’ve developed as an actress since then?

Acting is a craft; the challenge is finding the balance between not being too self-aware but discovering ways in which you can use your craft as a tool. I would hate for that to sound like my approach to acting is clinical but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware and I’m more able to articulate what it is that I do and how I can incorporate more of my whole self and experiences within a role. My approach to acting hasn’t changed much since I was a kid, I still rely on instinct to make decisions but my life experience has grown hugely and I think that exposure has made me a better actress. Especially with ‘Brooklyn’.

There’s discussions circulating ‘Brooklyn’ that predict award nominations, do you pay attention to that?

I try not to as since ‘Atonement’, I’ve participated in both sides of that discussion. The conversation about ‘Atonement’ proved true and I received the nomination and it was great, brilliant, amazing. However, I’ve worked on other projects where there has been buzz around a film prior to it even being made and in terms of awards, nothing comes of it. That’s disappointing because you do hear those discussions, you hear the buzz and the talk but that’s fine. You get over it. You hope that people still really like your film, people approach you and tell you what the film meant to them, what personal meaning they extracted from it and it’s those moments that last.

In terms of accreditation, if not the Academy, whose approval matters most to you?

It’s my Mam. Always will be. With acting, it’s extremely important for me that I work for the director. It’s their vision, it’s their film and I want them to be satisfied with my work. But ultimately in life, my Mam is the person that I look to for everything. You’ve met her, Sinéad – she’s my soul mate. I filter everything through her. She guides me and innately understands when something is right or wrong. I admire her so much.

I’m nodding my head as I’ve an identical relationship with my Mam. She proof-reads every word that I write, she is my counsel if I’m trying to make a decision or if I need to talk a problem through. I’d be lost without her.

They have our best interests at heart. There is no motive behind them and it sounds like your Mam is the same, they trust us, they respect us and they believe in us.

Yes, they trust our instincts and want us to fulfill our dreams and reach our potential.

Our Mams need to meet [laughs].

Just to tell us to stop putting ourselves down and to remind us of how brilliant we are.

Are you hard on yourself too? I put myself down a lot.

Yes, if I ever write something online where I’m trying to be witty and not have any notions, my Mam will text me and tell me to just be me.

Mine does the exact same. What are we like?! [laughs]

It’s so important to just be yourself. But that’s easier said than done.

Exactly. Take today, for example. I had no idea what type of conversation we were going to have, what questions you were going to ask but I think if you put out a certain energy to someone, they feed that back to you.

Absolutely. Speaking of being yourself, the role of Eilis in ‘Brooklyn’ is your first time to play an Irish character on-screen. Was there a sense of comfort in that or were you nervous?

Terrified! It wasn’t comfortable only because I felt that there was nothing to hide behind. I have been so attracted to roles that were so different to me and to my situation. To immerse yourself in a world that essentially, you’ve grown up in, was scary. I have had to be more honest with myself and with this film than ever before. It’s scary because we always want something to hide behind. Even though I felt so much fear for the first few weeks of filming, I’ve never felt so much gratification from anything – not just work but it was a journey and I am still learning from ‘Brooklyn’.

Was it important to you that Eilis was a protagonist in her own right – that her role within the film was not due to her association with a man but that the storyline was centered on her experience alone?

Definitely, that’s never not important to me. I would not want to play a character whose only purpose is to fall in love with some “dude”. I mean, even with ‘Brooklyn’, there is a romantic triangle but the difference with this feature is that the two men represent alternate worlds. For me, the heart of this film is in the women who she meets along the way, who help her, who share their wisdom, who either push her down or pick her back up. It’s these women in her life who help her to grow and who give her the confidence whereby she can make the decision that is right for her. As an actor, it’s essential for me to play a role where the character is important in their own entity.

One final question, you mentioned the power of a community of women. How important is female friendship for you?

Being able to rely on the other women in your life is the most important thing. After all, they have probably gone through the same thing, will benefit from your life experience or are simultaneously going through it alongside you. Female friendship is invaluable. As I grow older, I realise how similar most women are. Take us, we come from very different backgrounds but we’ve just had a conversation about all of the things that we have in common emotionally. When someone can say to you, ‘I know how you feel’, that’s helped me to grow more than anything else.

Thank you to Saoirse, Grace, Jenny and Jessica for all of their assistance with this interview. ‘Brooklyn’ is released in Irish cinemas on November 6th. You can view the trailer here.

Interview originally published Oct 28, 2015

Sinead Burke