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Saoirse Ronan Is Telling Her Own Story in ‘Brooklyn’

Irish-American actress Saoirse Ronan talks her new movie Brooklyn, moving away from home and findng herself.

Saoirse Ronan stars in the period film Brooklyn
Credit: 2015 Getty Images

Saoirse Ronan gets emotional when talking about her new movie, not only because it’s a moving story of life, love and loss but also because it represents her own personal journey and the journey of millions of immigrants all over the world. 

The 21 year-old Irish-American actress, who first drew attention thanks to her Academy Award nominated performance in Atonement, has had a career that’s almost as unique as the pronunciation of her name.

It’s Seer-sha Row-nen in case you were wondering. (She doesn’t correct my own American-tinged effort when our interview begins but I suspect that has more to do with how nice she is, not my linguistic abilities.)

Ronan has played everything on screen — from a young aristocrat to a child assassin, an abducted teenager and even an alien love interest, but when she talks about her latest role in the John Crowley-directed Brooklyn, it’s clear she’s been preparing for it her entire life.

The film follows the journey of Eilis, a young woman emigrating from her tiny Irish town to the bustling New York borough. It’s a story that encompasses a multitude of journeys – from the one Eilis makes across the Atlantic to the one she goes through in finding love, family and a sense of belonging in her new, often strange, American home.

It’s also one Ronan can relate to.

Born in the Bronx to Irish parents, the actress moved back to her family’s homeland when she was just three years old. In her lilting Irish brogue, she says the story of Eilis is the story of her own mother.

“When I talk about it and think about, I well up. It means so much more than just a film,” Ronan says. “Essentially, this was my mom on screen. My mom left her sister in the 80s. She was young. It was a huge thing for her to leave her family. So this was her story.”

In a way, it’s also Ronan’s story. The young star decided to live on her own for the first time while filming Brooklyn. Eight months away from her family and friends brought with it a homesickness she didn’t expect.

“It’s hard when you’re away from home,” the actress admits. “It’s hard to come to that realization that you can never really go back, that your relationship with home will never be the same again.”

The film is Ronan’s first opportunity to play an Irish lead – a fact that was constantly at the forefront of the actress’ mind. Describing herself as “extremely patriotic,” Ronan shares how she’d spend most nights calling her “mam” and unloading her fears and anxieties about not being able to do justice to the role.

 “When you’re involved in a story that’s so close to your own it’s harder to hide,” Ronan explains.  “When you play a character that’s completely different from you and the accent is different and you’re in a completely different place – you’ve got this whole other world that you can delve into. It’s like going to a party and there’s no one you know and you think ‘Oh, I can be anyone here.’ Whereas when you’re surrounded by family and friends and people that know you inside and out, there’s less room to hide. It was a very exposed role to take on.”

Despite her own fears, Ronan’s performance in the film is already earning her Oscar buzz, something her director isn’t too surprised about.

“She’s proven herself so capable as an actress through various roles,” Crowley says. “It felt like what she had not yet given – and what this film would give her the opportunity to do – was form a role that would take her from young [woman] to adult heavyweight actress in one story.”

Ronan agrees, explaining that one of the most fascinating parts of the film is how it shines a spotlight on an element of a young woman’s life – the journey from child to adult — that usually doesn’t get too much attention – at least on screen.

“As soon as I turned 20, everything was turned on its head,” Ronan says. “My emotions, my relationships, my work, it was like I had been thrown up into the air. It’s a huge shift that we go through and it’s such an interesting time. I don’t know why more people haven’t made films about it. I was there, I am there, I’m still going through it and when I moved away from home the respect that I had for the women in my life just skyrocketed because I could really appreciate the strength and the patience that a woman needs.”

Ultimately, Ronan hopes the film can serve the story of the people that came before her, people like her mom and dad that left their homes, their towns, their countries in the hopes of forging a new and better life.

“No matter where I go to in the world, there will always be a piece of me that will be in Ireland, that won’t be completely whole until I’m there,” Ronan says. “Then there will be another part missing because I’m not in the city that I want to be in. There’s always going to be a sacrifice. With an immigrant story in particular, to be able to appreciate the sacrifice that people make when they leave home is something we don’t see on film.”

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