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An Emotional Journey to Independence

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Saoirse Ronan and Director of Photography Yves Bélanger on the set of 'Brooklyn.' Photo by Kerry Brown. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

In Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis Lacey, a young Irish immigrant who leaves her home and family in the 1950s to start a new life in America. Directed by John Crowley and based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, the movie is a poignant coming of age story. Eilis’s rough voyage across the Atlantic from a tiny village in Ireland to a place that couldn’t be more different—the bustling New York City borough of Brooklyn—is an apt metaphor for her tumultuous emotional journey.

As the movie unfolds, she transforms from an uncertain, homesick girl who is used to letting others tell her what to do, to a confident young woman capable of making her own choices. When a family tragedy forces Eilis to return to Ireland, she grapples with the most difficult decision of her life—whether to stay or go back to her new home in Brooklyn and Tony (Emory Cohen), the man she’s fallen in love with.

Ronan’s eclectic films have included lead roles in Atonement (which earned her an Oscar nomination at age 12), Hanna, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Lovely Bones. During a recent interview, she talked about Brooklyn and her career.

The Irish-American actor, who was raised outside of Dublin and in County Carlow—close to her character’s home in Enniscorthy where parts of the movie were filmed—said she identified with Eilis on many levels.

“I had moved away from home and was living in London and was going through homesickness myself and still trying to figure out where I stood in the grownup world,” she explained. “It’s a very daunting feeling, and I was right in the middle of that while we were making the film, so it meant that every kind of stage that we see Eilis reaching and overcoming, I was going through myself.”

At 21, she’s also the same age as Eilis. And she has a personal connection to the Irish immigrant aspect of her character’s story—her parents moved from Ireland to New York, where she was born.

In addition to having Nick Hornby’s well-written screenplay to work with, Ronan credits Crowley’s deft directing for helping her deliver a delicate, unsentimental performance that captures Eilis’s quiet strength and subtle transformation.

“[John] would start emotionally in one place, and then bring you somewhere completely different,” she said. “He would always try and find this great balance that meant that everyone’s performance is natural and quite nuanced. He knew every single step that this woman took was important, and it was integral for the story and for her progression. And so you knew that you were in safe hands because dramatically, he knew where he needed it to go even when we were shooting.”

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Ronan’s performance in Brooklyn is generating plenty of praise and has been toted as her breakthrough adult role. But she noted that even as a child, she gravitated to more mature characters: “They were always quite grown up, and so when I got to the age of about 18 and 19, I was really ready to play someone older.”

Now that she’s a young woman, it’s even more important for her to play characters she can relate to maturity-wise and that are intelligently written. Roles where she’d just be a crutch for another character don’t appeal to Ronan.

“I would never want to play someone that’s just the girl next door,” she said. “One of the really important things for me—and it always has been—is that I’m always doing something different. The project that I’m looking at for the future needs to be different to whatever I’ve done in the past.”

 

Brooklyn is now playing in San Francisco.