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Actress Saoirse Ronan feared letting down her family while filming 'Brooklyn'

Saoirse Ronan stars in the Irish immigrant drama,
Saoirse Ronan stars in the Irish immigrant drama, "Brooklyn."
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Irish actress Saoirse Ronan has played British, American and eastern European roles, but none intimidated her more than Eilis Lacey, a character from her own country.

"Brooklyn," directed by John Crowley and adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín's novel of the same name, tells the story of a young woman who emigrates from Ireland to New York in the 1950s in search of a better life. The Irish scenes were shot on location in Enniscorthy — roughly 20 minutes from Ronan's hometown.

John Horn spoke with Ronan about the parallels between her family's life and Eilis Lacey's, her growth as an actor, and how her worlds collided while filming "Brooklyn."

Interview Highlights

On being raised by parents who also emigrated from Ireland to New York:

I’ve grown up listening to these stories. One thing I wasn’t aware of as much was seeing the story and the journey from the perspective of the people who were left behind . . . my Auntie Margaret only recently told me that she actually bought [my mother’s] plane ticket [to New York]. Auntie Margaret watched ["Brooklyn"] last week in Ireland. At the end of the night . . . she hugged me and she said, “I was [Eilis' sister], Rose. I put your mom on the plane and it was the hardest thing I had to do, but I knew I had to do this for her.” 

It sounds like this was an ideal movie at the right time.

Yeah. It was tough. But in hindsight it was absolutely the right thing to have gone through the fear that I experienced.

What was the fear?

That I’d let everyone down. I’d never played anyone who was Irish. People are really supportive of me at home. Because they'd given me so much love over the years, to go back and represent them and not do a good job was terrifying . . . You want to do the best for them. You feel that pressure.

Does Eilis speak as you speak?

She’s got a different accent. I said from the very start, I’m not doing my own accent, no way. We had Brendan Gunn, who’s like the most famous Irish dialect coach. We worked with him for about a week before we started the shoot. I couldn’t have used my own accent anyway because we sound like we’re from Dublin. The country accent’s softer and rounder. 

Was there a particularly difficult day or scene?

Yeah. There’s a scene near the start of the film. We shot it on the second day, where Nancy and Eilis walk into the dance hall. She's observing this world she's not a part of anymore. She has to leave it behind. When they did this shot on me at the end— which I guess I was supposed to convey all of this in a few seconds — I had the entire group of extras, like 50 to 60 kids, looking at me doing it. These were kids I had grown up with. They were all there as an audience. That was really tough.

Suddenly, this world that even I wasn’t a part of anymore, which had always been so separate from my work — suddenly these two worlds were colliding, in such a dramatic way.

How would you describe the evolution of your interests in acting roles?

My attraction to particular projects is based on instinct. Especially after the last two years . . . Nikole Beckwith inspired me to be involved in this women’s movement in film. That’s become quite important to me.

Since I’ve left home, my relationship with women is something that has taken on a new meaning— how my mother has helped me, how my friends have helped me to see what they’ve gone through at different stages of their life, whether it’s pregnancy, leaving home, divorce.  Whatever it is, these women have incredible strength and I’d love to see that documented more in film.

Does that apply to working with directors, to characters you play, or both?

It has to be the right piece of work for me. But I’ve been very drawn to strong, intelligent young girls and women since I’ve started. But really what it’s more about is well-written characters. Even if they’re a complete airhead, if they’re written in the right way, and there’s something to delve into, that’s what I’m drawn to.

I want to ask about your parents. Your father is an actor. What role did they play in your formal education and your acting education?

It was incredibly important to have a regular person in my mother who was not fazed by anything at all, who’d gone through the whole experience with Dad . . . She’d seen the highs and the lows. That really helped me with my introduction. She was always incredibly realistic. You never know how things are going to go. They were both really important.

"Brooklyn" opens in theaters on Nov. 4.

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