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How Talent—and a Little Luck—Got Saoirse Ronan to Hollywood

Jun 03, 2016

It’s two hours before the curtain goes up, and Saoirse Ronan is making a cup of tea in her cramped dressing room. She offers me a cup, though thankfully not the “gross” licorice-flavored kind Ronan is drinking to revive her voice before she takes the Broadway stage as Abigail, the manipulative maid at the heart of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. As the Irish actor, whose name is pronounced “Ser-sha,” searches for her favorite green mug, we discuss how Abigail is traditionally played as a teenage seductress who beguiles the noble John Proctor. When the older man later casts out Abigail, she brings the 17th century Massachusetts town of Salem to its knees by accusing Proctor’s wife and others of witchcraft.

At least that’s the way U.S. schools usually teach it, I tell her. “I bet it was a male teacher who told you she was the villain,” she jokes in reply. To Ronan, Abigail is more victim than victimizer. “She’s usually played quite vampy and sexual and all that. I wasn’t going to do that. I just thought she’s a 17-year-old, quite precocious, very smart. But she’s hormonal and emotional because she’s 17, and this older man gives her time and attention. As far as she’s concerned, he’s in love with her, she’s in love with him, and she’ll do anything for them to be together,” she says. “And I respect that actually. ”

At 22, Ronan is at the forefront of a generation of female actors overturning expectations about how young women are portrayed in theater, film and television. Rejecting parts as an ingénue, sidekick or temptress, Ronan has racked up an impressive résumé of complex, unpredictable characters. She was nominated for her first Oscar at age 13 for her role in the wartime drama Atonement, as a girl named Briony whose overactive imagination dooms a man’s life. She has since played a child assassin in Hanna, a pastry chef who helps break a man out of prison in The Grand Budapest Hotel and, most recently, an Irish immigrant who makes her way to 1950s New York in Brooklyn, a star-making turn that earned Ronan her second Oscar nomination. “Saoirse doesn’t have a dishonest bone in her body and that translates directly into her work, onto the screen,” says her countryman Colin Farrell.

“It’s important for me to play intelligent women, because I think in art, you have a responsibility to portray real life,” says Ronan. “It’s even more important now that there’s such a massive shift towards feminism that men and women see strong, complex women onscreen.” She also has her own reasons. “I’m not being bigheaded, but I’m not a dummy,” she adds. “So I don’t want to play someone who is a dummy onscreen. It’s just boring.”

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Like many women her age, Ronan is learning to demand what she wants in her career. That she is able to do so with humility may explain her success. Ronan’s parents shielded her from the spotlight as long as possible. Her father Paul, an actor himself, emigrated with Ronan’s mother Monica from Dublin to New York City in the 1980s. Although he was discovered in New York, the family moved back to Ireland when Ronan was 3 so Paul could find more regular acting work.

But it was his camera-loving daughter who began to book larger roles. Even as she gravitated toward higher-profile projects, her father’s career was a reminder of the fickle nature of fame. “Ma watched Dad lose out on parts or star in shows off-off-Broadway and make buttons [no money]. She watched these really talented people never get the shot they deserved,” she says. “So they prepared me to be realistic. And that’s good, because the moment fame becomes a priority, you should give it up.”

Next Generation Leader, Saoirse Ronan, actor, Ireland. Peter Hapak for TIME 

Her break came by way of what seemed like a setback. She was cast in 2005 as Michelle Pfeiffer’s daughter in a romantic comedy, but the film was never released in theaters. For that role, though, she had to work closely with a dialect coach to master the Valley Girl accent. That same dialect coach had tutored Keira Knightley through Joe Wright’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and was soon to join Knightley again on another Wright film, Atonement. “Briony was supposed to be this brown-haired, brown-eyed, middle-class English girl—she was supposed to look like she was related to Keira. But this dialect coach suggested me, even though I was completely wrong for it,” says Ronan, gesturing to her pale skin, freckles and blond hair. “It’s funny, because you can work as hard as possible, but if you don’t have a bit of luck and someone who puts your name forward, you may not get anywhere.”

That first Oscar nomination went completely over her head—attending the Academy Awards at age 13 was like “being a part of your favorite TV show all of a sudden”—but Ronan knew this year to treasure her second nomination. Still, she was surprised that a small Irish movie like Brooklyn found such success. The movie had been filmed just miles from her hometown in County Carlow, with people she knew as a child acting as extras on set. Ronan plays Eilis, an Irish immigrant torn between her Italian-American fiancé in New York City and a charming suitor back home. But the movie centers on Eilis’ emotional development, her growth in America from a shy girl to a confident woman, rather than on the familiar drama of a love triangle.

For Ronan, it was an ideal intro-duction to Irish film—she had been looking to make a movie in her home country for nearly a decade but couldn’t find the perfect fit until Brooklyn came along. It also helped cure her of her homesickness. At 19, Ronan left her parents’ home in Ireland for the first time to move to London, where she felt “painfully lonely.” Eilis’ story in Brooklyn, which closely parallels her parents’ own move to America, resonated with Ronan. She’s not nearly as homesick now that she has moved back to New York City, but she still talks to her mother several times a day. “She just knows me so well. She can sense when I have doubt and can bring my attention to it.”

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It was her mother who encouraged Ronan to make her theatrical debut on the biggest stage in the world, in one of the great plays of the American canon. After watching her father’s grueling work onstage as a child, Ronan believed she wouldn’t have the maturity to do a play until she was in her early 20s. Even now, performing the nearly three-hour Crucible on Broadway has taken a physical toll—Ronan’s voice is shot and her body sore.

Broadway has also forced her to remake her acting style. Ronan’s greatest weapon as an actor is her silent gaze—calculating in Atonement, mournful yet hopeful in Brooklyn. But the last row of an audience at a play cannot see Ronan’s eyes, so for The Crucible she has worked to manifest a chilling glare with her entire physical presence. (The New York Times’ critic Ben Brantley praised Ronan’s ability to be “alternately invisible and radiant with focused intent.”) “You get to a stage where the play is so part of your body, part of you physically, that a thought will be translated into a physical movement just naturally,” she says. “I can feel myself growing every day, doing this, or at least I hope I can,” she says, searching for wood to knock on in her dressing room.

Ronan finds it just as a speaker in her dressing room announces that she must start voice-testing for tonight’s performance. As we walk down four steep flights of stairs backstage, our conversation returns to the play and her character. “I’m glad you felt bad for Abigail,” she says. “I don’t do want to do what’s expected.” Which makes us that much more eager to see what she’ll do next.

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