It has been a remarkable run for Irish-American actress Saoirse Ronan (pronounced “ser-sha”), the young star who, at only 23, has received high praise as the next Meryl Streep. She was nominated as Best Actress at the 90th Academy Awards. In January, she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress for her portrayal of the lead character in Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig.
Born in New York but raised in Dublin, Saoirse made her professional acting debut in an Irish television series when she was only nine years old. The big break that led to an international career, however, was her role in Joe Wright’s 2007 period drama Atonement (based on the novel by Ian McEwan), where she held her own alongside more established actors Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. She was also seen in 2009’s The Lovely Bones (adapted from the novel by Alice Sebold), directed by Peter Jackson, who says he’d cast Saoirse based on the strength of her audition tape. He’d been so impressed that he saw no need to meet her in person before shooting began.
Saoirse’s upcoming films are absolutely Streep-ian in scope: The Seagull (based on the Anton Chekov play), Mary Queen of Scots (where she’s set to play the Scottish monarch), On Chesil Beach (yet another adaptation of an Ian McEwan book) and Sweetness in the Belly, based on Camilla Gibb’s book of the same title, about a white Muslim woman raised in Africa and exiled in Britain. We caught up with one of Hollywood’s newest, and youngest, powerhouse players for some of her thoughts on acting, inspiring figures and family life.
How do you feel about being called the next Meryl Streep?
Saoirse: It’s lovely. I don’t read anything that’s written about me, so I don’t know when they’ve said it or when they haven’t. Meryl is wonderful. She has made a huge difference for females in our industry, especially actors. She and Cate Blanchett have taken on roles that transcend gender. And they’re strong and well-rounded people. That’s definitely something that I would always want to aspire to be.
I’ve only ever been interested in playing characters that are interesting, regardless of what gender they are. So it is always amazing to be compared to someone like Meryl.
Have you met her?
Saoirse: I’ve met her, yes. It was so funny. I was doing the play The Crucible in New York. Nobody had been drinking or going out or anything. We were all very good. On the opening night, we had a big party and we all went out and had a few drinks. But we were well-behaved.
Then we went in the next day and we were doing the matinée. We were all backstage beforehand and everyone was just tired. Nobody felt like they were on their game. We were all walking around saying, “I can’t believe we’re coming in. We’re going to be so rusty.” Jason Butler Harner, who [played] the priest, was like, “Yeah let’s just hope that Meryl Streep isn’t in here tonight.” And we all laughed. We were like, “Yeah, Meryl would come in just after the break.”
So we do the performance. It was fine but it wasn’t our best. We go, “Thank God, Meryl wasn’t there.” We come downstairs and we’re backstage and the first person I saw was Meryl Streep! And she’s waiting to meet all of us. She came to the first show after we had finished our previews. But she seemed to like us.
So who are your mentors and role models?
Saoirse: In life, my mom, I would say. I just refer to her for about everything, really. She’s the one who keeps me grounded. She’s amazing. And Greta has been a huge influence on me, just the way she’s gone about really honing her director’s skill, exposing herself to all of these great directors’ work and compiling all that so she can do it herself. Greta has done such a brilliant job of it. And I just really admire her. So I would say those two. But in general, my best friend Darlene has been a huge influence on me too, and the people who are close to me.
Did Greta inspire you to become a director someday too?
Saoirse: I’ve always wanted to direct. I probably consciously wanted to do that before acting, actually. So I think it is something I’d want to do at some point. Watching Greta do it, I see someone like that and I think, oh it can be done. It’s still an environment where, for any female to be in power and to make a great film like Lady Bird, it’s still not quite the norm yet. It’s great for younger people to look at Greta and see that they can do it too. So yeah, directing is something I’d like to do at some stage. I don’t know when, maybe soon. I’ve always wanted to.
The mother-daughter relationship is one of the central themes in Lady Bird. How well do you get on with your mom (Monica Ronan), given the demands of your career?
Saoirse: We’ve just gotten closer as I’ve gotten older. We’ve always been very close. But when I moved away and lived in London for about a year and a half, I remember feeling so homesick.
I always needed to talk to her. She really helped me through it and to get the courage to keep going with it. I had such a newfound respect for my mom once I left because when you’re on your own, you don’t have anyone to clean your clothes. You don’t have anyone to cook for you.
You don’t have anyone to give you a cuddle at the end of the night. So my appreciation of her just went through the roof. We’re best friends. She’s my best mate.
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Fun facts: Brad Pitt and accents
Saoirse’s dad, actor Paul Ronan, often brought Saoirse to the set. Among those who carried Saoirse as an infant? Brad Pitt, who Paul worked with in the 1997 thriller The Devil’s Own, which also starred Harrison Ford.
Don’t let her starve. “When I’m hungry, I’m very sad,” she said with a laugh. “I get really grumpy. Oh my God, where’s the food? I love food.”
Like Meryl Streep, she’s got an ear for accents. The actor speaks with a thick Irish accent in real life but in Lady Bird, she perfectly nails the Californian twang.
This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Smile magazine.