"Brooklyn" role tailor-made for actress Saoirse Ronan
NEW YORK >> The 1950s coming-of-age drama "Brooklyn" takes place in a rural Ireland town and in the New York borough, but it more properly exists somewhere in between, suspended between the pull of new adventure and the pangs of homesickness, the thrill of the future and the tug of the past.
Saoirse Ronan, who plays Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who sets out for the New World despite her mother's misgivings, could hardly be more suited for the tale. From the beginning, her life has played out on both sides of the Atlantic.
"I was born in New York, in the Bronx," she says. "Just like hip-hop. Just like J-Lo."
The line, as it's meant to, sounds especially funny spoken in the sweet Irish brogue of the luminously fair 21-year-old Ronan. She would, most certainly, never be mistaken for Jenny from the block.
John Crowley's "Brooklyn," adapted from the Colm Toibin novel in a script by Nick Nornby, will strike many moviegoers for its tender simplicity and delicate rendering of the moment in a young life beginning to move forward while still looking back.
That the film works so well is largely indebted to Ronan's confident performance, which many expect to earn her second Oscar nomination. While making it, the 21-year-old Ronan was herself leaving home for London for the first time, very much awash in the same kind of homesickness of her character.
"I've never been so emotional doing a film," says Ronan, whose first name is pronounced "SEER-sha." "Usually, I'd be able to manage it, and turn it on and off, and I couldn't on this because it was happening in real life. There was nowhere to escape to."
The parallels continue right up until this moment. Ronan is sipping tea at a Soho restaurant, contemplating her next move. In January, she's moving to New York, herself, to make her Broadway debut in Ivo van Hove's production of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."
She'll live in Greenwich Village during the play, her first. But she aims to ultimately find an apartment in (where else?) Brooklyn. On this day, she's exhilarated at the idea of her own "Brooklyn" experience, contemplating serious questions like where she'll get tea.
"New York was always the goal for me," she says. "That was always the inevitability that I would move here. Anywhere else was always just going to be a stepping stone for me."
Born to Irish parents, Ronan's family moved back to Ireland, in County Carlow, when she was three. She has vivid memories of Woodlawn in the Bronx, like going with her mom to the local market where she'd get marshmallows and Goldfish and ride back in the stroller, sitting on a case of beer.
By the age of 9, Ronan, whose father acted, was beginning to act in television and film. Her breakthrough came in Joe Wright's 2007 Ian McEwan adaptation "Atonement." Her performance as the precocious youngster on whom the story turns made her one of the youngest Oscar nominees.
From that early age, her poise and talent have run ahead of her years. Ronan has starred in Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones," Wright's action thriller "Hanna" and numerous other films including a small role in Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel."
But throughout her teens, Ronan stood out for her uncommon maturity.
"The respect I was given as a kid, I think really influenced the way I would work and the kind of work I wanted to do," says Ronan. "I never wanted to be involved in kiddie films. I didn't feel like that was who I was."
"Brooklyn" was Ronan's first leading role in several years, and despite her apparent calm self-assurance in it, she didn't feel sharp.
"I wasn't confident making it," she says. "I was just convinced I was ruining it the whole time. And that's not me being like, 'Oh, did I do a good job?' I was genuinely convinced I was terrible in it."
But the rapturous response along the film festival circuit has surely emboldened Ronan, even if she remains acutely sensitive to the joys and pains of setting out on her own. Until a few months ago, one line about homesickness from the movie rang too true to her: "I would just cry."
But when she earlier this year filmed Chekhov's "The Seagull" with director Michael Mayer in upstate New York, weekend train trips down to the city (and the bars she could now legally enjoy) affirmed her New York future.
"I know I'm going to go through this 'Brooklyn' journey all over again — when you know you're going to get homesick and you're going to have that feeling," says Ronan. "I'm preparing myself for that. But I'm so excited. I can't wait. It's the best city in the world. You can't beat it."
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