Saoirse Ronan makes acting and interviews seem easy
FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Period dramas aren’t the most fashionable subgenre anymore but they can still deliver a powerful experience. Brooklyn succeeds at this, partly thanks to a powerhouse performance by Saoirse Ronan, as well as Nick Hornby’s mighty pen and the timelessness of the immigrants’ plight.
Ronan (Hanna, The Lovely Bones) is Eilis, an Irish maid who — with few opportunities at home — decides to try her luck across the Atlantic and leaves her mom and sister behind. She can’t quite get over her homesickness but Eilis nevertheless inches towards a career in accounting. She also meets Tony (Emory Cohen, The Place Beyond the Pines), an Italian fella for whom she falls.
When an unexpected event sends her back to Europe, she finds her homeland a lot more welcoming this time around (job offer, a suitor) — enough to make her reconsider her return to Brooklyn.
True, the plot is not particularly groundbreaking, but Saoirse Ronan and director John Crowley keep it breezy and fun. The chemistry between Ronan and newcomer Emory Cohen makes Hornby’s dialogue crackle, and their romance quite moving.
Just as good are the boarding house scenes, in which a stern Julie Walters tries to impart some wisdom to her young and perky tenants.
I met Ronan at the Toronto Film Festival, months before her Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar nomination (so just in the nick of time, apparently). Modest as few actors of her age, Saoirse’s thick Irish accent and pristine blue eyes make for a dangerous combination. I did the interview in constant fear of mispronouncing her name (sur-sha), although she probably would have been too polite to point it out.
This role seems to mark your transition into more adult characters. How premeditated was that choice?
I wouldn’t call it a transition, but it’s the kind of step you need to take when you start quite young. I really wanted to make an Irish film (Brooklyn is an Ireland-Canada co-production), preferably one that captured who we were, and was intelligent. Also, at the time I met John (Crowley, the director), I was in the process of moving away and experienced that homesickness that Eilis feels.
It became personal.
So personal. There were a couple of scenes when I had to step back and leave the set. I cried quite a bit. It was terrifying. I was convinced I was going to mess it up. By the end, it felt like I’d run a marathon; I put everything I had into it.
Eilis goes through a considerable mental transformation, yet there is a consistency throughout. How challenging was it to achieve this mix?
Initially her decision to move to New York wasn’t hers; her sister set it all up. The turning point occurs when she starts controlling her own life. Eilis is around my age  and I can relate. You don’t stop being you, but taking charge changes you. It’s all very nuanced, and Eilis only notices she’s different once back home, from her fashion sense to the way she speaks to men.
Do you think living in Ireland protected you from spending your adolescence in the public eye?
In part. It also helped that the roles I took weren’t overly commercial. Growing up, my parents were very down-to-earth. My dad [an actor] knew that world quite well and my mom is still the most realistic person I know. She has no tolerance for bullshit and she passed it to me.
[Asked about Saoirse’s level-headedness her director responds, “Have you met her mother?”]
Does Eilis actually love Tony or she is just in love with America and what he represents? She is rather quick to consider alternatives once back in Ireland.
I know, that bitch [laughs]! I do think she loves Tony, but she’s not moving as quickly as he is. Like a lot of men of that age, Tony feels something and commits, while Eilis is still finding her footing. She does need to go back to Ireland to realize what life she wants. I like that Brooklyn is not a black-or-white story: Eilis’ constant is to have enough life experiences and be empowered enough to make a choice.
How do you like to be directed? Do you need a lot of information?
I really like people telling me what to do, probably because I prefer to have a task, a mission if you will. That said, I don’t like to be drowning in superfluous information.
What was the hardest scene to shoot?
The boarding house. We did seven dinner scenes in one day. So much stew. By the end of the day, me and the other girls were like, “Goodbye forever. I never want to see any of you again.”
The Man Who Built Brooklyn
Odds are you’ve never heard of John Crowley, the director of the Oscar-nominated film Brooklyn. In fact, Crowley’s filmography has a noticeably modern tint (Closed Circuit, Boy A) and doesn’t seem like a natural match for the wistful drama.
Turns out Crowley is a theatre veteran who only recently has turned his attention to film. He has staged plays on both Broadway and the West End, including Into the Woods, Macbeth, The Pillowman and The Turn of the Screw.
Crowley’s key decision during the making of Brooklyn was pairing Saoirse Ronan with Emory Cohen: “They both are enormously passionate young actors who want to get it right,” says Crowley. “When they arrived, they were fizzing with energy, and my job went from how to get it out to how to contain it.”
Another slick directorial decision was to keep Eilis’ world very narrow and widen it as she gets to New York: “The cinematography mirrors Eilis’ journey. In Ireland the shots are tight, handheld and very intimate. It’s all about her face. The first wide shot is of the boat. From that moment the film and the colour scheme open up.”
Crowley elaborates: “For the Irish, America was Camelot, the myth of the Kennedys and the belief that you could go over there in a fishing boat and one of your kids could end up becoming the president.
“It was not the same feeling when immigrating to England,” he says. /Jorge Castillo