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Saoirse Ronan: Queen of Hearts

Actress Saoirse Ronan, star of the coming-of-age romance Brooklyn, is stealing them left and right.

“I’ve had to spell out my name for confused people my entire life,” said Saoirse (pronounced Sear-sha) Ronan, the star of Brooklyn, in theaters this month. Ronan was calling from her home in Ireland, not far from Enniscorthy, where the film was shot. Brooklyn is based on the Colm Tóibín novel about a young Irish girl who immigrates to America in the 1950s; following a family tragedy, she must choose between her new life in New York and her former one, in Ireland. It’s an old-fashioned story, in the best sense. At a time when strong heroines of the non–comic  book variety are increasingly rare, Eilis Lacey, as played by Ronan, is spirited, confused, independent, and unique. “She’s complex, but I would say, somewhat proudly, that Eilis is Irish,” Ronan continued. “And being Irish is part of the reason I never wanted to change my name, even when it was strongly suggested. Saoirse means ‘freedom.’ And my middle name, Una, means ‘unity.’ Freedom and unity—that’s quite a lot to live up to.”

Ronan, who is 21, actually was born in the Bronx. Her parents left their native Ireland in the 80s in search of work. In New York, Ronan’s mother was employed as a nanny and her father tended bar at a place that was popular with actors from the Irish Repertory Theatre. “They convinced my dad to audition for a play,” Ronan said. “He did it as a lark, but got the part.” When Ronan was 3, her family returned to Ireland; her dad, whose acting career was starting to take off, noticed that she loved being filmed. “I am an only child, and I would disappear into my own world. I staged long, intricate soap operas with my dolls. My father saw that I was drawn to the camera, and I think he felt it took me out of myself.”

Her father’s agent sensed Ronan’s potential, and, at age 8, she got a small part in a TV series about an Irish health clinic. Her first film was 2007’s I Could Never Be Your Woman, in which she played the American daughter of Michelle Pfeiffer’s character. “It could not have been more different than me,” Ronan said of the role, laughing. “First of all, she had grown up in L.A. I’m proud to say that I have never used fake tan and I am very pale. And second, this character, at 12, knew what a blow job was. They had to take me aside and say, ‘We’ll explain blow jobs to you later, but, for now, just say the words like they are something sexy.’ ”

Perhaps luckily, the movie was not a success. Her second film, Atonement, was, however, both a critical and commercial smash. Ronan, who has an ethereal, almost spectral quality, was cast as Briony, a child who tells a lie and brings about the downfall of an innocent man as a result. The performance was haunting: Ronan, who was only 13, was simultaneously beguiling and malicious. She was nominated for an Oscar, and by the time of the ceremony, in February 2008, she had been cast as the lead in The Lovely Bones, which was being filmed in New Zealand. “Right after we shot the scene where I am killed, we flew to Los Angeles for the awards,” Ronan said. “It was so odd to go from that horrible scenario to the Academy Awards.”

Since then, the actress has worked nonstop. Last year, she appeared (with a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her face) as the pastry-making object of desire in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel; in February, she will make her Broadway debut in director Ivo van Hove’s revival of The Crucible. And yet it was Brooklyn that she found especially compelling. “It felt like I had to do it; it was my life in novel form,” she said. “I had just moved from my home in Ireland to London, and I understood the sadness and excitement of being on your own in a new place.”

Brooklyn is a romantic film—and not just because Eilis has to decide between two men (the equally appealing Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson). It is romantic, in the idea of America as a place full of possibilities for a resilient single woman from a foreign land. Such sincerity makes it highly unusual: When the movie, which was produced and financed independently, premiered at Sundance last January, the Brooklyn-ites were concerned that their sweet little project, completely devoid of violence or graphic sex scenes and starring an Irish woman with an unpronounceable name, would be drowned out by louder fare. Instead, grace prevailed: Brooklyn ignited a bidding war, and in the end, Fox Searchlight reportedly paid $9 million for it, one of the biggest sales in Sundance history. “It was a magical few days,” Ronan recalled, still sounding a bit surprised by the rapturous reaction. “I’ll admit—I was relieved. When you have faith in something, it’s great to see that other people see what you saw. It’s like sharing a dream.”  

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