Guest of Honor

Saoirse Ronan Trades Screen for Stage: ‘I Knew It Was Going to Sharpen Me Up Big Time’

The Oscar-nominated actor talks about taking on Broadway as Abigail Williams in the latest revival of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," her "Boogie Down" roots, and a little Irish folklore. (Listen to bonus audio from this interview here.)

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(Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

At the ripe old age of 12, Saoirse Ronan earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the movie “Atonement.” She also played the titular teenaged assassin in “Hanna,” appeared in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and starred in last year’s “Brooklyn,” for which she was up for another Oscar.

Right now she’s on Broadway, playing Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” That show got a Tony nomination this week for “Best Revival of a Play.” It’s Saoirse’s first stage performance. When she and Brendan met, he asked her how she made the adjustment from movie sets to treading the boards.

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Saoirse Ronan: I was shocked when we turned up on day one, and I sort of… it felt like the first day of school for me. You know, the meetings that we had to have beforehand. And I had no idea–  as silly as it sounds — that, you know, you should bring in your own water bottle when you rehearse because in film, there’s always, like, a fridge full of water there for you.

Brendan Francis Newnam: There’s a catering truck, yes.

Saoirse Ronan: But it was silly things like that. And so, I was kind of getting used to this new way of doing things, and I was quite shocked that 10 minutes after we turned up, we were straight into the first act. And we just kept going, then, for a month and a half until we put it onstage.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Why do people do this? Because you are in movies — you’ve been nominated for a couple Academy Awards. What is the appeal of… I mean, this is–it’s really hard work being in a play.

Saoirse Ronan: Yeah. That’s kind of the appeal, and it’s really scary. It’s really…

Brendan Francis Newnam: But that’s appealing? Like, to me, it seems like napping for five months between movies would be ideal.

Saoirse Ronan: Well, that’s the thing is that I think that’s why you do it as well because I am… the way I work, I don’t like to go from one film to the next straight away. Although I think it might be this year. But to do a play, I knew it was going to sharpen me up big time, just because the discipline that you need to do it. And the stamina that you need to kind of keep it going for long is so much greater, in a way, than film.

I would never, ever put one down over the other. I think they both offer you different things, and the focus that you need for both things is quite different. I think with film, it’s a lot more introverted. Everything is more nuanced, and I really love that, and I’ve grown up with that. And I like working in that way, but to go onstage and kind of use your body more and kind of really incorporate physicality into what you’re doing and use your… this is the thing. So, my voice is gone. That probably…that has been the biggest shift between film and theater, is you’re using your voice in a completely different way.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You have to project and…

Saoirse Ronan: You have to project, and you’re…

Brendan Francis Newnam: …Doing it day in, day out.

Saoirse Ronan: Yeah. And sometimes you’re doing it twice a day, and you’re doing it six days a week.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Speaking of voices. So, before this, you were in “Brooklyn,” and I don’t mean–you weren’t buying pour-over coffees and condominiums, you were actually in a movie called “Brooklyn” about immigrants. It’s about an Irish immigrant. You were born in the Bronx but grew up in Ireland, and I read that you decided not to use your accent, like your actual accent in that part.

Saoirse Ronan: Right, no. Well, I couldn’t because she’s from a different place.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But I wouldn’t have…

Saoirse Ronan: Well, that’s the point, is that there’s so many films that are made where people go, “Yeah, but no one’s going know.” I mean, as long as, you know, people outside of Ireland don’t realize that it’s a different accent, then… And sometimes you can do that. Sometimes you can make an accent more, sort of, generic, and, obviously, you need an international audience to be able to understand what you’re saying, but I grew up 20 minutes away from Enniscorthy where Eilis is from, where my character was from.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Your character, yeah. Wait, isn’t that pretty close? How do you not have the same accent?

Saoirse Ronan: It is, but I… well, it’s not. They make fun of me for it at home. I have quite a strong Dublin accent, and I’ve never really lived in Dublin. I lived there for about a year, and now I live there. I’m back and forth between New York and Dublin and consider that home. But my whole family are from Dublin, and my mom and dad are Dubs, and even when I was in the Bronx and I learned how to speak…

Brendan Francis Newnam: We call it the Boogie Down.

Saoirse Ronan: The boogie — you call it the what?

Brendan Francis Newnam: It used to be called the Boogie Down in the ’80s.

Saoirse Ronan: The Bronx?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, the Bronx.

Saoirse Ronan: I didn’t know that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, it’s true. KRS-One — look at it.

Saoirse Ronan: That’s quite cool, actually.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’ll send you some links afterwards.

Saoirse Ronan: OK, cool.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, Boogie Down Productions was a hip-hop group from the Bronx.

Saoirse Ronan: Does that make me cool then, that I’m from the Boogie Down?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, yeah. You could leverage it. We could talk about how you could leverage it.

Saoirse Ronan: We could. We could really use this.

Brendan Francis Newnam: We could change your Wikipedia page together after this and make you seem tougher.

Saoirse Ronan: Maybe I could have my own Instagram page that’s just about how street I am.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Streets of the Bronx.

Saoirse Ronan: Just Saoirse on random streets in the Bronx.

Brendan Francis Newnam: There’s also bourgie parts of the Bronx, but that would be…

Saoirse Ronan: I wouldn’t be from there.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’d be the Bourgie Down.

Saoirse Ronan: I was definitely from, like, the poor Irish part.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Your parents were actors, right?

Saoirse Ronan: My dad is an actor. My mom is a normal person.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, that means you’re not a normal person?

Saoirse Ronan: I think I’m somewhere in-between the two.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What’s abnormal about being an actor?

Saoirse Ronan: I think you have to be very in touch with your emotional side. And I think for a lot of people, it’s easier to maybe repress that or kind of walk by it and carry on with you everyday life.

The schedule is ridiculous, you know–not in a bad way. But, you know, you go away for two, three months, and you could be on location in a forest in Germany somewhere or up a mountain in Bulgaria. And then, and the end of that really kind of intense few months, you go back home, and it’s over, and that is a very strange aspect of the job, I think.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re talking about being an actor and being in touch with your emotions. You know, you’re someone who is in a unique position to speak to this. I was thinking about child actors. You know, when you say “child actors” in America, we think, like, “Oh, they all turn into murdering crackheads.” So, look out!

Saoirse Ronan: OK.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m glad I have you in this window before you turn into a menace to society.

Saoirse Ronan: Put the meth away, guys.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But you have to be in touch with your emotions, and yet, there are so many emotions you haven’t felt yet when you’re 10 years old, 13 years old.

Saoirse Ronan: Right.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You know, romantic love, student loan debt — you know, you don’t have to worry about that.

Saoirse Ronan: Yeah, not when you’re 10.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, how do you do that?

Saoirse Ronan: Well, I mean, usually you don’t have to portray anything like that when you’re that age, but I know what you mean. I think even the roles that I played when I was younger, they were emotionally very kind of mature.

And I think when you’re a kid, in a way, it’s not necessarily easier to do it, but you rely so much on your instincts and so much on just what feels right that there’s no kind of inhibitions at all, and there’s nothing that sort of… you don’t question anything. You just kind of go with it. There’s no fear.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s more like play, in a sense. You’re just like, “I’m going to be this person.”

Saoirse Ronan: I think…yeah, I think we kind of take kids for granted. I mean, I really, I feel like — emotionally speaking — I think kids are the most intelligent ones, emotionally, out of all of us because they’re so incredibly pure and haven’t had to deal with any of that crap yet that you mentioned. And because of that, actually…I mean, basically, we all feel sadness, happiness, anger, jealousy, and then there’s sort of branches. Things branch off from those kind of core emotions. But kids have that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, hopefully, you haven’t lost access to those emotions because you might need them for our two standard questions.

Saoirse Ronan: OK.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And the first one is: what question are you tired of being asked at dinner parties?

Saoirse Ronan: Well, Brendan, I think we all know the only answer could ever be…

Brendan Francis Newnam: I know.

Saoirse Ronan: “How do you pronounce your name?” I was going to do an American accent, but I didn’t. I stopped myself. Yeah, I’m asked about my name an awful lot.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It is… I think it’s… I’ve watched a lot of interviews with you to prepare for this.

Saoirse Ronan: Yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And every single interview begins a little game about your name.

Saoirse Ronan: About my name? We’re teaching the world kind of one chat show at a time.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s right.

Saoirse Ronan: I think it started…because I’ve been saying it for years, obviously, like, whenever I’ve had to do press.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. Well, it’s your name.

Saoirse Ronan: It’s my name. So, I say it most days, even if there’s no one around. And so, I’ve done press in the past and really tried to drive it home that this is how you pronounce it, you know. So, it’s not as frequent now, but the name question is what I get asked the most.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. And I didn’t ask you.

Saoirse Ronan: And you didn’t ask me!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Thank you.

Saoirse Ronan: But you knew I was going to say it, though.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Maybe, but I also didn’t say your name. So, there we go.

Saoirse Ronan: You’ve actually… yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I haven’t said it yet.

Saoirse Ronan: You haven’t. Are you going to say it?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Maybe I’ll say it for the end of the interview.

Saoirse Ronan: I’ve said your name once. Brendan. Twice.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Thank you for saying my name correctly. Ok, so our other question is: tell us something we don’t know. Something you haven’t shared in other interviews.

Saoirse Ronan: About me? Or just…

Brendan Francis Newnam: It could be about you or it could be an interesting fact about the world.

Saoirse Ronan: This is such a Catholic, Irish thing to say, but the reason why the shamrock is our sort of symbol is because when St. Patrick — who is actually we think he was Welsh — came over and introduced Christianity to Ireland, in order to teach pagans the holy trinity, he used a shamrock to do it, ’cause it’s got three leaves.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Right. Is that true?

Saoirse Ronan: That’s true!

Brendan Francis Newnam: What about the fourth leaf?

Saoirse Ronan: That’s a clover. That’s different than a shamrock.

Brendan Francis Newnam: They’re not the same thing, but just different sized leaves?

Saoirse Ronan: No. Probably cousins or something, but they’re… no. They’re not the same thing. So a shamrock only has three leaves and apparently he used to use that. So they say.


Brendan Francis Newnam: Who are they?

Saoirse Ronan: Them. You know them.

(Ed. Note: Below is bonus audio from our interview with Saoirse)

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  • John Reily jr.

    Maureen O’hara said acting was hard. In bed early, up at dawn. Broadway amplifies like nitro. Actors can handle it right or not right. With fame, some are asked to do more, it becomes too much. Stress affects some enormously & they fall into drugs, alcohol, lose touch with themselves It is obvious, we age incredibly fast not taking care of themselves. I’d hate to see her in LA (since she said she will never move to LA) The next Lindsay Lohan hope not. When you see someone with beliefs and values out of the norm for the Entertainment business, you hope no one changes them. Singing and acting, that business preys on people and then they go on to the next. I hope she never changes. To see or hear her, she is like the Irish in Brooklyn which the world could use.