Saoirse Ronan's latest role is in the WWIII drama 'How I Live Now,' with George MacKay. (Nicola Dove / Magnolia Pictures)
When she was very young, Saoirse Ronan knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I wanted to be a waitress. I still want to be a waitress,” she says, sitting in a buzzing lounge high up in the Trump International Hotel in Toronto.
“I wanted to be either a waitress or a hairdresser. But that hasn’t worked out,” she says.
Instead, at the ripe old age of 19, she’s an Oscar-nominated actress and movie star.
“I’m a failure in my own eyes,” she says with a laugh and an Irish lilt.
Saoirse — pronounced Sur-shuh — has been failing for a number of years now. She nabbed a supporting actress nomination for “Atonement” in 2007, then landed the lead in Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” in 2009. Since then, she’s played a trained assassin (“Hanna”), an alien-possessed teen (“The Host”) and a centuries-old vampire (“Byzantium”).
Recently she was at the Toronto International Film Festival in September supporting “How I Live Now,” which opens Friday. In it, she plays a young American visiting England when World War III breaks out. Unlike post-apocalyptic fantasies, the film feels very present.
“It’s portrayed so realistically, and so raw, that it does make you realize that this could happen at any moment,” Ronan says.
The film never actually says who is fighting over what, but its air of international tension is very recognizable.
“I mean, this is going on right now, and it’s very, very scary,” Ronan says.
It’s not exactly light subject matter, but then Ronan has so far avoided teen sex farces and coming-of-age comedies.
“I don’t find those films interesting, really. I much prefer playing young women — and children when I was younger — who have a bit of substance to them,” she says as a waitress drops off a glass of “still” water with a wedge of lime.
“The films that generally have come my way, there’s been some element of darkness, I think. And that gave me somewhere to go with it,” she says.
Still, she’s keeping her options open.
“I’d love to do something a bit lighter; it’s just the right thing hasn’t come up yet,” she says. “I don’t want to get pigeonholed as being the dark girl.
“Someone said to me today, ‘Do you always shoot people in your films?’ ” She laughs. “There’s a lot going on in Saoirse’s world. I’d like to do a nice simple drama, or maybe a comedy.”
Actually, her next film, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” due in March, looks pretty comic. After that she stars in Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, “How to Catch a Monster,” which was shot in Metro Detroit and is scheduled for June.
It’s not surprising that Ronan became an actress — her father, Paul, is an actor, and he was with her in Toronto.
“Even when we were in the car on the way here, we were doing impressions. Because he became an actor when I was a year or two old, there were always a lot of actors in the house, and directors, there were a lot of creative people,” she says.
What is somewhat surprising, though, is that she’s achieved such success with no formal training.
“I’m an only child, so my imagination is what kept me entertained,” Ronan says. “It was a very natural thing for me always to just go into my own world.”
And since she started at a very young age — “I was a sponge, as every kid is” — movie sets have come to be comfort zones.
“The more I spend time on films, the more it feels like home. It‘s a very natural place for me to be,” Ronan says.
“And it helps me to stretch a little more,” she adds. “Every time I play a character, it’s like making a new friend. You learn so much from them.”
'How I Live Now'
Rated R for violence, disturbing images, language and some sexuality
Saoirse Una Ronan
■Born April 12, 1994, in New York City
■Moved to County Carlow, Ireland, at age 3 and grew up there
■Saoirse means “Freedom”
■Earned a best supporting actress nomination at the age of 13 for “Atonement”
■Has worked with directors Joe Wright (“Atonement” and “Hanna”), Peter Jackson (“The Lovely Bones”), Neil Jordan (“Byzantium”), Peter Weir (“The Way Back”) and Kevin Macdonald (“How I Live Now”)
■Next up: “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (March), “How to Catch a Monster” (June)