In ‘Brooklyn,’ Saoirse Ronan grows up on screen

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Saoirse Ronan is curled up in a ball in a Toronto hotel suite, trying to stay warm as an air conditioner blasts cool air into the “refrigerator of a room,” as she calls it.

“I’m gonna turn off the air because I’m getting a bloody cold,” the 21-year-old says in her thick Irish accent as she hobbles across the room, one shoe on and one shoe off, making a beeline for the thermostat. “It happens to me every time I do press, I get a cold. I’m allergic to press!”

If that’s the case, she should bulk up on antibiotics, because the chatter about her performance in her new movie “Brooklyn,” are only getting louder.

In the film, Ronan turns in one of the year’s best performances as a young Irish immigrant who leaves her home life behind and starts anew in 1950s New York. It’s still early in the awards season, but Ronan is considered a lock for a Best Actress nomination for her quiet, subtle work in the film, where she comes of age in such a low-key manner that her work doesn’t hit you until the film’s credits roll.

Around the hotel, posters for the film line the hallways, with her face — her deep blue eyes fixed in a penetrating gaze — front and center. She’s not used to seeing herself that way, not yet, and she wasn’t expecting the attention with this “little Irish film that we made.”

“It’s been awhile since I’ve done something where there’s such a push,” says Ronan, her eyes even more striking in person. “It’s very exciting. There’s just like this current that we’re all going along with.”

Ronan was nominated for an Oscar once before, in 2007, when, as a 13-year-old, she was up for Best Supporting Actress for her part in the British war drama “Atonement.” It was her first major role. She went on to star in films such as the best-seller adaptation “The Lovely Bones” and the rural assassin thriller “Hanna,” but “Brooklyn” hits closest to her heart, since it closely resembles her real life experience of moving away from home and living on her own for the first time.

From the time she signed up to do the film to the time filming began, Ronan — her first name is pronounced “Sir-sha” — moved from outside of Dublin to London and learned what independence is truly like.

“The first week I was there, I was sitting on the couch and I was hungry, and there was no food in the flat,” she says, speaking during September’s Toronto International Film Festival. “And I realized, oh, I have to go and get the food, and I have to use money to get the food, and I have to make the food, and then I have to clean up after the food’s been eaten. It was all these very basic things that you take for granted.”

That experience of being alone and figuring things out for herself — minus the four phone calls a day to her mom — prepped her for her role as Eilis in “Brooklyn.”

“By the time we actually made the film, I had gone through the journey that I was about to take with Eilis all over again,” Ronan says. “There were times I’d be on set and I’d have to step away and take a minute, because it was like somebody had put a mirror an inch from my face and I was unable to look away.”

Ronan first met with director John Crowley about the part in 2013, just before she came to Detroit to film “Lost River,” Ryan Gosling’s Detroit-set experimental fantasy noir. While in Detroit, Ronan lived at downtown’s Doubletree Hotel, and she can now speak intelligently about Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy and Detroit’s coney wars. “How’s Detroit?” she asks, like she’s inquiring about an old friend.

“Brooklyn” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has been gaining steam ever since. And just as her character in the movie settled in New York, Ronan is headed to the Big Apple as well: She’ll be doing a play there beginning in January and will likely stay.

She’s getting used to being out on her own, but knows she’s got a lot left to learn, both about the world and about herself.

“For basically all of your 20s, you’re kind of just figuring out what the (expletive) am I supposed to do as, like, a grownup,” she says.

Thermostat issues aside, so far, she’s doing pretty good.

Saoirse Ronan portrays an Irish immigrant named Eilis in the film “Brooklyn.” The movie opens in Metro Detroit theaters Nov. 20.


Rated PG-13: for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language

112 minutes

Opens Friday