At only 21-years-old, Ronan is Ireland’s most internationally acclaimed female actor— when you Google “Irish actor,” Ronan is the first living female to be listed, alongside her countrymen Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Peter O’Toole, Colin Farrell, and Jonathan Rhys Myers. She’s the holder of two Oscar nominations, for her performances in last year’s Brooklyn (2015) and Atonement (2007), and her Broadway debut in The Crucible, alongside Ben Whishaw, will see her play the controversial antagonist in one of the 20th century’s most powerful dramas. “Plus it’s my first play; so I’ve been thrown in at the deep end,” she says, adding “it’s been a real learning curve every single day, the amount of stamina you need for theatre, and then to wrap your head around Miller’s meaning. It’s so rewarding.”
She plays Abigail Williams, the girl in Salem, Massachusetts, whose false testimony directly brought about the execution of nearly 20 people for witchcraft in 1692 and lead to the deaths of hundreds more. The drama revolves around a series of devastating false confessions—Ronan says that the key to convincingly portraying characters who are deeply embedded in their lies (like Abigail, or Briony, the character she played in Atonement) is to believe the lies alongside them. “I can’t be objective about it,” she says. “I can’t look at Abigail from the outside, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing a very good job. Abigail’s this very intelligent young girl, who is just very damaged, and she has such a strong will that she sort of starts to believe in all this.”
Long after the Salem witches were hung or buried alive under rocks, their story still has dramatists and historians spellbound. Late playwright Arthur Miller (father-in-law to another great thespian, Daniel Day-Lewis) wrote The Crucible in 1953, presenting the tale as a scathing allegory of the Communist purge that was happening at that time in Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee, destroying the lives of hundreds of left-leaning actors, writers and directors. Miller’s friend, famed director Elia Kazan, had buckled in front of the committee, naming some of his fellow directors as Communist “subversives” in front of the Committee, causing Miller to sever the friendship and inspiring him to take his first visit to Salem to research the witch trials.
The play paints a bleak picture of human society, and provides “real insight into attitudes towards women,” says Ronan, attitudes that exist as much in 2016 as they did in 1692, perhaps. “Whether we are female or male, I think, all of us are very hard on women,” says Ronan. “Today, even when a woman is successful, it’s something you’ve got to be apologetic about; you can’t be too confident. It’s been bred into us a bit.” Whatever gender imbalances exist in our times, Ronan seems poised and willing to explore them head-on, or at least talk about them, with that ever-charming Irish lilt of hers.
Ronan is technically Irish-American—she was born in New York’s Bronx in 1994, an only child, whose Irish parents named her Saoirse (pronounced sur-sha), after the Gaelic word for freedom. Her mother and father (also an actor) moved the family to Ireland when she was three. Like the majority of the Irish population (more than 70%), Ronan was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, with all its frankincense-laced ritual, transubstantiation, and until quite recently, social conservatism— divorce was illegal in Ireland until 1996, homosexuality was outlawed until 1993 (gay marriage is now legal in Ireland), and abortion remains illegal unless the mother’s life is at risk. She went to church every Sunday with her parents, and had a First Communion and Confirmation at age 16. “As a Catholic you grow up believing that there’s an answer for everything, and a reason for everything.” Early on though, she started to question things.
For example, when the time came for her to make her first confession in front of a priest— a rite of passage for all Catholic children— Ronan had doubts. “I was six years old, and I had nothing to confess. I remember all of us kids were like ‘what are we going to say? Do we make something up like, we cheated on our homework or in an exam?’ Even as a kid, I didn’t feel like it was right for us to make up something just for the sake of it. So I said to my mum and dad, ‘I’m not doing it.’ I said no. So I’ve never confessed.”
That forthrightness carried through into her adulthood. And if there’s something on her mind, she doesn’t need a priest or a confessional booth to get it off her chest. She just says what she’s feeling. “A huge part of what I do as an actress is about recognizing emotion, accepting it and bringing it to life,” she says. So emoting is just part and parcel of growing up in an acting family? “Yes, film and theatre people are very open and emotional and lovey with each other,” she says. “That’s the way we are, and I like it. Sometimes. Most of the time.”
Ronan has been acting since she was a child. She had parts on Irish television and narrowly missed out on the part of Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series, before scoring her first Hollywood film role at age 13 in a rom-com, I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007), playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s daughter. The dialect coach recommended her to director Joe Wright, who cast her alongside Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in his adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement. Her performance as Briony, a vindictive 13-year-old whose false accusation destroys the lives of her sister and lover, earned her the Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, making her one of the youngest actors in history to get the nomination. Since then she’s gone on to play a dead girl, in The Lovely Bones (2009), an assassin, in Hanna (2011), and a baker with a birthmark shaped like Mexico for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), where apparently, she experienced Anderson’s remarkable attention for detail firsthand—it took “several hours” to decide what color socks she was going to wear.
And soon, she will be undertaking her second Ian McEwan adaptation—On Chesil Beach is his novella about a freshly wed couple, both virgins, facing the horror/ecstasy of the honeymoon bed. There are some who say the story is unadaptable, a swirling mass of repressed emotions with relatively little in the way of “action”—in other words, Ronan’s speciality. “On Chesil Beach was something I had wanted to do for years but I wasn’t the right age until recently,” she says. She didn’t audition, but met with the director, Dominic Cooke, and the part was hers. She’s excited to see McEwan again, once shooting begins. “I haven’t seen Ian in years!” she says. “That was another draw for me to the project, we all shared a very special experience when we made Atonement and Ian was so supportive and relaxed about it all. Getting to work on another adaptation of his work is so exciting because I’m a huge fan but also because I just love Ian as a person.”
At 21, Ronan has already lived a dozen lifetimes, through the eyes of her characters. Acting, she says, is a gateway to other lives, a wormhole that connects her with minds and feelings that don’t belong to her. “Even if it’s technically not real, when you’re feeling an experience, and treating an experience as though it’s real, you do learn from that. I think of it as getting to know a new friend, who shares something with me.”
Sometimes, her characters help Ronan deal with what’s going on in her own head. Playing an Irish woman who immigrates to New York in the 1950s for a better life in John Crowley’s Brooklyn forced her to confront her own heart-wrenching homesickness. “I know that it won’t always feel as bad as it does right now,” says Ronan. “But that film really helped me understand what I was going through, because the character was going through the same.”
She could not have been more perfectly cast in the film, a soft nostalgic tale about a young Irish woman who falls in love with an Italian man in Brooklyn. She played the role with captivating sensitivity, resulting in her second Academy nomination, this time for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The homesickness and heartache, it seems, served her well, on screen at least.
There’s a line in Brooklyn where Ronan’s character describes Ireland as “calm, charming, and civilized” while gazing out at a wild, deserted Irish beach—calm, charming, and civilized is perhaps an apt description for Ronan herself, as she navigates the wilds of New York City, with a (possibly) broken finger? “Calm and civilized? Maybe,” she says, as the nurse ushers her off to get x-rayed. “We are definitely very fun. And we’re honest. And yes, maybe we are a little bit charming.”
GUCCI blouse, pants, and shoes, and stylist’s own earrings.
GUCCI shirt and skirt, VERSACE shoes, and vintage Dior earrings.
LOUIS VUITTON dress and vintage Lanvin cuff.
GUCCI shirt and vintage Lanvin cuff.
GUCCI jacket, GIVENCHY dress, LOUIS VUITTON shoes, and stylist’s earrings.
Photographer: Carlos Serrao for Beauty and Photo.
Stylist: Julian Jesus for See Management.
Hair: Matthew Monzon for Jed Root using Kérastase Paris Elixir Ultime.
Makeup: Ayami Nishimura for the Wall Group.
Manicure: Martha Fekete for Bryan Bantry using Chanel Le Vernis.
Set Designer: James Lear.
Photography Assistants: Amy Ground, Corey Williams, James Slater and Rick Compeau.
Follow Caroline Ryder on Twitter (@carolineryder). She's prolific, having profiled numerous cover stars for Dazed, Cosmopolitan, and now Flaunt.