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Interview: Saoirse Ronan on Finding Lady Bird at Her “In-Between Moment”

It often feels like there is nothing Saoirse Ronan can’t do. One of the finest actors working today, the 23-year-old artist has already earned two well-deserved Academy Award nominations (for Atonement in 2007 and Brooklyn in 2015), owned a myriad of genres (fantasy, action, period, coming of age, comedy, thriller, romance, you name it) and conquered Broadway with The Crucible. In Greta Gerwig’s exquisite and already beloved coming-of-age film Lady Bird (A24), Ronan plays Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento (where Gerwig is from) with the precision and intricacy we came to expect from her.

“Lady Bird” is a self-given name for the character. (“I gave it to myself. It’s given to me, by me,” Christine declares early on in the film.) And just like you’d guess for a young woman with such a pronounced sense of identity, Christine “Lady Bird” is made of strong stuff. Opinionated and occasionally irritable, she goes through her final high school year searching for her own voice alongside her best friend, a pair of romantic interests and mostly her demanding mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) who wants Christine “to be the best version she can be.”

2017 is shaping up to be a very crowded field for Best Actress Contenders—one of the richest years I can remember for the category—and it’s safe to bet on Ronan as one of the major players of the season.

Joining me earlier this week, she talked about her challenging part which meant going a little back in time, the joys of working with Greta Gerwig and the parallels she came to notice between Brooklyn’s Eilis Lacey and Lady Bird’s Christine.

Below is an edited version of our conversation.

We really missed you in Telluride for Lady Bird’s premiere.

I was gutted I didn’t get to go, I’ve never been. But I was shooting at the time. I was doing Mary Queen of Scots.

You’ve been really busy since Brooklyn. You’ve done Lady Bird of course, plus Mary Queen of Scots you just mentioned, and On Chesil Beach, Loving Vincent, The Seagull, stage… How did all these projects line up?

For Loving Vincent, I actually only shot that for a couple of days, and that was about two and a half years ago. I’m pretty sure it was before I shot Brooklyn. Obviously the process to make that film was so extensive. There were so many painters that were brought on in order to achieve the final product, so that took quite a bit of time. Then I went on to Brooklyn. Then, The Seagull. Then press started for Brooklyn and I went into the play, The Crucible, [followed by] Lady Bird and On Chesil Beach. And this year, I did Mary Queen of Scots. We were very lucky that we had a great script written by Beau Willimon. The work was very strong for the whole thing, which is great. So [yes], I’m busy.

When you read Lady Bird, what primarily pulled you in and told you that you had to play this part?

For me, anything that comes from Greta Gerwig is something that I’ll be interested in seeing and probably playing. What I loved about Lady Bird was this complex character that she already [was] at the age of 17, 18. She was fiercely independent and had a lot of self-belief and confidence, and even a bit of cockiness. But [she] also had self-doubt and was insecure and didn’t quite know where she was going, but knew she was headed somewhere and headed somewhere good. I think we’re finding someone at a point in their life where they’re figuring out who they are and where they’re going to end up. But they don’t quite know what the answer is to either of those things yet. For an actor, to play someone like that at this sort of in-between moment is a really interesting thing to do.

That in-between moment… I think in a way, that’s also what Brooklyn was about.

Yeah!

And the idea of home too. Did you think about this indirect kinship between the two movies while you were making Lady Bird?

I thought about it more [lately]… Sometimes when you’re doing press for a movie, you only actually start to reflect on the film and what it means to you afterwards, because you’re in such a whirlwind when you’re making it. Then you have a moment to reflect on the whole thing when you’re talking about it. I’ve found that I’ve been thinking about their relationship to each other over the last couple of days and how Lady Bird is at this point where she’s on the edge of something big and great. For Eilis in Brooklyn, she has already sort of started that journey and the big thing is happening. I think Lady Bird is one step behind her in terms of the stages of ‘leaving home’ that they’re at. Yeah, it’s interesting to just speak to people and see how [the two films] relate to each other.

Funny how sometimes we don’t fully realize what we think until we start expressing our thoughts.

Exactly. It comes out of somewhere, like the subconscious, but then you start to reflect on it afterwards and almost understand it for the first time.

Picking up on something you said earlier, it sounds like you’ve always been a fan of Greta Gerwig’s.

Huge fan. Frances Ha is one of my favorite things that she’s done. I had seen that when I had gone through the big change of leaving home and moving to another place. I was about 19 and I was sitting in my flat in London and I had a really good friend of mine over. We watched it and just felt like it was us. Just felt like they totally tapped into a friendship between two girls who live in a big city and they’re growing up. I think with Frances Ha; Frances is a step further on from Eilis and Lady Bird, you know what I mean? She’s a few years later and she’s settled in to her surroundings a little bit. Just to see this magic that Greta brought out in that role… She seems to do that in everything that she does. There’s a real sort of joy in everything she does. I just found her incredible to watch. It’s almost like she developed this different style of acting, you know? I just found her really fascinating.

The two times I spoke with Greta Gerwig in the past, both for 20th Century Women and for Lady Bird, it occurred to me that she values personal stories and anecdotes, and she uses them to enrich and deepen her art, even if they don’t exactly make it into the script. I’m wondering if she shared any stories with you to help you get acquainted with Lady Bird’s world in Sacramento a little bit more. I know this film is not exactly autobiographical for her, but it has parallels to her life.

Yeah, she says that it sort of rhymes with the truth. Her relationship to Sacramento is something that this film was inspired by a little bit. You can see that love and affection from Joan Didion, as well, who she had encouraged me to read before we did the film. I read a bit of Joan’s stuff (I’m talking about her like I know her) and that was a really good way to get into the mindset of a Sacramento native. She showed us photo albums from high school, like her and her best friends at the theater production for that year or when they graduated or at parties. The American high school culture is something that I’m not familiar with. I’m not from that world at all. I didn’t grow up with that. It was good to see her as a kid. Even to just see their style and how the kids were with each other. This is at a time, even with Lady Bird, [when] the presence of cell phones and Internet isn’t as massive as it would be now. I think that’s really changed how young people socialize and communicate with each other an awful lot. There’s an innocence to the young people in this time. This was only 10 years ago.

So true. I also love that she set the film in that period of technological transition where nobody was looking at their cell phones.

Yeah, it wasn’t a thing. Every connection you had with people was precious. If you wanted to meet up with someone, you’d have to go to the café where they worked and ask them if they wanted to go out or call their family landline or whatever.

And you had to remember things.

Yeah, you remember the time and the place and all of that. It was a great way to get into the mindset of an American teenager at that time.

The last time you and I spoke, you told me that you and your mother have a really close relationship. What was it like for you to play a character like Lady Bird, who had a really bumpy relationship with her mother, even though the love is obviously there?

It is there, yes. I think we’re finding these two characters at a point where it’s just a difficult time for the two of them. As you say, it hasn’t always been like that, and you can see that there’s a softness there, too. I think they’re just both at a point where they just don’t understand each other. They just don’t get where the other one’s coming from, but that unconditional love keeps them returning to each other. Yeah, my mam and I have never had that. We’ve always understood each other and we’ve always been the best of friends. I mean, maybe at some point we won’t be friends. Who knows? [Laughs] That’ll never happen. It’ll never happen.

I’m very lucky that I’ve got such a good relationship with her. Maybe the security I have in that relationship allowed me to delve into the more difficult parts of Lady Bird and Marion’s relationship, because it wasn’t so close to my own life. It wasn’t too emotional for me to go there. With Brooklyn, there were so many points where I was just incredibly emotional and it was so close to home that it was hard to separate the two. For something like this, because I wasn’t familiar with it, it was easier to understand because I was looking at it from the outside in.

Meanwhile I saw a lot of my younger self in Lady Bird, to get a little personal. I love my mother dearly but I remember that feeling of wanting to jump out of the car. But then I also thought about the times I had been too hard on her, and vice versa. And even though your relationship with your mother doesn’t resemble Lady Bird’s at all, I am wondering if you also reevaluated any instances where either of you could have acted differently.

Yeah, but [my mam and I] do it almost instantly. It’s brilliant. The only time Mam and I ever have anything close to an argument is when we’re in a car with each other, because she’s terrible at giving me directions when I’m driving the car. I’m awful at telling her what gear to be in when she’s driving. That’s the only point where we actually get on each other’s nerves. What we’ll do is, one of us will upset the other one by saying something, and we’ll go, “It really annoyed me when you said that,” and the other one doesn’t quite understand it, and then we spend about 10 minutes not talking, and then we just come back together and go, “I’m so sorry, I can totally understand where you’re coming from.” We just hate the idea of not being best friends.

That’s amazing.

I know. It’s a bit sappy whenever I talk about it, but it’s the truth. It’s great. I think there’s willingness there to understand where the other one’s coming from. You don’t want the other one to be hurt. We hash things out pretty quickly.

In Lady Bird, you’re playing a character a little younger than yourself. You have some distance from that era, but it’s not a very distant era for you, if that makes sense. It must be still fresh in your mind. Was that strange, to go back in time just a little bit?

Nobody’s asked me that before, but that’s exactly what it felt like when I was doing it. I remember feeling like, [it isn’t] so far in the past that I could go back and go, “Huh, so that’s what it was like for me.” But it definitely wasn’t where I was at that point when I made the film. Yes, it was a little bit strange at certain points, but I do think it helped that it was set in the States. I do think it helped that, to a certain extent, it’s American, we’re in an American high school. Even when she’s applying for college and things like that, I didn’t do any of that sort of stuff. In that way, I could separate it. But yeah, I did find it a little bit weird, because it’s just happened for me, so it’s still echoing, you know?

To that end, what is high school like in Ireland?

I seem to find it’s a thing over here that there’s the popular girl and the jock and the nerds and things like that. I was home-schooled for most of those secondary school years since I was working, so I don’t really have a good sense of high school even in Ireland. But from friends of mine who have obviously gone through it, I feel like everyone was more on the same level a little bit. High school is tough. High school is hard going. I know I had an amazing time in primary school. I absolutely loved it. There were only 50 students in our whole school, so it was very intimate, as it was for a lot of kids in schools in Ireland, because there’s just not as many of us.

I love the chemistry among the entire ensemble in Lady Bird. It’s just exquisite. How did all of you prepare and work together?

We rehearsed a bit. Not that much. We had probably about a week to rehearse, but that was also costume fittings and hair and makeup camera tests and things like that. I’d say when it came to doing table work, we probably had a couple of days. Laurie and I only went over our scenes for, I don’t know, half a day, a few hours, something like that. It was very quick. I think it was just one of those situations where I had just finished a play, people were coming off different jobs. Time was of the essence, so we just had to dive straight in there and do it. We were really lucky that we all had a very similar sense of humor. Everyone was in it for the right reasons. Everyone wanted to do the project and be involved in the film. But also, we all love Greta. We love her so much, and we could see how much this meant to her. I think everyone’s heart was in the right place. It made us very willing to be very open from the very beginning. We all had a really good rapport with each other straightaway.

I noticed that you periodically work with female filmmakers. You worked with Nikole Beckwith (Stockholm, Pennsylvania), Greta Gerwig, and then you’ve done Mary Queen of Scots with Josie Rourke, just to name a few. I really admire that about you.

Thank you. It’s starting to become more of the norm now that women are getting a chance to make their own films, so the sentiment is very sincere and it’s very authentic, and that’s fantastic. With the result, in turn, the projects that these women want to make are good. First and foremost for me, I want to make a film because it’s a good project. I’ve actually been very lucky that the very first film director I worked with was a woman (I Could Never Be Your Woman by Amy Heckerling.) I’ve worked with a lot of women throughout my career since the age of 10. It’s always felt quite normal to me. It’s never felt like something that I’ve had to go out of my way to find.

I do think, definitely, when it comes to bigger projects like Wonder Woman, it’s great that women are getting a chance to [make them]. I don’t know if [women’s] stories are being seen as commercial or artistically worthwhile, [so] it’s just very important for us all to support each other. The quality of the work is there, so it’s just about supporting that and really giving that a chance to shine. I think that’s finally starting to happen here.

You’ve tried a lot of genres before. I’m wondering if there is anything you absolutely won’t do or perhaps definitely want to do.

I would do anything. The one thing I really want to do is a musical. That’s the one thing. A musical and a silent film are the two types of films I’ve always wanted to do. A really loud film and a very quiet film.