ACTORS will often tell you their career achievements can be measured against who they’ve worked with. Saoirse Ronan, the Oscar-nominated Irish teenager who burst onto the silver screen five years ago, might then be considered to have enjoyed huge success.
Wes Anderson, Neil Jordan, Peter Weir, Kevin McDonald, Joe Wright and Peter Jackson are among the high-calibre directors on the roll call of names the Co. Carlow actress has worked with over the past half-decade.
This, and she’s still only 18 years old. “It’s been a little bit of luck that these projects have come along and great directors have been attached to them,” Ronan has modestly said of her in-demand status. “If you’re a fan of their work, you can have confidence that you might be part of something special.” To say the teenager’s success has been special would be something of an understatement.
Having made her debut on RTÉ drama The Clinic in 2004, Ronan found herself walking down the red carpet at the Oscars less than four years later, at the age of 13, following a stunning performance as Briony Tallis in Joe Wright’s Atonement. By 2011, again reunited with Wright, she was carrying a movie on her own as child assassin Hanna after also impressing in the central role in Peter Jackson’s otherwise underwhelming adaptation of The Lovely Bones.
This month will see Ronan’s career accelerate even further. In another leading role, she plays a strong-willed Earth girl with two separate personalities in sci-fi romance The Host, written from the pen of Stephenie Meyer, the multi-million selling author behind the Twilight series.
Published in 2008 and resident on the top of the New York Times bestseller list for 26 weeks, The Host depicts a world that has been invaded Body Snatcher-style by a group known as the Souls. These Souls have rid the world of hunger, disease, fear and violence and occupy the bodies of all but a handful of humans.
Ronan has been cast as Melanie-Wanda, a character with one body and two voices. “I came on the idea of two personalities in one body,” Meyer said of Melanie-Wanda. “They are both in love with different people, which creates a great deal of conflict. I like messy relationships. They’re fun to work through.”
Enlisting Gattaca writer and director Andrew Niccol to helm the project and realise Meyer’s vision for the screen, the central challenge faced by producer Nick Wechsler was to find a young actress capable of portraying a character with dual consciousness. Enter Ronan.
Around the time Wechsler was struggling to find just such an actress, he attended a screening of Hanna. “About 20 minutes into the movie, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, because Saoirse Ronan was clearly the one,” Wechsler says.
“There weren’t many people I thought could pull off playing two characters in one body, but she could.” He contacted Meyer and the other filmmakers, urging them to see the movie as soon as possible.
“I’d always pictured the character being between 25 and 30. But watching Saoirse in Hanna immediately changed my mind. She can do anything and we needed an actress who could play two really different characters. Melanie is all action and so tough, while Wanda embodies the peaceful Soul radiating calm and kindness.”
Niccol says they never seriously considered another actress for the role. “We didn’t have a Plan B. Once I’d seen Saoirse in Hanna, I knew I wanted her to play this part. There’s something inherently truthful about her. I don’t know anyone else who could play Wanda and Melanie with as much empathy as Saoirse.”
“It’s a bravura performance as anyone who sees it will discover,” says fellow producer Steve Schwartz. “Not only does she pull it off, she makes it look easy.”
Ronan, who was 17 when shooting for The Host commenced, quickly read the script and talked it over with her dad, actor Paul Ronan, who has helped steer her career. “It’s handy to have him, that’s for sure,” Ronan says of the advice he offers. “If I don’t feel passionate about something, then obviously I won’t do it. But I treasure his opinion.”
“We were both really excited by the idea of playing two characters in one film,” she adds of her initial conversations with her father about The Host. “It’s an actor’s dream. I was also very intrigued by the story, as well as the idea of working with Andrew Niccol. Every project he’s involved in seems to have a mind-blowing concept behind it. And of course I was excited about working with Stephenie. She was on set almost all of the time and involved with everything.”
“It’s a different kind of story for Stephenie,” the actress observes. “It’s not a love triangle exactly — it’s more a love square because there are four people involved, two in the same body. They’re both in love with different people, which makes it complicated.”
Finding a way to differentiate between two characters inhabiting the same body began with creating a distinctive voice for each. “Saoirse is Irish and she had to play two American accents, one slightly southern from Louisiana and a more generic American one,” says director Andrew Niccol.
“In addition, Wanda is new to the language and the planet. In the beginning, she speaks quite formally, but then learns irony and sarcasm and even the ability to lie from her human host.”
Ronan developed two individual ways of moving. “The walk for each character became important to me. Wanda’s very delicate. She almost floats, whereas Melanie is tough and feisty. I tried to bring that out in the way they hold themselves and even small things like hand gestures.”
One of the biggest challenges for Ronan, however, was that The Host marks the first movie in which she’s had to work with a love-interest. The search for the actors who would play the two men in her characters’ lives was extensive and Ronan was involved in the casting process from the get-go. “It was essential that we all work well together,” she says. “It’s the first time I’ve been a part of an onscreen romance and I was lucky enough to do it with two people I love being with.
Andrew and I were in London when Max Irons, who plays Jared, came in. I was delighted because I already knew him. “The same thing happened when we met with Jake Abel for the role of Ian,” Ronan continues. “We worked together on a film called The Lovely Bones. It was the first time I had played romantic scenes in a movie and already knowing Jake and Max made it so much more comfortable. Each time, as soon as they left the room, Andrew and I looked at each other and said, ‘It has to be him.’”
Max Irons, who recently starred opposite Amanda Seyfried in Little Red Riding Hood, has a lengthy show-business pedigree that includes parents Jeremy Irons and Irish actress Sinéad Cusack, as well as grandfather Cyril Cusack. At his initial meeting, the actor, who is also a half-brother of Independent Irish TD Richard Boyd-Barrett, was ready to give up almost before he started.
“Auditioning for Andrew and Saoirse was terrifying,” says the 27-year-old. “While I was waiting, there were three guys sitting there, all looking like Greek gods. I thought, well, what’s the point, and forgot my lines about eight times. But the chemistry certainly was there with Saoirse, which felt great. “She is always spot on and perfectly informed,” he continues. “It still amazes me that she was 17 when we shot the film.
“I worked most closely with her and with William Hurt, two masters of their craft, and both were so humble, patient and generous.”
Throughout the casting process however, author Meyer was concerned that Ronan’s unforced charisma threatened to eclipse her co-stars. “But the chemistry between Max and Saoirse was just unbelievable,” she says. “He’s able to do so much without saying a word, so you will actually pay attention to him while Saoirse is in the same shot.”
Moving into sci-fi and romance will only extend Ronan’s impressive range. She’s now also played key roles in period dramas, teen movies, thrillers and action movies.
Next up, she’ll be seen as a vampire in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, while she’s just finished filming on quirky indie director Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel opposite Ralph Fiennes and Bill Murray. It’s a role she’s keenly excited about. “I’m doing an Irish accent for my character,” she revealed. “Wes just decided to let me, and I’m really chuffed. It’s actually the first time I’ve ever used an Irish accent in a film.”
Anderson’s opus will be followed by a role in How To Catch a Monster, which will be written and directed by Ryan Gosling, which she predicts will be “experimental” and begins shooting in May.
“I think Ryan is going to be very supportive as a director, just because he’s an actor as well and he gets it,” she said last week. “From what he’s been telling me about the approach he wants to take, he wants us to really discover these characters ourselves and use our imaginations to create these characters. “He’s already written great characters on the page, but he wants us to develop those even more as people. I like that he’s put so much trust in his actors to do that. I think it’ll be really fun and really cool.”
If the past five years in Ronan’s life have been exciting and fun to watch, the next five look even more so.
The Host is out now in cinemas nationwide.