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Saoirse Ronan Stars In Movie Version Of Literary Bestseller 'Brooklyn'


Let's hear now from a young Irish actress who was just 13 when she was nominated for an Oscar. Saoirse Ronan played a precocious girl in way over her head in the adaptation of the novel "Atonement." Now she's 21 and she's being celebrated for her starring role in another movie based on a literary bestseller. She joined Renee Montagne to talk about that movie, "Brooklyn."

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: For all the time Saoirse Ronan has spent in front of cameras and microphones - she started acting at 8 - she still displayed a charming enthusiasm for the workings of our studio here at NPR West. As soon as she put on headphones, she started testing the buttons.

SAOIRSE RONAN: Oh, look, so you have a button so if you want to cough.


MONTAGNE: (Laugher) Well, in her new movie, Saoirse Ronan plays a young woman named Eilis who leaves behind Ireland in the early 1950s for what her family hopes will be a better life. What she initially finds in America is loneliness. Here, Eilis is comforted by the priest who helped bring her to New York.


JIM BROADBENT: (As priest) We need Irish girls in Brooklyn.

RONAN: (As Eilis) I wish that I could stop feeling that I want to be an Irish girl in Ireland.

BROADBENT: (As priest) All I can say is that it will pass. Homesickness is like most sicknesses. It'll make you feel wretched, and then it'll move on to somebody else.

MONTAGNE: Eilis is homesick for the picturesque, but not perfect, Irish town of Enniscorthy. Under different circumstances, Saoirse Ronan's character would never have left.

RONAN: You grew up there, you worked there, you got married and that's where you had your kids and that's kind of where you stayed. And I think even though to begin with, Eilis is quite a passive character. She does have quite a strong sense of who she is, and she knows what she doesn't want. You know, we see near the start when she's with her friend Nancy she's not into the ruby boys, so she's got...

MONTAGNE: The rugby boys being kind of the handsome guys who kind of think well of themselves, a little bit better off.

RONAN: Yeah, they're a bit better off and they wear the hair oil and they went to the posh school and all that kind of stuff. And she's not into that.

MONTAGNE: But she was part of history - a flood of Irish immigrants coming to the states because after World War II, I mean, you couldn't do that much better in Ireland.

RONAN: No. I mean, we - you know, we're a country that has definitely gone through its ups and downs economically, you know? And, you know, in '80s, my mom and dad moved away and - because there was no work at home and that's just the way it was.

MONTAGNE: To New York.

RONAN: To New York, yeah, and I was born there and everything. And it did, of course, go on in the '50s, but it's one of those things that's gone back generations and generations. We're a nation of leavers.

MONTAGNE: And it is such a poignant moment in the film, very early on, as you see the ship pulling out because, of course, in the early '50s, Eilis didn't get on a plane. She went on board a ship. You see this moment where there's big groups of family waving that you almost get the sense that they could never see each other again.

RONAN: Yeah, there's a real sacrifice being made when she gets on that ship. And when it starts to sail away, I mean, I can't imagine to physically look at your home disappearing into the distance and your family. And in that time in the '50s in Catholic Ireland, people didn't really tell each other that they loved each other, you know? Everything was kind of very much inside and knotted up. And so in that moment when they sail off, it's all kind of said with that one look.

MONTAGNE: The mother in the film, she doesn't throw a kiss, she doesn't do anything. She just looks and then she turns and walks away.

RONAN: She walks away before the ship even really starts to set sail.

MONTAGNE: As poignant as the movie can be, there's a fair amount of cheering up.

RONAN: There is. It's a lot funnier than I thought it would be, I have to say.

MONTAGNE: And most particularly in the boarding house that was run by this sort of Irish mother hen, a Miss Kehoe.

RONAN: Miss Kehoe, yeah.

MONTAGNE: Well, we're going to play a scene just now and it's a bit of dinner table conversation. It gives you a sense of the sort of charmingly demented quality that the dinner conversation takes, it seems, every night between her and her lodgers, all of whom are young Irish girls.


JULIE WALTERS: (As Mrs. Kehoe) Eilis, from the look of you, you have greasy skin. Is that right? What do you do about that?

RONAN: (As Eilis) Just - well, I wash it, Mrs. Kehoe, with soap.

MARY O'DRISCOLL: (As Miss McAdam) There's nothing wrong with soap. Soap was good enough for our Lord, I expect.

WALTERS: (As Mrs. Kehoe) Oh, and which brand did he use, Miss McAdam? Does the Bible tell you that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Now, our Lord was a man anyway. He didn't care about greasy skin.

WALTERS: (As Mrs. Kehoe) Ladies, no more talk about our Lord's complexion at dinner.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter) But that is low-key compared to some of the wild things.

RONAN: Oh, yeah, it gets even funnier than that.

MONTAGNE: Do you recall one that just even had you, like, unable to go on?

RONAN: I laughed a lot in that scene, I have to say. And there's a scene later on where Eilis has started going out with her future husband, Tony, at this stage, and he invites her to Coney Island. And so she announces it at the dinner table and they're are all shocked that, you know, she hasn't picked out her sunglasses yet. And, you know, if you don't have sunglasses on Coney Island, people will talk about you, but you'll never know because they'll talk about you behind your back, you know? So that really got to me in that scene, yeah.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. I mean, the thing that's so funny about that is that they would think people would comment on Eilis' (laughter) sunglasses...

RONAN: I know.

MONTAGNE: ...But they would have...

RONAN: Oh, yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...Back in, you know, Enniscorthy.

RONAN: Yes, and this is thing is that all the girls in this boardinghouse have come from a small place, have come from a place where even today everyone knows each other. And I remember even when I was younger - like, I grew up in a town that was 25 minutes away from Enniscorthy and I used to go there when I was a kid. And I had a thing about wearing sunglasses. I thought, oh, God, you'd be really cocky if you wore sunglasses, you know? Also because the sun just doesn't exist at home, so nobody ever needs them.

MONTAGNE: Well, ultimately, this young woman, she has two paths she can take, two choices - two different young men who are courting her, but it's also between two lives that she could live.

RONAN: Yeah. Well, I mean, you know, essentially when it comes to New York and when it comes to Ireland, we see the good points and the bad points in both places. Ultimately, she's forced to finally make a decision and rise up and kind of decide what she wants and who she is, you know? And it's a very empowering film because there isn't one right option and one wrong option. It's not good versus bad here, you know? She will sacrifice one for the other.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

RONAN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's actress Saoirse Ronan. She stars in the new movie "Brooklyn." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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