TORONTO – Saoirse Ronan has been in this business a long time. She may only be 19-years-old, but the best supporting actress nominee for “Atonement” has been a working actor for a decade. She’s already collaborated with filmmakers such as Joe Wright, Peter Jackson, Peter Weir, Neil Jordan and Gillian Armstrong. She’s shot all over the globe and walked the red carpets at some of the greatest film festivals in the world. Today, however, Ronan is lying on a couch in a downtown Toronto hotel room as we meet to discuss her latest endeavor, Kevin Macdonald’s “How I Live Now.”
Ronan isn’t being disrespectful or immature, there is just no pretense with her. She’s tired. She wants to lie down (it’s not like she isn’t smiling). Perhaps she gets it from her father, actor Paul Ronan, who I’d met while waiting to talk to Saoirse. The elder Ronan was hanging out in an accompanying suite showing a mutual friend a copy of one of his favorite films, Keen Ivory Wayan’s “I”m Gonna Git You Sucka.” (Saoirse later, “Oh yes, that’s one of dad’s favorites.“) There is a genial and energetic bluntness to both Ronans that comes across when you first meet them. And to say it’s refreshing is a bit of an understatement. But, there is work at hand, and that’s chatting about “How I Live Now” which debuted at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.
Set in the near future, Ronan plays Daisy, a young American sent to spend part of the summer with her British relatives in the English countryside. In the midst of her bonding with cousins Edmond (George McKay) and Isaac (Tom Holland) a massive European war breaks out. When a nuclear bomb goes off in London, Daisy has the chance to escape back to relatively safe America or stay with her cousins whom are without any adult supervision. She choses the later and the rest of the picture is a pretty realistic look at what would happen to an island nation like the U.K. if this sort of tragedy occurred.
“How I Live” is based on Meg Rosoff’s celebrated novel and it’s not the first movie Ronan has appeared in adapted from a popular book. That being said, Ronan says that if given the choice she prefers not to read the original source material.
“I’ve been very lucky in the sense that the scripts have always been very strong whenever they’ve been adapted from books,” Ronan says. “So, I’ve always wanted to focus on the script version of the story ’cause that’s what we’re gonna the adapting. That’s the one were gonna put on the screen.”
Without skipping a beat, Ronan looks at my orange framed sunglasses hanging from my shirt collar and adds, “So, I like your glasses by the way. I got some as well.”
“They’re free,” I say off the TIFF branded glasses (perfect when you’ve broken your own pair en route to the festival).
“I know,” Ronan says smiling. “It’s always better when it’s free.”
Back to our interview (the clock is ticking), I have to ask if she really got away with starring in “The Host,” written by none other than Stephenie Meyers, without flipping through the book.
“I read that book before because there was so much in the book,” Ronan says. “There was so much of a back story that it was kind of important to read it, you know. And as well, I mean there’s no fan base out there, apart from maybe J.K. Rowling, like Stephenie’s fan base. But with [‘How I Live Now’] not so much, you know? It’s basically the same. There’s a few things that have changed, ages have been altered, some characters have been left in from the books. Some characters haven’t.”
Over Ronan’s career, she’s already learned that her forays into Hollywood studio movies (“The Host,” “City of Ember”) haven’t always been that successful either critically or financially. Luckily, her more auteur driven options are so high profile they likely make peers such as Emma Stone and Kristen Stewart green with envy. Ronan’s next film is Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” alongside an all-star cast of actor’s actors including Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, Lea Seydoux and Adrien Brody, among others. The Brooklyn born Ronan’s eyes lit up when I ask about “Budapest Hotel.”
“I play someone called Agatha and she works in a bakery,” Ronan volunteers. “That’s all I can say.”
Actually, wait a moment. Turns out she can say more.
“It was so much fun. It was so great,” Ronan adds. “I was nervous about it because his actors in those films have such a specific acting style. And I was really worried that I wasn’t gonna be able to do it. And I remember the first day I went in and I had to do just really simple stuff like walking in a corridor. And I had to bring like a little package into a room. It was all very simple. And I did it and I thought, ‘O.K., this is probably the way someone like Wes would want it done.’ But you’re still not sure. And then I did it and he came over and he is like one his own characters in a way. He does this with his hand [she holds her left hand up and pinches her thumb and forefinger while flaring out her pinky]. He looks from side to side. Or, you do something and he’d say, ‘Just put your arm up like that, yeah. And then tilt your head to the side like that. And then just do a little look.’ And I was like, ‘O.K.,’ so this is how Wes wants his film done. And once you’ve got that figured out it’s great and it’s really good fun.”
Anderson’s distinct direction sounds exactly like a filmmaker moving a figure in a stop motion animated film. Perhaps like Anderson’s own “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” And, yes, that fact isn’t lost on Ronan either.
“It’s almost like he’s doing an animated movie,” Ronan says. “Basically if you just do what Wes does you’re fine. And he’s got everything decided before he even shoots the film. So he’s got these animatics on a little iPad mini that he has with him every day. Story boarded the entire film, every single shot. And voiced every single character in the way he wants it to be read and the beat that he wants in between. So he’s like, ‘O.K., this scene is supposed to be a minute and a half. How long was it,’ he’ll ask the script supervisor and she’ll say, ‘It was about a minute and 50 seconds.’ And he’s like, “Okay. We need to make this [line] a little bit shorter then.’
Ronan adds, “The result is it works and everything is great that he does. And his editing doesn’t take that long.”
“Because he’s editing on set,” I interject.
“He’s edited before he’s even shot the film,” Ronan says. “It’s incredible.”
She followed up “Grand Budapest” by going in a completely different direction: Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, “How To Catch A Monster.” Ronan admits she thinks Gosling was a bit nervous stepping behind the camera for the first time, but didn’t “pretend that he knew everything.”
Ronan notes, “He had a really great crew around him and these were all people that he had worked with before on things like ‘Blue Valentine’ and ‘Drive.’ So he had his friends around him and people that he really trusted. And that allowed him to be able to really experiment with this film.”
Working on “Monster” was completely the opposite of “Grand Budapest” according to Ronan as it was almost all improv. Ronan says, “I mean there was dialogue written in the script but we would go off on a tangent and talk about whatever. It meant that literally every single scene was a surprise. You didn’t know what was gonna happen. Very much like the way Derek would have shot ‘Blue Valentine,’ you know? He’s really kind of influence by him. But he was very honest. He wanted everything to be incredibly honest. And if it wasn’t he would rewrite something to make sure that you felt comfortable.”
And Ronan continues her praise for Gosling. She remarks, “I think just like Ryan’s kind of character makes people relax. He’s really comfortable and he’s really chilled out all the time. So, you just feel really relaxed and really comfortable being yourself. It’s amazing to be around somebody like that and have them be your boss.”
Take that to heart all future film directors out there. Ronan may not even be 21 yet, but she certainly knows what she’s talking about.
“How I Live Now” opens in limited release on Nov. 8. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “How To Catch A Monster” are both expected to be released sometime in 2014.