Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird has rushed to the top of the year-end, must-see movies. As star Saoirse Ronan says, it’s a difficult movie to explain in just a couple of sentences (though, on this press tour, she’s getting much better at it). Lady Bird is just one of those movies that digs deep into the relationships people have with their hometown and their parents and the need to leave all that, then immediately come to truly appreciate everything that was just left behind.
Saoirse Ronan stars as Christine McPherson, who prefers to be called Lady Bird. She’s a high school senior in Sacramento, but longs to go to college on the East Coast. Ronan’s Lady Bird is reminiscent of her director, Gerwig – displaying many Gerwig’s mannerisms and speech patterns, which Ronan admits to doing. It’s an uncanny performance. It’s almost as if we’re watching Gerwig go back in time to 2003.
It’s a big year for Saoirse Ronan, which comes just two years after her last big year with 2015’s Brooklyn. She’s only 23 and has already been nominated for two Academy Awards, and she’s certainly set up this year for her third. (She is one of those actors who has a whole separate Wikipedia page just for “awards and nominations.”) But there’s something about Lady Bird that seems different. This feels like the kind of movie that pushes an actor over the next threshold. (She already is our next SNL host.) And it’s impossible to even label what a “threshold” even is, but it’s kind of one of those things that you know it when you see it. And with Lady Bird, we’re seeing it.
Yeah. I know Greta wrote them a letter as well. She wrote Dave Matthews and Justin Timberlake a letter to see if we could have the songs in the film.
Obviously, they said yes.
How could they not?
Are you surprised by the reaction to the movie? It’s certainly possible you knew people would love it…
Yeah, I’m always surprised. I think whenever anything does well – I mean, I’ve only ever had it once before – but getting a response like this is something that you dream of, but you can’t necessarily expect it because most of the time it doesn’t happen. And that’s not to say that the film doesn’t deserve it, but it was a small film, it was a low budget, it’s about a teenage girl, and those things don’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get commercial success or anything like that. And the fact that we’ve gotten so much love and people, men and women, have really understood it and really related to it has been so amazing.
It’s a hard movie to sum up in two sentences.
It is so hard.
“She lives in Sacramento…”
I know. I’ve been doing press now for the last couple of weeks, so I kind of know what I’m saying now. But I remember at the start I was like, I don’t know how to describe this. I don’t know how to describe it without it sounding like other films you’ve seen before, because it’s not. You’ve never seen something like this before, you know?
Sacramento makes a good stand-in for wherever you’re from originally. And if you’ve moved away, your relationship with wherever you’re originally from. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it does. I mean, I think it’s not like a major city that we have such an idea in our head of what it is. I didn’t know anything about Sacramento and I had never been there. And so I think you could kind of set it anywhere and people would relate to it, you know?
Ireland’s home for you, right? Because I know you were born in New York…
So does this resonate with how you feel about Ireland?
Yeah. I mean, Sacramento is the capital of California, but it feels like a small town. And as she says, it’s like the Midwest of California.
Right, I’m from the Midwest originally and it did hit home.
Right, yeah, there’s so much open space and there’s so much land that doesn’t have anyone or anything on it and things like that. And it’s the same in Ireland. I grew up in a small… I wasn’t even in a town. I wasn’t even in a village. I was like a mile away from the local village. So I was like in the sticks. And it was beautiful where I grew up and I had the best, best childhood and literally couldn’t have asked for a better upbringing. I went to a tiny little school and everyone knew each other and it had a river and it was so idyllic. But when you’re 15 and you’ve done that for 12 years, you’re like, “I need the city, I need people, I need people I don’t know.” And you’re ready, even though it’s terrifying, you’re sort of ready to dare yourself a little bit and you can see that that’s what Lady Bird is itching for.
I’ve seen a lot of Greta Gerwig movies. You’re doing some mannerisms that are very much like her…
[Laughs.] What do you mean? What are you talking about? Do you know the thing that Greta does – and I love it, she does it a lot in Francis Ha – where she gets her finger and points it upwards and sort of like twists her hand around when she’s making a point? And so I noticed that I was starting to do that. It was almost like a staccato movement, you know? And I found that the physicality of Lady Bird came from Greta, for sure. And even sometimes the way she enunciates things when she’s very precise. It’s funny when you’re just with the right people how you just naturally sort of subconsciously start to take little things from them – like you would in your own life as well if there’s someone that you love or you really look up to, you almost like start to sound like them a bit or rob little mannerisms.
I know she co-directed a movie before, but watching Lady Bird I can’t help but think that I wish she had done more before this…
I know. Well, I think this is why she’s so good, though, is that she didn’t rush into it. She didn’t kind of go, all right, I’m going to make my film now because I have something to say. She took her time. She learned her craft. She continues to be on really great film sets with great directors like Noah Baumbach and Mike Mills and people like that. It sounds patronizing to say, I don’t want it to sound like this, but I was so impressed by how on it she was. Like in the sense that she knew how she wanted to work, she knew what kind of atmosphere she wanted on set, she knew how to make the cast and crew feel really safe. And also we had a leader, but also that we had the freedom to figure it out on our own. She really fine-tuned what it was that she did and that she could offer us.
So earlier when you said it took you a while to figure out what to say to describe this movie…
So I figured out a way not to, I think? Because I mentioned to a publicist Superbad and she grimaced. I know they are different tones, but the idea of Seth Rogen writing a movie about his high school experience and using Jonah Hill to play him…
I think that’s a huge compliment. I think that such a huge compliment. Because you didn’t come around and go, “It’s like that female teen movie that we saw in the ’80s.” It’s so great that you thought of it as what we’ve seen from guy teen comedies in the past. Because they’re usually the ones where the characters are more well-rounded. And there’s more to the lead character than just who they’re going to fall in love with, or who they’re going to end up with, or whatever. So I think I can totally see that.
And Jonah Hill’s sister, Beanie Feldstein, is in Lady Bird…
And yeah, it’s like total coincidence that Beanie is in it as well.
It feels like you’ve been around forever, which is crazy. Even your IMDb page, there’s so much on it.
[Laughs.] I haven’t been on my IMDb page in years.
Do you feel like a veteran actor now?
[Laughs.] No, I don’t. I don’t feel like a veteran.
You should start saying that when you show up on set, “I’m the veteran actor.”
Yeah, could you imagine? Everything would stop. I’d never work again.
I think you’d be fine.
Yeah, don’t tell anyone I said this, but yes. [Laughs.] No, I think it’s something that has been consistent through most of my life for the last like 14 or 15 years. It’s been a constant thing for me and it’s been the thing that I’ve sort of relied on a bit and it’s given me structure when I wouldn’t have. I didn’t have a normal sort of teenage-hood, or whatever. And that was my structure and that gave me discipline and all that sort of stuff. I don’t know, it’s just something that I know so well. But also, from job to job, it literally feels like you’re starting all over again. It just feels like you’re starting from scratch and you’re just as nervous as you were the first time you did it and you’re terrified that like you’re going to forget how to do it. And those insecurities don’t go away. You just recognize them when they pop up, you know?
So far you’ve steered clear of franchises, though I’d suspect they’ve been knocking…
Actually, they haven’t been, necessarily.
Well, they’re going to.
[Laughs.] I mean, franchises are a funny thing because it’s something you’re going to be locked into for so long if it does well. And it’s usually such a trademark role and all that kind of thing. And I definitely wouldn’t come along and turn my nose up at something like that if it was good. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a $200 million movie or it’s a film being made for $250 grand. If it’s good, it’s good. And that’s what it comes down to for me. And I also have to remember that when the bigger things do come along that you can’t take those just because it’s sort of flattering or whatever. It has to be the right piece of work. So I think if, at some point, something like that came along and I felt like it was the right thing to do for the work that I wanted to do, then, yeah, I absolutely would.
That’s a good point. Last time I interviewed Greta I asked about the How I Met Your Dad pilot that didn’t get picked up…
I didn’t know she was going to do that.
Yeah, she was going to be the main character. But she said if it had, she may not have been able to make movies like Frances Ha or Mistress America.
Well, yeah. This is the other side of it. Because even as I was saying that, I was kind of thinking, Well, if it was the right thing, yes. But also what I do I absolutely love. Independent films have been what I’ve done the most, and the magical thing about them is that you really don’t know what the outcome is going to be. It’s almost equal to shooting on film. It’s so precious what you make and you don’t necessarily know – it’s not going to be polished in the way that it would if you had $200 million to do something. I mean, it is a different type of filmmaking when it’s a smaller scale, and that is something that I really love – the intimacy of that, for sure.
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