ARTS AND FEATURES — 25 October 2013

Shelley Marsden meets Hollywood golden girl, Saoirse Ronan

SHE’s only 19, but she’s already played a vampire, teen assassin, and, ahem, a girl whose body is host to an invading alien consciousness. Now fresh-faced Saoirse Ronan, from Carlow, is getting her teeth into a part she’s wanted for a while – just a modern teenager.

She’s certainly got what she wanted with Daisy, the protagonists of Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald’s new film, the apocalyptic young adult love story How I Live Now. She comes complete with piercings, a penchant for swearing and serious abandonment issues, following her mother’s death as a child and her father’s attention being perennially elsewhere.

Daisy, vulnerable, ironic and superior, has a sharp tongue and a defensive attitude, but she’s clearly desperate to fit in with the liberal English family she arrives from New York to spend the summer with.  For Saoirse, whose last project saw her work with Ryan Gosling on his directorial debut How To Catch A Monster (as a character called ‘Rat’), it was a case of right part, right time.

I meet her in Soho, in one of those typically overheated hotel rooms press interviews are held in, reminded of her star status before I sit down, as a make-up artist and personal hairdresser saunter out of the room having beautified their starlet in time for her next interviewer.

“There might have been a little bit of me in there”, says Saoirse, wiping a bead of sweat from her forehead, as I ask her if there was any of herself in the moody teenager.  She says she found her therapeutic to play: “She talked back a lot and had all this kind of stuff building up inside her; it was really nice for me to play somebody like that.”

The art department, per Kevin Macdonald’s request, handed Saoirse a diary during her first days on set (which her character also uses to scribble angsty thoughts down on) and was told to fill out ten pages with personal musings and pictures from childhood onwards.

“That actually really started to help me bring out who I thought Daisy was”, says Saoirse. Her self-possession for a girl of nineteen, albeit one who has already worked with adults for years – include in there more A-list directors than most actors dream of – is a little disarming.

“I kind of wrote through her, but then started to include some personal, emotional stuff of my own, and I found that really helpful. Normally I wouldn’t do any of that kind of stuff to prepare for a movie, so it was interesting.”

The angry and acerbic Daisy is a departure from the rather ethereal characters she has played until now. Saoirse agrees, saying she loved playing a girl who at least initially comes across as a “total bitch”. More importantly, however, she got to play someone current.

“After Byzantium, Hannah and The Host I was desperate to play this modern, American girl – someone who was present day and cursed and had piercings and… She’s a bit more abrasive than a few of the characters I’ve played, which is really important; I don’t ever want to get stuck in the one thing. She was an important character for me to play for that reason.”

Part of Daisy’s hard-nosed stance seems to be a reaction to her inability to handle the bohemian set-up she discovers at her cousins’ country-house in the English countryside. A far cry from her claustrophobic, neurotic life with her father in the US, the kids here roam free; she doesn’t actually meet her aunt [Anna Chancellor] until the next day.

Says Saoirse: “She totally doesn’t know how to handle it! She’s also got this American thing of being wrapped up in celeb culture, what she’s eating and what she’s putting into her body, and here are these English country kids who don’t have a care in the world. She’s really intimidated; by how comfortable they are with where they live and with who they are. They break her down eventually, which is good.”

Unlike co-stars Tom Holland and George McKay [Daisy’s lover Eddie], the latter whom she is rumoured to be having on an off-screen relationship with, she hadn’t even read Meg Rosoff’s book before coming on board – taking her director’s advice and waiting until after the film.

She holds the Scottish director and his work in high regard – apart from her burning desire to get playing a “current” character, he was the main draw: “In many ways, Kevin is the perfect director to work with. He brings a lot of emotion to the thing without going over the top.”

Saoirse got the part, but the process, she says, made her want it all the more as he made her fight for it. She ended up having several meetings with Macdonald over a one-year period, as he was not convinced to being with that he wanted a name actor at all. Plus, Saoirse at nineteen was older than Daisy is in the book. She embarked on a mission to convince him that she would “do him a good Daisy”, and finally won him over.

The cast ranges from ten to twenty years, and the camaraderie is palpable. George McKay said recently of their time filming: “Tom’s a real joker, Danny’s very sweet, Harley’s wicked and Saoirse’s lovely. Every day, somebody would latch onto something they found funny and we’d all hop in on the joke.”

Unusually for both of them Saoirse and George, normally the youngest on set, found themselves the elders on set, for the first time taking on the role of caring for the little ones. It seems to have brought out a maternal instinct in Saoirse. She says: “It was really nice, and I think it changed the dynamic a bit; it changed our positions on set. We did have these kids who hadn’t really done that much before. Harley (who plays the baby of the clan, Piper) had done the voice of Peppa Pig, but she had never been on a film set before, so it was lovely to get to take care of her and the others. They were so relaxed about everything that it made us relaxed, too.”

It seems they had as much fun running about a field in Wales (where it was shot) as it looks like, and Saoirse says most of what you see on screen of the group messing around, including the scene where Tom, fooling around, breaks a stick on his head, were all spontaneous.

“Basically Kevin just let us mess about in a field, doing back-flips with a dog running around us and let the camera roll; those are the kind of very natural moments he got out of it, you know? He’d say ‘Try this’ or ‘Try that’ but it was basically just our own dynamic, our real-life relationships coming to the surface.”

Violently interrupting the party, of course, is what we later learn is the outbreak of a 21st century war, heralded by the sound of an explosion and followed by nuclear fallout which the bemused friends stare at, slack-jawed, as it settles like snow on the cottage and fields that have till now been their carefree playground.

The power of those scenes, I suggest, lie in the very normal English countryside Kevin MacDonald has set up the story in – it’s not Hollywood, it’s a country house with a sky that more often than not is threatening rain.

Says Saoirse: “That’s what I love about it. It looks like home, doesn’t it?! We shot it in Wales, and then Harls and I did the last week of shooting in London, for some of the military scenes. But that’s what struck me about it – it looked like where I grew up.

“That’s what’s different about How I Live Now, too”, she reflects. “I don’t think it’s a ‘young adult’ film at all. There are young adults in it, but it’s not commercial, it’s not polished. It’s realistic; it’s in a real environment. It really hits a nerve when you see a really similar place to where you’ve grown up on screen be dramatically obliterated. And to be honest, it’s something that could happen.”

How I Live Now is in cinemas now across the UK.

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