Sixteen-year-old Irish actress Saoirse Ronan won an Oscar nomination for her breakthrough performance as Briony Tallis in 2007's Atonement, directed by Joe Wright—whose other films include Pride & Prejudice and The Soloist. Ronan has also appeared in Death Defying Acts, City of Ember, The Way Back, and The Lovely Bones, in which she played Susie Salmon for director Peter Jackson. She's now rumored to be gearing up to play Itaril in Jackson's two-part adaptation of The Hobbit. But first she and Wright stopped by WonderCon at San Francisco's Moscone Center to promote Hanna, their second collaboration. Ronan began by talking about her preparation for playing a contemporized fairy tale heroine with dangerous action chops.
Saoirse Ronan: Physically it was very intense. I trained for about two months before we started shooting. And I worked out in the gym and did different styles of martial arts. It took a lot of focus, and it was probably the most preparation I've done for a film. So it took a lot of concentration as well, too, and I like that! I think that's good. It was good for me to do something like that, yeah.
Groucho: You know, we always talk about the physical preparation...but I’m curious about your emotional preparation, or your character preparation. What do you normally do as part of your process to feel ready when you arrive on the set, beyond studying the lines?
Saoirse Ronan: It’s kind of funny. It’s sometimes tough to talk about something like that, because for me it’s quite a natural thing, and I guess just after a while when you understand the character fully and have talked to the director and gotten to know the person that you’re going to be playing, you can just kind of slip into it. And luckily so far, maybe because I’m so interested in the people that I’ve played, that’s been a very natural thing for me to do. With Hanna, something that I felt very strong—well, something that really helped me to become this character was kind of wiping my mind clean of any experience, really, that I had gone through, especially over the past few years as a growing girl, and—because she’s never gone through those kind of experiences. And I got to see everything in a new light, and so fresh and pure. So that was fun. And it’s something I've held onto, actually...
Groucho: Obviously you’ve had a strong working relationship with your director, Joe Wright. How would you describe what he’s able to do for you in terms of developing your craft and I guess also your career? It’s been pretty pivotal, I guess.
SR: He…Joe trusts me. And, I can’t remember as far back as Atonement—(chuckles) but certainly on Hanna, I really felt like he had this belief in me, and that I could do whatever he kind of asked of me. And that’s a wonderful feeling to have...It’s a very wonderful feeling to have as an actor, that the person who you’re kind of doing it for has this trust in you. And I guess when you feel that relaxed and that safe to try different things, you’ll go on to the next movie and you’ll think, “Okay, well I did it on this, and it worked out well. So let’s try it on this one.” So I guess he encouraged me to take more risks. And on every film you do, you’re going to grow anyway because of the experience that you have and the people that you worked with, but he worked with me at two very—sort of, impressionable ages: twelve years old and sixteen years old...
G: Can you talk a little bit about the character dynamic and the acting dynamic between you and your co-stars?
SR: Yah. Well, like I said before, the characters are really strong in this film, I think. And I think you can take any one of them and make a movie just about them. It kind of—I mean it is Hanna’s film—but it kind of feels a bit like an ensemble piece. It’s a very rich story because of these people, and we had such great—like, an amazing cast on this film. Not only Cate and Eric, who were wonderful, and I worked with Eric quite a bit and, you know, we trained together and things like that, but we’ve got Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng and fantastic Jessica Barden. People like that. And Tom Hollander, of course. And I think they make the story more artistic because of their acting, because of the level that they’re at. That’s it, really.
G: Joe, how did this material come to you, and did you mull it over or did you know right away it was something you wanted to do?
Joe Wright: It came to me by Saiorse Ronan, actually. She was on board—and I’d read the script and thought it was good and, for some weird reason, thought I should direct it. I think maybe I just might have been the first name that came to her head, and she thought she should say something or something. I don’t know, cause it’s kind of rather perverse casting on her part, but I did mull it over. I was very interested in working with Saiorse again, 'cause I love her. I think she’s brilliant. But I wasn’t really sure that I could pull it off. And at the same time, I was kind of scared of it. And I find often, when I’m scared of something, it’s—that means it’s something I should do...I was scared of the action stuff, to be honest with you. I’ve never done action, and that was kind of—I wasn’t sure whether I could do it. And I was also kind of—I was sort of—I didn’t want to just make some other—you know, 'another action film.' I didn’t want to just make some piece of, you know, popcorn crap. And so I was kind of nervous about whether I could actually elevate it slightly above that. Not much above it, but just a bit above it.
G: The fairytale aspect is obviously in the script, but what were some of the choices you made to tease that out?
JW: Well it was inherent in the structure of the script, but a lot of it wasn’t—you know, what you see wasn’t in the script when I first read it. And so I kind of saw the structure as being a classic fairy tale. And obviously the first, kind of, fifteen pages set in the forest—they're in a log cabin in the forest, child grows up, that’s fairy tale. And then what followed was next to fairy tale. So I tried to kind of—I was interested in the notion of what becomes of the fairy tale in kind of contemporary society. So it was really a matter of kind of keeping my eyes open to the fairy tale possibilities in the locations we saw. And so, you know, we were location scouting before we finished work on the script—and so the amusement park, for instance, we happened to find in Berlin, and suddenly that kind of opened up a whole new subtext that was very exciting. And so we really kind of went around looking for fairy tales, really. Which is a nice exercise.