Saoirse Ronan of ‘The Lovely Bones’ stays on balance

Don’t call her the new it girl. She’ll fidget with her sleeves; the pressure makes her a bit squeamish. The new lit girl? She’s OK with that.

Saoirse (pronounced SIR-sha) Ronan burst onto the scene at 13 with her Academy Award-nominated performance in the cinematic adaptation of Ian McEwan’s " Atonement.” She played Briony in the period drama -- a child who meddles in her sister’s love affair, causing devastating results -- and held her own opposite the film’s lead actors, Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.

Her latest film, “The Lovely Bones,” an adaptation of the bestselling book by Alice Sebold and directed by Peter Jackson, hits theaters Friday.

“I’m a bit of a bookworm, aren’t I?” said Ronan, now 15, before taking a sip of orange juice at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel one recent morning. In person, she comes across much more measured and mature than her age suggests; poised and thoughtful with her answers, but retaining her teen sensibility -- giggling when she’s “flummoxed” and sitting cross-legged in her chair.

In “Lovely Bones,” Ronan plays 14-year-old Susie Salmon, who -- early on in the story -- is raped and murdered by her neighbor on her way home from school in 1973. She narrates the tragic story from the “in-between,” a place similar to purgatory, as her family copes with the tragedy and her murderer roams free.

“She was only 13 years old when we filmed,” said costar Stanley Tucci, who plays the neighbor George Harvey. “How someone acquires that kind of maturity as an actress at such a young age is remarkable. I can’t imagine it. She handles herself as well as any seasoned actor. I wouldn’t even be able to finish a sentence at her age. She’s a real actress. Bottom line. And she is Susie Salmon. No one else could play her.”

It was a role Ronan and her family were hesitant to accept because of the rape and murder content. But after meeting with Jackson, their hesitation eased.

“She’s just amazing on-screen,” Jackson said. “Just brilliant. I tend to not work with big stars for the key roles in most of my films. What’s appealing to me as a filmmaker is that audiences don’t bring a preconceived notion to the film of who this person is. They’re more likely to believe in Susie Salmon if they’re not so familiar with Saoirse.”

She may not grace the covers of Teen Beat or Us Weekly, but Ronan isn’t exactly unknown.

When she was 8, she landed a role in the Irish television show “The Clinic.” A year later, she played Orla Boland in another series called “Proof.” In 2007, three films that Ronan appeared in were released: the romantic comedy “I Could Never Be Your Woman,” in which Ronan played Michelle Pfeiffer’s daughter; “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey” and the Joe Wright-directed “Atonement.”

“Atonement” got Ronan worldwide recognition from audiences and the industry. TheTimes’Kenneth Turan called Ronan “exceptional.” New York Times critic A.O. Scott described her as “remarkably poised.” And in London’s Sunday Times, Cosmo Landesman described her performance as “confident and gripping.”

Despite the attention, Ronan has avoided the flashbulb limelight that surround her young peers such as Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez. And she doesn’t expect that will change.

“I don’t think I would ever want fame like them,” Ronan said. “I have to say, I think Miley Cyrus is still quite young. She’s what? Seventeen? I think she’s very brave for all that fame to be thrown at her so young. She’s like another Britney Spears. I don’t envy her at all -- or any of those girls who get that much attention. I suppose we’re different kinds of actors. I focus on my work. The stuff that comes afterward -- the press and premieres -- it’s fine, it’s fun . . . but what I really want to do is work on my acting.”

An only child, Ronan was born in New York City, where she lived until she was 3. Her parents, Monica and Paul -- he’s a well-known Irish stage actor who’s appeared in such films as “Veronica Guerin” and “The Devil’s Own” -- moved the family back to Ardattin, a small Irish village -- really small; it has a population of about 300 -- in County Carlow.

It was there that a glimpse into her passion for acting revealed itself . . . with the help of a plastic toy doll called Polly Pocket.

“I used to make up stories,” Ronan recalled. “Little soap operas. Polly Pocket’s boyfriend was Woody from ‘Toy Story.’ They were together for a very long time -- since high school, actually. In college, he had an affair. It was very complex -- things that probably a 7-year-old shouldn’t have been imagining. I was a weird gal.”

But it’s that vivid imagination that makes her an unforgettable actress, Jackson insists.

“When she’s performing -- when she’s in the moment -- there’s no sense that she’s acting,” Jackson said. “It just feels completely authentic. I can see her being one of the premium actresses of her generation. It’s impossible to predict things, but she’s so versatile. I could easily see her having a career as esteemed as Cate Blanchett or Kate Winslet.”

But, for now, she’s still enjoying the perks of being a teen. She lives most of the year with her parents in the Irish countryside, two hours from Dublin.

Her mother travels everywhere with her, and to keep the homely vibe on while on location, they rent houses instead of staying in hotels. She loves her dog, Sassy.

She likes to get lost in the pages of books -- the latest have been Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and " Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.” When she’s not reading, she enjoys watching movies such as “Dirty Dancing” and “Grease.” Music? She’s a fan of Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Beyoncé. But she’s also jams to Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie and Bob Dylan.

If this acting thing doesn’t work out, she’s interested in painting and writing -- “anything creative.” But she’s hopeful her time in front of the lens continues. She would even like to work behind the lens, sitting in the director’s chair.

“I’ve got more in me,” she said. “I’ve only given you a taste.”