Q&A: Through ‘Lady Bird,’ Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan find connections in art and life

“Lady Bird” writer-director Greta Gerwig, left, with the film’s lead, Saoirse Ronan.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

If you’ve seen “Lady Bird,” the wise, warm story about a young woman finding and asserting herself while dealing with her conflicted feelings toward a mother she can never seem to please, then you know that Greta Gerwig, who wrote and directed the film, has a keen eye for detail.

Whether it’s the scrutinized length of the pleated skirts at Lady Bird’s Catholic school, the theater kids’ righteous renditions of Stephen Sondheim songs while auditioning for “Merrily We Roll Along” or the way Lady Bird’s mom (a superb Laurie Metcalf) looks at her daughter sleeping while she hangs up the dress she spent the night sewing, there’s a precision to every shot, every word of dialogue, every moment of love and loss.

Which makes Gerwig’s recollection of the first time she met Saoirse Ronan, the actress who would come to embody her high school heroine, all the more interesting. They had talked on Skype months earlier, and now they were both at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, promoting movies, and Gerwig came to Ronan’s hotel room for a proper script read-through.

“Saoirse opened the door with a Coca-Cola and her slippers,” Gerwig remembers. “Just a regular Coke. I thought, ‘I like this girl.’ ”

Ronan also had some French onion soup that she ordered from room service, but she never removed the protective cellophane covering the bowl because for the next couple of hours, the two women did nothing but read the script, laugh, cry, bond and, yes, share a few more (soft) drinks of the non-diet variety.

Reunited two years later on a chilly late-afternoon on the balcony of a West Hollywood hotel room, the sun setting, other guests on display on their own terraces (“I bet there is a lot of debauchery at this hotel,” Ronan guesses, to which Gerwig answers, “Not us … we’re just drinking Cokes”), the pair settle in with blankets, clasping hands throughout a lengthy conversation about their lovely movie, which was nominated Tuesday for five Oscars, including best picture and director, and nods for Ronan and Metcalf.

I was just reading the script, and the stage directions are as evocative as the dialogue. Like when Lady Bird meets Kyle, the stage directions read: “She understands all R&B songs in one second.” Which makes me wonder: Have you ever experienced that feeling?

Gerwig: Yup!

Ronan: I was in the car recently and I heard “Like a Prayer” on the radio, and I thought, “I get it now.”

Gerwig: I get it now!

Ronan: I get what she was saying on a deeper level.

Because you’ve met your Kyle?

Ronan: Oh, noooooo. I wouldn’t say that. Not a Kyle.

Gerwig: But you met somebody special.

Ronan: [Laughs] No, no, not necessarily that. And, again, definitely not a Kyle!

Gerwig: It was me! It was me! You met me.

Ronan: Yes. I realized I fell in love with Greta recently and Madonna made sense to me.

Gerwig: [Singing] “When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer ...” I had that experience with a few different boys, not that they reciprocated at all. But I was suddenly like, “I get it. I get all the songs.”

Ronan: That must have informed that other bit of stage direction when Lady Bird met Kyle and it said that her loins were on fire.

Gerwig: [Laughs] Saoirse is really good at taking the piss out of me. I remember the first time we Skyped. Not an audio Skype. A visual Skype.

Ronan: Just to clarify — it was both. It wasn’t us just doing hand gestures.

Gerwig: We had a very romantic Skype date.

Ronan: We were very giddy.

Gerwig: Sort of like we are now.

Ronan: But even more so. I remember coming off that Skype call and I was like, “Jesus Christ, I haven’t felt that alive since I was 15 years old!”

Gerwig: I felt like I knew you instantly. Like not just know you, but have you in my heart. That’s why I say she can just look at me sometimes and be like, “What are you thinking?” Like I said, she can take the piss out of me.

Ronan: Do I make you question your inner self too much?

Gerwig: No! I love it. I’m associating it with an Irish trait, like that ability to say, “I see you.”

Ronan: It comes from love, Greta. It comes from love.

I remember coming off that Skype call and I was like, “Jesus Christ, I haven’t felt that alive since I was 15 years old!”

— Saoirse Ronan on the first time she spoke to Greta Gerwig

Why do you think you connected so immediately?

Ronan: I don’t know. But it was instant. We knew right away.

Gerwig: We had a year before shooting, and she was working on “The Crucible.” I’m a big believer in your unconscious working on things. I don’t know if your unconscious worked on it. It certainly seemed that way to me.

Ronan: It was always on my mind.

Gerwig: Do you remember when I brought [“Lady Bird” cast member] Lucas [Hedges] to see you in “The Crucible”? He was sitting next to me gasping, and I said, “Lucas. Have you never seen this?” And he was like, “No. I have no idea what this story is at all.” And his head was just exploding. He was so blown away that I think he was nervous to act with you. Because that play … you were so on Abigail’s side. I had never seen a production of it like that where you think, “Go girl!”

Ronan: And then it was right into “Lady Bird.” Having come out of something so intense — and I was really out on a limb because it was so new to me, working as a theater actor — to go into the arms of Greta and be safe was incredible. She took such good care of me.

Gerwig: I felt very maternal to everyone, even to people who were older.

Ronan: Even Tracy [Letts]. I don’t know if I should be saying this. Last year, Mam and I got a puppy and I told Tracy. But I’m really excited about getting this dog and it’s really great and he said, “Well you know what they say. ‘Get a pet. Get a tragedy.’” [Laughs]

Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Do you live with your mother, Saoirse?

Ronan: I’m sort of a gypsy. I have a house at home [just south of Dublin] that my mom lives in. I’ve realized recently that I think for a good while, maybe until I have kids or something, I’ll always live between Ireland and another place. Because what Lady Bird is yearning for as well is that you’re one person in the place where you grew up and then you’re another person in the place where you find yourself. I definitely feel that in New York or London. I’m different there from how I am at home. That’s where I’m able to be anonymous and young or make mistakes and be stupid and all that.

Gerwig: As much as a person can love a place, I feel like you love Ireland.

Ronan: I do. I’m very proud to be from there.

Gerwig: I remember watching Saoirse, because every year I throw an Academy Awards party. I also throw a Tony party.

Ronan: Do you?

Gerwig: I love awards shows! So, I was watching Saoirse, who was so brilliant in “Brooklyn,” walk the red carpet and you were wearing …

Ronan: Green.

Gerwig: Green! And I remember screaming, “Noah [Baumbach, Gerwig’s partner]! Tape the pre-show!” And he was like, “Oh God, this is going to go on forever.” But I watch all the interviews. And you said you wore your green dress for Ireland and it was your good luck charm and I was thinking, “She’s the best in the world! And she’s in my movie!”

Saoirse Ronan at the Oscars in 2016, wearing a green dress for Ireland.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Have you ever been to the Oscars?

Gerwig: No! No! I watch it on my television.

Ronan: Honestly, if you get to go, Greta …

Gerwig: My head’s going to explode!

Ronan: I remember last time, Mam and I just got so excited we saw the back of the Weeknd’s head because he had his hair done the way he usually does. We almost missed the monologue.

It sounds like you and your mother have a very different relationship, Saoirse, than Lady Bird and her mom.

Gerwig: Her mother is magical.

Ronan: One of us will say or do something that will upset the other one and we’ll be in a bit of a huff for 10 minutes. And then the other one will sense it because we know each other so well and go, “What?” “Well, you did this thing and it upset me.” And you’ll try to defend yourself and that will go on for a couple of minutes and then we won’t talk for about 10 minutes and then we’ll come back together and go, “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” And that is the extent of our arguments.

I know a lot of friends who had fraught relationships with their mothers. And I think, more so than with your dad, it gets to you. This is the person you came from. That gets in deep.

Gerwig: I fought with my mom, but I can’t even remember what the fights were about. We’d fight and recover right away. I have a lot of things I’m like my mom about. We both have these extreme personalities where, when it’s good, we never remember when it wasn’t good, and when we’re fighting, we never remember getting along. There’s an intensity to whatever moment we’re in.

There’s a scene in the movie where [Lady Bird's father] Larry says to Lady Bird, “You both have such strong personalities,” and my mom was sitting next to me at Telluride [Film Festival], and she said, “Yes! Yes!”

Ronan: And now she has the movie. She knows how you feel about her. Not that she didn’t before. Isn’t there a Tennessee Williams quote: “Good art can take you home”?

Gerwig: That’s what I wanted this movie to do. The reason I like art or want to make art is to connect people back to themselves or their own lives through something specific that you’re showing on screen.

Ronan: That’s it, really. A good piece of music or a book or a film, it’s just about finding that thing in you that makes you feel at home.