Shortly after she received an Oscar nomination at the tender age of 13, "Atonement" star Saoirse Ronan needed a new movie. Despite a drama background, she was intrigued by the title character in "Hanna," an ethereally beautiful teen who also happens to be a ruthless assassin. But the project was stuck in development at Focus Features; filmmakers like Danny Boyle had come and gone.
Ronan had a simple solution: "They said they didn't have a director," the Irish actress (first name SER-sha) recalls. "So I said, 'Why don't you just ask Joe Wright to do it?'"
Wright was a strange choice, to say the least. The British filmmaker was best known for his cinematic adaptations of "Atonement," Ian McEwan's revered novel, and the Jane Austen classic "Pride and Prejudice." He had won highbrow prizes. He didn't watch many action movies, let alone direct them. A killing machine played by a teenage girl wasn't much on his mind.
Unless, that is, it was a certain teenage girl. "If Saoirse hadn't been involved I wouldn't have given it much attention," Wright says. "But because she was, I thought I should take it seriously."
The result of that unlikely chain of events — "Saoirse hired me," Wright says, only half-joking — is this coming weekend's "Hanna." The release is a Jason Bourne-like fugitive story, if Jason Bourne were an adolescent girl and "Bourne" director Paul Greengrass had spent years adapting period novels.
Ronan plays Hanna, a girl raised in isolation in northern Finland by a single father (Eric Bana) before separating from him to be pursued across Europe by coldhearted secret agents led by Cate Blanchett's Marissa. Scenes of a vulnerable Hanna adjusting to the civilized world are interwoven with stylized action sequences of the girl violently offing her pursuers.
Over lunch in the courtyard of a Beverly Hills restaurant, Wright and Ronan display one of the more unusual relationships in contemporary filmmaking — he, nearly 40, a dandy-ish BAFTA winner and expert in classic drama (next up: "Anna Karenina"); she a 16-year-old middle-class Irish lass with a luminous complexion and blue saucer-eyes. They fulfill multiple roles for each other — family member, meal ticket, muse — though at any given moment it's a toss-up which one will play which part.
"I found it wonderful to be able to express my ideas and thoughts through another human being and see them actually realized on screen," Wright says of Ronan.
Ronan, turning to him, reassures that his action-movie gamble was wise. "People are really interested to see what you're going to do with this," she tells him, offering an almost spousal level of validation.
A moment later, though, Wright begins to prod her: "So who's your core audience?"
Ronan answers that she thinks it's "everyone." Then she turns to a reporter and declares in her lilting Irish accent. "When we work together it's something that's quite electric." (Bana describes watching the two and seeing "a great shorthand in communication.")
Ronan seems to relish Wright's paternal role (Wright and his wife had their first child five weeks ago). When the filmmaker and actor were shooting a critical scene in "Atonement," Ronan was horsing around between takes. Wright came over and told her to snap out of it. "He said, 'Be serious and focus on what you're doing, and don't joke right now.'" Ronan recalled. "I got such a shock."
When asked how she felt about Wright when they first met four years back, Ronan replies, "It was a long time ago. I don't remember it very clearly. But the thing that stuck with me is that I basically fell in love with this man."
Wright, with a sentimental drop in his voice: "Oh, Sersh."
A chance casting
Oddly, their partnership almost never came to pass. To find the actor for "Atonement's" Briony Tallis, the director cast a wide net. There was one candidate who seemed like the perfect fit. But it wasn't Ronan, who didn't really fit. Unlike the moody, conniving brunet Brit of McEwan's novel, Ronan was not sullen. She was cheerful. She was blond. She was hyper-social. Most troublingly for a U.K. audience, she wasn't English.
"This kid obviously had this extraordinary talent but was as different from Briony as you could get. Saoirse was always very outgoing and happy and talkative." (Saoirse, interjecting, "I'm not talkative at all"). "She was not particularly introspective," Wright adds. "And she was obviously Irish."
He cast her anyway, and their collaboration went on to yield seven Oscar nominations and $125 million in worldwide box office. The movie turbocharged both of their careers.
They then went their separate ways — he to "The Soloist," she to "The Lovely Bones," both critical and commercial disappointments. When they reunited for "Hanna," Ronan had grown up. "You were a bit freaked out when I went to see you in London [before production began], weren't you?" Ronan asks Wright.
'It was quite a strange readjustment," Wright answers. He turns to a reporter. "Physically she's changed. But she's always been quite secure in her identity, and it's a very strong identity. That hasn't changed. It's evolved."
Ronan: "I hope I've changed a little bit, though."
Wright: "You've evolved. You haven't changed."
Ronan was born in New York and raised about an hour south of Dublin (her father is also an actor), and her angelic face has allowed her to give characters a surprising edge. You rarely suspect that Briony is capable of scheming or that Hanna can flip an internal switch and become a killer, which makes it so much more startling when it happens. "I love playing those characters that don't have to use words to tell the audience what they're feeling," Ronan says.
"Hanna" was shot on location in Germany, Finland and Morocco last year. Although some first-time action directors might have been tempted to play it safe, Wright went the other way in adapting Seth Lochhead's and David Farr's script — he made an auteurish action film, complete with flashy camera work, quick cuts and a driving score from the Chemical Brothers. There's also a chilly formality to many of the interactions between the secret agents, as though the scenes are taking place in another world; indeed, for Hanna, who has spent most of her life in abject solitude, they are.
Bana says he appreciated that Wright was an action newbie. "It's exciting working with a director who's going into a different genre. You feel you're a part of a journey into unchartered waters," says the actor.
Wright admits he cut his teeth as he went. It was only as he got further into production that he felt he could take more risks. "As my confidence grew, the action sequences became bolder," he says. "The film is an expression of my education."
Asked then if he would make a movie in this genre again, Wright pauses, sounding unsure. "Yeah," he says, tentatively. Then he repeats, slightly more sure, "Yeah."
"The Jason Bourne films showed us that it's possible to make an action-movie thriller with a social and moral conscience, unlike most action films that seem to be right-wing testosterone-driven misogynist pieces of crap that I find offensive on every level," he says. "'Bourne' showed it's possible to reach an audience that's a little more self-aware."
As for his star performer, Wright said it's her innate skill — Ronan has had little formal training — that has fueled his desire to collaborate with her. Indeed, one source said they are close to reuniting again on Wright's "Anna Karenina," though the director declined to confirm that. "I definitely hoped after 'Atonement' I'd be a part of [Ronan's] future films. I certainly wouldn't have predicted it would be an action-fairy-tale thriller," he says of "Hanna."
Ronan jumps in: "I knew Joe could do it even though film-wise he had only done period dramas. He would take this action movie, which was so well written, and turn it into something elegant. This character Hanna is a bit of a freak, and so it deserved to be a bit of a freak film."
Wright: "Because I'm a bit of a freak?"