‘Lady Bird’s’ Saoirse Ronan, Oscar’s leading best actress contender, is looking for her safe space

Saoirse Ronan, seen here at West Hollywood's London hotel in November, stars in awards contender "Lady Bird."
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

When Saoirse Ronan found out she’d be spending a couple of weeks in Los Angeles to promote her new film, “Lady Bird,” she asked to stay in an apartment instead of a hotel. She wanted to be able to light her Diptyque candles, do her own laundry and drink herbal tea before bed.

“I think it’s good for me to go back at the end of the night and look after myself,” says Ronan, 23.

But when she arrived at her temporary L.A. home, she found bags of groceries from Whole Foods awaiting her. Her mother, more than 5,000 miles away in Ireland, had ordered the provisions online.

“She bought vegetables for me to cook with,” the actress says. “I have such a great mam. She makes sure I’m getting a good dinner from across the pond.”

Ronan is exceptionally close to her mother, Monica. Growing up as an only child in Carlow, Ireland’s second-smallest county, she relished her relationship with her homemaker mother and actor father. They’d all watch “Seinfeld” together, and Ronan was such a rule-follower that she willingly did the dishes, because she wanted her parents “to be happy.”

“We know it’s gold dust, what we have,” Ronan says of her mother. “We kind of hit the jackpot with each other.”

If you’ve seen “Lady Bird,” which is an early awards favorite — on Thursday, the New York Film Critics Circle named it best film and gave Ronan the best actress award, and on Monday she picked up a Gotham Award — it might come as somewhat of a surprise that she’s had such an idyllic relationship with her own mother. In the movie, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, Ronan stars as a high school senior who is constantly at odds with her mom, played by Laurie Metcalf. The angsty teenager refuses the name her mother has given her, Christine, instead branding herself Lady Bird. She wants to apply to a liberal arts college in New York; her mother thinks a public university near her hometown of Sacramento will suffice. When Lady Bird finally settles on a prom dress that she thinks complements her figure, her mother deems it “too pink.”

As Lady Bird, Ronan tries on prom dresses with her mom, played by Laurie Metcalf.
(Merie Wallace / Associated Press)

“So many friends of mine had relationships like that with their moms,” Ronan says. “This is the person you come from. They birthed you. Have you ever read [Simone de Beauvoir’s] ‘The Second Sex’? You know the way she talks about how, as babies, a mother and a woman’s body is comfort for all of us? But then you get older and start to rebel against that. You need your independence, but you also still want your comfort. It’s so complicated.”

Gerwig first met with Ronan about the movie in 2015, when the actress was at the Toronto International Film Festival for a premiere of her movie “Brooklyn.” (Ronan’s role in the coming-of-age drama, about a young Irish woman who immigrates to New York, earned her a second Academy Award nomination. Her first, for 2007’s “Atonement,” came when she was just 13.)

Ronan as Eilis in "Brooklyn."
(Kerry Brown / Fox Searchlight Pictures)

After their meeting in Canada, Gerwig felt so certain that Ronan was right for the role that she agreed to push production on “Lady Bird” six months to accommodate the actress, who was in the midst of rehearsing for “The Crucible” on Broadway.

“I can’t speak about her without becoming emotional,” Gerwig says when asked about her leading lady. “She transformed herself so fully that you almost don’t see the transformation. You can’t see the seams. Suddenly, you can’t imagine her as someone who’s British or Irish or anything else — all you see is this girl.… In a way, it almost feels like the quality of finding an unknown, even though she’s Saoirse and she’s been nominated for an Oscar twice and everybody knows who she is. It feels like that same sense of discovery of ‘Holy ..., she can do this too?’”

Saoirse Ronan, left, on set for "Lady Bird" with director Greta Gerwig.

Meanwhile, after years of being identified as a preternaturally gifted kid actress, Ronan felt that “Brooklyn” had finally allowed Hollywood to see her as an adult. Previously, she said, she’d been in an odd spot — too young to play “the authoritative woman working on Wall Street,” but too old to tell most teenage stories.

Now, she felt more grown up — both on-screen and off. At 19, she’d finally moved away from Ireland to London, where she lived in a flat for the first time by herself. It was hard and scary, she says, learning how to shop and cook and clean for herself.

“You do have a lot of stuff done for you when you’re young as an actor,” Ronan admits. “People tell you where to go, where to stand. People steam your dress and make you cups of tea. I remember on ‘Atonement,’ an AD [assistant director] came over to me and asked me if I wanted anything, and I asked for a cup of tea. My mom called them back and said, ‘No, she’ll go and make her own tea.’ Little, gentle reminders like that helped me separate real life from on-set life.”

Ronan at the Oscars in 2016, when she was nominated for her lead performance in "Brooklyn."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Because she was working so much as a teenager on films like “The Lovely Bones” and “Hanna,” Ronan began homeschooling when she was 14. Unlike Lady Bird, she didn’t have any rich, popular classmates to size herself up to. Instead, she compared herself to actresses on the covers of magazines, and her idea of high school came from the American television programs she adored, like “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and “That’s So Raven.”

“I loved Lizzie McGuire too — I loved all of the Disney Channel girls,” Ronan recalls. “I don’t know if you guys realize how much an influence American pop culture has on us.”

She was so open to diving into authentic teenage life in “Lady Bird” that she didn’t even cover up her acne with makeup during filming.

“The other day, someone mentioned ‘that acne they put on your face in the movie’ to me. That was my acne!” Ronan says. “If I had been 17 and someone had said that, I would have cried.”

In fact, Ronan says, she never really struggled with bad skin as a teenager. But after months of walking red carpets on behalf of “Brooklyn” and then baking under stage lights for “The Crucible,” she says she had “spots.”

“When we sat down to do the camera tests, the makeup artist said, ‘How do you feel about maybe leaving the spots and the blemishes and not covering them up so much?’” she says. “I was totally game to do it, because you never see that. Not in a way of, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to be super raw about it.’ Just, ‘this is my face right now, this is the way it looks, and it’s being a teenager,’ so let’s go for it.”

One of Ronan’s favorite moments making “Lady Bird” came while shooting the prom scene, because in Ireland prom doesn’t exist — there are only debutante balls, she says. And she became especially close to co-star Beanie Feldstein, who plays Lady Bird’s theater-loving best friend in the film.

“We had so much fun together quoting ‘Broad City’ and ‘Bridesmaids’ to each other and rolling around on the floor laughing,” Feldstein remembers. “We clicked instantly. I feel like we fell in love making the movie, so it’s so easy to believe our characters are in love.”

Ronan, left, and Beanie Feldstein grew exceptionally close while filming "Lady Bird."

Ronan has long had a yearning for “community and people my own age.” At one point, she considered college, but unlike Lady Bird, she didn’t see it as essential.

“I didn’t know who my people were yet, and I thought university could be the answer,” she says. “If I was to go now, it would be to learn about something new.”

Even though she began acting as a child, Ronan says she’s never wavered on whether or not the profession is right for her. For a while, she acknowledges, “[I] had it figured that it was the only string to my bow — that I had nothing else to offer. I hadn’t read in awhile. I hadn’t traveled. I needed to learn about other things. Recently, I’ve definitely had more of a yearning to try to new things — learn a new language, or even what Daniel Day-Lewis does — learn to make shoes.”

Recently, she’s gotten into meditation. She tries to use the app Headspace for at least 10 minutes a day, acknowledging her feelings instead of pushing against them.

“I get anxious. I’m a big worrier,” Ronan says. “I worry about work. Whether I’ve upset someone. Not being able to do a good job. You get onto set sometimes and you’re like, ‘I’m worried I’ve forgotten how to act!’”

At 23, Irish native Ronan is trying to find her new home base.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

She also worries about where to live, and “that it’s hard to find a place that’s actually safe.” Just moments before arriving to the rooftop of a hotel for this interview, she’d checked her phone and learned of the latest mass shooting in San Antonio, Texas.

“I get nervous about that sort of stuff,” says Ronan, who has given up her apartment in London. “Where is it going to happen next? Everyone always says if you live your life like that, you’ll never leave your house. It’s become so relentless that you need to find your base, and for me, it’s Ireland that makes me feel safe.”

Her mom makes her feel safe too, which is why they continue to stay in constant contact, no matter where she is in the world.

“We talk more than once a day,” Ronan says. “The only reason we’re not talking now is because she’s probably asleep. I want to know what she had for dinner.”

Times staff writer Josh Rottenberg contributed to this report.

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