Nov. 10--Saoirse Ronan does a lot of sneering and sour-faced grimacing at the beginning of How I Live Now. Her character, Daisy, is a 16-year-old New Yorker with dyed blond hair, a nose stud, a surly attitude. The last place she wants to be is where she is: at Heathrow airport, about to be driven to the middle of nowhere in the English countryside, where her father has dispatched her for the summer -- to live with an aunt and three cousins she doesn't know.
There are goats and dogs on the farm. And everybody's running around like happy little hippies. Until stuff happens -- the entrance of a strong, silent boy (George MacKay), the outbreak of war -- Daisy wants nothing but to be left alone. She's certainly not going swimming, or picnicking, or anything.
"I found that quite tricky at the start," says Ronan, who struggled to keep her character from being one-note, to be "impossibly unpleasant to everyone around her."
So she'd confer with her director, Kevin Macdonald, who made The Last King of Scotland (an Oscar for Forest Whitaker) and who was keen to bring Meg Rosoff's critically lauded young adult novel to the screen.
"He would come over and just say, 'Yeah, bring down the bitch a little bit more,' because she can be quite bratty. But at the same time, she obviously needs to have some sort of heart. And you need to see that spirit in her come out."
It does. How I Live Now, which opened Friday at the Ritz Bourse and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ, is all about that spirit coming alive -- and trying to survive.
Ronan, who is 19 now, received an Academy Award supporting actress nomination back in 2008, for her performance as the tragically meddling young sister in Atonement. Since then, she's been working steadily -- hopping around the globe from her home base in Ireland (where she still lives with her parents). She starred in The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson's failed adaptation of the Alice Sebold novel, shot in suburban Philadelphia. She had the title role in Hanna, playing a 16-year-old trained in the assassination game by her father (Eric Bana). In the sci-fi-ish The Host, adapted from the Stephenie Meyer book, Ronan had dual roles.
In Toronto, where How I Live Now screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, Ronan spoke in her thick Irish drawl about how the film was more than just another teen romance, more than a coming-of-age story.
For one thing, Daisy's idyll is interrupted by what could turn into World War III.
"As the horror begins, [the children] are completely oblivious to what's going on around them, to what's going on six miles away," she explains. "And so they're in that state of bliss for a few weeks, and have the most wonderful time just being kids, and then that gets ripped away from them."
Literally ripped away, as armed troops pull up at the farm and take Daisy and her cousins off to internment camps.
"The film very much captures what it is to be a young person right now," she says. "Not to put a downer on it or anything, the film is the kind of thing you look at it on-screen and you think, this could happen, this could really happen."
Ronan points to places like Afghanistan and Syria, where the violence and carnage are real.
"We acknowledge it for a few minutes and then it's gone. And, yes, it's ignorant of us to feel this way, but when you see it going on in your own environment -- like, for me to see it going on in a landscape that was very similar to my home -- it really hit me."
Ronan, whose first name is pronounced sur-sha (Saoirse is Gaelic for freedom), has two films wrapped up and ready to go for release next year: In Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, she plays the love of a lobby boy's life (with a port-wine stain on her face). And she had the pleasure of being in the company of Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, and a troupe of Anderson regulars (Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton).
In How to Catch a Monster, she worked for first-time writer and director Ryan Gosling. The actor's dark fairy tale was shot in Detroit, and Gosling encouraged his actors -- Christina Hendricks, Matt Smith, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, and Ronan -- to improvise.
"It was very, very different from shooting with Wes, which I'd done just before that," Ronan reports.
"But I didn't find it intimidating -- I just wanted to make sure that I was doing an all-right job. It's a much harder job when you don't have a traditional script. Usually, you're just being told what to say, you film what's on the page. But suddenly when you have to think up lines on the spot, and make those decisions for yourself, it's quite scary!"
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