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Saoirse Ronan Reflects on ‘Brooklyn’: ‘I’d Never Been Involved in Something so Personal’

Within the first few minutes of “Brooklyn’s” debut screening at Sundance (and in the States), director John Crowley realized he had something big on his hands.

“We were so tense and anxious and, by about five minutes in, there was a little giggle, and you could feel the audience just sort of settle in with it,” he recalled at the intimate soiree Fox Searchlight and Burberry hosted for “Brooklyn” at the Beverly Hills Burberry story on Rodeo Drive Tuesday night. “You could hear a pin drop, and it’s a very satisfying silence — the kind of silence you long to hear, which is, the silence of an audience enjoying receiving a story.”

What does he think viewers connected to — both in that moment, and in the year that’s followed (during which he’s been flooded with emotional notes)? “Leaving home,” he said, after a pause, with conviction. “(It connects with) everybody who has left home and is confused when they go back home, about how lovely and warm and reassuring it is. And also how confusing it is, that it doesn’t look the same; you’ve changed. And you can’t really go home anymore, and it can feel like you’re not living anywhere, because you’re not actually from that place you’re now living in.

“That double state is very confusing and happens to huge numbers of people, but it’s rarely dealt with in a drama,” explained Crowley, who “very much felt” these things when he left his native Ireland for London in his late twenties. “Usually emigrant stories are more melodramatic; something bad happens to the person, or they get involved in crime, (rather than) to have somebody who’s trying to negotiate the human heart and just sort of figure out her life.”

That somebody, a young Irish girl who moves to 1950s Brooklyn solo in search of a better life, is played by 21-year-old Saoirse Ronan — who’s received 2016 Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG nominations, among other accolades (a New York Film Critics Circle award, Palm Springs International Film Festival award, British Independent Film award), for her starring role.

Crowley had long been a fan of Ronan’s work (she’d earned an Oscar nom for “Atonement” at age 13), but it was her eyes that sealed him. “There’s something very special about the way that she’s a watcher. She observes incredibly; and the character of Eilis, she’s a great watcher,” he said. “What she brought in particular though,” he added, “was her head and her heart — she brought huge emotional range, and what was going on in her own life at the time.”

“I’d never been involved in something so personal as that before,” confessed a Burberry-clad Ronan, who arrived to a penthouse full of supporters, including the film’s producer Finola Dwyer, screenwriter Nick Hornby and actress Nora-Jane Noone, in addition to Bill PaxtonJason Reitman, BAFTA CEO Chantal Rickards and Fox Searchlight Pictures president Nancy Utley. “The story is very similar to what my Mam and Dad went through when they moved over from Ireland to New York in the ’80s. I was born over in New York, and by the time I had actually made the film, I had moved away from home,” she relayed. “I didn’t even realize it when I read it for the first time, but the more you become attached to a script like that, the more you realize that it’s essentially exactly what you’re going through as well.”

Director John Crowley, Saoirse Ronan, producer Finola Dwyer and writer Nick Hornby at Burberry and FOX Searchlight’s ‘Brooklyn’ Celebration 
Photo by Michael Buckner/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

What attracted her to the project initially was the fact that it was Irish. “I had never done a fully Irish project before, and it was really important for me, for the first one I did to be something I was quite passionate about,” said the young star, who will always consider Ireland home, and, just as her character did, is about to move to New York in two weeks.

“I wanted to move to Brooklyn, but I’m doing a play (in Manhattan),” she said of her February Broadway debut — which absolutely petrifies her. (“The producer, Scott Rudin, he asked me, would I be interested in doing a play, and didn’t tell me at first what it was, and then he was like, ‘by the way, it’s “The Crucible!”‘ So yes, it’s exciting,” she maintained.) She also finished shooting “Loving Vincent,” a live-action animation film about Vincent van Gogh’s life and relationships and death. (“I’m a character in one of his portraits, and I’ve sort of come to life — it’s very cool!” she hinted.)

And for now, she’s enjoying the “unexpected” thrill of awards season — and has her Globes outfit for Sunday all set. “I have a brilliant stylist who has really encouraged me to just have fun with what I wear,” she explained, after praising her long relationship with Burberry (whose holiday film short also starred “Brooklyn” actress Julie Walters). “When you’re young, you don’t want to be taken too seriously. So (my Globes look) will be elegant, but it will still be young.”

Crowley, who hasn’t made any decisions yet about his next project, is also enjoying the “crazy, wonderful swirl of it all.” “It’s surprising,” he said, of “Brooklyn’s” great and growing impact. “Who knew that the film would capture people’s hearts in this way?”

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