Saoirse Ronan

Andrew Johnston chats to the BAFTA Nominee about her new film The Lovely Bones. Warning: partial plot spoiler in paragraph 11

Filmmaker Peter Jackson has given us zombies, ghosts, orcs and giant gorillas. From low-budget gore flicks (Bad Taste, Braindead) to supernatural comedies (The Frighteners) and blockbuster epics (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong), the New Zealand auteur has established himself as one of Hollywood's top directors of classy horror.

Yet the main attraction in Jackson's latest genre movie, The Lovely Bones isn't a computer-generated ghoul or a stuntman in monster make-up - it's a 15-year-old County Carlow schoolgirl.

Saoirse Ronan isn't just any 15-year-old schoolgirl, though. The Oscar-nominated child star astounded audiences in Atonement, held her own against Bill Murray in City of Ember, and has the Pfeiffers and the Zeta-Joneses of this world on speed-dial.

Now, Ronan's role in The Lovely Bones has bagged her a BAFTA nomination for best leading actress - a rare feat for someone so young.

CultureNorthernIreland caught up with Ronan as she headed home to Carlow after a long day of press in Dublin. Travelling with her father Paul (also an actor - you've seen him in The Devil's Own, Ordinary Decent Criminal and Veronica Guerin), Ronan is upbeat and engaged, despite having fielded dozens of journalists' questions.

The actress is thrilled to be BAFTA-nominated, but remains philosophical about her chances of a second Oscar nod. 'It's not really something I like to think about,' she says. 'At the end of the day, it's just hype. If it does happen, I'll be over the moon. If it doesn't happen, I'll be ready for it.' (Ultimately, it didn't happen, though Ronan's performance is attracting rave reviews.)

Had Ronan got the Oscar nod for The Lovely Bones, she would have been the first under-18 actress in the Academy's history to receive multiple nominations. Still, as she says, the work is its own reward, and Ronan believes director Jackson - who also co-wrote the screenplay with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens - has made a stunning piece of work.

The Lovely Bones - based on Alice Sebold's bestselling 2002 novel of the same name - tells the haunting tale of Susie Salmon (Ronan), a 14-year-old living in a perfect American town with her perfect American family (ironically including Brit Rachel Weisz as mum Abigail and Kiwi Rose McIver as sister Lindsey, as well as Mark Wahlberg as dad Jack).

The Salmons' lives are turned upside down when Susie is killed by local paedophile George Harvey (Tucci, on chilling form). Ronan's character then narrates from beyond the grave, watching from a surreal, part-CGI-realised afterlife, as her family grieves and the police hunt her murderer. The film's themes include love, loss, acceptance and restoration. ('These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence,' says Susie in a speech taken directly from the book.)

It’s a powerful, multi-layered movie, the kind you need to see more than once. Indeed, it often feels like two films in one - the fantastical afterlife sequences and the more conventional, real-life parts, which play like a thriller.

Ronan, who wasn't familiar with the source novel, says: 'What Pete did with the layering was very interesting. Not only did he have elements of life back on Earth, but there were a lot of metaphors used - and so, the house that she comes to in the 'in-between' is actually Mr Harvey's, and she finally has to open the door to her death and accept she's not alive anymore.'

Ronan's parents were initially reluctant to let their daughter take the role, due to the story's themes of child abuse and murder. In the end, they were swayed by the opportunity to work with Jackson and an outstanding cast (Wahlberg, Weisz, Tucci and McIver are joined by Susan Sarandon as Susie's smoking, drinking, comic-relief grandmother and The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli as police detective Len Fenerman).

Ronan began acting at the age of nine. After some work on Irish television, she embarked on a movie career, with roles in I Could Never Be Your Woman (with Michelle Pfeiffer) and Death Defying Acts (with Catherine Zea-Jones) among her credits.

The Lovely Bones represented her greatest challenge yet. For one key scene, she had to act opposite Tucci - in fright-wig and 1970s glasses - as his character lured Susie to an underground sex den. The scene is hard to watch, and must have been even harder to film - especially for a 15-year-old.

'It was a scene we were all anxious about,' says Ronan, 'not only Stanley and I, but Pete and the crew. But luckily Stanley and I get on really well, and have a good relationship. It was easier to put that intensity on the screen because we got on so well. We could go to some pretty dark places because we were so comfortable with each other.'

In her performance, Ronan nails a flawless American accent, far better than many more mature actors' attempts. 'I had a dialect coach to help me with the Pennsylvania accent,' she says. 'I had also done American accents in a few movies before, so I had a good base there.'

Ronan also relished the chance to dress up in 1970s fashions (the film is set in 1973), and enjoyed the atmosphere on set when shooting with the rest of the cast before her character's death.

'Mark and Rachel and Susan and Stanley were familiar with the '70s,' she says. 'I got to know it as well, just from reading fashion magazines and listening to music from the time.'

Looking beyond The Lovely Bones, Ronan has several projects lined up, including Peter Weir's The Way Back, co-starring Daniel Craig and Colin Firth. She hopes to work again in Belfast, where she shot City of Ember and attended the film's premiere at Belfast's independent Movie House cinema.

'It was a brilliant experience,' says Ronan. 'The crews in Belfast are brilliant, and it's a great city to work in. I got to know the place pretty well, so it'd be nice to go back sometime.'

Andrew Johnston

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