"She was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so," writes Ian McEwan in his novel "Atonement." He is describing 13-year-old Briony Tallis, one of recent literature's most maddening heroines, brainy but impetuous, controlling but immature and blind to the cues of her heart and others'. "Her wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing," McEwan writes -- an ominous foreshadowing of how Briony, in her ferocious need to make sense of a narrative beyond her ken, naively destroys her sister's and her lover's lives. It's the act that dooms the young girl to a life of "Atonement."
The film "Atonement" opens on Briony tapping away on her manual typewriter her first play, "The Trials of Arabella." Snatching the completed project, she determinedly marches through her grand mansion of a home, her thin, tiny body turning corners at precise right angles, her gauzy white child's dress not quite covering the manic certainty with which she holds herself. While the posters of "Atonement" triumph the presence of the grown-up star Keira Knightley, the film wouldn't work without the innocent destructiveness of 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan.
"This is what I try to do with everything -- is just be the person," says Ronan, at breakfast with her parents in a Los Angeles hotel. "Be the person I'm playing. That's what acting is. You're pretending to be someone else."
Ronan flew in the previous night from Pennsylvania to attend the "Atonement" premiere, and she's leaving in a few hours. In person, she has none of Briony's strait-laced quality. Dressed in a striped T-shirt and high-waisted jeans, she looks as limber and slouchy as any teenager, with a clear, open face and shiny brown hair that tumbles down to her shoulders. She has a casually cheery manner far from the automaton, preternaturally grown-up quality of some child actors. More surprisingly, she speaks in a thick Irish accent.
DAD AS ACTING PARTNER
Ronan might be an acting savant. In a time when there are more than a few talented 13-year-olds around (such as Abigail Breslin and Dakota Fanning), Ronan has managed to scoop up a raft of the most desired children's parts. In the coming year, she stars opposite Bill Murray in "City of Ember," director Gil Kenan's live-action fantasy follow-up to "Monster House." She plays Catherine Zeta-Jones' daughter and con partner in "Death Defying Acts" and, most notably, inhabits the role of 14-year-old Susie Salmon in Peter Jackson's upcoming screen version of "The Lovely Bones."
Ronan, whose first name is pronounced "Sertia" (it rhymes with inertia, one publicist helpfully points out) lives most of the year with her parents in the Irish countryside, two hours from Dublin. She attended a village school with just three teachers and 59 pupils. Ronan didn't do the child auditioning circuit but sent videotaped auditions she'd made with her dad, Paul, a well-known Irish stage actor who's appeared in such films as "Veronica Guerin" and "The Devil's Own." He and his wife, Monica, and a friend are all eating with Saoirse, their only child.
In the case of "Atonement," she and Paul Ronan played Briony and Cecilia (her older sister), in a scene in which the two sisters were lying on the lawn on a hot, hot afternoon. The real Ronan home has a plush garden alongside a river.
"Dad, remember when you used to do -- 'Cee, what do you think it would be like to be someone else? Cooler, I should hope,' " Ronan switches into a flawless English accent, as she quotes lines from the movie. Paul Ronan laughs.
"He used to do Keira's accent and do her voice. And put on a wig and dress," cracks Saoirse. She's so deadpan that it takes a moment to realize she's totally joking.
"I still can't fit into Keira's dresses," quips her father. "They're a bit snug."
It's clear the family is tight. Her parents still seem slightly surprised that their daughter turned out to be so talented.
When she was a small child, they used to listen to her create elaborate fantasies with her dolls. "She'd invent them in her mind. It was just amazing. She had great ear for accents, American and English," recalls Paul Ronan. "It was very entertaining to watch a child so young be so inventive. Coming from Ireland, you usually have a lot of family, with a lot of kids, and you see them in action, but very rarely do you see a child with such innate imagination."
Describing the turbulent relations between her "Toy Story" Woody doll and her Polly Pockets, Saoirse says, "They used to have affairs with each other, with the help of an English soap opera called 'Coronation Street.' "
"That's not a reflection on us," adds her mother, with a smile.
Undeniably, Ronan's imaginative instincts have carried her far. "Atonement" director Joe Wright remembers seeing her Briony videotaped audition: "The conviction of her performance was there even at that early stage and her total inhabitation of the character."