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Saoirse Ronan: I watched Derry Girls to remind me of home while filming in US

Jenny Lee catches up with award-winning actress Saoirse Ronan during a visit to Belfast's Cinemagic where she talked about comedy, Derry Girls, nerves and her forthcoming film Little Women

Irish actress and Cinemagic patron Saoirse Ronan at the opening of the 30th Cinemagic Festival at Odeon Cinemas, Belfast this week

FROM revealing how watching Derry Girls kept her sane when filming her upcoming movie Little Women, to offering career advice to Belfast students, award-winning Irish actress Soairse Ronan had an enjoyable return to Belfast and Cinemagic – the film festival she holds close to her heart – this week.

She first got involved in Cinemagic, which this year celebrates 30 years of giving creative film opportunities to inspire and motivate young people, as a young teenager when she was filming City of Ember in 2008 at an abandoned warehouse in Belfast's shipyard.

"When we finished shooting some of us were discussing what was going to happen to the studio as it hadn’t been used as a film studio before. Somebody said 'I think some show about Middle Earth is about to come in – it sounds crap'. That was Game of Thrones," she laughed.

Looking effortlessly glamorous wearing jeans, a flowery shirt and black boots, Ronan was speaking to an audience made up primarily of 16-18-year-old media and performing arts students at Belfast's Odeon cinemas on Thursday, following a screening of Lady Bird, the film which earned her a Golden Globe. As the Cinemagic charity patron, Ronan tries to participate at festivals whenever her schedule allows.

Joan Burney Keatings, Cinemagic CEO, with actresses Saoirse Ronan, Saoirse-Monica Jackson and Eileen O’Higgins at the opening of the 30th Cinemagic Festival

"Speaking to other young people interested in film is important to me – as I didn’t really get that when I was growing up," she said.

Born in New York, Ronan was brought up in Carlow and Dublin and had an early introduction to the world of film through her actor dad Paul Ronan, whose accolades including starring alongside Brad Pitt in The Devil's Own.

Ronan recalled how her dad was "discovered" when working as a bartender in New York at the age of 27. "There was a bunch of Irish actors that would go into his bar after a performance. Dad was so funny and charismatic and knew how to work a crowd, and one of them just saw something in him and asked him to audition for a play. Dad had never even been to see a play before."

At the age of eight, she almost turned down her first screen role, due to throwing a tantrum about not wanting her face painted.

“Back in Ireland, Dad had been asked to do this short film and they needed a kid for it. They knew me from being on set with Dad and said 'You can do it'.

"It was this weird avant-garde art-house film and I had to be half child, half clown which meant I had to have my face painted. And I wasn’t into having my face painted. Anyway, Dad persuaded me and I instantly loved being on set."

Golden Globe winning and Oscar nominated Irish actress Saoirse Ronan at the opening of the 30th Cinemagic Festival at Odeon Cinemas, Belfast

Roles in I Could Never Be Your Woman and Atonement, for which she earned her first of three Academy Award nominations, soon followed.

"I had very glamorous mothers when I was growing up – Catherine Zeta Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer and Rachel Weisz,” she giggled.

Ronan believes that the support of her parents and learning her trade in Ireland helped her to stay grounded and not go the way of many child actors.

"What was great was that Mam had gone through this whole rollercoaster with my dad – going into theatre, going into film, getting work and not getting work. So by the time I started, they were realistic about my expectations and neither of them were pushy. In fact I was brought up knowing that if I wanted to give it up tomorrow I could."

Ronan had an unorthrodox schooling, being tutored on set for most of her teens. It's an education that has left her constantly wanting to learn.

"I'm grateful that with acting you get such a great opportunity to immerse yourself in new worlds. With Mary Queen of Scots it was so great to learn about that time period and Scottish culture," she said.

Saoirse Ronan with Derry Girls actress Saoirse-Monica Jackson

When asked for advice by one young person on giving a confident audition, Ronan admitted that despite her accolades she still suffers from nerves.

"Doing Brooklyn I was nervous all the time. It was my first lead since I was a kid and I was convinced I had messed up and ruined the whole film."

She also spoke about getting stage fright during her Broadway run of Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

"Halfway through the run I froze one night and Jim Norton, an Irish actor who was is in it told me: 'You just have to use whatever you are feeling'. So my advice is, if you are feeling nervy, use that energy in your performance."

The next appeal for advice left Ronan speechless, as a Queen's University medical student asked her if she thought he should go into Love Island, "like former contestant Dr Alex" and did she think that would be a good way of entering the industry?

“What are my thoughts on you giving up medicine? Emm, since I became an actor I got a lovely coat," she hesitated, before advising him to do cinematography as a hobby on his days off.

With Eileen O'Higgins in Brooklyn

Later on Thursday, Ronan joined her friends Eileen O’Higgins (Mary Queen of Scots, Brooklyn), from Castlewellan, and Derry Girls' (and Derry girl) Saoirse-Monica Jackson for a discussion on the role of women in comedy before a screening of Bridesmaids, Ronan's all-time favourite funny film.

It's a topic she chose herself, so I asked her if we could expect to see her in a romantic comedy in the near future?

"Comedy scares me more than anything else – it’s the hardest thing to do. But I love watching comedy more than any genre and yes, I’d love to do a comedy," she said.

And is she a Derry Girls fan?

"I absolutely love it. When I was doing Little Women, I just kept watching it as I missed home. I was working on such an American film that I watched Mike Leigh films and Derry Girls because they spoke to me," said Ronan, who used to phone her northern pals O’Higgins and Jackson to discuss whether what happened in Derry Girls actually happened them on their way to school.

The latest adaptation of Little Women will be released on December 26. It sees Ronan, who plays Jo March, team up once again with director Greta Gerwig.

"We bonded so well in Lady Bird and have a good friendship and working shorthand. This time it's much bigger scale – but Greta told us that she still wants it to have an Indie film-making feel."

Little Women also sees Ronan star again alongside Timothée Chalamet. One blushing schoolgirl was eager to ask Ronan what he was like.

"Do I want to marry Timothée? Everyone does – not me though," she laughed. "He’s very talented and an exciting actor to work with but our relationship in Little Women is very similar to our relationship in real life – I just kind of hit him a lot, tell him to stand up straight and things like that!"

She also spoke of her respect for director Wes Anderson, who she worked with on The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch, which will be released next year.

"Wes is one of those guys who is a real planner and his exactness has gone to a whole new level in his new film. They had 20 mini-sets and would literally shoot a second a day. There's no other film-maker like him. And he wears slippers to dinner," she laughed.

:: Cinemagic festival runs until November 3. For full programme and tickets visit Cinemagic.org.uk

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