In Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan adeptly captures the spirit of an early-2000s Sacramento teenager, frustrated with the strictures of her Catholic school, with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), and, like most teens, with everything else too.
To master the part, Ronan listened to era-specific playlists provided by Gerwig, read up on Joan Didion, and even started to mimic the director’s way of walking in order to develop the character’s march-like movements. The performance is a long way from the 23-year-old’s Oscar-nominated work in Atonement and Brooklyn, and somehow entirely comfortable. Vulture caught up with Ronan to learn the secrets of her transformation, how she first fell in love with the script (and Gerwig), and her thoughts on the way people slight female-led films — which quickly led to a full-on discussion about Bridesmaids.
Many people I know have gone to see Lady Bird and said they need to see it again with their moms. Has your mom seen it yet?
We’re gonna go see it tonight. She only got into L.A. the day before yesterday, so I gave her a day to recuperate from the jet lag and we’re gonna go to the cinema tonight to go see it with a real audience. I’m dying for her to see it. I think she’s gonna love it.
Greta’s talked about the two of you meeting up to read the script together at the Toronto Film Festival when you were there with Brooklyn. What was that like?
I read the script before I had met her and knew I wanted to do it. I was a huge fan of hers from before the script even came to me, since I’ve seen her Frances Ha. To get to meet her and sit down and do a scene with her was so exciting for me, and that continued throughout the shoot. I couldn’t believe I was getting to work with someone that I admired so much.
We Skyped before we met in person, and we were so giddy around each other. You know when you meet someone who you know you’re gonna have a good time with? It’s an instant thing.
How did you get into character as a teenager from Sacramento? I know Greta made playlists for actors, or gave reading recommendations.
She made playlists for all of us and then she showed me photo albums from her high-school years and sent me Joan Didion books to read. We were very lucky that there was so much in the script, in the dialogue and the pace of it. That opening scene alone between Laurie and myself, it’s just an introduction to those two characters and their dynamic. Greta’s such a good writer that she really utilizes her time so well and can tell so much about someone in a few moments.
Compared to Brooklyn, where you were so restrained, you’re giving such a physical performance in Lady Bird. She runs around, she swings her arms a lot. How did you find that?
I think a lot of it was influenced by Greta, because she’s so physical in the way she moves in her personal life. That seemed to naturally come out with Lady Bird. She’s got so much she wants to say, once she hones in on something, that’s her goal and that seems to come out in a very specific way within her movement.
I remember I came to Greta one day and I was like, “Okay, I think I’ve figured out how she walks: She sort of marches around, and there’s a real purpose to her movement.” But it’s awkward. It’s like the way I am, a bit awkward and gangly — her arms are a bit too long, and, you know. [Laughs.]
A great example of that is when she auditions with “Everybody Says Don’t” for the school musical and stomps around during it.
A wonderful performance!
A wonderful performance, yeah.
[Laughs.] It’s a joke! I was really nervous before I went out and I also didn’t tell Greta what I was gonna do. She sent me the Barbra Streisand version of “’Everybody Says Don’t,” which is impossible to impersonate because I don’t sound like Barbra Streisand. So for a few days I was like, I’m gonna really try and belt this one out, and then I thought, Okay, Lady Bird is not the perfect vocalist. She’s not the strongest singer and that’s the whole point. So I started looking online for different performances people had done. One that struck me was one by Elaine Stritch when she made a new CD or something. It’s a still photograph of her leaning up against the piano [in the video] and she’s like half-talking, half-singing the song. She sounded like a real dame, a real broad, and I thought, Okay, that’s what I’m gonna do.
I didn’t know what [Greta’s] reaction would be and I just went for it. Afterwards I remember she went up to everyone, because we shot all the auditions one after the other. She was like, “That was great, that was great, so great,” and then she looks at me and she goes, “I don’t know what that was, but it was great.” That’s Lady Bird — I don’t quite know what you are, but you’re something.
Lady Bird’s friendship with Julie (played by Beanie Feldstein) really stands out, because they get the big emotional beats, like the moment where she goes and finds Julie before the prom …
So romantic! It was so sad to see Julie be that upset, but also just to see Beans cry because she’s such a happy person. Beanie and I became really close on the job. To see your friend, even if it is in a scene, to see them sad in any way is upsetting.
But she did such a beautiful job. It’s scenes like that where she’s given one line by Greta where she says, “Some people just aren’t born happy, I guess,” and that tells you so much about who this girl is and that she’s got her own stuff going on. It’s so brilliant that Greta gives everyone their time in this. Because everything’s changing for these guys too. For Lucas’s character, Beanie’s character, Timothée’s, Odeya even … [Lady Bird] starts to gain perspective on who and what is important in her life and she sees that everyone’s got their own issues, realizing that her parents are real people who have their own stuff going on. Her Dad’s been depressed for years and her mom’s doing double shifts. I think that really helps her to check herself.
Late in the film, there’s that scene where Lady Bird goes to a church and watches part of a service. She’s had this conflicted relationship with Catholicism and her school throughout the film. What do you think it means to her by the end of it?
I was raised Catholic, Greta went to a Catholic school — I’m not a religious person, but the film shows other sides of the religion and faith and whatever it is that you believe in, that it can be used for good. I think what it means to her is it’s home. It’s something greater than herself and something that she’s grown up with that has given her discipline and structure, something that she turned against, naturally.
I don’t go to Mass, but every now and again — and it could be every couple of years — I just get this real hankering to go to a church. It’s not necessarily to atone or anything like that, but it’s more to be reminded of my childhood and my past. I think by her going to church and seeing the beauty that can come out in that environment sometimes, it gives her a greater sort of sense of self and it reconnects her to where she comes from. I was working in London recently, London and Scotland, and I just played Mary Queen of Scots who was Catholic, and so I had a real yearning to go and sort of remind myself of what that was.
There’s a scene where Lady Bird defends Dave Matthews Band and “Crash Into Me.” Are there any pop-culture treasures of your own that you’ll defend even if other people sneer at it?
I definitely hop on the bandwagon more [than Lady Bird], but girl bands. I think most girls are very supportive of this, but pop girl groups that have come out since I was a kid and actually since the ’60s are so cool and strong. I love that whole idea of a unit of women, and I think that’s really great.
Another thing is sometimes men — and it’s not to bash men at all, but, I still am [laughs] — with female movies. I was speaking to a friend recently about Bridesmaids and saying it was one of my favorite films. He’s never seen it and I said, “Oh you’ve got to watch it.” And he said, “Yeah, but I mean …” And I was like, “What? What?” And he says, “Well, you know, it’s just a film about girls, isn’t it? Just a bunch of girls.” I was like, “Hold on a minute!”
I was so upset that there is this perception of a female film being something lesser than what you would have with a group of men. Bridesmaids at its core is about friendship. It’s about a girl, a person, building herself up from the bottom and taking what she has left and making something of it. It’s funny and there are great performances in it and it’s a great movie. I’ve noticed that a lot, actually, because I’ve always loved that movie. It’s the men that I’ve spoken to, of all ages, who seem to have the perception of what an all-female film is — that it’s wishy-washy or doesn’t really have any substance to it. So that’s something that I absolutely stand by.
It’s the same with Lady Bird. One of the things that Greta and I definitely want people to know is this absolutely is for girls to go and see and go, “Oh, I can feel like that and it’s okay and I can make a movie and hopefully it would be seen and I will be listened to.” But also boys get it! The men I’ve spoken to who have seen it have actually said, “I was Lady Bird in high school. I relate to who she was.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.