Saoirse Ronan earned an honorary degree from Bayside High.
Growing up in Ireland, “I watched Saved by the Bell, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and all those teen shows,” the 23-year-old tells Us. “It was the easiest way into the life of an American teenager.”
That education paid off while filming the coming-of-age flick Lady Bird, based on writer-director Greta Gerwig’s upbringing. Set in 2002, her titular high school senior — Christine is her given name, but don’t dare use it — is struggling to navigate life. She fights with her mom (Laurie Metcalf), ditches her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) for the cool kids and desperately dreams of leaving Sacramento.
“There’s magic in not knowing what the f–k you’re doing,” says Ronan. “It’s affirming to see a character like this. It’s OK to not have it all figured out.”
The two-time Oscar contender opens up to Us.
Us Weekly: What parts of yourself do you see in Lady Bird?
Saoirse Ronan: When you’re young, you look at how grown ups behave and try on those different characters. But it’s not always natural. Lady Bird does that when she’s figuring out who she is. When she turns 18, the first thing she does is buys a pack of cloves and a Playgirl. I can identify with that idea of emulating, almost impersonating, what you’ve seen other people do to see if it fits.
Us: Lady Bird’s relationship with her mom is complex yet so powerful. Do you relate?
SR: I’ve never had that relationship with my mom. She’s always been my best friend and we’ve always understood each other. Having not gone through that, though, I think it was probably a good thing because I wasn’t overly emotional going into those scenes.
Us: Most influential connection in the film?
SR: Apart from her relationship with her mom, her and Julie’s friendship is the heart. I saw it a few weeks ago for the first time with my best friend, my Julie. To have her there and watch these girls just love each other and get such a kick out of each other in the same way we do was so great. It’s hardly ever that you see that onscreen. It’s not about boys or drama.
And Beanie and I are so close. In those scenes, we were literally cracking up. We’d forget the cameras were rolling!
Us: There are so many scenes that really strike a chord with audiences. Which did you relate to the most?
SR: There are so many options! But I would say when she leaves home. I didn’t apply to university or go through that. But going to New York and experiencing it on my own as a young adult, that shaped who I am. The first time you leave your parents is the worst and it doesn’t get easier. I was really affected.
Us: You were thrust into the spotlight at an young age. Do you feel you missed out on that typical teen experience?
SR: It would be wrong to say I didn’t. I had a more unusual life than most. But now that I’m on the other side and in my twenties, I can reflect and be glad I had it. I wouldn’t change it. Everything happens for a reason.
Us: Even though this takes place in 2002, it feels like a period piece. How was slipping back into the past?
SR: I felt like Alanis Morissette with what she got to wear! Greta had asked me, “How do you feel about dying your hair red?” One of the rules at Catholic high schools is that you can’t have your hair dyed an unnatural color and red is right on the border. So it was really fun to do things like that!
What makes it feel even more period, because it wasn’t that long ago, is the fact that technology hadn’t completely taken over our lives yet. Nobody was using social media in the same way. It just shows you how different things were 10 years ago.
Us: Lady Bird is obsessed with “Crash Into Me.” Be honest: Were you a fan growing up?
SR: You know what’s so bad? I didn’t know that song before we did the film! Justin Timberlake, yes. But I didn’t know Dave Matthews.
Us: Saoirse isn’t the easiest to say. Growing up, did you ever consider changing your name a la Christine?
SR: When I was five and had started primary school, nobody else had my name. I was also the only kid that wasn’t from the countryside and who was born in America. There were so many things that were different about me so I was like, “I really think I should be called Sarah or Hannah.” None of those names stuck, so I just stuck with Saoirse. And actually, once I got out, I had the opposite reaction and loved it. In a way, that was my rebellious streak. I was like, “This is my name. If you can’t pronounce it so what?”
Us: What did you take away from Lady Bird?
SR: This character has stayed with me since we made this movie. It’s a great message to send to young people that it’s alright if you don’t know who you are at 17, 18. There’s a massive pressure on young people to have all the answers. You still call you mom four times a day to figure out how to do the wash or if you should throw something out after three days. That never has to stop.
Us: Lady Bird is a strong, well-rounded heroine, which we really don’t see often.
SR: No, we don’t.
Us: Why is it important for audiences to see a character like her onscreen?
SR: Girls are constantly being compared to each other, whether it’s by each other or in pop culture. We need more young female heroines who own their insecurities. When we go see a movie, we want to feel like we’re understood by the person who created it. So many girls haven’t been written as people. They’re two-dimensional. It’s important for girls to know they’re celebrated, they’re right to be driven and to support one another.
Lady Bird is now in theaters.
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