For all the eye-popping digital fireworks on display throughout Peter Jackson‘s The Lovely Bones, it’s the film’s fifteen-year-old star, Irish native Saoirse Ronan, who lends the Alice Sebold adaptation its real emotional heft. In the role of Susie Salmon, a teenage murder victim who navigates the afterlife while keeping watch over the family she left behind, the remarkably expressive Ronan is the film’s anchor, without which Jackson’s lavish visual feast would amount to little more than empty calories.
In an exclusive interview, Ronan spoke with us about her strong attachment to Susie, her experience on the sometimes turbulent Lovely Bones set, and the kinship she feels with a certain teenage star of another high-profile literary adaptation.
When tasked with a particularly traumatic or emotional scene, some actors will draw upon a similarly painful experience from their own lives to help them get into character. Obviously, you didn’t have that luxury with Susie. How were you able to relate to her?
Saoirse Ronan: Yeah, you’re right. Thank God nothing like that has happened to me yet, so I couldn’t draw on any experience of my own. But one of the most important things — probably the most important thing — about portraying a character is understanding. After a while, I think Susie started to become a part of me, and it was very easy and very natural for me to understand what way she would react to something or deal with something. I never really thought of her as being a dead girl. She was someone whose body had died but not her soul. It was sort of like everything had been taken away from her, and I supposed I was just able to put myself in that position.
The production hit a rough patch early on in the shoot when Ryan Gosling, the actor originally cast to play your father, was fired and replaced by Mark Wahlberg. How did you hear about the change and what was your reaction?
SR: We had worked with Ryan only for about a week, really. I think Ryan is a great guy. I didn’t get to know him that well, but during the time that I spent with him he was a really nice guy. I heard the news from Pete, who rang me up and told me that it wasn’t going to work. It kind of threw a spanner in the works, but I’m glad that they picked someone like Mark who is a father, is naturally able to work with kids and communicate with kids. And so I think that if for some reason Ryan was unable to do it, then someone like Mark was the obvious choice.
I know that you waited to read Alice Sebold’s original novel until after you finished shooting. Did reading the book change the way you viewed the film?
SR: It didn’t really change my perspective; if anything, it made it stronger. I read the book, and I’m not really a quick reader but I was able to read this book in three days because I just felt like the whole story flowed. I’d already been through that experience and gone on that journey, so I was able to relate really well and connect really well with all of the characters. I was able to imagine, for example, Stanley (Tucci) playing Mr. Harvey and me being Susie. So it didn’t really change the way I felt about the film version.
When reading a novel, most of us develop our own images of its characters based upon our interpretation the text. It must have been a bit surreal for you, having already played Susie, to picture yourself within the context of the book.
SR: Yeah, it’s weird. I really sympathize with the likes of Kristen Stewart, who’s playing Bella in Twilight. I think teenagers can make their points more well known than adults, and they feel quite strongly about things — [especially] with a book like Twilight, which I read and loved and that everyone just was sort of obsessed with. And if anyone has their own image of what Bella should be like and then they see Kristen, everything is blamed on her, you know? Luckily, that hasn’t happened for me, but because I’ve done about four movies now that have been based on books, I can see how people would be like that — and even how I would be like that. But I wouldn’t blame the actor or anything. I felt a little bit of pressure, not only because [The Lovely Bones] was a book but because the whole movie was, in a way, on my shoulders. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When I interviewed Kristen for New Moon, I was struck by how protective she was about her character.
SR: Yeah, it doesn’t seem to her like she’s making a movie that has about three sequels and is based on a book and all the teenagers are going to see it. It seems to her that this is a very serious role that’s important to her, and I respect her for that. I felt the same way when I did Atonement and people would come up to me and say, “God, that was an awful child that you played. She was such a bitch.”
People really said that to you?!?
SR: Yeah! People said that to me … so I can see why Kristen would feel defensive about her character.
SR: Yeah, I heard that when I was at the after-party. I didn’t see him, though.
You figure he’d at least have the courtesy to say hello.
SR: [Laughs] Actually, someone said that to me: “God, you think he’d come up and tell you how awesome you were.” And I was like, eh, it doesn’t make a difference. It’s okay. I can see why he would just want to sneak in. I mean obviously, if he snuck in and didn’t do the whole red carpet, then he just wanted to see the movie, which is great. He didn’t want to do the whole, “Oh look, Robert Pattinson’s here!” He seems like a really nice guy, though.
I guess it was considerate of him to not want to steal the spotlight.
SR: Exactly, yeah. Because he would have. [Laughs]
Peter is currently gearing up to produce the two Hobbit films in New Zealand. Did you consider hitting him up for a role?
SR: I’ve been doing a little bit of hinting, you know? I was saying, “You know, I could be a young Cate Blanchett or somethin’. I’m tall. I’m pale.” [Laughs] I can’t wait to see what they’re gonna do with it. Guillermo [del Toro] is such a good director. I read the book and I loved it, so I can’t wait to see it.
The Lovely Bones expands nationwide this Friday, January 15, 2010.