In Brooklyn (2015), Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis Lacey, a young Irish girl in the 1950s who immigrates to New York, where she falls in love with a sweet Italian-American plumber, Tony. After a family tragedy, Ellis is forced to choose between the comforts of home and family and the freedom and opportunities of her new love and new life in America. During a Q&A hosted by Irish Screen America at the Crosby Hotel in New York shortly before the film's opening, director John Crowley spoke in detail about the process of creating Ronan's Golden Globe-nominated performance.
One of the primary challenges of directing the film and Ronan's performance, Crowley says, was telling an emotional story without veering into sentimentality. He revealed that the intention to embrace emotion in the arc of the full film and the performances was present from the project's inception: “The earliest, earliest memories I had, before we even started casting it and approaching crew, was I felt the only way to go for the film was for it to be flat-out emotional - never sentimental - but emotional in a way that's not very trendy, and is risky. Because, of course, you could fall flat on your face." He went on to note the risks of creating work that is emotionally transparent in a media landscape that often prefers ironic distance. "It's easy to be ironic and a bit more detached with the material, and be cooler with something," he says. "I knew that would destroy it, that it had to be really vividly emotional in order for somebody to get sucked into the drama. Because it's not relying on chases and shootouts or anything that would get the pulse to race. So, that was absolutely the thing that was the decision early on to respond to the material."
While toeing the line between emotionalism and mawkishness was a delicate challenge, Crowley described the way in which the truthfulness of Ronan's acting was instrumental in pulling off the balancing act. "I don't do vast numbers of takes," he explained. "I know a lot of people shoot on set in a way which is: shoot lots of stuff, a variety, and make up our mind later. And I tend to go after what you think is the truth of the scene....usually with Saoirse by take six she'd really have cracked it wide open. And, after that, you just go. Do one more, two more, whatever you want. Just let her [be] free with it." This efficient, focused style of shooting was the result of the director and actor's preparation and awareness of the emotional truth at the core of every scene. "I get very scared on the set if I genuinely don't know what I'm looking for," the director admitted. "And it's rare that you go through the cutting reel and you haven't got what you want....I don't think there was a case when we were in the cutting room where we didn't have a take that was emotionally doing what we wanted it to do.”
A way that the pair effectively avoided over-the-top sentimentality or melodrama, was by playing against the superficial emotions of any given scene, and zeroing on the subtextual undercurrents of feelings beneath the dialogue. Crowley pointed specifically to a scene in which Ellis tells Tony that the next time he tells her he loves her, she will respond in kind. “[That scene is] not about love - that scene's all about fear. So, you have to pitch your staff, in a scene, away from what they're saying," he explains. "What's very touching about that scene, I think, is that she looks terrified as she's telling him that she will say that she loves him if he tells her he loves her. Because she's assuming there will be a rejection, that it can't quite work out. And he's listening, not quite believing the words. That's what the scene's about." Crowley went on to describe that Ronan's practice of playing against the dominant emotion was not merely a clever acting technique, but a necessity for compelling drama. "'I love you, I love you,' is boring," he asserted, before correcting himself. "It's not boring, it's very touching [in real life]. But, in drama, it doesn't have any grit, or tension, and it's been said a few times. So, you have to always come at it from a different angle....It's not obvious emotions. It's very subtle writing."
The director offered praise for the "great book [and] great screenplay", and described Ronan as the "right actor at the right time." Crowley insisted that his job was simply "to close the gap on everything and stay out of the way." His personal modesty aside, it is clear that director and actor worked hand-in-hand to excavate the fundamental emotional truths in Ellis and craft one of the most critically-lauded performances of the year.