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Teen angel

‘Lovely Bones’ star relies on family as fame comes fast

Saoirse Ronan Saoirse Ronan (Jennifer Taylor)
By Judy Abel
Globe Correspondent / January 10, 2010

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NEW YORK - An afternoon with Saoirse Ronan is enough to spark some serious parental soul searching.

Sure, she looks like a typical teenager, with her multicolored Nike high-tops, skinny black jeans, and shoulder-length blond hair, which she nervously tucks behind her left ear. The 15-year-old star of Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones,’’ which opens Friday, even sounds like a typical teenager from time to time. But then she makes it clear that, despite her youth, she knows a thing or two about responsibility and commitment.

“I don’t find the balance between work and being a teen to be that difficult, because when I’m with my friends I can be really hyper and silly,’’ Ronan says. “Of course I need to be professional when I’m working. I need to make sure to concentrate - I’m a perfectionist, or at least I try to be.’’

The Irish actress, whose first name is pronounced Sir-sha (“rhymes with inertia,’’ she explains), was nominated for an Oscar for the 2007 film “Atonement,’’ where she appeared in a supporting part opposite Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Now there’s talk of another nomination for her role as a murdered teen in “The Lovely Bones.’’

“It’s all happened quite quickly,’’ says Ronan, sipping water at a hotel restaurant. “Sometimes it feels like being famous is part of me now and it doesn’t feel out of the ordinary. But sometimes I stop and realize I just did a movie with Peter Jackson and I think, wow, this is actually happening to me.’’

In the film, Ronan plays 14-year-old Susie Salmon who has been killed by her neighbor (Stanley Tucci). Susie narrates the story from somewhere between heaven and earth as she watches over her family and her murderer.

Rose McIver, 21, plays Susie’s younger sister in the film, which spans many years. McIver says she initially worried about the disparity between their on-screen and real-life ages, but fortunately, Ronan helped quell those concerns.

“She was so confident in her ability to pull it off and that was reassuring to me,’’ McIver says by phone from Dallas. “It’s really hard to believe she’s only 15 - she’s just so wise and so mature and so hard-working.’’

The film’s underlying sadness periodically took a toll on Ronan, who says she cannot fully imagine the trauma experienced by abducted children and their families. But she managed to push away the underlying sense of tragedy and loss by focusing on the challenge of her performance.

“I’m able to separate - I just like doing dramatic things - it comes naturally to me,’’ Ronan says. “Maybe because it’s complete escapism from my happy, good life.’’

When she’s not working on a film, Ronan’s life does, in fact, sound fairly idyllic. She lives in a small town in southeastern Ireland with her parents and her beloved border collie, Sassy. It was her father, a television actor in Ireland, who encouraged her to get into the business when she was about 8, she says.

“Dad has always believed in me,’’ she says. “He thought I should get into acting because I’ve always been entertaining. Really, I think I was doing things that almost every other kid does, but Dad thought I was something special.’’

When she is on the road, her parents come along to make sure their daughter is well cared for and to watch her perform.

“They come everywhere with me, and they’re a huge part of keeping me grounded,’’ says Ronan, who seems surprised to learn most 15-year-olds don’t enjoy being trailed by their parents. “And living in the country in Ireland, which is so far away from the Hollywood scene, keeps me from getting caught up. Nobody where I live is interested in that side of things, really.

“I mean, when I told people I was working with Rachel Weisz [who plays her mother in “The Lovely Bones’’], nobody knew who she was. Sometimes I feel like, how can you not know that? But in the end, I think it’s good for me.’’

Something else that keeps Ronan from becoming a self-important Hollywood starlet is watching the bad examples set by some of her young acting peers.

“I won’t name names, but I wouldn’t want to be like those people. The choices they make, the people they hang out with, are just wrong,’’ she says, shaking her head. “You have to use people as examples of what not to be like, and then try and steer away from those kinds of people. The majority of time I actually feel sorry for them, especially because some of them are quite talented and it’s a shame that it’s all down the toilet.’’

Still, as she stands at the cusp of true stardom, Ronan realizes her low-profile life is at risk, and she worries that she might not be completely ready to become a full-blown celebrity.

“I don’t think it’s something you can prepare yourself for,’’ she says. “At the New York premiere, for the first time, I was papped [besieged by paparazzi]. That had never happened to me before. Photographers have followed me in Dublin, which is fine - I mean, it’s only Ireland. But it’s a completely different game in America.’’

These days, life is not even the same in small-town Ireland, Ronan acknowledges. She is wary of people’s motives for trying to befriend her and even suspicious of the young suitors who vie for her attention.

“I have a pretty good instinct,’’ she says. “I’m able to feel people out quite quickly after meeting them, but I always question what they want in the back of my head. Even with boys I think, do you want to go out with Saoirse Ronan the actress or the actual Saoirse?’’

But she doesn’t lose sight of the upside of her success. Having grown up in a home where her parents struggled financially, she is happy to be in a position to help out.

“I know what it’s been like for them, so I appreciate everything I have,’’ she says. “I try to be sensible about what I buy.’’

She does admit to having recently splurged on a $200 leather jacket at a New Jersey factory outlet store. When asked what she liked about it, she shrugs, apparently having reached her quota of questions about her wardrobe.

Maybe there’s a teen in there after all.

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