TIFF Interview: Saoirse Ronan on Byzantium

Playing an immortal teenager, the taste of fake blood and how her acting process has changed (or hasn't) since she started.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


By the time I got to talk to Saoirse Ronan for her film Byzantium at the Toronto International Film Festival, interviews were getting cut shorter and shorter. Both talent and press were in a time crunch to cram everything in, but Ronan was such a total sweetheart and made it personal anyway. She gave me a great big hug and remembered speaking for films like Hanna and Atonement over the years. Her TIFF film casts her as a hundreds of years old immortal who survives by drinking blood, though never called a vampire in the film. Her mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), plays it more seductively, but Eleanor (Ronan) keeps to herself and only drinks to euthanize old people.


CraveOnline: Most dramas deal with the tension you have with other characters. How do you imagine the personal tension you’d have with someone you’ve lived with for hundreds of years?

Saoirse Ronan: I think after a while it weighs quite heavily on your shoulders if you have a burden like Eleanor does. I think after a while it’s something that you just kind of drag around with you. You can see that in the film as well, she’s quite sad by her predicament and what she has to live with every day and what she has to do to live her life the way she’s supposed to. Yeah, the whole sense of Eleanor I think is quite melancholy which I like.


Were you still playing her as a teenager?

At certain times I was, yeah. When Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) comes into the film, I think he represents the teenage yearning and wants that someone like Eleanor needs in her life and probably hasn’t done ever since she has become this immortal thing. So it was nice to play a little bit of excitement there and have her make a little bit more of an effort with her appearance and things like that when she goes to visit him. That’s all nice. I think it needed that.


She may be 200 years old but she’s a permanent teenager.

Exactly and I think she’s an old soul anyway and she’s been through a lot, so she’s very wise and very mature. Not an adult but has certainly been through a lot to take her innocence away from her.


What was in the blood soaked rag you put in your mouth?

It was fake blood and it was corn syrup and food coloring and sugar. So it didn’t taste the best but it probably tasted better than real blood so I was happy with it. That was the only thing that really freaked me out of all the things that I saw. There’s this bit, it’s all in slow motion, and there’s this bit where my eyes just get really wide and they look a bit mad. So that really freaked me out.


She’s very melancholy as you said, but what do you love about Eleanor?

I love how old fashioned she is. I love how traditional she is in her etiquette and her disposition. I love that she wears old fashioned clothes and she’s exceptional on the piano because she’s had 200 years to practice and her handwriting is beautiful. Just the fact that she is more a killer of mercy than anything else. Unlike her mother, she will only take the lives of people who are willing to die and willing to give up their life for her to feed. So I do like that about her.


She had a good system going with the old folks, didn’t she?

She did, right? It worked for a while and then she’s got the kid coming in who’s on his way out, so she’s doing well.


Do you love Clara too?

I do love Gemma’s character. I think it’s great that there’s a real contrast there between our two characters. She’s very feisty and full of life and at the same time, she obviously hasn’t forgotten her past but she’s not willing to recognize it or talk about it or anything like that. In that way, that’s what makes her a bit more childish and Eleanor a little bit more grown up so it’s nice to have those two characters be so close to one another.


I first met you for Atonement and you’ve been acting since you were nine, so how has your approach to the work changed since then?

It hasn’t changed too much really. If I tried to change my approach, I don’t think it would work. At the end of the day, when I read a script and I’m thinking about it constantly afterwards and I start to think about the scenes that this characters that I’m wanting to play, I’m going over them in my head hours after I’ve read the script and I’m just really excited about the story, that’s when I know it’s something I’d really love to do and I have to do it. That’s never really changed for me. It’s a bit of an impulse and I wouldn’t want anything to cloud that in a way.


You’ve worked a lot. Does that mean you’re able to find a lot of things that you have to do?

I’ve found a lot of things that I want to do and that I’ve been very excited about. Luckily all the films that I’ve done pretty much have been ones that I have brilliant experiences on, because I’ve really put my heart into the story because I believe in it.