"We were doing a night shoot last night," Saoirse Ronan lets out a good-natured groan, phoning from Boston where she has reunited with Greta Gerwig for a new adaptation of Little Women. Ronan plays Jo March, alongside Eliza Scanlen, Emma Watson and Florence Pugh, plus Lady Bird co-star Timothée Chalamet and Meryl Streep. Though that project hasn't even wrapped filming, the sheer talent in front of and behind the camera has already made the film a future Oscar contender.
Ronan, who's 24, has three Academy Award nominations to her name, after all, first recognized in 2008, when she was 13, for Atonement, then again in 2016 (Brooklyn) and 2018 (Lady Bird). It seems rarer and rarer that a year goes by without Ronan being in the Oscar mix, and this year is no exception: She's earned rave reviews for Mary Queen of Scots, in which she plays the eponymous Scottish queen, the formidable and perhaps misjudged Mary Stuart, as she challenges her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (an increasingly bewigged Margot Robbie), for the throne. Ahead of the film's release on Friday, Ronan spoke with ET about seeing Robbie's transformation for the first time and shares her best Meryl Steep story.
I love that this film takes a genre that has largely catered to men and not only puts women at the forefront but doesn't abandon its femininity in the process, especially in the character of Mary.
Saoirse Ronan: Yeah, it's exciting to be a part of something like that. I think the thing that excited me the most was getting to play a Scottish queen and, like, a Celtic woman. I had never seen that before in a film. We've seen other depictions of the English monarchy -- and French and Russian and all of that -- but never Celtic, really. I loved that and I loved, as well, that we got to show the relationships that Mary had with her four Maries, her best friends, and how much she honored those relationships and how loyal they all were to each other. I think it was really important to include that. To me, that is the most important relationship in the film, is her relationship with her four Maries.
You shot On Chesil Beach between Lady Bird and Mary Queen of Scots, but how difficult is it to bounce from something more contemporary like Lady Bird into a historical period piece?
It's not that tricky once you have the time to move onto the next thing. I mean, I had no time between Lady Bird and On Chesil Beach, which was… tough. It was hard. And more so, though, just because you're knackered at the end of a job. [Laughs.] And with period pieces, more so than with modern-day stuff, it just always becomes a thing where you have to think about the movement, the way they spoke and usually the costumes are more intricate and there's more to them. So, a lot more thought and prep usually needs to go into that and the image of them and all that sort of stuff. But actually, when you've done something modern, or you've done a few things in a row that are modern or period, you want the opposite, then. In that sense, it's really nice.
Do you find that it's hard to stay in that period mindset on set, when the director calls cut and everyone could just pull out their phones, or what have you?
Well, I hate having phones on set. I don't mind if you're off set and you're in between setups or something, but I never, ever, ever do that. I hate when people do it because... you're at work! But there's so much put on the people in period films being completely different to us nowadays, and I just don't think that's true. I think sometimes with films that have been set in the past, if they're done in a certain way, people can switch off or detach. [That] is what we didn't want to do with Mary. We've gotten so much information purely from portraits that have been painted of these people and books that have been written about that time period and a lot of them are quite stiff and not really based on anything real. Whereas Mary Queen of Scots probably did slouch and she probably did slur her words, every now and again, and all of that. So, we wanted to bring that back into this film as much as we could.
And so many of my favorite scenes were when Mary was giggling or gossiping with the Maries. She felt modern in that way, like someone who could be around today, except, you know, very fancy and royal.
That's it! One of the things that struck me when I was prepping for it is that, obviously, there is a lot more at stake [for Mary], but her position and her needing to shift from public persona to who she actually was is pretty similar to what people in the public eye have to do. That whole process of like, Okay, now I'm on. And now, I'm with people that I trust and I don't need to be. I can identify with that, certainly. It actually ended up the more I learned about her, the more relatable and the more current she seemed.
Had you met Margot before this film?
I've met her a couple of times, yeah.
Through awards season events and such?
Yeah, we had met at an awards show and then, before that, we were both at the same dinner that our friends, Richard and Emma, threw in New York a few years ago. Margot was there and I just knew straight away she was going to be lovely and exactly what everyone thinks she would be. And she was!
Because you kept your distance from each other during filming, what was your first reaction when you finally saw Margot in the hair and the costume and the prosthetics?
Oh, it was amazing. It was such an emotional thing to finally be in the same room as each other and do that scene with one another, because we had each other on our minds the whole way through. It was my very first day and it was her very last day and it was a very loaded scene for us, personally, just because it meant an awful lot to us as people. Then, on top of that, I knew her look was going to be extreme and memorable, but to actually see it in the flesh was incredible. We did the first take and essentially just cried and were sharking the entire time because the emotion of it all and the adrenaline of it was through the roof.
I bet you got a decent amount of face time during awards season this year. [Robbie and Ronan were both Oscar nominees for Best Actress.] But did you have a chance after wrapping to get together without the trappings of the period piece and reflect on your time on this movie?
We still haven't had a chance to have a dinner yet, because Margot is the busiest woman in the world and has been off doing lots of stuff. And she's over in the States a lot, so hopefully, we will get in some time during this press tour to just hang out a bit and have a natter.
You said you're filming Little Women right now. How is that going?
Really well! Everyone's great. Everyone's doing great work. We're really excited about it. The script's amazing, as you'd only expect from Greta. We've only got a couple of weeks left now. It's been amazing, just coming back to work with her again and do something on a larger scale with her and some of the crew and the cast that we had worked with on Lady Bird has been really great. It's been really special.
As with Mary and her Maries, I imagine it must be fun and rewarding to be working with so many actresses your own age on this?
It is, yeah. It is. It's something that I think is relatively new for all of us, for all the girls, and it's just great fun, you know? I'm finding it very exciting to go from being not only the only young person usually in the film, but -- I haven't always been the only girl, but I've usually been the only young person. To be surrounded by a bunch of people my own age and, in particular, the ladies, it just feels like a safe space and you can really let go with one another. We're all incredibly comfortable with one another, and it was the same on Mary. Like myself and the girls who played the four Maries, we're great friends now. One of them, Eileen [O'Higgins], who plays Mary Beaton in the film, is actually my best friend in real life. We've done two films together now, so just being able to have that experience with her was wonderful.
Can you share with me your best Meryl Streep story, so far?
Ooh, my best Meryl Streep story. [Laughs.] I wasn't there this day, but they got In-N-Out -- Or, not In-N-Out. Was it a Wendy's? They got a Wendy's or something, because they were all starving, which I just find hilarious. There's a photograph of Meryl in the hair and makeup frock with a bag of chips. So, that's fantastic. And she's just amazing and has been so brilliant on the job.