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'Brooklyn' Chronicles The Heartache Of The Irish-American Immigrant Experience


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests are the director the new film, "Brooklyn," John Crowley, and the star, Saoirse Ronan. Ronan was nominated for an Oscar at the age of 13 for her performance in the 2007 film "Atonement." She starred in the 2009 film "The Lovely Bones." In Wes Anderson's recent film, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," she played Agatha, the fearless and loyal girlfriend of Zero, the lobby boy. Ronan and Crowley are Irish. "Brooklyn" is adapted from a Colm Toibin novel, set in the 1950s, about a young woman named Eilis from a small town in Ireland, who's encouraged by her older sister to cross the Atlantic to New York City where she might have a better future. After a miserable voyage by ship, she arrives in New York, homesick and disoriented. With the help of the Irish priest who sponsors her, she finds a room in a Brooklyn boarding house and a job in a department store. But loneliness is unending until she meets a young Italian man at a dance. Just as she's on the verge of starting a new life with him, she's called back to Ireland. Once there, she has to decide which life to choose - the familiarity and limitations of her hometown or the possibilities and unpredictability of America. Let's start with a short scene after Eilis has arrived in Brooklyn. She's talking with the priest, played by Jim Broadbent, who sees how homesick she is.


JIM BROADBENT: (As Father Flood) I'd forgotten just how bad it feels to be away from home. I've enrolled you in a night class for bookkeeping - Brooklyn College. It'll be three nights a week and I've paid your tuition for the first semester.

SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Eilis) Why?

BROADBENT: (As Father Flood) Why? Not thank you?

RONAN: (As Eilis) Sorry, thank you. Why?

BROADBENT: (As Father Flood) I was amazed that someone as clever as you couldn't find proper work at home. I've been here too long. I forget what it's like in Ireland. So when your sister wrote to me about you, I said the Church would try to help. Anyway, we need Irish girls in Brooklyn.

RONAN: (As Eilis) I wish that I could stop feeling that I want to be an Irish girl in Ireland.

BROADBENT: (As Father Flood) All I can say is that it will pass. Homesickness is like most sicknesses - it'll make you feel wretched, and it'll move on to somebody else.

GROSS: John Crowley, Saoirse Ronan, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JOHN CROWLEY: Thank you.

GROSS: What personal meaning does this story have for you?

CROWLEY: Well, when I was 27, I moved from Dublin to London to carry on directing plays. I was offered a play at the National Theatre in London. And when I moved there, I was struck by how different the city seems when you actually move there, when you don't have a return ticket, as it were. And my relationship to Ireland changed fundamentally. And I was quite struck by that. I did - I thought homesickness was - I don't know, I suppose I thought it was the preserve of unhappy immigrants who had to leave because of economic deprivation. And because I had been over and back to London all the time, I didn't actually think I'd feel that. And this book by Colm Toibin captures that sense of sort of displacement and Dublin-ness (ph) that you feel when you leave your country, which is that you're obviously not from the country that you are now calling home and - but equally, you're not from home anymore either. You've - you become something else, which is an exile, I suppose, for a while.

GROSS: Saoirse, I know that the story of "Brooklyn" has personal meaning for you.

RONAN: I think initially, when I read the script, I was still living at home. And, you know, I'd been working in films since I was about 10. And I was always very...

GROSS: Do you mean at home with your parents in Ireland or just in Ireland?

RONAN: With my parents in Ireland, yeah. And it was always very important for me to find the right Irish project to be involved in. It was always very important for me to be involved in Irish film. And the right one hadn't come along. And then when I read this script, it was - even though it's a different era, it was very much my mom and dad's story and such a similar journey to one that they had taken over to New York in the '80s. So, you know, when you're handed a script where the story is based in the two places that sort of make up who you are, you're immediately kind of curious and connected to it.

GROSS: Your parents came to the U.S. from Ireland in the 1980s. Your character in "Brooklyn" comes to the U.S. in the 1950s. Why did your parents come to America?

RONAN: Like most young people, they came over to New York for work. There was a very bad recession at home in the '80s at that time. And they, you know, both left school when they were around 15, 16. And there just weren't any jobs at home, you know? And so when they were in their kind of early to mid-20s, I think my dad's family knew someone over there. And this guy got him set up with a job. And him and his friend went over, actually on the Fourth of July, which I only found out recently. And mom and the friend's girlfriend followed over a couple months later.

GROSS: So you were born in New York, but your family moved to Ireland when you were 3. Your parents returned there and took you (laughter) with them. Why did they return to Ireland?

RONAN: I think when they had me over here in New York, you know, my dad was working. He had been discovered - you know, while he was a bartender in this pub that he worked in - by another Irish actor called Chris O'Neill. And so he had started in the theater and was very much a part of that Irish theater community. So for the first couple years of my life, he was working away in America. And work was quite steady, I think, when it came to the theater and different films that he was doing. And then the work just took him back home, and he started to get roles at home. And, you know, I think, my mom - she's actually said to me - she looked at me one day - she was a nanny - and I had a cold. And it was during a brutal New York winter. And she was taking care of the other kids and, of course, I was there as well. I went to work with her. And she just looked at me and I was, you know, sick. And she thought, I can't raise my kid like this anymore. My kid needs a - her own couch to snuggle on and for me to just be able to focus my time on her. It was something that was, you know, very important for her. And also just to know my cousins and go to an Irish school. And so we went back when I was about 4 - 3 and a half, 4.

GROSS: Since the film is so much about homesickness, I thought I'd play an excerpt of the author of the novel, "Brooklyn," from which the movie is adapted, reading a section about homesickness from the novel, "Brooklyn." So this is Colm Toibin reading from "Brooklyn," as recorded on our show back in 2012. This is a description of the character that you play, Saoirse, in Brooklyn shortly after she's arrived.


COLM TOIBIN: (Reading) She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family. It was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house in Ireland belonged to her, she thought. When she moved in them, she was really there. In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the vocational school, the air, the light, the ground - it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had done so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to. But there was nothing, not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday. Nothing, maybe, except sleep. And she was not even certain she was looking forward to sleep. In any case, she could not sleep yet since it was not yet 9 o'clock. There was nothing she could do. It was as though she had been locked away.

GROSS: And that's Colm Toibin reading from his novel, "Brooklyn," which is the basis of the new film, "Brooklyn." And that reading was from FRESH AIR in 2012. With me is John Crowley, who directed the film. Also with me is Saoirse Ronan, the star of the film. You know, that part of the story really speaks to the loneliness and sense of being cut off that you experience, I think, not only as an immigrant, but anytime you're in a strange place with no one you know and you're yearning for home. And in that sense, I think, you know, it's such a universal experience, even if you've never been an immigrant. Of course, it's probably worse (laughter) if you're an immigrant and this is, like, your whole future, and you don't know if you'll ever get to the point where it feels like home. In the story of "Brooklyn," when she returns - when, Saoirse, your character returns to Ireland - she's been changed by living in America. Time has elapsed. Everyone she knows has changed a little. The town has changed a little, not that much. But her experience of the town has changed a lot because of everything that she's experienced. And have you gone through similar experiences of, like, returning home and feeling different about it because of how you've changed?

RONAN: Yeah, I have. Colm's writing just captures it so perfectly and beautifully. And it's so kind of heartbreaking. You know, and I think that's the real heartbreaking experience when you're homesick is actually when you return home and you realize that you've had experiences that are now separate from this place that was so familiar to you and was very much your identity for your whole life. And Eilis actually says, when she returns back to Ireland - and there's a scene between her and Jim walking on the beach - and she says, you know, I wish it could've been like this before I left. But, of course, it couldn't have been because she was - she wasn't the person that we see kind of blossom in New York, you know? And, yeah, I mean, I've been experiencing that, I suppose, my whole life. I mean, it's certainly more extreme now that I'm older and I actually lived away on my own. But, you know, from the age of about 10, just going away for a month at a time to America and working over there and having an experience that just in no way could be shared with, you know, other kids my age that I went to school with. And again, kind of like what you have to do when you move away and you leave a piece of you back at home, when you come back home then, and you've had these experiences, I kind of felt like that was something that needed to be kept separate. So it wasn't really something I talked about.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, I have two guests. Saoirse Ronan is the star of the new film, "Brooklyn." John Crowley directed it. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us I have two guests. John Crowley is the director of the new film "Brooklyn," and Saoirse Ronan is the star of the film.

Saoirse, you were not only emotionally close to the story, you were geographically close to the story. The parts in Ireland were shot, I think, within a half-hour of where you grew up, and where your family continues to live. Do I have that right?

RONAN: Yeah, almost. My family live in Dublin now, but yeah, I grew up in County Carlow which is one county over from Wexford. And, you know, there were times when I was a kid where the one-screen cinema in our town might not have had the film that we wanted to see. So we'd go to Enniscorthy because they had, like, you know, three screens in their cinema. That was the big cinema.

GROSS: That - that's where "Brooklyn" is set.

RONAN: That's where "Brooklyn" is set, in Enniscorthy. And we shot it there. And, you know, to go there, as I said before - my childhood and that part of my life and work were always kept separate. And we moved away when I was about 18. And so that phase for me is very much in the past even though it's something I still sort of crave in a way. So to go back into that with work and meet people who were part of that stage of my life that had nothing to do with film at all was very, very surreal. It really was.

GROSS: Are these people who actually ended up in the film?

RONAN: Yeah, extras in the film, and the dance hall and the church. And, you know, a lot of them were my age, and they were kids that I had competed against, say, in sports days and at our competitions and things like that. And there were loads of the kids that came up to me and were, like, Saoirse, do you remember me? Do you remember that race that we took or that, you know, 400-meter relay when we were 10? And it was mad. It was, like - it was a lot of pressure because you don't want to let any of these people down. You very much feel - I very much felt like I was representing all of us. So I didn't want to mess that up, and to have them there in the scene as well was crazy. But I think ultimately, in retrospect, even though it could be kind of tough at times emotionally to just focus on the character and what you were doing there and not kind of get overwhelmed by all the other stuff, it was probably the best mindset to be in for this girl who's about to go through this massive change in her life.

GROSS: I'm hearing a difference between how you're speaking now and how you speak in "Brooklyn" - how your character speaks in "Brooklyn."

RONAN: Oh, thank God.


RONAN: Because so many people have said to me, so how does it feel to do your own accent? And I keep saying to them, I'm not doing my own accent. I'm doing a different one.

GROSS: Yeah, so what's the difference between the two?

RONAN: My family are all from Dublin. And so I really kind of consider myself a Dub first and foremost. I sound like I'm from Dublin. Whereas Ellis' accent is a country accent. And it's an accent that I grew up listening to and they can usually be very, very strong. So we didn't want it to be - you know, we wanted people to be able to understand it basically. So it's made a little bit gentler and sort of the sounds are rounder - just a bit softer than my accent which is a little bit harsher.

GROSS: Do you plan on doing American films with an American accent? So many actors from other countries learn an American accent.

RONAN: Yeah well, most of the films I've done have been American.

GROSS: I guess that's true, yeah.

RONAN: Yeah, I've done that accent more than any other. My ear's always been open to different sounds. Maybe because I lived in two very different places from an early age. And I also - I grew up with somebody who mimicked other people a lot. My dad did that a lot, and so did my mom, actually. Actually, I think that's just an Irish thing. John does it as well. We all do it when we're having a crack with each other. We, you know, imitate people. That's a very Irish thing to do anyway. But I grew up watching, you know, "Seinfeld," and "The Three Amigos," and "Fawlty Towers" and all these different, really great comedies that came from different places. And so I guess that was how I expressed myself - was by quoting scenes from all these different TV shows and films that I've watched. And I would naturally do the accent. So it was always a part of how I expressed myself, I think.

GROSS: Did you talk to the author of "Brooklyn," the author of the novel, Colm Tobin?

CROWLEY: Oh yeah, yes.

GROSS: What did you get from him that was helpful in guiding you in directing the film adaptation?

CROWLEY: We had - I mean, he was incredibly hands-off, both with me and with Nick Hornby. And he really just wanted to sit, talk about - I sort of hear the approach overall, and then give a blessing, you know. And one of the things he said to me when we had lunch together in London was he said he thought that "The Dead" - John Huston's film, "The Dead," was the greatest Irish film ever made. And he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, and he said, would you agree? And I said well, I wouldn't disagree. (Laughter). And he said he felt it was one of the greatest films ever made because of the level of detail in the casting in every single small part. And I said well, that I definitely would agree with, yeah. And I think he wanted to know that we would go at this with a similar eye to getting every single last part - even somebody who has three lines would be cast as lovingly and carefully as the actor sitting in front of me, as it were. And so that you would get a complete world from it.

And I guess the other thing he wanted to hear my thoughts about were music. What was the approach to music? And I was clear from that point that I didn't want the score to have a particularly strong Irish identity. When you point a camera at small-town Ireland you oftentimes - it's accompanied by a tin whistle or an uilleann pipe and it's sort of plaintive, you know, Irish score. And I didn't want that. And I wanted it to have a more emotionally direct quality and that would take us straight to the heart of Ellis, as it were. And that then in the film - there's a scene on Christmas day where we have an Irish singer who's singing in what's called a sean-nos style which is a very old style of traditional singing. And he's singing in Irish a traditional song. That we would do that and do it exactly right and that that would not, in any way, be softened or have the edge taken off. So that it would - you would go, you know, 110 percent down that road when you needed to. But other than that he was delighted to have updates. He would answer the odd question for me - the odd email.

GROSS: This scene that you're referring to on Christmas Day is a very good scene. Saoirse volunteers at, basically, a soup kitchen at the suggestion of the priest who sponsored her trip to Brooklyn. And the priest says these are the men who built the bridges and the tunnels and the highways. And they're clearly kind of down and out now because they're eating at a soup kitchen. And one of them gets up and sings solo. And it's a beautiful song, and everybody nearly has tears in their eyes. You could tell that that song is bringing back so many memories for everybody. And that even though they wanted to leave, or needed to leave home for whatever reason, that part of their heart is still in Ireland. Who was doing the singing?

CROWLEY: He's a singer called Iarla O Lionaird who's one of the great, great Irish singers. And he's with a band called The Gloaming for those of your listeners who follow contemporary traditional Irish music they might hear of them. It's a sort of - it's like an Irish traditional super group as it were. And he grew up in West Cork in and amongst the family in Coolea which is the Gaeltacht area - the Irish-speaking area of West Cork. And steeped in that tradition of sean-nos singing. But equally, he's got one foot in the contemporary music world. So he was for years a member of a band called the Afro Celt Sound System. But The Gloaming is a more - is a different kind of project.

GROSS: Well, he's got a beautiful voice.

CROWLEY: Amazing.

GROSS: It made me think, like, with both of you - if you were nostalgic for the music you grow up on when you were in Ireland, it would be probably be, you know, like, pop music, you know, rock tunes. It was probably not - correct me if I'm wrong here, but it was probably not going to be like traditional Irish music.

CROWLEY: Yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: Because you grew up with radio, and television, and videos, right?

CROWLEY: It would be The Police would bring a tear to my eye, Terry.


CROWLEY: If you want to make me cry nostalgically, play "Message In A Bottle," OK?


RONAN: Oh, my God. Oh, my Lord.

CROWLEY: But it was years later.

RONAN: But we'd have to plan it on a banjo.

CROWLEY: It was years later that traditional music - I, you know, yeah I grew up, like, late '70s into the '80s, right? And for me traditional music - and in a way, Irishness (ph) was - I was a bit embarrassed by it. I didn't really want to know about it. And it was sort of years later - this was all pre-U2 and all of that - before Irishness became a little bit cool for a minute, you know. I just made a journey back to it and realized that it wasn't quite what I thought it was, to put it mildly.

GROSS: My guests are John Crowley, the director of the new film "Brooklyn" and Saoirse Ronan the film's star. They'll be back after a short break. And we'll talk with novelist David Mitchell. Here's the Irish song we were just talking about that's performed by Iarla O Lionaird in the film "Brooklyn." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


IARLA O LIONAIRD: (Singing in foreign language, as Frankie Doran).

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with John Crowley, the director of the new film "Brooklyn," and Saoirse Ronan, who stars as a young Irish woman who immigrates to New York in the 1950s. Ronan also starred in "Atonement" and "The Lovely Bones." She played Agatha in "The Grand Budapest Hotel." John, I have a few questions for you. In addition to "Brooklyn," our listeners might know you from having directed several episodes of the second season of HBO's "True Detective," including the season finale. And I would like to know what's the most brutal or sadistic scene you had to do (laughter) for that? It's a very different tone than "Brooklyn."

CROWLEY: Slightly different tone, yeah. It couldn't be more different.

GROSS: Couldn't be more different.

CROWLEY: I think supervising Colin Farrell beating up Rick Springfield in such a mean fashion is probably the most brutal thing.

GROSS: Do you want to describe what happens?

CROWLEY: He throws him against the wall and sort of, you know, takes out his rage. There's a long pent-up range in his character at that point. And yeah, he threatens to yank his plastic surgery apart if he doesn't speak and give him the answers that he wants.

GROSS: When you're directing something like "True Detective" and each episode is as well shot as a movie, is the budget pretty large for the episode? Like, how does it compare to an hour worth of movie?

CROWLEY: I - you know...

GROSS: You don't know.

CROWLEY: They don't tell you, no. I don't know. But yes in the sense that the size of that crew and the - you know, we shot with two cameras all the time, sometimes three cameras, inconceivable on a film the scale of "Brooklyn," unless you nominated one specific day, which we did once or twice, for very big set pieces where you had to have a second camera. But we shot always with two cameras. So yeah, it's a completely different scale of operation. And it's almost industrial, you know? This thing was in motion when I joined it. And it was sort of thrilling to step on this fast-moving vehicle and then step off it again. It's very different to anything I'd done before.

GROSS: So I'm going to ask you a stupid question. What's the difference between shooting with one or with two cameras?

CROWLEY: I prefer shooting with one personally because it's the way I see the world, which is one image at a time.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

CROWLEY: And I don't see it in multiple frames. And I prefer the focus that happens on set when everybody is talking about one image, and that's the next half an hour's work is to get this shot and this moment right.

GROSS: So when you're using two cameras, how did you use it? Like, what can you do with two cameras that you can't with one?

CROWLEY: Well, occasionally, you can shoot both sides of a scene, which is quite thrilling to me. You have two single shots and you have two monitors and you're looking at the nuances in the way in which each actor is listening to the other actor's line that's just happened. And that means the sort of dance between you and the actors can really take off. And you have a lot of fun in terms of - and the scene grows very quickly from to take to take, that it's an organic thing, which then gets exponentially better because nothing is being lost. You know, one of the things about working with a camera - with one camera is a lot of stuff gets lost. There's a lot of acting that happens off-camera.

GROSS: Saoirse, you started acting when you were how old?

RONAN: When I was about 8 or 9, I did a small TV show at home called "The Clinic," where a lot of people actually got their start and did that. Then I did another show the next year, and then I did my first film when I was 10. So...

GROSS: So "Atonement," which is an adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel, is the third film that you did. And in this...

RONAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Story, your character, who's 13, wrongly accuses a young man of raping her cousin. She thinks she's right and then realizes he's wrong but never really changes her story. And everybody suffers the consequences of this. And the consequences play out for the rest of their lives. It's a heavy role for a child to play. How old were you? Were you 13?

RONAN: I was 12. I had just turned 12.

GROSS: That's interesting because usually actresses play older than the character - I mean, actresses are usually older than the character they play. You were actually a little younger.

RONAN: I was a little bit younger, yeah. She was supposed to be 13, and I was completely wrong for it. You know, I physically was completely wrong for the role. Briony in the book is described as dark haired, brown eyes. I think she's supposed to have olive skin, and this little mole on her face was very important. And instead they cast a pale, Irish, blue-eyed, blonde-haired child. And - I don't know, it was a strange thing where I think that's where my love for playing someone completely different to me started, you know? I was playing someone who in every way was just - was very different from me. I think the only thing we really had in common was the imagination. And the thing is - the fascinating thing about a character like Briony is that she doesn't really know what she's seeing. There's so much that happens within one day. And, you know, we have to remember she's growing up in the 1930s in an upper-middle-class English family. And I'm sure whatever questions she had, nobody really answered them ever. So she sees, you know, a few pretty confusing events that take place. And her imagination, which is kind of her only friend apart from James' character - James McAvoy's character started to kick in. And that's what she relies on, you know? And she makes herself believe it.

GROSS: How did you become an actress so young? I know your father was an actor.

RONAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you see him act and want to do that, too?

RONAN: No, I didn't. I - basically, when me moved back to Ireland, he was starting to be involved in Irish projects. And there was a short film that he was doing up in Dublin, and they needed a kid for the day. And he asked me to do it because they were stuck, so I did. And I just kind of took to it straight away. I felt very comfortable there. I didn't feel intimidated by it at all. And I remember there was this guy on set, who, you know, would've been in his 30s or something, and he kept talking. And we were about to roll, and he kept talking and he kept talking and he kept talking - and we'd been on set for a few hours at this stage. And I just turned to him and I just went shhh - quiet on the set. And I think from then on, the bug just kind of got me, you know?

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. John Crowley, Saoirse Ronan, thank you.

CROWLEY: You're welcome. It was a pleasure.

RONAN: Thanks so much.

GROSS: Saoirse Ronan stars in the new film "Brooklyn." John Crowley directed the film. After we take a short break, David Mitchell will talk about his novels, his stammer and trying to understand the world of his autistic son. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.