Saoirse Ronan has had a meteoric rise since her breakout (and Academy Award nominated) turn in Atonement. Now a poised young woman, the actress who has worked with filmmakers as diverse as Joe Wright, Peter Jackson, and Neil Jordan, adds another original voice in filmmaking to her oeuvre with her appearance in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. As Agatha, Ronan plays the sweet-natured Mindl’s bakery assistant who falls in love with one of the movie’s two protagonists, bellboy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). In the first role that has allowed the 19-year-old to use her native Irish accent (despite being set in the fictional alpine nation of Zubrowka), the role was a good-hearted change of pace for the rising star. It is also the complete opposite temperament of Academy Award winning Adrien Brody’s Dmitri, the villainous count that will stop at nothing to prove that the Grand Budapest Hotel’s concierge murdered his sweet, dear mother.
As it is Brody’s second collaboration with Anderson, following a starring role in The Darjeeling Limited, both brought unique and insightful perspectives on the project when they sat down with us last week. Here is that interview.
Adrien, you’ve worked with Wes before. Saoirse, this was your first time. Can you talk about that experience and how different it might be?
Saoirse Ronan: It was my first time, and I was very nervous going into it, because the thing that strikes me more than anything with Wes’ films is that the style of acting is so different. It’s theatrical and yet it’s underplayed and dry, as well. Do you know what I mean? There’s that amazing balance that he somehow can bring to a film. So, I think I was nervous about not being able to do that very well, but he guides you in a very clear and direct way.
SR: He just tells you. He shows you! I mean he has animatics on his little iPad mini.
Adrien Brody: That was new though.
SR: Did he not do that before?
AB: No, we didn’t do that on [The Darjeeling Limited]. So, it’s interesting to watch his evolution. And I think it is probably more necessary for the nature in which he wanted to present this story and the kind of specificity of it. What’s wonderful about Wes is he really knows clearly what it is he’s looking for, which I think is distilled more now by animatics and stuff, which are very useful in description. There is room for the actor to interpret and find it, but he has given you so much ammunition to prepare you, as far as the look and feel. Everything is well thought out. You feel safe knowing someone has such a clear vision in storytelling.
Speaking of which, Adrien, we’ve seen you play anti-villains before, but it looked like you had a lot of fun playing a full on villain. When you’re talking about that specificity, there’s a fine line in comedies where you have a villain, and it doesn’t turn into a caricature, and you made your character believable. Can you talk about any direction or input you had with Wes in shaping that character, so it didn’t turn into this ridiculous parody?
AB: Well that is essential for me, anyway. I love comedy, and I was just having a conversation with a friend of mine just now about how it’s interesting few people within the industry see me in comedy or come to me necessarily with a comedic role, but yet The Darjeeling Limited was very comedic in a way, and even Brothers Bloom, and I’ve done broader comedic things. The key for me is for the character to have some level of truth or darkness if he’s playing that, but not to take that too seriously, as well. This is such a fairy tale in a way. It’s its own world. So, you have a lot of room to be playful in that, but again, there should be stakes involved, rather than just playing for a joke.
You talked earlier about how animatics differentiated working on The Darjeeling Limited with this project. Could both of you talk about how working on a Wes Anderson set differs from other sets you’ve been on, beyond his precise vision?
SR: …The preparation is such a huge part of the ultimate experience on set, but the one thing I really loved, and it took me a second to get used to it, is everything is laid out for you. He’s created this character, and he is very clear about what he wants, and in general, you’ll do quite a few takes per a shot, and what I noticed with Wes, this is how in tuned he is with his own vision and the characters he’s created, you’ll give a performance for a take, and he’ll tweak one tiny little thing. Everything is quite minute; every detail is very specific, but it could literally be a gesture of your hand, or how you tilt your head, or the speed of the scene, or something like that. He’s that masterful when it comes to his scenes that he tunes in to all that kind stuff. So, I found that really interesting, because it’s almost like you’re tailoring your character still while you’re working on set.
And you have your own accent for the first time in any movie you’ve ever done. How did that come about? Did you show up and say, “I’m doing Austrian or European?”
SR: I didn’t know what he wanted me to do. It was really relaxed. I met him in London, and I sat down with him. He was like [in American accent], “So, okay, um, maybe we should, um, go through the scenes?” We went through the scenes, and we started out by doing a German accent and that didn’t really work. Then we did an English accent, and that sounded a bit weird, and then we did an American, and we thought no, she shouldn’t be American. Then he said [American accent], “Why don’t you just do your own accent? Try your own accent?” And I did it, and it just felt right. I was thinking about it earlier, and in a way, for a smaller character in a film, there always needs to be something that brings it alive for you. For me, [it’s usually about the] accent. With an Irish accent in particular, there’s always a feistiness to who we are as people and a warmth, as well. I think Agatha has that to her. She’s got this inner-strength, but yet is very warm and loving, so I think it is the perfect accent for her.
How would each of you describe doing a chase scene or stunt scene with Wes Anderson?
SR: Did you ever do that in Darjeeling?
AB: Yeah, had Darjeeling a lot. They’re very well choreographed, so there’s not a lot of room for error that does happen on film quite often where you’re doing something, and there is a degree of risk and a stunt involved. It’s so thought out. Even prior to this, what I think was wonderful about Darjeeling was this kind of life experience we all shared. We are on a moving train every day; we were shooting in India; it wasn’t on a sound stage; we were encountering such beauty and also tremendous difficulties people were facing, and odd encounters. It was very similar to what the characters were experiencing in a way, and we were sharing that. But he’ll have it very well thought out. The other thing is Wes shoots a lot of moving masters, and I’ve worked with Bob Yeomen, our DP, on another film. I’ve shot three movies with Bob, and he’s very excellent and very precise. There becomes this group goal of precision, as well as your responsibility to be truthful to your work as an actor and a character, but it’s necessary for everybody to be very accurate. So, when you’re mentioning stunts or things like that, people are less careless somehow, because you’re following a leader.
What are you both doing next?
AB: I have Houdini coming out.
SR: You’re playing Houdini?
AB: Yes, ma’am.
SR: I was in a Houdini film when I was younger.
AB: You were?
SR: Yeah, Guy Pearce plays him.
AB: I saw that. Oh yeah! I remember that! I saw you.
SR: Benji McGarvie from Edinburgh [Ronan’s character in Death Defying Acts]! Oh, that’ll be cool.
And you’re doing How to Catch a Monster?
SR: I did that last year. I did it straight after Wes’ film, and it was in every way the polar opposite when it came to the making of it. So, that’ll be out at some point, and I’m doing a film right now called Stockholm, Pennsylvania, and then straight after that doing a film called Brooklyn, which is an Irish film, and I am playing an Irish girl, so that’s exciting. And then I’ll be doing Mary, Queen of Scots at some point.
Will you be Mary? Off with her head?
How was working with Ryan Gosling [on his directorial debut] in How to Catch a Monster?
SR: He’s great; he’s amazing. He’s very, very talented, and he’s lovely to be around. He’s one of those guys who’s very comfortable in his own skin, so I think that made everyone relax a little bit more, because what we’re doing is kind of out there. Even the way we shot it, the way we went about performing the scenes and everything, it was very [different]. It was a very brave thing for him to do on his first film. It was great. I couldn’t have been in better hands.
***SPOILER: The remaining section features some spoilers about the end of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Do not read on if you have not seen the movie.
Do you see this movie as darker?
AB: Darkness? It’s very light.
But you’re a fascist Nazi…and [other dark sequences].
SR: A light-hearted Nazi [Laughs]. But you’re right, though. There’s a weight of different elements in the film for sure. It’s not really flaky or anything like that. You’re right, at the end of the film, one of the things that struck me that I had forgotten about, because I wasn’t involved in so many parts of the film, is F. Murray Abraham talking about how he kept the hotel for Agatha. I found that so heartbreaking. And Wes effortlessly manages to introduce that to every story he creates, but he doesn’t dwell on it. Like everything else, the humor, the dialogue, the romance, everything isn’t overwhelming.