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For her physically demanding role in Joe Wright’s thriller, Hanna, Saoirse Ronan embarked on a gruelling training regime – but she had fun doing it, she tells Alan Smith. 

“Physically it was tough,” she says. “I had a lot of fight scenes to do and I did everything myself, and then if there was something that was very dangerous, the stunt double would take over. But I was very much involved in that side of it, so it was tiring. But it was fun, too.” The 16 year-old admits that her daily fitness and martial arts sessions were exhausting and sometimes painful and there were times when her aching muscles were screaming for a rest. “Every now and again I kind of felt like ‘God, can I just stay in bed today?’” she laughs.

The young actress has established herself as one of the best in the business in just a few years. An Oscar nominee for her performance in Atonement, she already boasts a remarkable CV that includes a trio of films by acclaimed Antipodean directors: Gillian Armstrong’s Death Defying Acts, Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones and Peter Weir’s The Way Back.

Hanna has her reunited with Atonement director Joe Wright. In fact, it was Saoirse who first suggested that Wright would be the perfect filmmaker to tackle the project. “We did stay in contact a little after Atonement,” she explains. “And I was really hoping we would work together again.

"it was an even better experience this time"

“It was great to work with Joe again and I think it was an even better experience this time because we knew each other so much better. We’d already had a great experience together on Atonement and got along really well and I think we became proper friends on Hanna.” 

Wright’s action film is a dark contemporary fairytale, she says. Hanna is 16 year-old girl who has to venture out into a dangerous world for the very first time and fight for her life. Hanna is intelligent and strong beyond her years but she’s also naïve and innocent in many ways. She has been trained in the wilds of Finland by her father, ex CIA man Erik (played by Eric Bana) to become a highly skilled fighter and set out on a revenge mission – to kill the ruthless intelligence operative Marissa (Cate Blanchett) who murdered her mother when she was a baby.

“Joe and I worked on her movements a lot because Hanna is like a wild animal in a way, like a wolf approaching its prey, who is quite light on its feet and very focused on what its about to kill and nothing gets in the way. “There’s a fierce determination there and I think that’s something that was integral to Hanna as a person, in her energy and in everything that she does. And when she does step out into the world, it’s the same kind of thing - she’s just hunting her prey.

“So all of that really helped and also, even though externally it seems like her situation is quite different to ours, really she’s going through the same thing that every teenager goes through, which is stepping out into the world when you are sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, thinking that it’s going to be great and everything is going to be perfect and everyone is going to fall in love and it’s going to be lovely, and it’s not like that.

"It’s hard and it’s frightening and not everything goes the way you planned"

“It’s hard and it’s frightening and not everything goes the way you planned. And that was something that I could relate to and I hope that other younger people and older people who will have obviously gone through it as well, will be able to relate to that too. Hanna feels isolated – she doesn’t know anyone and she doesn’t understand anyone and there are plenty of kids that feel that way. So I was able to relate to her in that way, and that helped.”

Two months before filming Saoirse started her training regime, working out for five or six hours each day in the gym, lifting weights and building up her slender frame. Each night, she would have one-on-one lessons in martial arts, mostly Wing Chun, a Chinese discipline that focuses on close combat. 

“I’d never trained in a gym before or done anything like that. I did athletics and other sports when I was younger but it’s not really the same as this kind of training because you are using your whole body and you are trying to build up your strength and your physical appearance as well. So it was hard to start with but I did get used to it. My dad has been involved in martial arts since he was a kid and I really loved doing it and it was satisfying and fun. When you do the fight choreography it sort of feels like a dance because it’s very graceful. And the style that Jeff Imada (stunt coordinator) came up with was very graceful for me and suited the character perfectly and was a lot of fun. But I also got to work with guns and knives and bow and arrows as well and that was brilliant. I mean, who gets to do that?”

She also had plenty of encouragement from Bana, who plays her screen father. “Eric had done that kind of stuff before in other films. And then when we arrived in Berlin for rehearsals we spent pretty much the whole week just fighting together and working out the choreography with Jeff (Imada). And on the second week of rehearsal Eric, Joe and I started to look at the scenes in depth and work out the dramatic side of it.”

"exotic locations"

The production used exotic locations in several different countries and experienced extreme temperatures. “It was really, really cold in Finland. We all freak out here (in London) when it’s like minus 5 or something and believe me, that’s nothing compared to minus 30 in Finland. 

“And the harsh thing was that everyone else had these thermal suits on and Eric and I would be in costume wearing fingerless gloves. I was very cold! And then we went to film in Morocco in May or June where it was starting to get pretty hot, like 48, 50 degrees, so it was quite a contrast.”

Saoirse’s father, Paul, is a well-respected actor and some of her earliest memories of visiting film sets where he was working. “The first one I remember was when I was about six years old and I was doing this short movie. I was only on for a day or something and it was one of those kind of artsy, independent short movies. I was dressed as a clown – I don’t know why! And that’s the first memory I have of a film set.”

She can’t remember exactly when she decided that she wanted to follow her father and become an actor but she clearly loves her chosen career. “Ever since I was born my Dad always had the camcorder out and I’ve always liked being in front of the camera.

“When I did Atonement, which was a very serious thing for me to do, I was only 12, and I worked with great people; Joe is a brilliant director for any actor to work with. I had a great experience because of that and it was something that I just couldn’t imagine giving up.

"I’ve never felt like I’ve had to grow up more quickly than others"

“As we all know, children pretend they are pilots, or firemen, or astronauts, or dogs or something. And that’s always something that they do, so it’s natural for a child to pretend. I’ve never felt like I’ve had to grow up more quickly than others or anything like that. I think being around adults an awful lot and being involved in really in depth stories and having to think about characters, and things like that, has certainly helped me to mature. But I’ve always been kind of mature anyway, without forgetting that I’m a kid. I still feel like a teenager.”

Published December 1, 2011

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Saoirse Ronan - as Hanna


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