As the titular heroine of Greta Gerwig’s critical hit Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan slips effortlessly into the role of an angsty teenager trying to discover her true self — so effortlessly, in fact, that you’d be forgiven for thinking she drew on her own personal experience for the project.
In fact, the 23-year-old Irish actress was homeschooled for most of her teenage years, so to prep for playing a Sacramento high school student in the early 2000s, she turned to classic movies like Clueless and Pretty in Pink. And unlike the testy relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), Saoirse says that she and her own mom are best friends who rarely argue, so she had to draw on stories from friends for the film’s more confrontational scenes.
But other aspects of Lady Bird’s world are true to Saoirse’s own — like the acne dotting her cheeks (which the actress gamely agreed to leave uncovered for the shoot) and her deep and abiding love of chokers. Below, the two-time Oscar nominee talks getting into character and looks back on that time she begged her mom to let her wear a uniform to school (yes, really).
Tell me about the process of creating Lady Bird’s look — she definitely stands out at her school!
I think the first thing to come was the hair. I remember we were all in a costume fitting, trying out a bunch of outfits, and still trying to find her look. Greta was sitting on the floor, and she was like, “Hey Saoirse, what do you think about a washed-out red color?” The thing about Catholic high schools is that your hair can’t be an unnatural color, but red is sort of right on the border of what’s natural and what’s not; it could probably pass as a natural red.
Once we got that, it was on to finding the clothes. To me, Lady Bird’s style is very Alanis Morissette: quite cool, not overly feminine, and with an edge. And then after that, it was about her physicality, trying to figure out the way she’d walk, the way she’d hold herself.
There’s been some talk about the way her skin looks, too — is that your real complexion, or were you wearing makeup?
So I had had a crazy 12 months by the time I headed into Lady Bird. I’d never had bad skin before, but because I was really tired and wearing a lot of makeup, I started to get acne. I started to break out, and I’d never dealt with that before, so I didn’t know how to tackle it. And when we were in camera tests for the film, our makeup artist, Jackie, asked me how I’d feel about maybe not having them covered up as much. Luckily, I didn’t feel insecure about it!
I just felt like it was a great opportunity to show someone as they really are at that age. Because most young people do get bad skin! And I don’t think that’s something you get to see much. Growing up, a lot of of the teenage girls I saw in movies and TV shows were played by these fully formed 30-year-olds with great skin. I hope it helps young people — and anyone who struggles with their skin — to connect with the character.
I love how Lady Bird puts her own spin on her school uniform, too.
Lady Bird’s definitely a rebel, and because she’s subjected to wearing this uniform every day, the little victories are important — whether it’s a badge on her schoolbag, the length of her skirt, or being able to wear mismatched socks.
It’s funny, because I didn’t really go to secondary school, but I did go to primary school — this really small, country sort of primary school. We didn’t have uniforms, and I was devastated I didn’t get to wear one — like, gutted. I think it was something about the fact that it felt like a costume. I actually remember asking my mom if I could buy a uniform anyway and wear it to school, even though nobody else would be wearing one!
That’s too funny! It’s so strange looking back on the stuff we wanted to wear when we were kids.
I remember that back when all the girls were wearing chokers, I was just a little too young for them, and it was literally my dream to own one. To be in a uniform and wear a choker! I guess all these things are coming back again now anyway, though. Except now, they’re “retro!” [Laughs]
Since you were homeschooled as a teenager, how did you prep for playing a high school student?
Movies and TV shows like Clueless and Saved by the Bell and Sabrina the Teenage Witch were great when it came to helping me understand American high school culture. But the film that’s playing in Lady Bird’s mind is quite different from the one she’s actually in, if that makes sense. She wants to be having this romantic, Pretty in Pink or Sixteen Candles-type high school experience. So I also watched those to prep for the scenes with Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) and Danny (Lucas Hedges).
It’s funny — none of the characters in any of those movies or shows actually wore uniforms to school, either.
They also never repeated outfits, which is something that bothers me endlessly.
Yes! That’s another thing we wanted to make sure we didn’t do in Lady Bird. April Napier, our costume designer, and Greta and I actually picked a few key items that Lady Bird would have in her wardrobe, and we just recycled them, the way you actually would in real life.
Two of my favorite scenes of the film feature Lady Bird and her mother shopping together. Is that something you and your mom do in real life, too?
I definitely shop with my mom; we’re best friends! I don’t shop [in stores] as much as I used to, though, mostly because it kind of stresses me out. There’s loads of people, and I’m not one for standing for long periods of time. My back starts to hurt — I’d rather sit down. I’m like a 45-year-old woman. I should honestly just do all my shopping online, from my dark living room, wearing a fanny pack. [Laughs]
But my mom actually just got to LA the other day, and literally the first thing she did was go to The Grove. I was like, “I guarantee you she’s going to go to the Gap and she’s going to get a gray cardigan and a plain top, because that’s all she ever gets.” And guess what she got? A gray cardigan and a plain top! She just always goes for the same stuff. [Laughs]
That’s the most mom purchase ever! Okay, so where do you prefer to shop?
I’ve definitely gotten more into vintage lately, although a lot of vintage places tend to be really overpriced. I love Zara, Anthropologie, H&M... and Topshop, obviously. There are just such great high street stores out there that make really cool clothes, and I think a lot of them have cleaned up their act a bit [ethically] lately as well.
What’s the last great thing you bought?
You know how ASOS has a vintage section, ASOS Marketplace? I got this really great denim jacket from there: it’s oversized and quilted, with this cool patchwork detail. And it only cost me, like, £60. That’s the last thing I remember buying, anyway!
Any shopping weaknesses?
I’ve always loved sunglasses. My dad is exactly the same, too. We have this shared weakness for them. I have a few nice pairs from Stella McCartney — I love everything Stella does — and there’s an Elizabeth and James pair the brand was nice enough to send me, which I love. Those are the main ones I’ve been wearing lately.
Finally, you’ve gotten to wear some really incredible looks on the red carpet lately. Any recent favorites?
I loved the Ralph & Russo black dress I wore to the Governors Awards. It was floor-length and had the most amazing shape to it. It almost looked like liquid, and the way it would catch the light was just really beautiful.
You can’t go wrong with a great black dress.
You really can’t!
Lady Bird is out in limited release now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.