“Never work with children or animals,” W.C. Fields once advised, a truth more than one great filmmaker has run into like a brick wall no matter how great their talents. After one disastrous experience, Alfred Hitchcock vowed from that point on to only work with adults, or deaf-mutes. Sometimes those adorable little monkeys just will not do what you tell them too, and neither will the animals.
On the other hand, when you can find a child actor that can really act you can get some real honest to God movie magic. You just never know which one it’s going to be; it’s the kind of risk that drives producers to drink. It’s no surprise then that more and more producers are turning away from Hollywood central casting with its tendency towards adorable, easily marketed moppets and to England with its history of theatrical training. So when director Gil Kenan and producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman needed to find living incarnations of Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow for their big screen adaptation of City of Ember, that’s where they turned.
And they came up aces, casting actress Saoirse (pronounced ‘sor-sha’) Ronan six months before the world got a look at her ultimately Oscar nominated role as Young Briony Tallis in Atonement. She has a very Irish accent to go along with her very Irish name and even though we’re in Belfast, she’s actually the only Irish actress in the main cast. She is also a poised and extremely focused young actress (all of thirteen at the time of this writing), and if you can’t place her just yet you will soon after she finishes her next project, the lead role in Peter Jackson’s much anticipated The Lovely Bones.
They may have gotten even luckier with Harry Treadaway, until now largely a British television actor, and one of those young actors blessed with the Michael J. Fox syndrome. Despite being in his mid-twenties (and with all the life experience that entails) he doesn’t look a day over Doon Harrow’s fifteen, very thin and with a certain amount of gangliness.
And now they have the responsibility of carrying an entire film not an inconsiderable challenge no matter what age you are. Between the two of them they appear in almost every scene in the film, and many of them together, which has helped them build a strong rapport that shows through off set as well. It also doesn’t give them a lot of free time for things like interviews. We only have a few moments shoe horned in-between set ups, as they make their way onto the currently unused Mayor’s Office set, still in their bedraggled Ember costumes and artfully decorated in various amounts of dirt and grease.
Saoirse Ronan: As you can see we cleaned our faces for this interview.
Q: Thank you. You didn’t have to; it won’t show up on the tape.
Ronan: We like to make an effort.
Harry Treadaway: [Investigating the various recorders arrayed in front of them] Lots of Sony and Olympus. But it’s definitely Olympus that’s the most popular. I’m Harry Treadaway and I play Doon Harrow…
Ronan: And I’m Saoirse Ronan and I play Lina Mayfleet.
Q: For people who may not have read the books, could the two of you talk a little bit about your characters and how you see them in your own heads?
Ronan: Who’s going to start?
Treadaway: Ladies first.
Ronan: Lina, anyway to me, is a very responsible girl. I mean for her age, she’s only twelve, thirteen, and she has to look after her young sister Poppy and her Granny [played by Maggie Smith] who, you know, isn’t at a good stage to look after them. So she has to take care of them, meanwhile go to school, then start her new job as a messenger. She’s very responsible and very determined and I think once she sees something and knows that it could be important then she’ll drive through to the end to find the answer. Over to you.
Treadaway: I don’t know, I’m sort of… I might tell the whole story here, but it all starts with them swapping jobs, that’s kind of how they become connected. There’s an assignment day am I allowed to give all this away? there’s an assignment day in Ember, which is normally on the last day of the school year but because the population is in decline they have kids from across all the years picking jobs out of a hat, from mold scraper to electrician’s helper to builder to messenger. I get messenger which for Doon is the worst possible job because it’s carrying gossip round the town and carrying messages for other people and doesn’t really have anything to do with the actual working of the city. And Lina gets Pipe Works helper, don’t you?
Treadaway: And I want to work in the generator because the generator is like the life source of the city and it powers everything and it clearly isn’t doing so well because there are more and more frequent blackouts happening. And Doon’s been raised in a way to ask questions and constantly, you know, try and discover things, very practical. His dad [played by Tim Robbins in the film] makes lots of things, and he thinks if he can get in the generator he can work it out and figure out how it works and eventually try and make it better, make it work better. So they swap jobs because pipe works laborer is near the generator and he thinks it will get him closer to that.
Ronan: And messenger is my dream job.
Treadaway: So they swap and that connects them early on. And then Doon gets down in the Pipe Works and sort of still his fascination with the generator isn’t quenched because he can’t get into the door [to see it]. Where am I going now?
Treadaway: Nowhere fast.
Q: Your characters in terms of personalities are very different. Doon’s supposed to be very impatient isn’t he?
Treadaway: Impulsive I prefer. But yeah, he’s very determined, very driven. I mean they’re both determined…
Treadaway: …but in different ways and for different reasons.
Ronan: Yeah, I think they have determination in common, but they’re completely different. As you said, Doon is a very impatient person, whereas Lina, I think she has to be patient because she’s got so many things going on in life she couldn’t be any other way.
Q: What has happening in the scene we just saw? We could see it but couldn’t hear you.
Ronan: Basically we want to find out about the generator and we ask Sul [Martin Landau] to help us and he’s asleep so he’s not very helpful. And that’s it, isn’t it?
Treadaway: Probably, yeah.
Ronan: Yeah. That’s it. You’ll have to go see the film.
Q: How would you describe Gil as a director? Does he talk to you? Help you?
Ronan: He does talk to us. Do you mind if I answer? What I love about Gil is that he doesn’t just see it from a director’s point of view. He sees it from a character’s point of view and the actor’s point of view and that helps us a lot, to know that he understands where we’re coming from and we also understand where he comes from because we all get on really well together and are able to talk things out and stuff.
Treadaway: I think Gil has an incredible facility for being inside kids’ heads and knowing what will work…
Treadaway: …and what will read for that and I think on something like this always that has been some sort of key, going back to the audience and the tone and what is it for. There’s a million different ways you could tell this story but Gil’s incredible for knowing what sort of age its going for, or at least has to be accessible to. Not just for them, but has to read to a young audience, and he’s amazing at understanding what kids want.
Ronan: Yeah. It’s like he turns into the character almost. When he talks to me about Lina he turns into Lina and when he talks to Harry about Doon he turns into Doon.
Q: Do you guys feel like you’re making a kids’ movie?
Ronan: We’re aware of that but staying true to your character, which is all you can do, so you don’t want to be looking at it as if your making a kids’ film. You see it just through your story.
Ronan: But it’s great to have that sort clear vision from him.
Q: Gil talked about there being an Ember accent…
Ronan: Well, we have our American accents on but it is kind of stripped of modern slang, because it is its own entity and it hasn’t got… there’s no TV, there’s no magazines, there’s no internet. It hasn’t got a sort of modern print culture.
Treadaway: Yeah. Even though it is an American accent I suppose it is an Ember accent because it’s a completely… you would think of Ember as just another place.
Q: Are there made up Ember words?
Treadaway: Well, I suppose it’s all about the Ember feel. It’s generator, it’s tins of food, it’s blackouts. It’s all about, if you see the generator as our sun, and there’s some people, a section of our society called The Believers, who sing songs about wanting to be saved so you know it’s almost religious in some aspects, the generator. It’s what you choose to see it as but it’s definitely the life source of the city and it’s definitely not in a very good state. And the food definitely is running out and there’s not much time.
Q: How was it working with your adult co-stars? The ones who played your parental figures; Tim Robbins and Liz Smith and Mary Kay Place?
Ronan: I want to talk about Bill Murray for a second.
Q: And Bill Murray of course.
Ronan: I didn’t have, I had maybe four scenes with Bill Murray, but those four scenes you remember for the rest of your life because he just, he continually makes people laugh and whenever he’s on set he puts everyone on a high and he’s really funny and he’s really talented and he just kind of, he learns his lines but then adds things on and it makes them even better. It does! But Bill’s great. And so’s Liz Smith.
Q: Were you ever worried when he started to go off, off book and making things up?
Ronan: For the first time I was a little bit lost and we were in this room [the Mayor’s Office] actually and we were doing a scene and we did Bill’s shot first and then we turned around on me and Bill decided to make his own script and try to make me laugh the whole way through. We did four takes and he tried to make me laugh the whole way through and I actually didn’t. I’m very proud of that. [Laughs]. I didn’t really get lost because he didn’t lose the lines altogether, he just made extra.
Q: What about working with Tim, Harry?
Treadaway: Tim was wonderful. We had an amazing… it was all condensed, all these people coming in and doing their chunks… but for me it was amazing just to get the domestic scenes and get to work with them because we jumped in early with a lot of the pieces of the puzzle with Doon and Lina and to have the domestic scenes in Doon’s apartment, for me, really grounded the character because it’s very much the family element of it and the way he’s been raised and the environment… I don’t know if you’ve looked around the apartment?
Treadaway: …but you really see the crazy mind the dad has and the practical nature of him and Tim was wonderful. Very tall and very wonderful.
Q: Does it help with the reality of the scene, when you’re in those sets with all those inventions?
Treadaway: That’s the job and on this with the kind of visual manifestation of the script has been stronger than anything I’ve ever done. The whole world is like it was in the book. The first scene was turning up with this contraption that dad had made and we kind of find and we turn up and its there. It really is there and kind of as you imagined it, but better. Normally better and in more detail and with more… it’s just, I think Martin Laing deserves a mention for the set he’s done and I’m just constantly amazed by… every room you turn up into you’re just blown away and go ‘nice one mate’ because it kind of makes your job easier. It’s there. When you see the control room and the little buttons are flashing and it’s all there.
Q: As actors does it really help for you to be in this environment, where they’ve built an actual city, rather than little pieces of set here and there?
Ronan: It’s amazing.
Ronan: ‘Cause every day you come on you come in through the main square and it’s amazing that it’s all connected, as opposed to little bits around a studio.
Treadaway: I mean, we’re used to it now but when we first came here it was like ‘oh my god!’ But, I think it does help because it’s all kind of one. It’s not just bits, everything is together and it is like a city.
City of Ember opens in theaters on October 10.