Rising to the challenge

Saoirse Ronan relished the chance to play two roles in The Host, says Alan O’Riordan

The Host is writer Stephenie Meyer’s follow-up book to the Twilight Saga. Set in the not-too-distant future, the story, now adapted for the screen by writer and director Andrew Niccol, depicts a world in which Earth has been colonised by the Souls, an alien race that displaces humans from their own bodies and turns them into hosts. The Souls have transformed the planet into a clean, safe, peaceful world — and, of course, the sine qua non for such a world, in science fiction anyhow, is a near eradication of that imperfect yet strangely loveable rogue, the human being.

A resilient few humans survive in the wilderness, a hunted species. Among them is Melanie Stryder, played by Saoirse Ronan, who explains what attracted her to the role.

“What I found interesting was the concept: the idea that aliens could inhabit our planet to perfect it, to rid it of negativity, to make it nice to live in again,” she says. “I was also intrigued to see who would be directing it, they hadn’t a director when I signed up. Andrew was perfect for it. I’m a big fan of his stuff, like The Truman Show. He’s smart, you knew he could handle something like this.”

On the face of it at least, The Host is essentially a love story. Ronan’s character Melanie is taken prisoner by a Seeker, whose job it is to provide human bodies to serve as hosts for new arrivals, Melanie is gravely injured trying to escape. She survives, and a Soul named Wanderer (or Wanda) is implanted in her body. Wanderer extracts information about other human holdouts from Melanie’s memory, but instead of luring Souls to find the humans, Melanie fights back, and, because of her strong will, Wanderer begins to identify with Melanie’s family and her boyfriend, played by Max Irons. That sounds pretty complicated, until you realise that Ronan plays both Melanie and Wanderer, and that she’s a character for whom having inner conflict is literally true: an internal struggle between the host’s suppressed personality and that of the Soul.

“When I read the script I was definitely drawn to Melanie, because I knew I’d be playing her,” says Ronan. “It is her story, but what was the really exciting thing was that I was going to be playing two different characters, playing Wanda and Melanie. That was brilliant getting to do both. The script really gets into the head of this alien creature who is very inexperienced with human emotions and interactions with people.”

So Ronan, who’s about to turn 19, is playing not one lead role in this film, but two. Does she feel pressured by that? “There is always a pressure when you are the lead and carrying the film but I don’t think about that kind of thing. I just thought that this was something different — that I was playing two characters. There’s a definite separation in their attitudes towards things. Wanda is very similar to roles I might’ve done in the past, a bit more ethereal; Melanie is very mouthy, hasn’t got a lot of patience. It was nice to jump between the two.

“I always say I never really want to do the same thing. I like to try different things. I like that in every film I do. That’s down to what you are offered too, you can’t be too picky, but if I read a script that was very similar to what I’d already been a part of, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Rather than a simplistic struggle between good and evil, The Host depicts a kind of invasion of the congenial bodysnatchers. “The Souls are good, they are not evil,” says Ronan. “My Soul mixes with the human race and identifies with them and becomes a part of their family. But because they are not human, they are quite cold, and can be ruthless. It raises the question: it’s a perfect world, but would you want to live in it? A world stripped of all emotion and passion.”

It’s not the first time in Ronan’s career that she has appeared in a science fiction movie. She appeared in the post-apocalyptic action-thriller City of Ember in 2008. Sci-fi wouldn’t be her favourite kind of film, she says. “It’s not something I’ve been drawn to as an audience member, but it is great to do it. The good thing about The Host is that it starts off all very slick and clinical and clean, then when my character moves into the caves, it’s rugged, human. You see that division between the two.”

Given how she talks about the prospect of shooting rugged scenes in caves, you can imagine that Ronan was sorely tempted by the offer to work on The Hobbit, which she turned down. “I was raging I couldn’t do it but the way it was shot I could have been there for a year and a half and there were lots of scripts I wanted to do.”

Among those scripts, showing more evidence of Ronan’s thirst for the unusual, was Neil Jordan’s forthcoming vampire flick Byzantium, and How I Live Now, another futuristic affair, adapted from Meg Rosoff’s novel about the outbreak of a third world war.

Right now, Ronan is working on the new Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s a prospect that brings out the fan in the young actor. “I love all of his films,” she says. “The cast he has is always amazing. I’m pinching myself.” Ronan joins Jude Law, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Adrien Brody, Ralph Fiennes, and, of course, Bill Murray, in another ridiculously stellar Anderson line-up. “I really appreciate that,” she says. “There are moments like this, with something like Wes’s film, with so many amazing people, and it’s really exciting to be part of it.”

The Host is released on Friday.


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