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'Lovely Bones' actresses see hope in horrific tale

Charles Ealy

She probably has the least name recognition of anyone recently nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar. But that's about to change for Saoirse (pronounced SUR-shuh) Ronan, the star of director Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" and an Oscar nominee for 2007's "Atonement."

In the earlier movie, the actress played Briony Tallis, who falsely accuses her older sister's lover of a crime, leading to a series of tragic events. "Atonement" went on to gross a relatively modest $51 million in the United States, and Ronan eventually lost the Oscar race to Tilda Swinton, for "Michael Clayton."

But this time Ronan, who's now 15, is playing one of the most unforgettable characters in recent literary history: Susie Salmon, the young girl who's murdered by a serial killer and hovers in an in-between world imagined by the popular novelist Alice Sebold.

Though the box-office verdict still is out on "Bones," the movie undoubtedly will boost the name recognition of Ronan, who was born in New York but has been living in Ireland for the past few years.

Ronan, however, still sees herself as a "normal teenage girl" and says she isn't part of the Hollywood hipster scene. During a telephone interview that also includes co-star Rose McIver, Ronan says she sees Susie the same way. "I think a lot of teens can relate to her," she says, "the way she speaks and acts. And she maintains a positive attitude in her afterlife, despite being raped and murdered. So I see her as a hopeful character."

McIver, a New Zealander who has appeared mainly in TV roles and plays Susie's sister Lindsey, also sees the Salmon family as rather typical, albeit roiled by a murder. And the driven Lindsey turns out to be the one who senses the danger down the street, in the ho-hum, everyday home of George Harvey, played to perfection by Stanley Tucci.

"I think it's terrifying how Mr. Harvey is portrayed as an ordinary guy," she says. "If he were a obvious monster, it would be easier to understand. But the fact that he's a regular guy down the road makes it even more shocking."

Both actresses have tension-packed face-offs with the killer.

McIver's big moment comes when she breaks into Harvey's home in search of evidence while he's running an errand, only to be trapped upstairs in a bedroom when he returns early.

"You could hear a pin drop on the set when we were filming that scene," McIver says. "It was adrenaline-filled, and Stanley is a lot faster runner than I am." McIver's character ends up throwing herself out a window, but she says "a trained stuntwoman did that scene."

Ronan's key scene involves meeting Tucci's Harvey during a walk home through a field. Harvey approaches her, saying he has built an underground bunker that will make a playful hideout for the neighborhood kids. And when Ronan's Susie follows him into the bunker, the audience knows the tragedy that awaits.

"It was a few months into shooting before we actually did that scene," says Ronan. "Stanley and I were quite anxious to just do it and finish it. And I like doing scenes that test me and are tense and emotional, so I was looking forward to it in that way."

Both Ronan and Tucci are seated just a few feet apart in the bunker, as Ronan's Susie begins to sense that she's facing a killer. And the exchanges between the two become more and more threatening.

But in a decision that has attracted some criticism, director Jackson chose not to film the actual murder.

"Before we started the shoot, when I went to London to meet with Peter (Jackson), he said he didn't want to make that kind of movie, where the murder was explicit," Ronan says. "There were various reasons. But he wanted for his teenage daughter to be able to see it. And I think if the scene had been explicit, it would've completely overwhelmed the rest of the story. Most of the story is about what happened to her body and how she comes to accept it."

Ronan says she thinks the decision was right.

"When you come away from the movie, I hope that people don't feel downbeat about the whole thing," she says.

"You come away with this huge sense of hope. Most people think it's about a girl who's raped and murdered. It's really not, though. It's about going on and the love that they have for each other."

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931