Nigel Smith
December 01, 2017 02:52 PM

Saoirse Ronan is not your average 23-year-old.

Already twice nominated for an Academy Award (ten years ago a scene-stealing role in Atonement made her one of the youngest Supporting Actress contenders ever, followed by a second nod for 2016’s Brooklyn), Ronan will likely bag her third for her new hit comedy Lady Bird. Also separating her from the pack — she’s never been to a real prom.

In Lady Bird, the Irish actress goes all-American to play the titular spunky Sacramento-raised teen who clashes with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) and Catholic School teachers. The film, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is partly based on the Frances Ha star’s upbringing in California in the early 2000s.

Michael Buckner/Deadline/Shutterstock

Mostly homeschooled in Dublin, Ronan had never before set foot in a U.S. high school.

“My references were Saved by the Bell and Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” Ronan tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “To get to actually do prom and graduate [high school] was very exciting because I’ve grown up watching that on TV. I wasn’t really a part of that whole experience.”

Lady Bird
Lady Bird Saoirse Ronan and Lucas Hedges

Ronan was born in New York City, but her immigrant parents moved back to Ireland when she was 3 because of her father’s work as an actor. (She says playing an Irish transplant in Brooklyn was “very emotional because it was my mom and dad’s story.”)

Gerwig calls Ronan “an incredible technical actress, able to master accents and walks and physically inhabiting a person who is definitively not her,” while also “having access to something completely spontaneous and uncontrolled and alive.”

“This pairing is a director’s dream,” said Gerwig.

Lady Bird is now playing in theaters.

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