Amy Ryan: Hollywood, motherhood and being unemployed
An Oscar nods aw the roles flow in for Amy Ryan, she tells James Mottram, as she talks about Hollywood, motherhood and being unemployed
Amy Ryan has a maxim when it comes to her time in Hollywood. "I like to say 'I never went with more than one suitcase'," she confides. Across her 20-year career, her longest spell there was only ever 10 months. "Once you get too comfortable there, it can be seductive. It seems like a much better life -- the weather, the space you get, and you can have a pool."
Blonde and blue-eyed she may be, but Ryan is no Californian beach babe. "You get bored of it anyway. Or I should say 'I do'. That's why I prefer New York."
It's no surprise, for Ryan has done her best work on the East Coast. HBO show The Wire, in which she featured as a port authority cop, was Baltimore. The Office, as Holly Flax, the HR employee who captures Michael Scott's heart, is in Scranton. Ben Affleck's movie Gone Baby Gone, which won her an Oscar nomination for her role as a drug-addled mother, was Boston.
Her new film, Jack Goes Boating, is all about New York. The directorial debut of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, it offers further proof that she clearly feels at home 3,000 miles away from Los Angeles.
Adapted from a play by Bob Glaudini, Jack Goes Boating is an intimate chamber piece that, as its geographical location hints, could never be made in Hollywood. Ryan is the only new member to the principal cast. Hoffman, who plays Jack, a shy and slightly awkward limo-driver, had starred with John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega -- who play a married couple who set Jack up with Ryan's character Connie -- in a production at Hoffman and Ortiz's Labyrinth Theater in 2007.
Replacing original cast member Beth Cole, Ryan "never saw the production on stage", which probably helped quell any nerves she had about stepping into someone else's shoes.
A lonely mortuary worker, Connie is a Ryan speciality: a fragile, quirky woman that you can't help falling for. She calls her "the most mysterious" of the quartet. "Certainly the words that come out of her mouth -- I kept turning to Bob [Glaudini] and saying 'Why does she say "penis penetration"? Is she nuts?' And he would just shake his head and go 'She just is' -- basically, guiding more towards 'Don't judge her'. The more I did that, the more the answers came. I'm sure it's similar in London: to be 40 and single and nervous about love is enough to make you crazy!"
Fortunately for Ryan, she's not quite in Connie's position. Recently married to Eric Slovin, an actor-writer who is a regular on US comedy show Saturday Night Live, they now have a daughter, Georgia Gracie, who turned two this month.
Pregnant when she was filming Jack Goes Boating, Ryan admits it was initially difficult to adjust to being an actress and a mother. "When she was an infant, you can't think of anything else. But now she's a little older, I do think of her all the time, but it's good for me too to have a mental and creative break. And be refreshed to be with her when I come back."
Alongside motherhood, there's a sense that the 41-year-old Ryan is just coming into her own. Hers has been a slow-burn -- but since Gone Baby Gone, she's worked with the late Sidney Lumet (Before The Devil Knows Your Dead), Clint Eastwood (Changeling) and Paul Greengrass (Green Zone). Much of this she attributes to the Academy nod, despite losing out to Tilda Swinton on the night.
"It brought me towards better directors," she says. "You still have the same problems as an actor -- you still want to get a job but it's just higher stakes. It was a great shift. I'm so appreciative of it."
Even so, you still get the impression that Ryan is wary of the studio system. "After Gone Baby Gone, I got offered a lot of drug-addict parts," she sighs. "So I thought, 'No, I don't want to repeat myself!' So I went and did The Office. Then after that, I was like, 'I want to do something one-on-one and do a drama'."
She managed to find herself a role on yet another runaway hit HBO show, In Treatment, playing a psychoanalyst opposite Gabriel Byrne. Following The Wire and The Office with In Treatment, she seems to have the Midas Touch when it comes to picking projects. "Maybe I just make sure they're hits first!" she grins.
But like this year's Best Supporting Actress winner Melissa Leo, Ryan has spent the best part of two decades toiling away in thankless roles -- not least as a neighbour holding a toddler in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds.
"There were times when I didn't enjoy it," she admits. "But my parents were really good at just letting me know that something else was around the corner -- and that was instilled in me very young. Sometimes I knew I was full of shit, but [after failed auditions] I'd just say, 'They just don't see it'. Sometimes you have to drill that into your head -- and that's not easy."
Did she cope well with periods of unemployment? "I was good at dealing with it emotionally, but I was not good at seizing the day! I didn't take French classes or cooking classes -- I mostly palled around with my other friends who were waiting it out. Or walking the streets in New York -- you just pop into some adventure. Something will always happen." Perhaps this is why Ryan, who grew up in Queens, the youngest of three girls, is so attached to the city.
With her mother a nurse and her father the owner of a small trucking company, Ryan went to study theatre when she was 14 at the New York City Public High School of Performing Arts. "It's a basic high school education -- except you don't go to gym," she says.
Upon graduating when she was 17, she was hired almost immediately in a touring production of Biloxi Blues. Off-Broadway became like a second home to her for the next decade; more recently, she's gained two Tony nominations for her theatre work.
She's recently completed an as-yet-untitled film, about "love, fidelity, marriage and music", alongside Guy Pearce and Britain's Felicity Jones. But other than this, she's happy to wait and see what's on offer.
Alongside the likes of her good friend Patricia Clarkson and the aforementioned Melissa Leo, America currently seems benevolent to actresses with a little more life experience. And if nothing comes along, she always has the little matter of motherhood to keep her occupied. "Yeah," she smiles. "It's not a bad waiting game."
Jack Goes Boating is released on November 4
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