Spotlight on Amy Ryan


There are times in an actor’s career where pieces fall into place and all the stars align, and in Amy Ryan’s case, that time may as well be right now with three of her new movies being released over the course of a single week. This normally wouldn’t be that unusual for a working actor, except that in her case, all of these movies are really good. A long time New York theatre actress with two Tony nominations under her belt, Ryan hasn’t done a lot of interviews for the movies in which she’s appeared, but she’s absolutely delightful, nothing like Helene McCready, the character she plays in Ben Affleck’s movie Gone Baby Gone, who is a fairly contemptible neglectful mother involved with all sorts of shady characters and unscrupulous situations, which seem to be more of a concern than her missing 4-year-old daughter. It’s based on Dennis Lehane’s novel and Ryan is so convincing at getting audiences to hate her that she’s already on many short lists for awards season, despite it being a few months away.

On top of that, she also plays Ethan Hawke’s ex-wife in Sidney Lumet’s crime-thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and is part of Steve Carell’s extended family in Peter Hedges’ comedy Dan in Real Life, both which come out on Friday.

If there was a good time to talk to Amy Ryan and find out how she got such a great role in Ben Affleck’s movie and got roles in two other great movies, this is it! It’s pretty amazing that you appear in three really good movies in the course of one week.
Amy Ryan: I know. I swear I didn’t plan it that way. It’s just great timing.

CS: What order did you film them in?
Ryan: I think “Gone Baby Gone” was first, yeah, before “The Devil Knows You’re Dead” and then “Dan in Real Life.”

CS: I guess “Gone Baby Gone” would be the most significant of the parts.
Ryan: Absolutely, that’s the best part by far. The best character and writing in terms of arc, and the other ones just add a certain flavor to the story.

CS: I notice that in those three movies and others, you’ve played a lot of mothers. Are you a mother yourself or is it just a coincidence you’re playing that role so much?
Ryan: No, I’m not a mother. Hopefully one day, but no, I think sometimes that’s really what a lot of women get: you’re the girlfriend, you’re the mother, you’re the wife. (laughs) That’s what a lot of roles are for women out there, but I guess there’s many different stories to tell in motherhood.

CS: Helene McCready is probably not the best mother of the three and she may actually be the worst.
Ryan: No, she’s the most challenged mother. I mean, she’s the one who’s really up against every odd imaginable, and unfortunately, is not making very good choices. They’re the best choices she can make to her ability.

CS: When you got that part, did you do a lot of research or preparation or did you pretty much work off what was written about her in the script?
Ryan: After I got the part, I read Dennis Lehane’s book on which it’s based, and that was a great resource ’cause there are scenes that aren’t in the movie that you can look to almost like a cheat sheet or Cliff Notes about what else is going on in the character’s life. When I got to set, about a week before we started filming, I hung out with as many locals as I could, because the main thing was getting the accent really, because I couldn’t stick out like sore thumb, especially with Ben hiring actors and non-professional actors who were the real deal from Boston. The biggest fear was that I would stand next to them and look like… well, basically, an actor, and stick out.

CS: Did Ben suggest you read the book or was that something you decided to do on your own?
Ryan: I decided to do it on my own, yeah, I was curious. It’s any nature of any book that you read and then is later made into a film, there’s not enough time. It would have to be a mini-series obviously to get every aspect of the book into the film. Ben and Aaron Stockard I believe did a phenomenal job of paring down the story and containing all those characters. I mean, they’re such rich characters Dennis created and they might have changed just with this one character Cheese in the book he’s a 300-lb. Scandinavian man. They couldn’t find it so it ended up a Haitian man played by an African-American.

CS: When you play a character like her, who most people would just consider despicable for what she does, do you have to justify her to yourself or give her some excuse in your head why she does that stuff?
Ryan: Yeah, I mean that’s the actor’s homework, like 101 basic. You can’t judge your character. You have to remove your politics and your beliefs and try to add up the math that’s true for them, and so I hope I succeeded in not judging her but just trying to understand the choices she makes, and so you start to backtrack. You’re like, “Okay, well, she does drugs, so why is she self-medicating? Oh, she’s living in her own hell. Right, okay, and why does she do all these other things? Oh, she grew up in this environment as well.” And you start to take on the social aspects of the story being told and realize that there’s a terrible cycle that needs to be broken. People aren’t just born demons, you know, it’s taught. Clearly, I believe this is the way she grew up as well. Actually, that’s talked about. Lionel, my brother in the movie, says that we’d had a hard life and our parents were no better, but the difference is that he found love and someone helped him, and Helene never had that. She’s never had anybody helping her out.

CS: Is it a joy to be able to play a character like that who’s just so different from yourself?
Ryan: Yeah, I love it. That’s my favorite part of being an actor is hiding away and not finding traces of myself and becoming unrecognizable if I can pull that off. That happened somewhat with “Capote” as well. Friends of mine watched that movie a couple times and were like, “I don’t see you anywhere in it.” And look at that wig I’m wearing. I love that, because coming from theatre, the play’s the thing, and for film, the story has to come first.

CS: I’ve been seeing your name on all these movies and just before talking, I looked at some of your past movies. You played Chris Cooper’s wife in “Capote,” which was a great part, but it’s surprising how each role you do seems so different from one to the next.
Ryan: Yeah, I like that. I remember Gary Oldman, every time I saw a movie with him in it, I would read his name in the credits and go, “Oh, good, I like him. Cool” and then it would be halfway through the movie and I’d go, “Oh my God, that’s him!” Even expecting and knowing he was going to be in it. That always inspired me.

CS: I know that in the Lumet movie, you had a lot of New York theatre actors and people you knew.
Ryan: I knew a lot of that cast. There were a lot of great old friends in that cast.

CS: Can you approach any of these movies at all like you do a stage play, especially something like “Gone Baby Gone”?
Ryan: Sidney Lumet’s movie we did approach like a stageplay. That’s his way. He rehearses every movie he’s ever done from the time he was making movies. He does a read-through with the cast just like you do with theatre and then he maps out the floor plan in a big rehearsal space, and rehearses scenes and then at the end of the week, all the actors are called back in and you run through the script like a play. Your next scene’s up and you take your place and you do that scene. What he likes to do—because Sidney Lumet shoots so fast, one or two takes tops—he wants there to be no surprises, so if you’re in a scene, obviously that’s shot out of order as film is, you remember, you have an emotional memory of the arc of this character, where you’re going, so you can add up your math. So it’s not disjointed in your performance, because it will be disjointed in the shooting schedule. Yeah, so “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” was approached theatrically in that sense.

CS: And Peter Hedges is a theatre guy, too.
Ryan: Yeah, well that’s how I ended up in “Dan in Real Life.” I did a play of Peter Hedges’ years and years ago in New York, and that cast especially, those are some of my best friends that I’ve met through Peter, like Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz and Frank Wood. Peter called on us all and he was like, “Look, these parts aren’t big, but I need you all to be a family and you know each other.” We had a week of rehearsal on set in Rhode Island, where we just created this family. A lot of it was already work done because we’re all so comfortable with each other.

CS: He told me about some of the things you did like the talent show and the letters you wrote. So you did all that stuff?
Ryan: Yeah. (laughs) That was a guilty paid vacation. I mean, we were in the most beautiful spot in Rhode Island playing games basically. It was great, it was a really great time. We had a lot of laughs.

CS: I would think as an actor you’d be so busy that you wouldn’t have that much time to dedicate to rehearsing for a movie.
Ryan: We’re busy, but I think pretty much all actors would welcome it. You make the time for it of course, because it’s only going to help you in the long run. You never really want to be flying by the seat of your pants, like “Oh, God, what am I doing? What is this about?” Especially coming from theatre, I love rehearsal. That’s the part where you really get to root around and see what’s right with the character.

CS: Now Ben doesn’t have a theatre background or none that I know of.
Ryan: I don’t believe so, no, but we had about a week rehearsal as well, also because of the nature of we had so many people in one scene, and there was a lot of rehearsals just for camera. So yeah, we did a lot of the stuff at my character’s house, and we rehearsed for about a week and a couple days here and there, table reads here and there. That was a great benefit to have that.

CS: But in that case, you had a lot of non-actors, people who were locals, so how did that work out?
Ryan: Actually, they didn’t rehearse because most of the locals were just there for a day or two, so the main rehearsal was between myself and Ed Harris and Amy Maddigan, Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan, and Titus Welliver. We did those scenes over and over. I don’t believe Dottie was cast then, Jill Quigg, so I believe our script supervisor read her lines for rehearsal.

CS: As far as having these three great movies out now, would you consider it luck? Obviously, you’re an actor who needs to work but is it luck that you had these three great scripts come your way or were you just very selective and its coincidence they’re coming out together?
Ryan: Well, I think it’s luck and I think the luck started on the day I met Ben Affleck and when I met Sidney Lumet years ago with his television show “100 Center Street.” Yeah, they were all kinds of things in the making and obviously Peter, so yeah, it’s just the luck of the draw that they came out when they came out, but I couldn’t be prouder of three movies. It’s a joy. As an actor, the end product isn’t always what you had hoped it would be, but in this case… “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” I saw last week at the New York Film Festival and I was just floored. That movie is phenomenal. Oh my God, what a punch to the gut and the heart, but those are just incredible performances by Ethan and Phil, so I felt very proud as a New Yorker and as an actor to be in that movie as well.

CS: I’ve already seen it twice. How long did it take to shoot your scenes for that? Most of your scenes were with Ethan, so were those just done in one long day?
Ryan: Oh, no, there’s no long days with Sidney Lumet. Most of those scenes probably took a half an hour, because he shoots with four cameras usually, and he edits as he goes, so he knows those first two lines are a wide shot and the third line is already a close-up, because that’s from him starting in live television, and that’s just the way he works. Most of it’s locked-out for you already unless you hugely object to it , but it’s coming from Sidney, so chances are, it is right, you know? (laughs) It’s rare that you protest any of his choices. He’s just so smart, so no, I mean, most of those scenes took less than an hour, which is unheard of. That’s Sidney Lumet, and he’s two takes tops.

CS: You’ve been bouncing around between TV—you were on “The Wire” for a while—and been on stage quite a lot. Do you have a preference on which medium you like working in and do you see yourself going back to TV any time soon?
Ryan: Oh, yeah. What’s going to drive me to any and all of them is going to be writing and the character within that story told. I find that I’m liking film a little more right now, because I like telling stories in a shorter amount of time. With theatre, you do have to commit a minimum of six months. It’s a great love and I’ll always go back to it, but the idea that I could have done three movies in that six months kind of excites me a little more right now.

CS: Have you started shooting “The Changeling” with Clint Eastwood yet? And is that the next thing you’re doing?
Ryan: I start at the end of this month.

CS: Who are you playing in that?
Ryan: I play a woman named Carol who befriends Angelina Jolie’s character, who are both wrongly accused and held under duress, and kind of become best friends in their hour of need.

CS: Are you a mother in that one, too?
Ryan: No! (laughs) I’m not!

CS: So this is going to be a departure for you! Do you have anything else you’ve shot and that we might see at the film festivals next year?
Ryan: Well, I have two independents that I shot that I hope make the festivals and come out. It’s always kind of like luck of the draw. One is called “Bob Funk” and it stars Michael Leydon Campbell, written by a first-time filmmaker Craig Carlisle, and the next one is “The Missing Person” which stars Michael Shannon and myself and Frank Wood, also from “Dan in Real Life.” It’s all in the community and that’s written and directed by Noah Buschel.

CS: Is he also a first-time filmmaker?
Ryan: Actually, this is his third movie. I met him on his second movie called “Neal Cassaday” which is hitting the festivals now, doing that stuff, but he’s a really talented young filmmaker, so hopefully, all the pieces will come together. You never know with independents, but the stories are certainly there with those scripts, so that’s what made it fun.

CS: Great, and how has it been hitting the campaign trail for Ben’s movie, doing all of these interviews and press? Have you ever had to do something like this before?
Ryan: No, this is all so new to me. It’s wild, but I’ve been enjoying it! (laughs) But it’s definitely wild. I’m running on fumes these days. My poor mother, she’s so nervous, ’cause I was on Jay Leno last night. She’s like, “I can’t sleep! It’s all too much already, it’s too much!” I was like, “I know, I know!”

CS: Did you ever have any idea that so much was involved with putting a movie out and trying to get attention?
Ryan: No, no, I mean I watched friends before me deal with stuff like this, but you don’t really know until you’re in it. The thing that’s been keeping me going, just this energy, even though I haven’t slept in two weeks, is I really believe the film is so good, so I’m happy to talk about it.

Gone Baby Gone is now playing nationwide, to be joined by Dan in Real Life on Friday, October 26, and Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead will also open in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, after which maybe Amy can get some sleep. Check out our interviews with Peter Hedges, Sidney Lumet and the cast of his movie over the next few days.