She chalks it up to coincidence, but whatever the cause, actress Amy Ryan is everywhere. As the drug-abusing mother in Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” or Ethan Hawke’s vindictive ex in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” to what she admits is a very minor role in “Dan in Real Life,” her presence is being felt, especially at that happy time of the year known in Hollywood as the awards season.
Ryan was nominated Tuesday for a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in “Gone Baby Gone.” Before the nomination was announced, John Anderson talked with Ryan about her rising profile.
Are you the type of person who detects some master plan directing your fate?
I do believe everything happens for a reason, not just in career but in life. I think there’s some lesson to be gleaned—I believe we control our destinies to a point, but what’s happening now is a summary of hard work over the years. Part of it is luck; I did happen to meet Ben Affleck, I think he was the tipping point for me and that was luck. And great timing. Everything else feels like, y’know, it’s what I’ve been working toward. I’m surprised and grateful, but at the same time it’s what I hoped would happen. So in some sense it’s like, “Wait—this should be happening ...”
It’s not like you won the lottery.
More like finding a lottery ticket on the ground—I’ve been playing the scratch-off numbers for years.
Are you feeling the heat? Have your recent successes upped the demand for Amy Ryan?
I don’t have a stockpile of offers, but the scripts I’ve been reading make me realize it’s a different chess move to make. More than ever it’s about choices, and trying not to repeat myself and just play drug-addicted single-mom characters. It’s natural that people will think of me for roles like that, but the trick is to stay one step ahead, and not make choices to be safe.
I know you grew up in Queens and went to the High School for the Performing Arts. My sense is that you’re very attached to New York.
I grew up in the house my father was raised in; my mother grew up five blocks away. New York gives me energy and the best education on human behavior one could get.
Was your Queens neighborhood anything like the Boston milieu re-created in “Gone Baby Gone?”
Queens is a very different kettle of fish. Drugs weren’t part of the neighborhood. It was very safe, all our doors were unlocked during the day. But Queens is a very diverse borough. There were neighborhoods around that would have been close to the one in the movie.
What about creating Helene, the woman whose baby is kidnapped?
Most of it was on the page, from Ben and Aaron Stockard. The book (by Dennis Lehane) was like having the Cliff Notes. I never felt I had to flesh out the writing in any way. The discussions Ben and I had were about assimilating into this world, and you were standing alongside non-actors—when you’re there, the truth is all around you. It’s not Toronto, Vancouver. We’re not really re-creating something.
Not to be snarky, but there are a lot of ugly people in this movie.
That’s America, my friend. These are people who really struggle, so hard. I think most of the country is struggling. My neighborhood in the West Village, you’re hard-pressed to find a laundromat anymore, because the artists have been forced out and the bankers are moving in.
Regarding “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”—you’ve worked with its director, Sidney Lumet, before?
Yes, he did a show called “100 Centre Street” and I played three different characters in the two years it was on the air. The great gift from Sidney, among many, is he really feels actors can do no wrong. I was in one episode, and three episodes later he asks me to come back and play someone else. I said, “Sidney, yes, of course, thanks, but how am I going to pull this off?” He said, “You’re a good enough actor, you’ll figure it out.” If that man can give the OK to that, you think, “Oh wow, maybe I can do anything.”
You prefer the big screen to TV?
I was always lucky to find great writing on TV. But some shows are just about story. There’s simply no time for character, and you’re forced to play two-dimensional characters. But it hurts your body to do that. The body doesn’t lie: If it doesn’t feel truthful, something’s wrong in the math.