Speakeasy: Amy Ryan

by Piers Marchant

Actress Amy Ryan has exactly the affable, down-to-earth manner that you would expect from her eclectic body of work. On a press day when she is holed up in a hotel room, meeting a steady stream of press, she still introduced herself sweetly, as if the swarm of journalists coming to see her wouldn't know whom she was otherwise. This past decade has been a good one for her -- from her gamechanging role in "The Wire," to an Oscar-nominated turn in Ben Affleck's 2008 thriller Gone Baby Gone, and playing Michael Scott's perfect soul mate on "The Office" -- she has found a steady path of career ascension. In her new film, Jack Goes Boating, helmed by fellow actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ryan plays Connie, a down-on-her-luck would be telemarketer who meets Hoffman's somewhat peculiar character, Jack, through a mutual friend, and contemplates entering into a new relationship with him. With her infant daughter, Georgia Gracie, in the next room, the New York native talked about her characters, "The Wire," her best friend, actress Patricia Clarkson, and the difference, if any, between comedy and drama.

A number of the roles you've done involve women who get romantically involved with difficult men, who want to better themselves in order to be with you, which ends up making them more sympathetic.
I suppose, yeah, there’s a moment of you meet that one person that you want to change for or at least make an effort for. And I think Jack comes out of his shell: He learns to cook, he learns to swim. Connie, the same, she puts herself out there even on a first date that is in so many ways disastrous. Certainly a character like Beadie Russell [from "The Wire"], a formidable woman, a single mom. I love that part in the beginning where [Detective] McNulty thinks about getting together with her and realizes “I can’t. My life is too complicated and hers is, too. Let me not mess it up,” but ultimately they do find love.

Did you have a sense of Connie’s past enough to inform the role? We get very little sense of what she’s done up until the moment we meet her.

She’s actually kind of crumbling when you meet her. The back story is very simple there’s not much to it other than that she hasn’t luck at love. Nothing has happened to her tragically. She’s not someone who has suffered abuse, I think she’s more someone who has that Charlie Brown character with a cloud over her head all the time, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. She is kind of more quiet and meek than other New York City women I know. I think her awkwardness and timidity comes out of not having had love so long in her life that it makes for very socially awkward situations. Wanting something so bad, that you just start tripping over words.

Though she doesn’t seem to feel sorry for herself.

That’s the thing. Say like, when you first meet Beadie Russell, she’s in a dead-end job and she knows it. She’s patrolling the docks but she’s not very good at it, she has her headphones on. She’s probably just clocking in and taking the paycheck,  until she's forced into some situation unexpectedly, discovering the bodies when she realizes “I’m actually kind of good at this.” Connie starts to apply herself when she’s just about to be fired, unbeknownst to her, and she finds she’s good. I think it’s meeting someone or your life expanding in some way that makes you want to apply yourself. You realize you only go around once in this life so you have to be open and connecting to people, as scary as that may be.

I was interested to learn that you are friends with Patricia Clarkson.
Yeah, she’s one of my best girlfriends.

There seems to be a kind of easy comparison between you two: Very gifted character actors who have remained tremendously underrated. ?
Well, thank you first of all. You know what it is? Patty and I are character actresses. You may not always think of us for those roles because you’ll go to the person who always does that kind of part. But I’ve always admired her career, her choices. I watched her from afar. Maybe that’s the way to have longevity in this career that we had kind of played the same role over and over or had worked so hard to be seen as glamorous in certain roles, I don’t think we’d be here as long as we both will be. Patty’s certainly breaking the rules of women over 40 in film. She’s got a great hit out right now, Cairo Time. The romantic female lead in this film. So you know, maybe people will find us, maybe a bigger audience will find us.

?I think both of you guys do seemingly effortlessly shifting between drama and comedy and drama, but do you ever read a script and think a part is just not for you, not in your vocabulary?
I think the problem is like the more success you have, the more people may want you because they can get more money or they can get another actor if they hear you’re doing it but sometimes there’s a danger – especially in theater – like suddenly, “Oh you can sell tickets,” [and you think] I’m not really right for that. I think a lot of actors can tend to make a mistake and get caught of in the flattery of it. If someone asked me, “You want to play Blanche now?” I’d say “No, I’m a Stella. I don’t really have that in me, that’s not who I am.” That can be other people. There’s something within me that can tap into that. I can’t tap into that. I think it’s important to know yourself, know your ability, but keeping that in mind, to take a chance that sometimes you might just be playing it too safe that you need to push yourself. You know, I very much wanted to do The Office, but I wasn’t sure if it would go well. I was kind of shocked that they invited me over there. But when there’s something that you get a little fearful of, and you can’t sleep the night before, that’s a good thing to choose.

Did that require a lot of improv?
A lot of them have a comedy background, but it is heavily scripted as well. So there are a couple of passes where we do improvise but you can always go back to the script, which is so well-written.

It's always kind of awful to see actors try to stretch themselves and fail miserably, even really good actors can try something they simply can't pull off.

Yeah, that’s where you just really hope you’ve got good management around you. I mean, I feel fortunate. Right after the Oscars, certain offers I had gotten, my agent, and some were really lucrative, he said “You shouldn’t do this.” I said, “Wait are you telling me to – you’re my agent and you’re actually telling me to turn down the first money I’m going to make you?” and he said “I don’t think you should do it.” The only thing that was different was money. And that’s when I decided to stick with this man. He was truly looking out for the bigger picture. He said, “We’ll make money over a longer period of time if we keep choosing well,” and I remember Patty saying that to me, I was younger, she said “You make a decision for money, it will bite you in the ass." Unless you really need to make your rent, and there’s admiration in that, just honest work. But if you can, as an artist, as an actor, if you can really choose it because you connect to it and that’s the sole reason, you’re going to keep having those choices later on.

You were on the second season of "The Wire." Had you watched the first one?

I did. I was a huge fan of the first one.

So you know kind of knew what was at stake.
The first time on set, when I went by season two, I saw up in the rafters of this makeshift soundstage, I saw the orange couch sitting up there. I got so starstruck. I was like, “It’s the couch!” It was such an extraordinary show. I was so proud to be on it. It’s really like none other. It was so rare. That kind of storytelling doesn't come around often. The amount of actors on that show, doing extraordinary work, was just, it was mind-numbing.

Amy Ryan co-stars with Philip Seymour Hoffman in
Jack Goes Boating, which opens this Friday, Oct. 1. Read our review of the film.

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