ABOVE: AMY RYAN IN NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 2014. PHOTOS: VAN SARKI. STYLING: ERIN WALSH. MAKEUP: REBECCA RESTREPO AT THE WALL GROUP FOR ELIZABETH ARDEN. HAIR: RHEANNE WHITE FOR R+CO AT SEE MANAGEMENT. STYLIST’S ASSISTANT: ADAM BALLHEIM.
Born and raised in Queens, New York, Amy Ryan began her career with guest spots on popular television shows in the early 1990s: As the World Turns, Home Improvement, ER. Then, in 2003, she joined the cast of HBO’s The Wire as Beadie, a dockyard police officer and love interest for Dominic West’s delinquent, drunken, promiscuous anti-hero Jimmy McNulty. But it wasn’t until 2007 and Ben Affleck‘s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone that Ryan got the attention she deserved: as Helene McCready, a negligent, drug-running, heroin-addicted, “I give a fuck” mother to a young girl who goes missing, Ryan subtly stole the show. She received a Best Supporting Actress nomination and a reputation as a go-to character actress.
But that’s not to say Ryan has stuck to a certain role or genre. She flirted with Steve Carell as Holly Flax in NBC’s comedy series The Office, played a therapist in Showtime’s In Treatment, took to the stage opposite David Schwimmer in the tense four-hander Detroit, and, last year, played a suburban mother with a husband on the brink of philandering in Drake Doremus’ improvised film Breathe In. Her most recent movie, the Oscar-tipped Birdman starring Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, is currently in cinemas.
Here, Ryan talks to her old friend actor Michael Shannon, with whom she has collaborated many times.
MICHAEL SHANNON: I already know what I want and I’ll tell you why, the magic word for me is pumpernickel. I love pumpernickel. I must have some Russian blood in me because I could just eat pumpernickel and raw onions.
AMY RYAN: When you say it three times fast something happens?
SHANNON: No, I just love it. I can’t say it three times fast. You probably could, because you’re an accomplished stage actress.
RYAN: Pumpernickel, pumpernickel, pumpernickel.
RYAN: I got a little stuck on the second one because I started laughing. Do you have really good questions for me?
SHANNON: I feel like they’re great questions, but some people may feel like it’s a waste of time. Have you done this a lot? Have you interviewed people?
RYAN: People I’ve known for 15 years? I actually haven’t.
SHANNON: I was at this Rosewater premiere last night. You know this movie Rosewater? Jon Stewart made it. It’s about that Iranian journalist who was in prison for I don’t know how long. But anyway, before the movie there’s a fella two seats down and he says, “Hey Mike, remember me?” Does that happen to you a lot? Someone will come over and say, “Hey, remember me?”
RYAN: I remember when I was younger and being perplexed why other people didn’t remember having met me, and saying that they were stuck up: “What’s wrong with that person?” But now, I hug and kiss people hello and say, “Great to see you,” and I have no idea who they are. I just go in for a full body hug.
SHANNON: That’s the great secret of humans: we’re all the same person. I think you’re right—the best thing to do is just go for the hug.
RYAN: I meet too many people. When I meet people, I say, “Hi, it’s Amy Ryan.” I don’t say Amy. I give them everything.
SHANNON: The person who said, “Remember me?” claimed to be the assistant director for Marvelous (2006). There’s a project we did together that very few people in the universe know about. Síofra [Campbell], our dear friend, wrote and directed it. The acting quartet was myself, Amy, Ewen Bremner, and Martha Plimpton.
RYAN: We were all nurses.
SHANNON: We had a real hoot.
RYAN: We had a real hoot. We had some good hoots on—
SHANNON: On other pictures, such as The Missing Person (2009).
RYAN: And Before the Devil Knows You‘re Dead (2007).
SHANNON: I don’t know if “real hoot” qualifies Before the Devil Knows You‘re Dead. I don’t know if anybody had a real hoot on that. It’s a masterful movie, but it’s kind of dreary.
RYAN: Are you having a harder time being in a dreary world since you’ve had children?
SHANNON: No. I’ve always been able to switch tracks—go in one world and out the other fairly easily. I don’t take my work home with me.
RYAN: What about seeing them?
SHANNON: Seeing them? Honestly, Amy, I hardly ever go to the movies—any kind. Happy, sad, long, short.
RYAN: Not any kiddy movies?
SHANNON: I’ve taken [my daughter] Sylvia to a few kid movies. Do you take Georgia to movies?
RYAN: Yeah, she went the other day. It was too loud and dark. I was going to ask you today, even though this is supposed to be about me. God, Mike Shannon. When we first met as friends, we used to walk hours away in the city. Do you still get to do that?
SHANNON: I do.
RYAN: Why you motherfucker. [laughs] How do you have time to still walk through 10 neighborhoods like we used to do before we had children and other responsibilities? Do you have three nannies?
SHANNON: Well, I find my opportunities. Like today was the perfect excuse because I was coming to DUMBO to interview you. I walk up to DUMBO a lot because my band rehearses in DUMBO. But I don’t walk around to that extent.
RYAN: I did it yesterday, which made me think of it because I hadn’t done it in years. I walked from Park Slope to Brooklyn Heights. I loved it. It was great.
SHANNON: Why were you in Park Slope?
RYAN: I had to get new eyeglasses.
SHANNON: Are these them? They’re beautiful. They really are. Are they strong? Are you blind?
RYAN: A little bit. I can’t wear contacts so now when I act on a film I kind of get mean. Steven Spielberg on the last film said, “Make more of a soft face,” because I was focusing.
SHANNON: Oh, I get that all the time.
RYAN: Maybe you need glasses.
SHANNON: If I had glasses, I would look friendlier?
RYAN: Yeah, but then your whole career might change. You’d be the fun, soft dad.
SHANNON: Or I could be a teacher: But wait a second, Steven Spielberg was telling you to look more gentle?
RYAN: Yeah, it was a loving scene and I was looking a little angry, but the truth is I couldn’t see a damn thing. I’ve got to get contacts; I’ve got to figure it out.
SHANNON: Is this the Untitled Cold War Spy Thriller?
SHANNON: You’re probably not allowed to say anything, [but] why isn’t it titled? That seems a little lazy to me. Who are the big stars in this picture? Can you tell me that?
RYAN: Mr. Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance…
SHANNON: Do you play Tom Hanks’s wife?
SHANNON: Oh my god.
RYAN: I’ve had some pretty interesting cinematic husbands.
SHANNON: Let’s run ’em up: Keaton, Hanks—two of the arguably biggest stars of the ’80s.
RYAN: Paul Giamatti.
SHANNON: Paul Giamatti—not one of the biggest stars of the ’80s.
RYAN: Ethan Hawke was an ex-husband in our movie, right?
SHANNON: He’s very handsome. Okay, who else?
RYAN: I’m drawing a blank.
SHANNON: Well, it’s not a long list, but it’s an impressive list. It’s like a haiku. When is this movie coming out?
RYAN: Next September, I think.
SHANNON: Do you think Tom Hanks will win Best Actor? It’s probably already in the bag. They’ve probably already made the trophy.
RYAN: I think they made it with his name on it already. Doesn’t he get one just for showing up?
SHANNON: The Tom Hanks Award for Best Acting goes to…Tom Hanks. Are you done with that film?
RYAN: Yeah, I’m done.
SHANNON: Because when I went to IMDb to do my research…
RYAN: You Googled me?!
SHANNON: No, I went on IMDb. That’s very different. That’s a professional tool used by industry professionals. I saw you were in four movies that were in production, which I thought was a little crazy. Slow down.
RYAN: Says you. [laughs]
SHANNON: One of them is called Monster Trucks. I need a long paragraph about this.
RYAN: Monster Trucks is a kid’s movie. There’s a lot of mom-ing it up in films these days.
SHANNON: Playing a lot of moms?
RYAN: Yeah. [laughs]
SHANNON: In Monster Trucks, how old are your children? Are you allowed to say that?
RYAN: I think they’re 16 or 17.
SHANNON: So they’re getting their first monster truck. They just got their license and they’re like, “Mom, can I get a monster truck?”
RYAN: And I say, “Do your algebra homework first and I’ll see if I can buy you a monster truck.”
SHANNON: This sounds like a great movie. [Ryan laughs] It’s something we can all relate to. I remember trying to get my first monster truck and how hard it was to convince my mom.
RYAN: What did you have to do for your monster truck?
SHANNON: I don’t want to say. Things that no one should do. You have how many kids?
RYAN: Just one. When you work at the local diner, you can only have one kid.
SHANNON: So not only are you a mom, but you’re a waitress?
SHANNON: A mom-waitress. You need to play a mermaid or goddess. You’d be a good goddess.
RYAN: What would I be the goddess of?
SHANNON: You could be Artemis. You could be Venus. You could be Hera or Juno—the leader.
RYAN: I’m going to call Síofra up and tell her we all want to be goddesses this time.
SHANNON: Yeah. Lord knows we’ve seen enough of these dudes playing ancient Greek people. Time to see a really good movie about Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. The last time I saw you was at the New York Film Festival screening of Birdman, which you have probably said quite a bit about. Probably several thousand words. Do you have all your answers down?
RYAN: I have to say, I have my answers down, but I find that one easy to speak freely about from the heart. I genuinely think that movie is thrilling. It refueled the inspiration tank for continuing to do films and be an actor. Some jobs you do—maybe you don’t—are jobs that pay mortgages and some are art and I don’t care about not being paid on those.
SHANNON: Was part of the inspiration the fact that it was difficult? I say difficult, because I noticed that the director was trying to capture things in long takes, without coverage, which I always find completely terrifying.
RYAN: I didn’t find it terrifying to be honest. I feel like that’s the part of theater that feels familiar. Sometimes you can battle with ego when you don’t get coverage, and be like, “Oh, this is a really good part of the scene. I want to be on camera for it.” But very soon into it you trust [the director] and it’s not about your ego—even though the movie deals with ego—it’s “you’re part of the greater whole.”
SHANNON: Ultimately, I feel like what you’ve got to do on a movie is surrender to the director. In this case, you really have to.
RYAN: Do you think you approach each film or each part depending on how the director works? Or do you always work the way you work and hope that they let you do that?
SHANNON: I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never known what I was doing. I show up the first day, I’m scared, and I just hang out. It’s like being in detention—you just wait for it to be over. Then gradually I start to figure out what’s going on.
RYAN: Well, you have moments where you feel good, right? You know that you’ve done well?
SHANNON: For me, it’s not like, “Oh I did a nice job” or “I didn’t do a nice job.” The most fascinating part of movies is the organism of the movie—it’s such a bizarre thing to do, to make a movie. To see these people come together, band in unity, to create this thing that almost doesn’t exist. It only exists because it’s projected on a screen, but other than that, it’s an illusion. The thing I noticed in [Birdman] is you seem so calm. You seem very grounded.
RYAN: That’s how I am in real life, wouldn’t you say Mike?
SHANNON: No. You’re a very anxious person—high-strung, kind of jittery.
SHANNON: In this film, everybody else was very neurotic and you were very calm, peaceful, and serene.
RYAN: I’m the non-actor—my character.
SHANNON: It was very touching, too, how much your character seemed to have forgiven Michael Keaton’s character. You don’t see that very often in a movie, an ex-spouse being that understanding.
RYAN: She’s more resigned to it; she knows better than to try to change him. Let people be who they are.
SHANNON: Did you and Alejandro [González Iñárritu] talk about the process of how she got to that point or did you just come up with it yourself?
RYAN: Michael, [Alejandro], and I talked, but it was more about having a kid. You have a kid together and, regardless of any fight, that’s a person that you brought into the world. They’re always going to be part of your life. You’re going to have some love towards them even if they fuck up every other part of the relationship.
SHANNON: It’s interesting you say that, because in theory, I agree. I think it’s super important. And yet my parents, it was like two different worlds. I don’t think it’s necessarily a given that that is what will happen. I think it still takes an extraordinary person to put the child first, because Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan, is obviously tremendously screwed up. So she’s had to forgive a lot of stuff. I found that very touching. It almost seemed like she was borderline falling back in love with him again. Was I just imagining that?
RYAN: I think it’s fondness. I don’t know if she’s falling in love. I think she allows herself to enjoy what she did enjoy about him, and maybe she is more evolved. But I don’t think she’s pining away for him—she’s forewarned. We like to think people would change for us and they’ll get it together, but she seems smart enough to know that that doesn’t really happen, or if it happens, it happens on their own.
SHANNON: Have you, in your life, felt a need to change or do you feel pretty much the same as you’ve always been?
RYAN: I think that a lot—not because I hate myself or I’m down on myself, just how do I keep learning something new? And I’m not successful at that. But you know what’s hard? When you’re on a movie and the production department says, “We need old photographs of you—your character—when you were 20-years-old.” I usually tell them it’s in storage or I had a fire. I go back to these old photos and there’s never a good photo or they’re of times that I’m so glad I’m out of. They have nothing to do with the character that you’re playing, so it feels false. That’s one of the hardest things for me in terms of looking back.
SHANNON: I know what you mean. Sometimes I get very nostalgic, but even so, those pictures are not appropriate on the set. Why, when you’re trying to be somebody else, would people demand that you surround yourself with old pictures of yourself? I just did a movie where every picture in this person’s house was a picture of them. Nobody has that.
RYAN: I have two pictures up in my own house of my family. It was last year when I realized you could walk in here and not know who lives here.
SHANNON: You started out at LaGuardia High School—I think this is pretty common knowledge. Did you have leotards and legwarmers?
RYAN: Because I was in the theater department? Legwarmers? No, you know what was big in the mid-to-late ’80s? Clothing from Canal Jeans—secondhand men’s overcoats that were size large. You’d look like a little bag lady.
SHANNON: Shifty. Like a pickpocket. Like you could be in a Godard film. Or Truffaut.
RYAN: Yeah, with Doc Martens or big white sneakers, because I was from Queens with big stuffy socks. It’s all a uniform, all a costume.
SHANNON: Right. Well, you want to present a tough exterior, because in all actuality, it must have been a very vulnerable position to be in a high school acting program.
RYAN: No, actually. I went there and I felt like there were people I recognized. I couldn’t recognize many of them in my neighborhood. I would try to get kids to do plays in the backyard with me and they’d look at me weird: “Why would you want to do that?” No one else was interested. My mom was interested in the arts, but [not] kids in the neighborhood. They thought it was horrifying to be in a play, but that’s all I wanted to do.
SHANNON: Was that your only interest?
RYAN: I liked photography. But I wasn’t good at it.
SHANNON: Did you have a camera?
RYAN: I had Pentax K1000. I didn’t develop my own film or anything, but I liked taking pictures of people.
SHANNON: Would you take it to the drugstore?
RYAN: Yeah. But I can’t do it now with phones and digital. There’s something about looking through an old thing…
SHANNON: So you were comfortable at LaGuardia and had a good time there. Did you do a bunch of shows? Or did you get the little parts?
RYAN: They’d do only one show the whole time you’re there, but you’d do scene work. When you’re young and know that’s what you want to do, you can figure it out there without costing your parents a ton of money because it’s a public school. And if it’s not for you, you’re still at college age [and you can] go off to college and study math or science or literature. It gives you a little head start. But it’s fun and creative and you’re surrounded by kids from all five boroughs, all different economic backgrounds. It’s very eye-opening.
SHANNON: That’s good, because if it was private and cost money to go there it would probably only be a certain type of kid. Do you mind talking about Georgia? I only bring her up because I know she’s a lion share of your existence, right?
RYAN: Oh my god, yeah. She’s magical. She’s very serious. She’s very funny. She’s dead serious about her humor. I’d like to say she goes from shy to weirdo, which is the best compliment in my world.
SHANNON: That’s what a lot of the great ones do.
RYAN: You’re kind of a shy-weirdo person yourself.
SHANNON: Yeah, I am, but now I just referred to myself as great one, which I’m not entirely comfortable with.
RYAN: I go from shy to throw-down just by dancing hard.
RYAN: Yeah. I’m a very good dancer.
SHANNON: All styles? Latin? Tap?
RYAN: Oh, I can tap. I can’t do Latin; I can’t do couple’s dancing. I like shaking my ass on the dance floor, but I don’t go to clubs to do that. I just do it in my house.
SHANNON: That’s one of the benefits of owning your own property.
RYAN: [laughs] You can do it a rental too.
SHANNON: But you never know when the landlord will come down and say, “Hey, knock it off.” What I was going to ask—could you picture Georgia at LaGuardia?
RYAN: No. I think she’s smarter than I ever was. [laughs]
SHANNON: Really!? Already?
RYAN: LaGuardia’s not a great school for academics. But I think she’s got something else going on artistically.
SHANNON: A novelist maybe?
RYAN: I think painting and that creative world is more up her alley.
SHANNON: Oh. Mary Cassatt. One of the other last times I saw you was at that movie Breathe In.
RYAN: You say you don’t go to the movies, but you go to a lot of premieres.
SHANNON: When I get an invitation that says, “a movie that Amy Ryan is in,” my old friends that I don’t get to see very often, I say, “Well, maybe I should go because I might get to see Amy.” I really liked that Breathe In movie and that Felicity Jones—she’s blowing up. She’s in this Theory of Everything movie.
RYAN: I know. I haven’t seen that yet. She’s dreamy.
SHANNON: How about Emma Stone, she played your daughter? She’s nice.
RYAN: I love that girl. I think the world of Emma. I wish I had as much as she has together at her age.
SHANNON: You know who I just worked with? Steve Carell. You worked with him a lot.
RYAN: That’s the last thing you [want to] talk about here this afternoon? How much do you love that man?
SHANNON: He’s awesome. We had him for a week, which isn’t long, but you’ve had him on several projects. Did you ask him to interview you and he said no?
RYAN: No, you were my first actor. You were my first!
SHANNON: They said in the talking points that you find comedy more difficult than drama. Is this true?
RYAN: I do. If you can find something that makes a character genuinely funny and that’s not just derivative of jokes we already know—moves we already know—I think that’s hard to find. There was always a moment on The Office where I’d read what they asked us to do, and I was like, “I’m about to make the biggest ass of myself or I’m about to have the time of my life.” I equate it with the one time I jumped out of an airplane: “I’m about to die or I’m about to have the time of my life. So choose one.”
SHANNON: But don’t you know that if it’s really bad, there’s no way they’ll use it? Or are you afraid that you’ll do something you think is really stupid, but they’ll think it’s funny and put it in?
RYAN: I think a lot of people say, “That’s great. That’s awesome. Let’s move on,” because they have to move on for time. Look at all the good sitcoms that are on TV—how many people are not funny? God forbid you get in that situation.
SHANNON: For me, I’m equally terrified of both comedy and drama. The only thing I’m really comfortable with is action.
SHANNON: Because I can get out of any situation with my two hands. But if you’re doing it with someone like Steve Carell, do you feel it’s taken care of? “I know this will be fine because everyone’s going to be watching Steve anyway.”
RYAN: You’re definitely in his wake. You’re definitely pulled along.
SHANNON: We were all so excited when he came to work on our movie. It was the last week of the shoot, and the whole shoot we had been like, “He’s coming, he’s coming.” He got there and it was this rapturous, “What’s he going to do?” And then—
RYAN:—he’s very quiet and shy. [laughs]
SHANNON: Yeah, you’re like, “He’s so normal!”
RYAN: He’s not one of those funny guys that’s on all the time and becomes like nails on a chalkboard.
SHANNON: But I’ve noticed that with the real comic geniuses, they don’t waste it on the water cooler. They save it for the right time.
RYAN: Did you see Foxcatcher? He’s amazing in it. Someone asked me recently, “Were you surprised?” and I was like, “No!” He’s great at what he does. It makes sense to me that he could be great at that too. All the stuff that he does, even in the comedy world, it’s character-driven first. He’s just not doing these crazy antics.
SHANNON: I think improv training really orients you to character development, more than taking a Strasberg class or Meisner class. Not only is it about developing character really quickly, but it’s also about being a good partner in the scene.
RYAN: Yeah. I did two films that were totally improvised. One was Breathe In, which you mentioned, and one was Clear History with Larry David, which is a scary notion, but he was smart enough to say, “If it’s not funny I’m not going to use it.” So it gives you a little bit of breathing room. Then when I asked Eric [Slovin, Ryan’s husband] because Eric’s background is comedy, he said, “Don’t try to be funny. That’s the trick to it. Just keep the ball in the air, the conversation going. Don’t look for the joke.” That was helpful. Steve makes me laugh no matter what he does, and Will Ferrell makes me laugh if he just walks out on the stage. There are those people are so effortless at it. They’re not sweaty. I need to hide behind writers a lot.
SHANNON: Do you write at all? Little poems or anything?
SHANNON: Your own name? Can you write your own name on a piece of paper?
RYAN: Yeah, I’ll practice my signature over and over and over. I once wrote a diary because I thought I should and it was just too sad to read it back. [laughs] Do you keep a diary?
SHANNON: No, but they always say that actors should keep diaries. Did you ever get into reading magazines?
RYAN: Reading magazines? Like The New Yorker?
SHANNON: Do you remember Interview magazine when you were younger: “There’s Interview magazine!”
RYAN: Oh, I did! I thought it was the coolest thing.
RYAN: Seeing like Parker Posey on the cover I was like, “She looks so dreamy; she’s a star! I wish I could be in Interview magazine.“
SHANNON: Right! And here we are in Interview magazine, but we’re middle-aged people with kids.
RYAN: It took us a long time.
SHANNON: This should be in Better Homes and Gardens or something.
RYAN: Field and Stream. Maybe they still think we’re hip?
SHANNON: Are we still hip?
RYAN: Old people like us? Or good publicists?
SHANNON: I think that’s probably it: good publicists.
BIRDMAN IS CURRENTLY IN THEATERS.