For the first time this year, SBIFF is paying tribute to the up-and-coming actors who left indelible marks on the big screen in 2007. The Virtuosos presentation-which occurs on Wednesday, January 30, at the Arlington Theatre-will honor Marion Cotillard for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose; James McAvoy for his starring role in Atonement; Ellen Page for her pregnant teen in Juno; Casey Affleck for his assassin in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; and Amy Ryan, who was nominated for a Golden Globe in her role as a drug-addicted mother in Ben Affleck’s feature-length directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone.
Ryan, who also starred in 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Dan in Real Life, talked to me last week from Murcia, Spain.
What’s going on in Spain? I’m shooting a Paul Greengrass movie, based on the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City [about the Green Zone in Baghdad]. Now we’re searching for WMDs. (Laughs.) Washington can’t do it, so Hollywood will find them.
You’ve followed a traditional path from stage to TV to the big screen. Can you tell me about that evolution? When I got out of high school, the first job I got was in theater. It just kind of happened that way. It wasn’t a conscious choice. But all along, theater was part of my upbringing. Then once I was in a play, the other theater casting directors start calling for you. That was the natural start, in a sense. And I’ve always lived in New York, so the TV stuff started happening by coincidence, and also, I was aiming toward paying health insurance. I’ve always been fortunate with the TV work I’ve gotten-it’s always been on the East Coast : always kept me in New York, so at the same time, I could do a play, and squeeze that into my schedule. It all worked out that way. Then, a year and a half ago, I went out to L.A. to audition for TV shows. But my first audition was for Ben Affleck, so that was a fruitful trip out west. Sometimes I shudder to think, “What if you didn’t go that year?” I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now! So I’m glad that happened.
And now you seem to be taking L.A. by storm, too. Did you expect this to happen? It’s a weird thing. It’s both familiar and completely surprising. When you hope for something, you imagine it and fantasize about it, so it becomes familiar. But when it becomes true, it’s surreal. : It’s not lost on me that had I not met Ben Affleck, these other movies would not have happened. You need that juicy part so that people will go, “She can do this or that”; so that people will count on you.
Do you like one form better than the other? They’re really different. I wouldn’t say I prefer one. Wherever there’s good writing. I’ve been in plays that have been bad and TV that’s been great. But there is no bigger thrill than the live performance, the adrenaline and dialogue you have with the audience, living and breathing without a net. But then looking at film, you mull it over again and again, and you’re constantly mixing it up on your feet. So they’re completely different formats. I guess theater is really by committee-you rehearse for a week and get on the same page; this is the story and this is how we’re gonna tell it. In film, you think, “What flavor do I add to this film?” You’re a smaller ingredient in the storyline. But no matter what, they all have to be well written. Otherwise, they’re all crap.
In Gone Baby Gone, your character should be abhorred, but you bring a sense of humanity to her. How did you do that? Ben and I had big talks before we started shooting, and he said, “Listen, we can’t just make her the devil. We can’t just make her a character the audience can write off right away. This part has to work, otherwise the movie won’t work.” No pressure. (Laughs.) So we have to find those kinds of emotions-she’s truly full of remorse, truly full of regret. Then once you let go of your own prejudice in reading a story, and you truly put yourself behind a character-no judgments-and ask, “Why does she do the things she does? What is her logic? What’s her tactic for survival?” Then you start to realize that, as horrible a person she is, oh wow, she’s really up against a lot-no education, no money, no health insurance, she doesn’t have love in her life. It starts to make sense, although it’s still a horrible picture. One of the key things is to never apologize for her, never try to soften her. I knew she could look prettier or cuter than she was, but at the end of the day, the truth of it is a bit beautiful. This is life-do you want to shy away from it, or do you want to face it? This is her life.
I also heard that you were so convincing that you weren’t allowed onto the set.
[Laughs.] That was the first day. I went to do hair and makeup and costume, and when I came back, a PA stopped me. There were a lot of people standing behind the barricades and taking pictures, and I got stopped behind the barricade. The PA said, “You can’t go in. Ma’am, please stand back.” And I said, “But, I’m in the movie.” And he said, “Right, please stand back.” After 10 minutes, I finally got to go on the set. I told Ben, “I just got banned from your set.” He hi-fived me and said “Great!”
How was Ben Affleck as a director? He’s great as a director. He knows how to speak to actors, he knows the beauty of making quick, fast choices one take to the next. He certainly reminded me that he was the smartest man in the room. He’s full of passion and energy and is very gracious. It was really one of the most creative experiences I’ve ever had and I think it was because of him, and because the material was so rich. : He even said to me the day before we started, “It may turn out that I don’t know what I’m doing as a director, but I promise you, I know Boston, and we’re gonna get that right.” He did phenomenal.
And this year you also played in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. He took an early liking to you and casted you in his TV series 100 Centre Street. How is it working with the same director? Does a relationship build?
On his television show, Sidney saw me in a play and invited me in. I did one episode and then three episodes later, he wanted me to play a different part. I said, “Won’t the audience know?” But he said, “You’ll figure something out.” And I was playing a hooker, so I got these colorful wigs, and it’s true, the crew didn’t know it was me:Sidney is a rare man in many ways, but he also has such faith and confidence in actors:.He sets such a relaxed pace and tone from the get-go. I never felt like I needed to take a chance to know him. He’s a mensch. He’s got a completely relaxed environment, and total control.
So The Wire, which you star in on TV, is about drugs in Baltimore. You play a junkie-mother in Gone Baby Gone. And even Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead involves a drug problem. What’s up with you and drugs? (Laughs.) Yeah, right? I don’t know. Maybe it’s my stringy hair. I don’t know. I guess that’s America.
Amy Ryan, along with Casey Affleck, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, and James McAvoy, will be fted on Wednesday, January 30, at the Arlington Theatre. Visit sbiff.org or call 963-4408.