This is an interesting time to be Amy Ryan. Although she's acted on stage, TV, and film for nearly 20 years, the world is just now beginning to notice. An Oscar nomination will do that; Ryan earned one this year for her portrayal of troubled single mother Helene McCready in Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck's 2007 directorial debut. The Academy Award nomination alone renders it a breakthrough role, but Ryan has had momentum on her side. She was nominated for three Tonys in the past eight years (most recently in 2005, for A Streetcar Named Desire), but she earned the most attention when she debuted on The Wire in 2003 as Beadie Russell, a port officer in over her head in a murder case. Since then, Ryan has racked up roles in Capote and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, a recurring gig on The Wire (now in its final season), numerous television roles, and blink-and-you'll-miss-her appearances in War Of The Worlds (as "neighbor with toddler") and Dan In Real Life. The parts will only get meatier now, though: Ryan recently finished working on Clint Eastwood's upcoming The Changeling (alongside Angelina Jolie) and she's currently filming Green Zone, Paul Greengrass' Iraq War movie, co-starring Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear. It all points to big changes on the horizon for Ryan, a lifelong New Yorker who lives in a small rented apartment in Manhattan, and until recently, washed her clothes at a Laundromat. As The A.V. Club learned, she measures success by how much effort she has to put into her laundry.
The A.V. Club: What's been the biggest adjustment for you lately?
Amy Ryan: Well, it's a movie-star life with a pauper reality. I bumped into this playwright I worked with years ago on the street back home, and he says, "Oh, this is great, congratulations!" Well, the only difference now is that I drop off my laundry. [Laughs.] I've really moved on up in the world. But it is just about trying to find time to get everything done, because I'm a one-man band in that way.
AVC: You've avoided the machinations of stardom so far—no personal assistant or that kind of thing.
AR: Yeah, it's kind of the best way to keep it balanced, because otherwise I think I lose sight of doing work. The dress-up is fun, and the parties are fun, but ultimately, it's about getting another job and doing good work—if I can get invited to the parties. [Laughs.]
AVC: You've been at this for a long time. Have you had specific career goals along the way?
AR: I'm so fortunate in that I've never had another job to pay a bill but acting, since the day I got out of high school. I always thought, "I just want to work, I just want to work." And then somewhere along the way, maybe three years into it, I decided it wasn't enough to just have a job. You're fourth and fifth from the last in the play, so I felt I needed to fight for these better roles—not so I can take my bow last, but that's what is going to make me a better actor. I started with certain roles I did on Broadway, some Chekhov plays, and started to go toward the things that really scared me, that I knew would make me a better actor—at least I would have an opportunity at becoming a better actor. I remember looking at my résumé and going, "Oh, all I have is TV and theater. Maybe I should start trying to do film." Again, it was looking for the role, even if it wasn't a big-budget movie, but a small role in an independent film. It was always trying to do something I haven't done before.
AVC: What kind of roles scared you?
AR: Capote scared me, but I loved that part. A Streetcar Named Desire scared me, but that was my favorite play and still is, and I carried that play around in my back pocket for years. I found an opportunity where I did it with Patty [Clarkson] the first time around. That was pretty scary. Sometimes it's scary because you have to watch out what you ask for, because you might get it, and then are you prepared for it? Streetcar was one of those things where I wanted to do it for eight years, and then suddenly it came up very quickly. Suddenly, it's "What do I think about this? How do you do it?" But it's the best part of it all.
AVC: And thus began the Amy Ryan "put-upon wife" routine.
AR: Yeah, right? [Laughs.] I think it's because I have stringy hair. Well, that's the joke: Women are either the wife, the girlfriend, or the murder victim. I've done my share with mothers. It's funny. Some people say, "Your part in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is just like Gone Baby Gone." Actually, no. That's like saying "All Chinese people look alike," or "The face of poverty or the lower-class looks alike." No, that woman [in Before The Devil] is actually a good mother. What she has in common with Helene is the four-letter F-word, but actually, she is fighting for her daughter's welfare from a deadbeat dad. But she was in a very similar house; it's not very well-decorated, so most people think she looks one step away from doing drugs.
AVC: You've said you didn't do a lot of prep work for Gone Baby Gone. Is that how you traditionally operate?
AR: No, I did a lot of prep work for the accent. I mean, I had the accent for the audition, but it's a different thing when you're suddenly in it all day and then you apply emotion to it, because those sounds could technically leave your body once you add real emotion. So a lot of the work on Gone Baby Gone was the accent, and then a lot of it was kind of on-the-job training as we were in Dorchester, and just physically getting the way she held herself. A lot I took from the neighborhood, the attitude I saw in the neighborhood, and just the idea of someone who's been abused, and how they keep their head low because they're expecting another hit. Or her voice is deeper, because she been out for three days drinking and doing God knows what.
AVC: With roles in general, how much prep work do you usually do?
AR: I've never been in a situation, and maybe that will change now, where "Oh, Amy, we want you to be in this movie, and it starts filming in three months." It's going to be a whole new way of working for me, which I've never had the luxury of doing before. I'm not sure how that will go. I'm sure it will be great, but if I think how I was always a student at school, I was always a procrastinator. I ended up graduating on the honor roll, but that's because I freaked out about it the night before. [Laughs.] I'm kind of better on my feet in the moment anyway, so I don't know if I should change my ways.
AVC: What about a role like Beadie on The Wire? There could've been a lot of prep work for that.
AR: Right, that's the same thing. I remember being cast on The Wire, and I left the next day, I think it was. The next thing I know, I'm in Baltimore, I'm being suited up in this police uniform, and the real gunbelt actually pulled my pants down. [Laughs.] It was so heavy, they actually had to change it and give me a plastic gun. You have the pad, the baton, and the flashlight. It's not like I can get to the gym suddenly and start strengthening up or bulking up in time. I've always—I think it's from the theater—relied on scripts for the majority of the work. The play is the thing, and "Why is my character in this scene, how does that affect the whole story?" Things like that. The Wire, I was such a fan of that show the first season—I think that's the best-written show on TV. So pretty much just get out of the way of the story, and it will take you for the ride.
AVC: Was the plan for your character to be such a presence in season two and beyond?
AR: David [Simon] had this plan from the beginning, and he knew he wanted Beadie and McNulty to work it out, because both of their lives are a bit of a mess. She can't pay her bills and is struggling with the two children, and what happens if she invites this man over? Hmm. You know, juicy but less than admirable. Where does her strength come from, and does he have the nerve to mess up her life as well?
AVC: You finished The Wire last August, but Gone Baby Gone was done nearly a year before it was released. What's it like to get back in the headspace of this film when you've been away from it for so long?
AR: It's like hanging out with your family you really knew really well, but you haven't seen them in a long time. It was such a nice group, so anytime we've been reunited, like with Casey [Affleck] or Ben—obviously Ben and Casey are familial. So it's been lovely. Unlike theater, where you work really hard, and then the show opens and it's either received well or it's not, and the show ends. This, it's nice to go away and get perspective and watch the movie, how it gets received. You know you can be with the audience watching that, whereas onstage, you just have to keep your head in the storytelling, and kind of go away from what the press says, or reviews, 'cause it will bite you in the ass, ya know?
AVC: What did you notice about Gone Baby Gone after you were away for a while?
AR: Well, I love how much people talk about the film afterward. They get really vicious about taking sides.
AVC: Are you surprised by that?
AR: I'm pleased. I'm not surprised, because it was in the recipe from the beginning, just in the script. But I'm really pleased that what we thought of it, other people are finding as well. It's easy when you're working on something to root for it and champion it and hope that people take to it, because you worked hard for it, you put your heart into it. So when that happens, it's really satisfying. When people come up to me about The Wire, they don't want to hear about the actor. Right away, they start talking about the show. That pleases me more. They don't want to know about me, or my friends on the set. They don't want to know about gossip. They just start talking about the characters and the storyline. It's great. I prefer that. Then I feel like we've done our job.
AVC: Maybe you'll start getting recognized for you now, more than your shows or films.
AR: If it means I'll get a washer and dryer? [Laughs.] I won't have to drop my laundry off? Oh my God. Those are my true dreams, after being nominated for an Oscar. My next dream is to own my own washer and dryer… Someday, a soak cycle.
AVC: How did the character in Gone Baby Gone affect you afterward? In one interview, you mentioned scratching your ass instead of knocking on wood for good luck.
AR: I met this woman at Dolce one day who was borrowing a dress from them. It was way before the nomination. She's like, "So, when you get nominated," and I said, "Oh, knock on wood," like, "Don't take that for granted." She said her grandmother used to say, "Scratch your ass." It made me laugh so hard that every time someone said, "Well, I'm sure you'll be nominated," I just started scratching my ass. So I was doing some online interview, and they said it while the cameras were rolling, and I found myself—second nature at this point—just reaching around, ever so slightly, and scratching my bum, on camera. [Laughs.] I wasn't taking any chances.
AVC: "Scratch your ass" sounds like something Helene would say.
AR: She's probably say, "You gotta scratch your fuckin' ass." [Laughs.] I tell you, that's one way that part affected me. When I got home, for about two weeks, I had the filthiest mouth! Every once in a while, I'd catch myself. I'd be like, "Oh my God."
AVC: Are you comfortable watching yourself onscreen?
AR: I am if the script is really good, because I can get lost in the story. This sounds precious, I know, but when I saw Before The Devil Knows You're Dead—I have a small supporting role, but I forgot for a second that I was in it. I was so immersed from the beginning of that movie when I saw it. When it's naturally part of something, then it's not hard to watch. I mean, I never get the glamour part, so I'm used to seeing myself bedraggled here or there. That doesn't bother me. I actually think if it's truthful, I find it beautiful. But if it's poorly written, I can see it all over my face. Maybe someone else might not, but I know what I was really thinking that day. Like, "Oh my God. Somebody save me." But you know, there are different choices you make along the way. There are so many choices I made simply for health insurance. Is it the ideal role I wanted to play, or the TV show I wanted to be a part of? No, but it let me afford to go to the doctor.
AVC: You want to name any names?
AR: [Laughs.] No, because I'm very grateful for them. I'm very grateful for those. [Sighs.] I know, right? Someday I'll go back and do that kind of interview. But everything I've done has added up to where I am now, so it's all part of it. I owe thanks to it all, I really do. I know that sounds so kiss-ass, but it's true.
AVC: Is there anything you can do in those sorts of situations to make it more palatable?
AR: Yeah, you talk faster. [Laughs.] And when the script says, "She burst into tears," you just speak faster and softer. You gotta cut against the emotion if anything's melodramatic. Play against it; try to find the opposite, because then they'll be like, "That's so interesting. I hadn't thought of it that way." [Laughs.]
AVC: You said you never get the glamour parts. When you were opposite Angelina Jolie in The Changeling, did you get much of a sense of how different it is in the Angelina Jolie world vs. yours?
AR: You know, spending the week I did with her on set, I actually got to see the great diplomat at work. First of all, I think she's a wonderful actress, but you could see with ease how she talks to the day players and how she talks with Clint, and she seems wildly comfortable with that. And you go, "Right, that's the woman who's able to travel around the world and do all this amazing charity work." Then at the end of that day, I went to the drugstore and saw one of those stupid tabloids, and that looked so foreign to me. I was like, "That's completely fabricated and made up." I know good sense would make you know that anyway, but then when you're face-to-face with a person, you're like, "Oh my God, those tabloids are ridiculous." So yeah, that was a nice front-row seat. A friend of mine, years ago, said, "You always have to meet the person, not the personality, if you're ever overwhelmed by someone that big."
AVC: It's got to be hard going into that situation and not having these preconceptions.
AR: I think if I was invited to a dinner party and I was seated next to Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie, I might be more nervous, as opposed to working on a movie with them, because I'm given a concrete job to do. So if I run out of things socially to say, I can always just go back to the work. But it's very different, the social anxiety that would come up otherwise, if you were at a cocktail party with such personalities.
AVC: Have you experienced that?
AR: Years ago. I've been at fancy parties with other friends, and nobody knew who I was, and you meet people who will actually turn on a dime. That happened to me years ago at a party in L.A. at The Chateau. There was an actress, who will remain nameless, but who I knew in New York through mutual friends. I was at the party and I was like, "Oh hello, hi, nice to see you!" And she said "Hello," and then just turned her back, because I wasn't currency for her at that party. She was working—she wanted to talk to the directors and the stars in the room. I was like, "Oh my God, that's creepy." I think that's bullshit; I don't see any reason to behave that way. So that was kind of shocking, the first time I saw that. Chances are she wouldn't turn her back from me now, but I know. [Laughs, affects creepy, raspy voice.] But I remember when…
AVC: Add her to your Nixon-esque enemies list.
AR: There's a phrase I once heard, which I love. It's like, "They're odd," just like you're odd and I'm odd. We're all odd. And we've all had those moments that someone can go, "Can you believe Amy blah blah blah blah." So people, most of the time, when there's a misunderstanding or social anxiety, it's because people are really thinking about themselves and their own reaction and their own placement in the party. It's rare you meet someone who's so outside of themselves that they're really present in the moment, and present with the people there. So you just say, "Well, they're odd." [Laughs.]
AVC: This is all the kind of empathy that comes when you've had experience. Do you feel like you could have handled it 10 or 15 years ago?
AR: Oh my God, no. And you know what? I don't think I was anywhere near as good an actor, and I'd be done. I'd be on some short-lived sitcom, and that'd be it. I'm so appreciative it came later. Because I know what I like better, I know what I don't like, and I know how to be in this business without fame and without money and still be able to tell stories. So if it started bursting out of the cannon—because it will go away—I think I wouldn't understand why something like that goes away. That's it. It goes back to the laundry. I know how to separate my own laundry.