Amy Ryan brings one of the most electrifying performances to the screen this year!
Oscar Watch 2008 Interview #7: Actress Amy Ryan
Amy Ryan is fearless in Ben Affleck's directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. In the film, Amy plays a mother whose daughter has gone missing. Uncompromising, the actress has completely thrown herself into this indefensible, drug-addled parent seemingly incapable of raising her own child. Some call the character "the most unsympathetic mother ever put to screen". But Helene McCready is a deeper and more complex study of the human condition than that quote would have you believe. It's an astounding performance. Ryan completely looses herself in McCready. She is unrecognizable, and she has nailed that Boston accent with complete authenticity. It is by far the best piece of acting seen on screen this year. Period. There is no doubt about that.
Amy Ryan is an accomplished stage performer who has already been nominated for two Tony awards. She is a veteran of such TV shows as Chicago Hope, Homicide: Life on the Street, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She can also be seen in this month's Dan in Real Life. But its Gone Baby Gone that people are going to remember her for. The vulgar vocabulary that her character shares with the screen had an entire audience dumbfounded. She is my hands-on favorite for Best Supporting Actress at this year's Academy Awards. And I'm betting the house that she wins.
Amy recently met up with me over at the four seasons for this exclusive 1:1 chat. She is the complete opposite of Helene McCready. She even seemed a little shy and uncomfortable with the dialogue that her character so gloriously shouts in the film. Even after having played a woman that is so easy to despise, its incredibly hard not to fall in love with Amy the instant that you meet her.
Here is our conversation:
Amy picks up my recorder, fascinated by it...
Amy Ryan: How does this thing work?
You just plug it into the computer, then it automatically downloads the sound files. Then I can send those files out to who ever wants them.
Amy Ryan: Oh, okay. That is so cool.
It's not intrusive is it? I've had some people that are like, "What is this thing? Get it out of my face!"
Amy Ryan: No, I think it's really cool. I really like it. (Laughs) Good morning!
How are you?
Amy Ryan: I'm okay.
Has this been wearing on you? Is this the first time you've done press like this?
Amy Ryan: Yeah, I've never done a press junket before. I have done interviews before. For theater, here and there. I've done it for stage stuff, but never for a movie like this.
What I'm wondering, and I tried to look it up this morning, but I couldn't get a lock on it, is...Where are you from?
Amy Ryan: I'm from New York. Queens, born and raised. I went to school in New York City. I went to a performing arts high school.
Did you already have a history with the city of Boston?
Amy Ryan: No, that was something brand new for this movie. I had spent a couple of summers in Southern Vermont, but that was kind of an ideal location. I would go and stay with my aunt and uncle. My parents used to drop us off there every summer. So, there was a New England flavor that I was familiar with. But certainly not Dorchester. That was new.
That's pretty crazy. That you were able to pick up the accent so fast.
Amy Ryan: You know what? I had an Affleck brother in each ear at all times. Not in an overbearing way, by any means. If anything, it was quite the opposite. Ben allowed me so much freedom. He is so confident. He said, "Don't worry, you'll get it. And if you don't, I'll correct it for you. I'm right here." So, we would go through a scene, and if a word popped out that was a little too New York, he would just very casually tell me in my ear. And he would encourage me to go outside, because we were filming on location. We were in the neighborhood where my character is from. He said, "Just go start talking to them." I would go out at lunch and sit with any local I could. Then, when he cast all of the non-actors and the local actors in the movie. That was an incredible advantage. We had Jill Quigg who plays my best friend, Dottie.
From what I understand, she just broke through the line where you guys were shooting and said, "Put me in your movie!" Is that true?
Amy Ryan: Well, it was something like that. They were filming a scene, and she was trying to cut through the barricade of the film set to go pick her son up from school. And she was like, "Get the fuck out of the way. I gotta get my son. What the fuck is all of this shit?" She was a crazy loud fierce woman. They actually heard her voice first, and Ben was like, "Go find that woman. Bring her over and see if she wants to audition." And she was like, "Alright." She's never auditioned or had any inkling towards acting at all. And there she was. She is great.
How did she deal with being on set? With all of the cameras there, and having to hit her mark?
Amy Ryan: I think there is something about Boston pride. She always looked cool as a cucumber. As an actor of fifteen years, I had to ask, "Man, why is it so easy for her this first time out?" It's something you've worked so hard to get to your whole life. Ben pointed out, "There's a big element in this neighborhood. She is probably scared, too. But they protect themselves." They know how to be so tough, they're like, "I don't care. I don't care. So, it's Ben Affleck. Big deal, Ben Affleck. Big deal, they're making a movie." Ed Harris told me that it's their defense. It's their shield. "You can't hurt me." That mentality. She is awesome in the film, though.
I know. She is great in the film.
Amy Ryan: Quite frankly, if she wasn't there, I don't know if I would have gotten the sound down as well. She was really generous with me, just letting me be around her as much as possible. She even shared her own stories with me.
You disappear so completely into this character, that when they offered me the interview, I looked you up on IMDB and saw your picture. I was like, "I don't remember who this woman was in the film. I don't want to interview her. I want to interview the mom." I didn't recognize you.
Amy Ryan: (Laughs) That's so cool.
Do you think being so unrecognizable in a role that is so great will hurt you the next time you go to audition?
Amy Ryan: I suppose. But I think it would hurt more to keep some parts of myself in that performance just to serve the ego. I don't want people to go, "Oh, that's just Amy." That was one of the things Ben Affleck said to me at the beginning, "Amy, my goal is for people to come up to me at the end of the day and go, 'Where did you find that local in Boston?'" I was like, "Yeah, I get it. I see why that is important." That, to me, is the thrill. No one recognized me after Capote either. Maybe there would be more instant gratification. But at the end of the day, when I look at the work that I would have done, I will think, "Oh, that's better. Its better for me to hide away and be these other people."
Amy Ryan: Yeah, that was a quick little bit in an ensemble cast.
Who did you play in that movie?
Amy Ryan: Again, I call it the Greek chorus of the family. I played the sister-in-law of Steve Carell. I played the mother of four. The "good" mother of four. (Laughs) That was just something that came about. I had worked with Peter (Hedges, the director) doing theater in New York. He just called up all of these great New York actors, and we are all good friends. Everyone has Tony nominations or Tony awards. He was like, "I need good actors. They need to be convincing as a family. And we don't have time to create it. So, will you guys come do this?" I said, "Yeah. Come sit at the feet of Dianne Wiest for a month? I'll do that."
Peter is a funny guy. I just met him on Saturday when we were doing interviews for that movie.
Amy Ryan: Yes. And he is as gracious as he is funny.
Now, about your role in Gone Baby Gone, I have heard more than one person call the character the most unsympathetic mother ever committed to screen. Do you agree with that statement?
Amy Ryan: Well, I have sympathy for her. I can imagine it is harder to watch. But in order to play it, I understand the methods to her madness. I understand the choices that she made. Not from my own experiences, thank God. But, you know, she had to do what she had to do. When you start adding up the pieces, you are like, "Yeah, no wonder she is distrustful of anyone in law enforcement. To anyone in authority. Because law enforcement doesn't have to help their neighborhoods. They don't help them, so why would she trust them? So she is trying to do the best that she can. So you have this woman who doesn't seem to care about her missing child. She is covering her bases as we later learn in the film. She is trying to keep the situation from turning graver. So, I don't condone her behavior. But hats off to her for how crafty she is. She is able to survive in such a tough world.
The one character that is sympathetic towards her, or rather empathetic, is the Casey Affleck character Patrick Kenzie. What do you think the back-story there is? Do you think Kenzie had a similar mother when he was growing up?
Amy Ryan: It is touched upon a little in the movie. These two people went to school together. They knew each other from high school. But here is the case of a character like Casey's. He grew up tough, but he got out. He took control of his life, and he got involved with law enforcement. The same, too, is that he can understand it. This mother's life is not a shock to him. I think other characters that come in contact with Helene feel a little different about her. I love that line Amy Madigan says about her. That she is an abomination. Lionel, her brother, certainly understands. He saw the life in which they grew up. He even says, "I had Bea to pull me out. And Helene had nobody. There wasn't anybody willing to wrap their arms around her. And protect her."
How much did they change the character from what is in the book?
Amy Ryan: It's pretty much the same. Having the screenwriter and director, Ben Affleck, on the set saying, "Let's just shift up this line." Was enough. He would do that here or there. And he would write new lines on the spot for her. But the character, if you go back and read the book, the description of Helene is actually very similar to the way it is set up in the film. It's a great introduction.
Was it easier for you to have the book to go back to if you got stuck, or had a problem with one of the scenes?
Amy Ryan: Yeah. It was a great resource. It was those lost scenes. Obviously, those scenes that can't make a movie, because it would be too long. But the scenes with Helene that aren't in the movie, I could go back to that and keep it with me as part of her back-story. Or something else that she might be dealing with. It's something else that happened in her life. It just informs you better. It lets you know where she is at in her head.
I want to touch on some of the dialogue in the film. There is a line. I won't say it and ruin the surprise for the folks at home. Plus, I don't want to sit here and offend you by saying it. It is the line that refers to African Americans and oral sex.
Amy Ryan: Yeah. I know the one.
The gasp from the audience was so loud, it was like they were watching a horror movie. But then, when we get further into the movie and we see this dead child in a bathtub, the audience is completely non-responsive. It was as if the audience was unaffected by it. And I'm wondering what your take on that is.
Amy Ryan: Isn't that interesting? God.
Why do you think audiences are so desensitized to seeing something like a child that has been murdered? Yet, they freak out over a couple of words.
Amy Ryan: That's the thing. The character of Helene is so easy to demonize. Then you have this other character that is a pedophile, and you have this dead child. I don't know what to say about that. But it breaks my heart. How easily we can judge someone. Of course, America is very puritanical. We were just talking about that yesterday. How our forefathers came over here, and they brought that with them. Of all the things, they bring that. And the language. Certainly there is language that is offensive, and I choose not to use it in my everyday life. Those words, and such. But, unfortunately, again, it's the truth. Especially for this movie, and you can't shy away from it. The character uses it. And she doesn't apologize for it. I'm sure it is very common in her neighborhood. But, that idea is shocking to me. That breaks my heart. I did a play years ago. It was this very controversial play that was banned in Europe. It was written in the Sixties. It was called Saved. In it, there is a very famous scene where a child gets stoned to death. On stage, in its carriage, by thugs that come in contact with the baby. And it was banned. There is a scene prior to that where you see the mother, the boyfriend, and the grandparents watching TV and going about their day. Off stage is this baby in another room crying. The scene is about six or seven minutes long. To me, that scene is more shocking in that no one goes to check on this baby. Yet, what people react to is the more shocking scene. So, I guess in this case, the language is more shocking than the image of the dead child in the bathtub. I don't know. You threw me there. My head is spinning. I can't believe it. I haven't seen the movie with an audience yet. I can't wait to see if that happens again. To me, that is really heart breaking.
I think I saw the film with mostly critics. Maybe they are more desensitized to those images. I guess every audience's reaction is different.
(we are given the one-minute warning.)
Shoot, I had a ton more questions to ask you. Let me find a really good one. How about: What was it like working with Detective Sergeant John Taggart of the Beverly Hills police department?
Amy Ryan: (Laughs) He was great. He actually kept doing this thing. He kept calling me Helen. I kept having to correct him, and tell him that my name was "Helene". I kept looking up at Ben and asking him, "Should he keep doing that? Does he know my name is Helene? Or is he playing at that?" But he was a sweetheart. He is a funny guy.
I haven't seen John Ashton in a movie in a long time, I love that guy.
Amy Ryan: He's great. And he was the good cop. He liked my character, so I took too him more.
I hate asking this, but I have to do it. The Oscars. I don't want to broach the subject, but I have to. Do you know what I mean? It might be a jinx.
Amy Ryan: Yeah, I know. (Laughs)
You are the talk of everybody right now.
Amy Ryan: Oh, God.
Can I get a reaction from you about that. God, I hate asking that question.
Amy Ryan: It makes you humble when you hear that. But, you know, it would be thrilling beyond belief just to hear about it. But them, I think if it were to come, it would be terrifying. I think it would be an absolute roller coaster. I wonder if there is ever any actor that gets the phone call at five in the morning. They are like, "Hello?" The person on the other end says, "You've been nominated for an Oscar." And they are like, "God damn it! Are you telling me that I will never be able to go out on another audition ever again? Are you telling me that I won't be able to take another head shot!" Like, does it ever really bum anyone out?
That's an interesting point. I don't think I've ever considered that.
Amy Ryan: I don't know what I'd think if it happened.
I don't want to jinx it, but from what I've heard, you are a lock for a best supporting actress nomination.
Amy Ryan: Oh, God. They only say that until the next crop of movies come out. But obviously, I would be over the moon. I would be over the moon also because, more than anything I've ever done, this was such a collaboration between myself and Ben Affleck. Sometimes I feel it's very hard to be the subject of attention. But it would be very easy to point to that man and say, "He's why I'm here." And that would be the absolute, God's honest truth. The beauty of Ben Affleck as a director is that he comes up with all of these wonderful choices and ideas. And he is so gracious, he lets you believe that they are of your own doing and making.
Gone Baby Gone opens this Friday, October 19th, 2007.