HERE BABY HERE!
STAGE VET AMY RYAN DELIVERS A SCENE-STEALING, OSCAR-WORTHY PERFORMANCE AS THE WORST MOVIE MOTHER SINCE MOMMIE DEAREST IN GONE BABY GONE
Gone Baby Gone, the directorial debut of Ben Affleck, might be the best surprise of the year. The crime drama, which is set in Affleck’s native Boston, focuses on the search for a missing baby girl whose disappearance might or might not have something to do with Helene, her irresponsible, substance-abusing mother. The casting of the mother was crucial to the success of the film, and Affleck made his smartest decision of all in giving the part to a relative unknown in the world of film, Amy Ryan.
Ryan, who has garnered two Tony nominations for her work on Broadway, steals every scene of Gone Baby Gone in which she appears, and well deserves the immense attention that her performance is generating for a Best Supporting Actress nomination. I first spoke with her earlier this month at the after-party following the film’s Boston premiere, and can honestly say that I would not have recognized her had someone not introduced us—her physical transformation in the film is that remarkable. Thankfully, her personality was a lot more endearing than her character’s, as well! Several days later, over the course of a forty-five minute interview about her life and career leading up to and including Gone Baby Gone, Ryan comes across as smart, funny, and genuinely grateful for this career-defining role…
Where were you born and raised, and what was your childhood like?
I was born in Queens, New York. You know, middle-income family. Grew up in the house my father grew up in. And then I went to high school in the city for performing arts—LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts. And then I enrolled in NYU undergrad, but I started working a month out of high school, so I just withdrew my enrollment, and started working in theater, mostly. So that’s how that started.
And—because of the nature of the movie we’ll be discussing—I have to ask you, what was your relationship with your parents like?
[laughs] I’m very proud to say I have a great relationship with my whole family, including my parents. My parents are still married. I have two older sisters. You know, someone asked me this before—they’re like, “Why do you play all these dark characters?” And I said, “Maybe it’s because there’s no fear of opening some old wound.” Like, we actually had a lot of laughter growing up in my house so, you know, it’s not a scary place for me to go to as an actor. We had a lot of fun.
It reminds me of when Bette Davis, who hated Joan Crawford, was asked why she was so good at playing bitches. She said, “I think it’s because I’m not a bitch. Maybe that’s why Miss Crawford always plays ladies.”
[laughs] Yeah. That’s shrill. That’s being private in public. That’s intimate.
Was there an ‘A-ha!’ moment when you knew you wanted to be an actress? Did any specific person, or film, or something else influence you?
Well, it was actually the Broadway musical A Chorus Line, which I find so ironic because I never pursued musical theater. I knew I couldn’t sing or dance, but there was something about the live theater that thrilled me. And I was young—I was, like, in the sixth grade when my mother took me to see that play. Theater was just part of being a New Yorker and, you know, that’s the thing we did when we could afford it, and it was just thrilling to me.
And once you knew that you wanted to be an actress, did you pursue formal training?
Just the High School of Performing Arts, really. And then I knew—like, I never went, ‘cause I knew enough, somehow, as a young kid, to just kind of shut up and pay attention. Because if I listened to these older actors I was working with—you know, kind of learn on your feet—that was going to be better than any, you know, acting class I could find. And then I was just fortunate that I was in plays with phenomenal actors who had, you know, years and years of experiences.
Along the way, did you ever pick up a definable technique? Would you say you buy into the Method, or is there some other way you approach a part?
Yeah. I mean, in high school, we were trained under Stanislavski’s Method, and then they told us—upon graduation, they’re like, “Well, use this for a rainy day. Use this when instinct doesn’t work, you know? These are tools. They’re not rules to live by, they’re tools.” So, you know, I’d never say, “I lose myself in a role,” so much. But I really respect writers. I’m kind of star-struck mostly by writers. So I always try to go with the place, the thing, and I find, especially when its well written, that all you have to do is get out of the way, you know, and it will take you.
Having acted on stage, television, and film, what would you consider the best and worst parts of each of those, and which do you enjoy doing the most?
Well, again, the blanket rule is if it’s good, it’s good—it doesn’t really matter what it is, you know? And if it’s bad, it’s bad, you know? I will say I’m completely enamored with film right now, because it’s very new to me, so I feel like I’m learning a whole new world, so I feel, you know, kind of energized by that. But there’s no thrill like live theater—that’s the first love. And, you know, again, television, if it’s great writing, like The Wire—I’ve been very blessed with good television like The Wire and Sidney Lumet’s 100 Centre Street when it comes to writing. But, generally, sometimes with writing, if it’s an episodic or procedural show, those characters—there’s no time for three-dimension; usually they’re two-dimensional, and sometimes that’s not so fun. But it paid for health insurance, so I’m very grateful for the time that those shows came along.
I understand you were at an interesting point in your career when Gone Baby Gone came up…
I had just switched agents, and this was the first script that he sent me out on, was Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone. So, anyway, I happened to be in Los Angeles, and got to meet Ben Affleck, who hired me that day—but producers were telling him he had to wait. He was certain, and that floored me, because it doesn’t happen that way, but that’s Ben Affleck—he’s so passionate, and he has such guts to know what he knows, or to go with what he knows or what he feels. And it’s rare you get people who have the courage to do that, you know?
I don’t know if you knew this at the time, but he was apparently only looking to cast actors from Boston. How did you dissuade him from that idea?
Well, I didn’t know that going in. But when I met him, after I read the first scene, he said to me, “Where in Boston are you from?” And I laughed. I said, “No, I’m from Queens.” And he’s like, “You’re kidding me! I’ve never been fooled before.” So he was thrilled, as he later shared with me, you know? And in the room, too—he’s a very enthusiastic man. So I know it was important to him to get that element right because, I mean, as you can see in the film, Boston really is the main character, I think, and that’s what’s so beautiful about it—you know, people who see this movie are going to see this other social side to it, you know, which is really authentic.
I was wondering which scene you auditioned that day, because obviously you made a very strong impression on him…
We read the interrogation scene with Ed Harris and John Ashton. Those were the audition scenes. Yeah. And then I think the one in the car, as well, with Casey and Michelle, with the greatest line ever written. [laughs]
For the sake of our readers who haven’t seen it yet, would you like to share what that line is?
Oh, I believe it’s a colorful description—is it a simile or a metaphor?—between genitalia and feline? [laughs]
Which raises the question: when you started to really get to know this character, what was your impression of her?
Oh, you know, I know it’s hard to watch, but I knew—I knew, just on the page—that this was so juicy, and this was rare, and, you know, I couldn’t wait. I had a great time playing her. I wasn’t distraught, I wasn’t, you know, wide awake at night pacing—I couldn’t wait to get to the next day, ‘cause she’s—I mean, my God, it’s hard to keep up with her, you know? And the balls on that woman! My God, you know? I found I started to not condone her behavior, but I had great admiration for this woman who, I would say, with her back up against the wall, still manages to be street-savvy, as it were, you know? Again, she’s not making the best choices, but you know, it makes sense in her harsh world that she comes from, you know? Like, not talking to police, you know what I mean? We all think, “Well why wouldn’t you go to the police if your kid was kidnapped?” And, it’s like, “Well, the police have never helped this community before. They don’t help people like her.” So her first impression is to distrust everyone, you know? So that’s her survival technique.
When it comes to raising her own child though, does she just not get it, do you think, or is that the best she can do?
Yeah, I really think that’s the best she can do. And, unfortunately, that’s hands-down the way she was probably raised. You know, even Lionel says it in the film, like, “Helene had a really rough time growing.” And he says, “I had Bea who saved me, who pulled me out of it. Helene never had that.” I mean, that’s what I go back to in the cycle—everyone’s talking about, like, “Not since Mommie Dearest has there been such a bad mother,” but if people sit back and go, “Okay, well, how did it start? The chicken or the egg?” She was this precious four-year-old girl, probably, at one point, you know, with a horrific mother. So it’s like, alright, how do we break the cycle? ‘Cause clearly this woman needs help. And, you know, I don’t think people change, you know, or do a one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn from one life-altering event like losing your child; I think people really only change two or three degrees, you know? It’ll swing one way, and then the comfort level will bring them back to what they know. And, of course, she’s also dealing with addiction, and, you know, obviously you need help there, as well.
Incidentally, do we know where the baby’s father is and what’s happened there?
No. I don’t think Helene knows! [laughs] I doubt she knows. I think there is something in the book about it, but I’ve forgotten right now. Who knows? Probably in jail.
There seems to be at least one character that truly has her best interest at heart—the Amy Madigan character—but she doesn’t want to hear it?
Yeah. I think damaged people don’t see help; I think they see criticism, and that makes them strike back. You know, I do think she thinks Bea is just after her, as opposed to—I’m sure, in the past, before this story started, Bea has tried to help her, you know? And, again, like with addiction, you don’t recognize that; you just see someone who, you know, thinks you’re bad. Because with addiction, you yourself think you’re full of shit, you know, that you’re the biggest piece of shit. That’s what they say: it’s self-loathing coupled with the hugest ego. And that’s where her balls come from. [laughs] But, yeah, there is self-hatred, like that funeral scene where she’s crying over the empty coffin. I think that is absolute self-loathing. “What have I done?” You know?
I’ve read that on the first day of filming, you had a funny incident. Can you share that story?
Yeah, I would love to. I went away to Hair & Makeup and Costumes, and when I walked back through the crowd of about eighty neighbors who were out watching Ben film, I got stopped by a PA—by security, you know—and they said, “I’m sorry, you can’t go any further.” And I was trying out the Boston accent for the first time, and I was like, [adopts Boston accent] “Oh, you know, I’m in the movie.” [drops accent] And they’re like, “Sure, you’re in the movie. Stand back.” And I was like, “Oh, God, what do I do? Do I drop the accent and be like, ‘Listen, buddy, it’s Amy!’?” [laughs] You know? But I hadn’t met anybody yet on the crew, so I pointed over to Ben Affleck, who I could see in the distance, and said, [adopts Boston accept] “No, I’m working with Ben Affleck!” [drops accent] He’s like, “Right. You’re working with Ben Affleck? Ma’am, please stand back, please stand back.” [laughs] So he wouldn’t let me on the set! And I had no choice—I was just standing there watching filming, and it was probably about twenty minutes before a producer, like, caught my eye in the crowd, and he’s like, “What are you doing over there?!” [laughs] So, anyway, he finally let me through. The PA thought he was gonna be fired—I just thanked him profusely for the shot of confidence, and then I walked up to Ben and I said, “I’m sorry I’m late, but I just got banned from your set.” The smile on his face—he just, like, high-fived me. He’s like, “Yes! Let’s go.” Yeah, so it was great. It was a great moment.
It also goes to the point—now that I’ve had the opportunity to meet you in person, as well, it’s not breaking any news to say that you’re a lot more attractive than your character—
[laughs] You charmer, you charmer.
What did they do to you?! They did a job on you…
Yeah. They put me under the Hair & Makeup trailer—and backed it up over me. [laughs] You know, I actually talked to Hair & Makeup, you know, and I said, “You know, my idea is I think three days ago or four days ago, before her daughter was kidnapped, she looked pretty good for her world, you know? She had her hair and her makeup done.” And, I said, “I don’t think she’s washed her face or showered for three days. So let’s start there.” So they’re like, “Great!” So they just muddied down my hair and greased it up, and then the makeup was just smudged. I think all I really had on was eyeliner, and that was, like, under my eyes, below my eyes.
And was that a process that you had to go through each day that you were filming?
Just the hair. We greased up the hair. And then, you know, the makeup was kind of funny—I actually took the eyeliner and smudged it, smudged it, and then wiped it with my hands, wiped it off. And then, of course, the nail polish—Ben Affleck picked out that color. [laughs] He personally picked out that pink, and then we just chipped it up, you know, on the hands.
Native Bostonians seem to obviously pop up a lot throughout the film, and I understand that they were also helpful to you, in terms of preparation—
Yes, very much.
I know of one person, in particular, and I hope you can talk about her…
Yeah. Well, I mean, the godsend was Jill Quigg, who plays Dottie, who’s a local. Never acted before. She broke through security one day and walked right up to Ben Affleck—she’s like, [adopts Boston accent] “You making a movie? I want to be in this fucking movie.” [drops accent] You know? And he’s like, “Whoa.” So they hired her—she auditioned, you know, did scenes on tape, and they hired her—and she was phenomenal. It was kinda wild to sit and watch people who had never done this before hold their own, you know, so well, you know, in scenes with Ed Harris, and being directed by Ben Affleck—I mean, I know they didn’t know who I was. But, you know, Jill was phenomenal. And so she let me record her—she’s from Southie, I believe. But I recorded her just talking away stories into my iPod, and then I would just go home and listen to it. And even on set, I said, “Jill, if you ever hear a sound that’s not right, tell me.” And she would. She was really—she was so gracious, and she’s a helluva lass, that woman.
And the rest of Boston? I guess you must have gone around with Ben and Casey a little bit? They know the area…
No, we didn’t, because once we got there, like, Ben was busy making the movie, and location scouting, and things like that. But, you know, Ben encouraged me, every break I could get—‘cause wherever we were there, there was a crowd watching—he’s like, “Just go say hello. Go start talking to people.” And I can be kind of shy, but I would just go up to Teamsters between scenes, or at lunch, and just start talking. I was like, “How was your weekend?” And, you know, I don’t know if they knew I was doing that just to listen to them, but they were great. They’re a wild bunch, and there’s great use of language—even profanity. It’s funny. Maybe it comes from the Irish descendants, you know, the use of language. But I just had a great time in Boston.
It’s interesting, because I think if he we totaled up your screen time, it doesn’t amount to a ton, but everybody comes away talking about this character, who makes such a lasting impression on people. You really make the most of each of the scenes, so I wanted to ask you about a few of them. First, I’ll leave it to you—was there one or two that stood out the most to you as particularly memorable?
Well, the scene in the car with Casey and Michelle. A lot of that scene, I owe great thanks to Casey ‘cause, you know, when we were rehearsing in-between takes, just running lines, Casey and I—he’s very playful, and he just started improvising, and so I was playing back with him. And, you know, he’s like, “Amy, you should do that when the cameras are rolling!” I was like, “No, no, no, I think I better not, or I should ask.” He was like, “What are you afraid of? It’s my brother!” [laughs] “Don’t worry about it.” So a lot of that stuff in the car, towards the end of the scene, was improvised, you know? I feel so shy now recalling that dirty part, but all that stuff about how [adopts Boston accent] “You’re dating a faggot!” [drops accent] You know, to Michelle? And giving her a hard time. So that was just Casey and I messing around.
Is it true you also had an interesting camera situation with that scene?
Oh, yeah! Well, there was the scene on the bridge when it’s just shots of us driving back—the three of us. There was no room for a camera crew, so it was just John Toll, with the camera on his shoulder, in the back seat with me, and then Michelle and Casey in the front seat. And Casey said, “John, can I go faster? Because I hate when I see cars in movies going so slowly, you know, for safety, but everyone else on the highway is going fast.” So John’s like, “Sure, go for it.” So Casey hits the gas, and John goes flying [laughs], so I grab John’s leg with my left hand—which is out of frame—and hold him in place. And then, also, he gave me the start-stop—I was camera operator! [laughs] I was so star-struck—I can’t believe John Toll, of all people, is letting me be camera operator. So, yeah, I had his leg and the start-stop in my left hand, holding it still. It was very cool. That’s just the piece we ran out and got as quickly as we could because the sun was going down and it was so beautiful.
There was a lot of guerilla filmmaking, wasn’t there? Filming without going through the normal motions that you’re supposed to go through in order to film in certain places…
That could be right, but I wouldn’t know about that, per say. You know, those are probably Ben’s stories or locations. I would just kind of show up and was like, “Okay, where do we go? What are we doing?” You know?
What is he like as a director? You’re one of the very few people who can answer that question…
I am so proud to answer that question. First of all, as a person, he’s so gracious, and so enthusiastic, and smart—definitely the smartest man in the room, by far. And, with that, you know, there’s a humbleness—when he says, you know, “I’m not sure,” he gives it over to you, you know? But working with him as a director, he’s also a writer, so he’d constantly rewrite new lines and, you know, whisper them in my ear to say the next take, which kept it fresh. And, then, he’s also a really good actor. And there are times—I swear to God, Scott—I feel like Ben Affleck and I played this part together. You know, ultimately, I got to do it, because you can’t really tone down his pretty [laughs], you know? But I was thinking about it, and this is kinda corny, but, like, as a kid, you get a new bike for Christmas, and you ride around the block ‘cause it’s such a great toy, and then you can’t wait to get it to your friend, like, “You gonna take a spin?” You know? That’s the way we would talk about Helene constantly. He kept pushing the boundaries, and he kept saying, you know, “You can’t go too far,” and “I will protect you.” You know? He’s like, “Amy, I know Boston. Don’t worry. And, I promise you, I’ll keep you in the truth of this.” So he was—of course, I knew the word ‘collaboration,’ but I had never experienced it—you know, truly—until Ben Affleck. I really mean that. And we also had a handshake, the day before we started filming, you know, ‘cause he’s like, “Listen, Amy. If this part doesn’t work, the movie is mediocre and won’t work.” And I was like, “Great! No pressure.” [laughs] But I knew what he meant, you know, on paper. You know, she can’t just be the bad guy—this character has to keep the audience guessing, or keep messing with their loyalties towards her or not. And I said, “Ben, look, you know, I’m pretty grounded. My ego is pretty intact; it’s not that big. So, please tell me—if something’s not good enough, tell me. I won’t be hurt. You know, it won’t cause damage. It’s gonna make me want to do better. Trust me.” He’s like, “Okay,” and we shook hands on it. Then, you know, filming was going along really well—actually, it was the day of the car, the scene with Casey, that big speech about the cats in the car. [laughs] And he finally came up to me, and he’s like, “Eh.” And I was like, “Really?!” He’s like, “It’s good. But, you know, I think you have something better.” And I was like, “You motherfucker!” [laughs] I didn’t expect him to use that card, you know? But I knew what he meant, and I think it was just, like, the end of the day, and I was a little tired, you know, and suddenly, it was just exactly the jolt of adrenaline I needed. And then we did another take, and he’s like, “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” You know, sometimes you can work with directors who, in a funny way, are afraid to hurt your feelings, and they’re like, “That’s good enough. Let’s move on,” or “We’re losing the day.” And in no way is Ben Affleck like that. He’s like, “Nope, we’re gonna get it ‘til we get it, and it doesn’t matter what it takes.” You know?
Based on your conversations with him and also just watching him work, what do you think he wants to do with the rest of his career?
I think, you know—I’ve heard Casey say this, and I think so, too—I mean, I really think this is Ben’s true calling. And I said to him one day on set, I said, “Do you miss acting?” And he goes, “I see all you actors over there telling stories or checking your phone messages.” He goes, “I kind of miss that. I feel a little left out.” And then he had a squint in his eye and said, “Yeah, but your wheels are turning far too fast now, right?” I said, “You’re too smart to only be an actor.” He’s like, “I just love that my mind is engaged all day long.” And that is, kind of, sometimes a trick of, you know, being in film, is there’s so many hours in-between—your mind gets engaged in the first when, you know, the scene is filming, and then you go away, and it’s another hour for a set-up or something. But, as a director, he was saying, “You’re constantly problem-solving.” And he has a mind that can do that. So he’ll continue to do all three, hopefully. I know he did just do a movie last month, He’s Just Not That Into You, so he seems to be keeping that up. But yeah, I hope he just continues to direct. It was just hands-down one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had.
You’ve won a lot of new fans now. What’s next on the docket for you?
Well, the next movie up I start I guess next week is Clint Eastwood’s movie The Changeling with Angelina Jolie, which is such a great story. I become her confidante; I become her best friend in her crisis. It’s set in Los Angeles in 1928, with the LAPD in complete disarray, to her dismay. So that’s next up. [laughs]
I don’t believe the other two that you’ve wrapped have hit theaters yet, but perhaps you can talk about those…
Yeah. Those two are independent, you know, little engines that could, and I hope they can, you know? One is called Bob Funk—a friend from New York, from the theater days, Craig Carlisle, wrote and directed it, and it stars a phenomenal actor that I hope we’ll get to know called Michael Leydon Campbell. And that’s a comedy [laughs], and I get to wear a dress. And then the other movie is kind of a kid-with-a-hatpin noir. It’s called The Missing Person, written and directed by Noah Buschel, a young filmmaker, and stars Michael Shannon, who you know from Bug, and he’s also gonna be coming out with Revolutionary Road with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. So these are all just, like, projects by people from New York. They become your circle of peers and, you know, you all get together, kinda like “My uncle has a barn…” idea. But yeah, Missing Person is about, basically, a down-and-out detective who has been hired to find this man who may or may not have used 9/11 to fake his own death. I play Miss Charley, kinda like the gal Friday part.
And there’s also Dan in Real Life and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, right?
Oh, yeah. I saw Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead last week at the New York Film Festival. It’s so good! Oh, my God. It’s Sidney Lumet, old-school—and I would read the phone book for Sidney Lumet—and it’s just a great, great movie. I play Ethan Hawke’s disgruntled ex-wife, because he’s late with child payments. And, you know, it’s funny, someone said, “Oh, God, you’re a bitch in that, too!” [laughs] And I’m like, “You know what? I’m married to a deadbeat husband! At least that mother is looking out for her child.” And then Dan in Real Life was really—I consider myself part of the Greek chorus. Peter Hedges, who wrote and directed it—I did a play of his years ago, and he just hired all of New York. Like, I mean, he just robbed the New York theater community of Tony-nominated actors and said, “Please come be this family, because I need them all to know each other.” And so they’re all my friends—Jessica Hecht, and Norbert Leo Butz, and Frank Wood—so we just kinda became the backdrop as the main players, kind of, play out their story, with lack of privacy, and we’re the lack of privacy. And, truly, that was an opportunity to sit at the feet of Dianne Wiest for eight weeks. It was fun, though. It was a good laugh. But I’m miniscule in that, my part’s miniscule in that.
There’s obviously a lot of awards buzz now—it’s Oscar season, everybody’s talking about who’s going to get nominated, the short lists are being made up, and your name is everywhere. What does that feel like for you? Is it exciting, is it pressure, do you get your hopes up?
Well, I know from the Tony Awards you don’t get your hopes up. You know, you just let it play out, because what will happen will happen. But it is thrilling. And, I swear, a lot of it is thrilling because—well, there is the little girl, you know, in me that used to watch that show since I’m a kid, and you dream about it. But the idea that, you know, it will bring more recognition to this film, you know, and to Ben? Yeah, it’s fucking great! [laughs] You know, if people are gonna talk about you behind your back, this is the kind of talk you want. You know? This is the gossip I welcome. [laughs]
So is the moral of the story that it’s good to be bad?
Yeah—it’s really good to be bad. [laughs]