Amy Ryan: A journeyman's actress co-stars in 'Jack Goes Boating'

colorist: Amy Ryan, 41, is known for her subtle shading of characters.
colorist: Amy Ryan, 41, is known for her subtle shading of characters. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010

It may have been the most mortifying night of Amy Ryan's life. She was on Broadway, playing the role of Sonya opposite Derek Jacobi and Laura Linney in Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." It was the sort of opportunity for which promising actresses utter fervent prayers.

Then, one night early in the run, during Sonya's poignantly imploring final speech, the unthinkable occurred. The audience began to laugh.

"One man in the house got the giggles," Ryan recalls. The reflex apparently became infectious because others joined in. "There I was, sawing the air too much with my hands. It had become this grand speech. He was right. I was atrocious.

"When I got offstage, Laura was waiting and she said, 'Don't worry; they're laughing at Chekhov.' I thought, 'Nah -- they're laughing at me.' " Unless you have a serious inferiority complex, the story is usually the sort you tell on yourself when there is a happy ending. And of course, if you know Ryan's work and the plums that have been landing at her feet -- a bravura role in "Gone Baby Gone," earning her an Oscar nomination; a perch on "The Office" as Michael Scott's flame; a featured part as an officer and Jimmy McNulty's mate on "The Wire" -- you're aware that the currents in her career clearly have been moving in a positive direction. Heck, even her Sonya, retooled after she was laughed off the stage, proved resilient, as Tony voters ultimately chose her that year, 2000, as a best supporting actress nominee.

The down-to-earth Ryan is sitting in a lounge of a downtown hotel, agreeably reflecting on the state of her life and résumé. The occasion is the recent release of "Jack Goes Boating," a modest "Marty"-like New York love story, based on an off-Broadway play of the same title, directed by her co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman. Something about her unceremonious manner pegs her as appealingly real: imprisoned in a chair with absurdly deep arms, she shoots you a look of resigned acceptance, akin to the embarrassed glances her "Office" character, Holly, the human resources person, directed a couple of seasons ago at the camera on the faux-vérité comedy starring Steve Carell.

Ryan, who turns 41 next month, reveals that she traveled here on this day with Georgia, her nearly year-old daughter with Eric Slovin, a New York comedy writer. She's a known quantity to Washington theatergoers, who recall her as a persuasively empathetic Stella in the Kennedy Center's 2004 "A Streetcar Named Desire" that starred Patricia Clarkson.

In a similar vein, Connie, the shy love interest for Hoffman's character in "Jack Goes Boating," comes across as the sort of person who will go through a lot for the people she loves. The part appealed to Ryan not only because of Connie's mystery -- "She eluded me at first: Why is this woman alone?" the actress asks -- but also because of her potential scene partner.

"You want to get in the ring with Phil Hoffman," Ryan explains. "He always seems to have three things going on in his mind at once -- and I can follow them all. How does he do that?"

The reviews for "Jack Goes Boating" have been mixed, but critics seem to have been won over by the central performances, Ryan's included, in a film filled with accomplished stage actors (Daphne Rubin-Vega of "Rent" fame and John Ortiz complete the lead quartet). Todd McCarthy, writing in Variety, applauded Ryan's subtle portrayal, saying she "shades Connie beautifully with many colors as she very cautiously allows love into her life."

Ryan has been collecting these types of notices for years, and it may be that ability to add attractive hues to certain kinds of unglamorous roles that's made her so employable so often, in so many projects of quality. For instance, in the third season of HBO's therapy drama "In Treatment," premiering later this month, Ryan is a new cast member, replacing Dianne Wiest, who played the shrink who shrinks fellow shrink Gabriel Byrne. "Listening's hard work," Ryan says, half-kiddingly. Thinking about the static business of filming long scenes in which characters sit, spilling out their dark thoughts, she lets out a laugh. "Paris Barclay's funny," she observes, referring to one of "In Treatment's" directors. "He'd say, 'Big action sequence coming up: We're walking to the door.' " The walls between television and movies and theater seem to be permeable for Ryan, one of those actors who works in every sphere. She remembers wanting to be an actress when she was growing up in Flushing, Queens, where her parents, Pam, a nurse, and John, the owner of a small trucking business, supported her ambitions. She gained entrance to New York's School of Performing Arts and, skipping college, started in the biz virtually upon graduation, winning a part at 18 in the national tour of "Biloxi Blues."

"I remember walking into the room for Neil Simon and Gene Saks," she says of auditioning for, respectively, the comedy's playwright and director. "They said, 'We think you're wonderful, but we're not sure you have the voice.' So I said, 'I'll do it again, and I'll go to the back of the room!' " After years onstage and in some good small parts on TV and in movies -- she played a minor role in the motion picture that made Hoffman a star, 2005's "Capote" -- her status-lifting movie moment arrived in 2007, when she was cast by director Ben Affleck as a woman of deeply selfish impulses, a drug addict whose child is kidnapped in the crime drama "Gone Baby Gone."

"Ben was looking for someone without a name," Ryan says. "And that changed everything." For the part, she explains, she had no qualms about looking less than her best. "I really don't have a problem showing the ugly side of people," she adds. "If that means my wearing no makeup, that's fine. To me, that's beautiful. If I see an actress playing a drug-addicted mother and she's got a nice blowout, or she's sneaking some makeup on, I think, 'Come on, sister.' " Concessions to truthfulness seem to have paid off for her, even during that painful encounter a decade ago with Chekhov. After the debacle of the giggling playgoers -- "It's like you want to hand over your Equity card," she says -- she recalls Jacobi's consoling words. "He gives me a hug and says, 'Throw it all away, throw it away' " -- meaning, start building the performance from scratch. And so she did.

The next night, she delivered the speech without affectation, and the laughing had abated. A crucial lesson for an actress who's managed to move her career in many directions, by shooting straight.

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