THIS AMERICAN LIFE May 2018
Listen to Nadia read her story "Dear Dealer" featured in this episode.
TIME MAGAZINE May 2018
Read a shorter print version of "Dear Dealer."
H: feature screenplay
Memoir: Two Girls Trippin'
In July 2015, Nadia's sister, Sasha, died. Nadia is working on a memoir about her and their relationship.
Tri- Me: feature screenplay
In this dark comedy, an out of touch and unfit family of misfits are forced to compete together in a local Triathlon in order to claim their father's inheritance. Co-written with Stephanie DiMaggio. http://www.stephaniedimaggio.com
INTERVIEW WITH AMY RYAN FOR JOY QUARTERLY MAGAZINE
Amy Ryan, Actor
by Nadia Bowers
Photography by Mark Veltman
When I learn I will be interviewing Amy Ryan, my mind latches on to her name as it does with a place I am going, a book I am reading, or a food I am cooking. I say it over and over, walk to its rhythm, pounding out its beats. I spell it, misspell it, ping-pong it, count the letters lightly with my fingers against my thigh. It’s not always fun; it’s just what I do. It’s a way to fend off the present moment, but it’s also a private little riffing-world where free association can sometimes lead to insight. So, Amy Ryan, I come to feel, is an intriguing name to swish around, full of opposing forces. It’s lyrical with the A’s and Y’s, yet completely forward and direct - like you could use her name for the heroine in your fairyland children’s book, or conversely, as a comeback in an argument, “Well, I’m Amy Ryan.” Snap, conversation over. I’m to learn she’s got the chutzpah of a Queens native, yet she still conjures her mother’s voice saying, “Just be nice,” when confronted by inane red carpet questions from the press. She has hit home runs as far as I and many others are concerned in theater, TV, and film. If you think you don’t know what they are, you actually do. You just may find it hard to believe that the same actress would be doing the variety of work she does. She has dodged pigeon-holing in a business that counts on you to be what you seem. Sometimes, for an actor, being obvious is more lucrative. But she is evidence that true craft can win out - that by being smart and rooted in love of work, one can fit a self comprised of square pegs, trapezoids, rhombuses, and even hexagons into a round pigeon hole.
Far from being conspicuous, Amy Ryan’s obvious “type” is hard to figure out. This makes me think she has figured something out. She left the High School of Performing Arts never to go back to formal class again. The seedling of her career was a tour of Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues at age eighteen (she waved goodbye to her enrollment at NYU). What followed was years of work in regional and off-Broadway theater, including a pivotal experience in Edward Bond’s Saved, directed by Robert Woodruff - all eventually leading to TONY Award nominated performances on Broadway in Uncle Vanya and A Streetcar Named Desire. During those years there were “the few odd TV things that helped pay health insurance and rent,” but she eventually hit the jackpot in that world with the acclaimed HBO series The Wire. Her presence in the film world grew by laudable appearances in films such as You Can Count on Me, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, and Capote. But, it was Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone that ultimately got her nominated for an Oscar and the rest of us saying, “I want to see more of her, please.” And we have, in Dan in Real Life, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Changeling, and in a brilliant turn as Holly Flax, Steve Carell’s love interest in The Office. Soon to come is Green Zone with Matt Damon and Jack Goes Boating, directed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. We’ve all heard of a talented actor referred to as “an actor’s actor.” But that seems too pedestrian for Amy. I’ll go ahead and say it: She’s an actor’s superhero.
We meet at Thé Adore, a cozy tea/coffee/sandwich place near Union Square.
First impression: I have never seen the figure of speech “a twinkle in her eye” so concretely embodied. The tape gets turned on in medias res.
AR: (as if you all have just joined us) We’re talking about the concept of nice guys finishing last. But at least they finish. I never really believed that you needed chaos to be creative. Stability is just as good - and as fruitful. I’ve always thought that - especially when you see actors who are poorly behaved.
NB: Did you ever go through a phase where you tried to create some chaos?
AR: No, I just dated chaos. I was smart enough to not really own it, just be in the sidecar to it. I don’t think I ever really started chaos. But, I was entertained by chaos for sure.
NB: I think there’s a misconception that you have to be out of control, or you have to be a jerk - not trusting that there’s enough of you that can be interesting without all that.
AR: And I think it’s easier to hide yourself. It’s the same thing I am sure you’re taught in school, you know, leave your problems at home, leave your work at home when you go to the theater.
NB: Do you have stage, film, and TV in different categories, or do you feel like it’s all one thing?
AR: I feel like it’s all one thing when it’s my part in it, but certainly the business aspect of it is very different.
NB: Do you have a set way of approaching something?
AR: No, there are no set rules. Some roles are much easier than others. Either it’s really close to who I am, or it’s written so exceptionally well that you just go for the ride. Others aren’t as obvious on the page, so you approach it as filling in the blanks.
NB: Do you find it harder or easier to play something that’s close to you?
AR: I suppose it’s what aspect of it is close to me. It certainly helps if you are going through something that the character is going through. It’s the easiest, cheapest therapy you can get! You get some things off your chest.
NB: Are you thinking of a certain project in particular?
AR: Well, there were moments when I was ending a bad relationship, and I played a character in a bad relationship. You get to put that energy into something constructive. I remember someone asking me after some brutal scene - “God, where do you get that from?” And I was like, “Well, if you had a couple of hours, I could tell you a story or two.” But no, you just smile and pretend that you made it up.
NB: Did you grow up acting?
AR: I knew at a young age I wanted to do it, but I didn’t know what it was. My parents took us to the theater. I think what drew me in were the musicals (specifically, A Chorus Line). But, I didn’t sing or dance. So, I was so grateful when I learned that there was a thing called a play. You could still be on stage and tell a story but you didn’t have to sing or dance. Then I went to the High School of Performing Arts, and from there I was in the world of being creative and it felt right.
NB: Were your parents supportive?
AR: Very much. I don’t think they really understood what it was in the beginning. My father owned a small trucking company in Queens. My mother was a nurse and then later ran the business with him. My mother is a creative person. But, no one else in my family had gone down this road before. If they were nervous, they never let me know. They’re very proud. They get excited. There was a great moment - I brought them to the Oscars and it was fantastic. I was on the red carpet and turned around and saw their faces taking it all in.
NB: Starting out, did you play a lot of ingenue roles?
AR: No, I think my voice was always a little deep for that, or I just didn’t have the energy, or the hair, the long, flowing, blonde, thick hair. In theater, I don’t think I was stuck or pigeon-holed. Doing the play Saved (which takes place in a violent 1960’s South London world in which the baby of her character, Pam, is brutally killed) allowed me to go to those darker places without apologies. I remember going out for coffee with Robert Woodruff. He first started out with a lot of compliments which are, of course, great to hear. He said, “You’re a great technician. You can do anything.” Then he said - I’ll always be grateful to him for this - “But, it would be better if we pulled this out from your guts, rather than your craft.” I am very good at a challenge if it’s laid before me, and if someone wants to shower me with compliments and let me coast along the way, I’m happy with that too, but the challenge is always better. And there was going to be a real witness if I was going to cheat along the way. That was a real turning point - having a director saying, “It’s OK to go there, the play earns it, the play deserves it. There will be bigger rewards as an artist if you do.” That play was an extraordinary experience, one of my first bad mother roles!
NB: How did you go from Gone Baby Gone to The Office?
AR: For me, I knew with the success of Gone Baby Gone that it was going to be trickier, not necessarily harder, but a trickier chess move because I knew that I may never see a script or a part that well written for a long while, and that was OK. I remember after I did A Streetcar Named Desire I knew the next play I did wouldn’t be that great. It just wouldn’t be because there are only a handful of them. But right after Gone Baby Gone, the scripts I did get offered were single moms.
NB: “Hey, does she want to play this part again?”
AR: Yeah, suddenly, you’re on their list. I remember years ago a casting director who is a friend said, “You know, one of your great qualities is that you can change and morph, but the problem is that no one is going to think of you off the bat because they’re going to think of the obvious ten choices. So, that’s what happened after Gone Baby Gone. I went into the Obvious Choice category. You know, I bet Melissa Leo is in that right now. The same is probably true for anybody else. Maybe Helen Mirren was offered more royalty parts after The Queen! So, I was aware of that even before it happened, and I was a huge fan of The Office. I knew I wanted to do a comedy and literally make a right turn and have people guess. I would have never been seen for comedy before that time, so I thought now there might be a bit of a cache, people might pick up the phone. Coincidentally, they were all fans of The Wire, so they were looking at me at the same time I was hoping something would come up on the show. It was really kind of a perfect storm, or just a happy coincidence. They made jokes when I was there right after Oscars like, “What are you doing here? You should aim higher!” But to me it was never about that. If it’s good it’s good. It doesn’t matter where it is. You know, I’d rather see theater in a space like this than Broadway if this is better.
NB: Had you done comedy stuff before?
AR: Years and years ago I was on this sitcom called The Naked Truth with Téa Leoni and I wasn’t good at it. I didn’t understand it. I think it was because that particular type of sitcom was situational based or joke based. I do better with character based dilemmas that happen to be funny situations. It was an albatross around my neck for years. I thought, “I can’t do comedy. I’m not funny. I don’t know how to do it.” Until The Office. And even then, I thought, “I don’t think I can do this. What am I doing here?” But that show takes care of you so much. Steve (Carell) is such a gentleman - so generous. Talk about not needing chaos to be creative, just a purely solid, great man. And that whole cast still works really hard at that show. They don’t sit back and ride it out.
NB: It seems that you’ve been able to maneuver in different worlds gracefully, but coming from theater, does the Hollywood world seem more alien to you?
AR: If you do a movie, it’s still a very intimate setting. It’s still your fellow actors and your writer there, and that feels familiar to theater. What’s alien is when you take that out, sell it, and try to get people to come to your movie, because we don’t do that in theater. We have our opening night with the people who are already there, and we just go to the party for the food! That’s the part that no one really teaches you how to do, and it’s not really anything you’re trained for. You just take it in stride and don’t take it too seriously. There’s a great lesson that Patricia Clarkson taught me. I was hanging out with her during the time she was up for the Golden Globe and then the Oscar. I was in her hotel room in LA, and she was boxing up all these gowns, shoes, and purses to ship back to New York. She said, “Just remember Amy; it all goes back. And never think, really, that this is your life, because you’ll lose sight of why you did this in the first place.” If you keep trying to chase these parties, these gowns, it’s a slippery slope.
NB: Do you think if you had gotten something comparable to The Office or, obviously, if you were eighteen, you wouldn’t have done Gone Baby Gone, but if that level of success had happened sooner…
AR: I think about that a lot. I remember at that time just being so happy to be working. I didn’t think doing a job in Cleveland for two months was any different than getting a movie. Work came first. Assuming I liked it; I did it. I’m grateful it wasn’t a sitcom or a one-hour show right off the bat because even with the ones that are great I would have fallen into the trap of only developing that one muscle over and over and over, especially if it was five years, seven years. A lot of other people fare better, but I think me jumping around from one to the next was beneficial. As I got older, I realized how important choices were. So, I feel like it’s a much more conscious decision now. If you make a money decision, it’s probably going to bite you in the ass, unless you really need it, and there’s nothing wrong with paying your rent or feeding your family. But, if you keep making those decisions, then people won’t look forward to seeing you. It’s all about the choices.
NB: Sometimes those choices are hard to make.
AR: I think I had been at it for about ten years when it occurred to me that in order to be a better actor, you actually have to have a better part. I started saying no to certain jobs that I was comfortable with, that I knew were easy for me to get. I didn’t work for a long while. But, it set a bit of a tone with my agents. So, we all started looking harder, and then I think my next job was Uncle Vanya. It was something that maybe before then I wouldn’t have felt entitled to, or that I was right for. I have tried to do that since, along the way. You know, “You‘re getting comfortable; you’re doing the same thing; you’re repeating the same story; so where are you going to go next?” That helps in longevity of a career and just being true to what the point was in the beginning. At the same time, there’s no formula, there’s no real roadmap.
NB: Or blueprint.
AR: Or blueprint. For me, when I see it, I know. I believe the body doesn’t lie. You know, you’ve sat doing readings of plays where you want to kill yourself. You think of a hundred million places you could be. Then there are the ones when the time flies; you have more energy; and your imagination is running wild. You miss your stop on the train thinking about it. That’s where I want to be. Those rules keep applying throughout time.
NB: Do you feel that your reasons for acting have evolved over time?
AR: Yes, and in a natural way. I think as a young kid, it was to show off and get attention with my family. Then when I got to high school, I actually got very shy because I wasn’t the only kid. Suddenly there were forty kids in my class who were trying to make everybody laugh, trying to be the center of attention. I wasn’t a wallflower, but I started observing life more. I didn’t want to get in the center of the circle. I think where I’m at now, I’m still in the shy phase. I prefer to hide away. I prefer to become someone else to tell the story. And maybe that’s just me really not wanting to expose myself which is, I know, ridiculous. But, I think it’s better as an actor to stay somewhat mysterious. It allows me to hide away into different characters and stories, which ultimately helps tell a better story.
NB: Do you feel that you are in a place now where you are a little more in control? Or is there still that feeling of waiting?
AR: You’re still waiting. Someone said this to me – “it’s the same problem. It’s just higher stakes.” I don’t know if that ever goes away as an actor. That would be a good question for someone like Meryl Streep, “Do you ever worry that you may not work again?” Someone you imagine is at home just picking through scripts.
NB: Tossing them into the fire.
AR: Yeah, exactly. But, I imagine she too is looking not to repeat herself, which she never has done.
NB: Do you have a favorite thing that you’ve done?
AR: I think creatively, so far, Gone Baby Gone is at the top of that just because of what was asked of me to do. There are other things that I am so glad to have been a part of, like getting a ringside seat. I think of Capote, and it was very apparent something incredible was happening with Phil. A front row seat for that was electric. When you can be in the center of a storm, that’s fun.
NB: Do characters sometimes stay with you?
AR: I just did this movie this winter directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and my character was someone who was suspicious of people, or she might prejudge a person or situation. Everything is a little insular for her. I never believed that work affected me at all, but I found myself not walking down the street with as much moxy as I had before, kind of like, “You go first.” It struck me one day. These characters do creep in. But then you realize that you’re just doing your work.
NB: You’re stepping aside and allowing someone to come in as opposed to actors who, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t step aside - you’re always seeing them.
AR: Yeah, I think there are the ones who see a story, and they put themselves in it, as an obvious vanity piece, or some stunt casting we may see from time to time. Then I think there are those actors who hide away completely, like Sean Penn, and they bring the story to us first not just their take, melding the story to fit their needs.
NB: And it actually takes great humility - it’s this crazy dance of ego and humility.
AR: Yeah, because deep down you want to be the good guy, and you want to be the pretty one, and you want to get the guy - we all want that! But life doesn’t work that way. But, that’s what I love. That’s the beauty. If we are going to portray life as we know it or as we take it, then we have to be truthful to the warts and all.
Alexa Fogel, a veteran and venerated casting director who cast Amy in The Wire insightfully connects Amy’s talent to her faithfulness to story and its priority, for her, over self-importance, “I think one of the things that distinguishes Amy amongst her peers, in addition to her obvious talents, is her lack of preciousness as an actor. This manifests itself in a few ways. The process of doing the work and getting to the heart of the work, for Amy, is about the material first. If you happen to be good enough (and lacking in ego enough) to manage that - which Amy is many times over - then the result is a range of characters very different from each other, and from the actress playing them in many cases.
As an audience member, I have the luxury of being caught up in the story being told, because Amy is loyal to it and able to bring her abilities to live in it to the screen or stage.”
I wish I had I had been a member of the audience when Amy played Stella in Streetcar, and I tell her so.
AR: It’s funny, I carried that play around in my back pocket for years, wanting to do it. When the time came to audition for it, I suddenly realized that I didn’t know who Stella was. I remember images of her in the past, not necessarily from other productions, but from people talking about her. They always said she was frumpy or downtrodden. Then, you read Tennessee’s description, and it’s quite the opposite. He says her nails are painted. She lies in bed eating chocolates waiting for Stanley to come home. Their relationship is totally based on sex. There’s no money. They come from different worlds. They’re just so hot for each other. That’s not a mousey housewife. Then, the sister comes home, and the dynamic shifts. I also realized how much alcohol is a base of that play -the classic co-dependent relationship. Now, these are modern words. But, she’s the best negotiator there is. “Blanche, if you do this, he’ll do this.” And Stanley, “If you be nice to her, she’ll do this.” That’s all she does. She runs interference. I think productions that haven’t worked in the past are when they forget that it’s a triangle. It’s not just a Stanley and a Blanche going at it. If they’re not going at it for the love of Stella, it all falls apart. She’s between a rock and a hard place, and ultimately, the ending - the idea of sending your sister away. I believe, deep down inside, she knows that Blanche was not wrong, at least that’s the way I chose to play it. But, she’s pregnant. She has no money. What’s she going to do? It’s so deeply moving and tragic. I also had the great fortune to do the play twice. I did it with Patricia Clarkson down at the Kennedy Center, and then I did it a year later with Natasha Richardson. The first time approaching it, Patti and I discovered letters that Tennessee Williams wrote and he said, “I’m writing a new play. It’s about two sisters.” And in some ways we claimed that back. It’s not a play about Stanley in that way we know it because it’s been so immortalized by Marlon Brando.
NB: To its detriment, I think.
AR: I think so too. Patti and I really latched on to that world of the sisters, which makes the ending all the more brutal.
NB: I love The Wire so much.
AR: I love The Wire too. Isn’t it incredible?
NB: Mind blowing. How did that happen for you?
AR: I was a fan of the show that first year, and then it came about that Alexa Fogel, the casting director, called me in. It was pretty heartbreaking in the moment. There was a play that I wanted to do so badly, a Conor McPherson play called Dublin Carol. I had been tracking it for three years. It finally came around; I auditioned for it, and I got it. On the first day of rehearsal, I got cast in The Wire. I had to leave the play on the second day. I was mortified and guilt-ridden. To me it was one of the hardest decisions because I’m so loyal to theater. But, I’m so proud to have been a part of The Wire. I feel like it’s a show for the history books. It’s a great social study. It felt like being part of a great repertory company. Also, it doesn’t bend the rules if a character is popular. Story always comes first.
NB: What was that set like?
AR: It was fun, a lot of fun. In some ways, I think we were all a collective group of misfits. I was a month out of a really long, horrible relationship, and suddenly I found myself in Baltimore. I joked to Dominic West that Baltimore saved my life. He said, “Baltimore ruined my life,” in a social context, not creatively. We both hold The Wire very dear to our hearts. I had this little apartment down on the harbor, and I’d wake up to the sound of the masts of the sailboats clanking in the wind. I was so happy there. It was just a great tonic for my personal life as well.
NB: For all the unpredictability of what we do, there is always that chance that you are going to be absolutely saved by something.
AR: One thing I love about being an actor is that you never know. I actually find that hopeful, rather than “Oh my God, I don’t know when I’m going to work again.” That’s the thing, you can be down on your last dollar, and something can come in at the last minute. As opposed to working for a company for twenty years where you know what you’re in for. Well, maybe not these days!
NB: Everyone’s talking about the unpredictability of work, and that’s something we always live with. I’m like, “Welcome, people, to our world.”
AR: I used to love to mess with people. I’d ultimately be stuck on a flight next to someone who would strike up a conversation and ask, “What do you do?” And I’d say, “I’m an actor.” They wouldn’t know, nor should they know, what I had been in, and nine times out of ten the next thing out of their mouth is, “That must be really tough.” And whether it was tough at the time or not, I would always say, “No! It’s great! Let me tell you why - because you rarely work and when you do you make a lot of money. You meet interesting people, or you travel all over the world! It’s one of the best jobs you can have!” You’d just see this businessman, pissed, all his expectations crumbling! It was just my own little defense like, “Don’t rain on my parade. I don’t need another naysayer around me.” Is it Equity or SAG who sends out a newsletter where they show you a pie chart of the numbers of members not working? If any actor or artist listens to those numbers, they’re in the wrong business to begin with. It’s not a business of math and statistics. You never know what’s around the corner and I think it’s important to keep that in mind.
NB: What do you hope is around the corner for you?
AR: I do hope to go back to do a play. I don’t have any plans right now for one. I do fear a little bit of “use it or lose it” in terms of those skills. I have been really enjoying making movies. I enjoy telling stories in a shorter amount of time, being three different characters in one year as opposed to one that maybe a play allows you.
Looking at the spring cover of JOY on the table, she says of friend Michael Shannon who graces it, “He’s such a phenomenal actor. I think the world of him. Actually, I’d like to do a play with Mike.”
NB: So, a good day of work would be...
AR: Being excited to wake up the next day to do it all over again. I’m not too good at waking up early. But, when I love a script, I am up, clothes laid out the night before. A good day of work is when you’re not just working on something for yourself. It’s not just “I love this part. It speaks to me.” But if it happens to also speak to the whole cast and the director, and it comes together and speaks to an audience - be it a huge blockbuster, a small film, or play - then that’s the perfect day of work, because, ultimately, it’s for them. It’s not for you. Even though along the way we can get some things off our chest or work out some problem. Ultimately, it’s not about us. It shouldn’t be. It should be for the audience. I sometimes think about actors I knew when I was eighteen who were more talented, or just as talented, and I wonder, “Why aren’t they here today?” I witnessed a lot of actors spend too much time after some rejection saying, “Why didn’t I get that? Why not me?” as opposed to saying, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter. Something better’s around the corner.” Unless you really do have some serious problem, like you’re not prepared, or there’s too much substance abuse, something that really is getting in your way. But if it’s that you are feeling sorry for yourself and bringing too much negativity about the other person who got it - they have nothing to do with you. They might be better. They might be prettier and all that. They might be less talented. It doesn’t matter. Just move forward and put your energies toward the next opportunity. Just do your work.
When I walk into Amy’s JOY photo shoot, she had just been crying. She turns to me with her twinkle and contagious smile and waves. It is arresting to see a person moving through emotions, different sides of the same coin existing all at once. As Mark guides her through large umbrella emotions, there is a hushed reverence in the room as we watch Amy make each one specific, taking us all along for a moving ride. We will never know where she went or of what she was thinking, but this is the actor’s process. By going to specific things that evoke her emotional palate, our shared humanity gets handed back to us with open armed generosity, and we recognize ourselves. Amy Ryan is doing her work.
Nadia Bowers is an actress in NYC. She’d like to thank Jason Butler Harner for the assist.