Ernesto Di Stefano Photography/Getty Images
May 07, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT

After starring in nearly 40 movies, Meg Ryan recently added a new title to her résumé: director.

“It’s given me a place at the table,” the 54-year-old said to an audience Friday night at Geena Davis’ Bentonville Film Festival after a screening of her directorial debut, Ithaca. “It was a very hard thing to do and I can’t believe I did it, honestly.”

In the movie based on William Saroyan’s 1943 novel, The Human Comedy, Ryan also stars as Mrs. Macauley, a widowed mother of four children. (Tom Hanks, her Joe Versus the Volcano, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail costar portrays her husband.) When her oldest son — played by Ryan’s real-life son, Jack Quaid — goes off to fight in WWII, leaving behind she and three younger siblings, it’s her 14-year-old son, Homer (Alex Neustaedter), who becomes the man of the family. Going to work as a bicycle telegraph messenger, he “delivers messages of love, hope, pain and death to the good people of Ithaca, but soon must grapple with a message that will change him forever,” according to the movie’s description.

Ryan told the crowd and EW’s Sara Vilkomerson, who moderated the Q&A, she was immediately drawn to the book — “I felt like I could see it, which doesn’t happen very much when you read something,” she said — attracted to what she describes as “a profound story simply told.”

“I love that what [Homer] wanted was this impossible thing, to keep everyone he loved safe,” she explained, “[to] keep the Angel of Death away from Ithaca. I thought that was such a dear and very emotional through-line and motivation for a protagonist.”

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Ryan also found the story’s value-of-innocence theme applying to her own life. “When I read it I was getting divorced at the time,” she reveals. “So [I had] that feeling of, how do you keep your kids safe? The world is harsh, you know? Some lessons are going to be too hard. And I felt like the book had a lot of wisdom in it. I love that often adults are very confounded by these big questions of, why?”

Ryan had some questions of her own — about her new job. She got some guidance from her previous on-set bosses. “I’ve been around so many incredible filmmakers, some of whom I called before I started, and they each gave me some little pearl of wisdom that, gosh, I really needed.”

Ithaca, which also stars Sam Shepard and Hamish Linklater, includes a full score by John Mellencamp. And she got the whole thing shot in just 23 days — “Crazy! I’m still tired,” she joked to the audience. Crazy, but worth it.

Ernesto Di Stefano Photography/Getty Images

“The mission of the festival is about empowering diverse voices, and this is without any doubt a movie told from a mother’s point of view, from a female point of view, a maternal point of view, and I have a feeling that’s why they were interested in having it,” she explains of the Arkansas festival co-created by Oscar winner Geena Davis and presented by Walmart, Coca-Cola, AMC Theatres, Lifetime and Starz.​

In the video above, see what Ryan had to say about Mellencamp’s music and also find out which edible item the production designer used to hold pieces of the set together.

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