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.
“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.