For years Hollywood power publicist Nanci Ryder served as the spokeswoman for some of the industry’s biggest celebrity names; today, several years into her battle with the neurodegenerative disease ALS, which took Ryder’s ability to speak, her clients continue to show up to serve as her voice.
At this year’s Los Angeles County Walk to Defeat ALS at L.A.’s Exposition Park, a slew of famous faces, industry titans and fellow publicists — including Renée Zellweger, Courteney Cox, Adam Scott and top agent Bryan Lourd — once again rallied to Ryder’s call, wearing “Team Nanci” T-shirts as they participated in the annual fundraiser walk.
The famously feisty Ryder, who is today largely immobile and unable to talk, also made an appearance, sharing private moments with both Zellweger and Cox. The actresses also shared the stage before the walk, speaking to a large crowd of fellow supporters in the battle against ALS.
Zellweger told PEOPLE she continues to marvel at Ryder’s tenacious spirit, which she said remains vibrant even though she can no longer control her body.
“Her disease has progressed, and she hasn’t spoken in about almost four years,” said Zellweger. “It’s just run its course as it does, but she’s leveled out and hanging in there, and her joy for life remains the same. Any time something new shows up that seems insurmountably difficult, she moves the goalpost. And to stand by her, and all of us here today to show up in support of her, it’s the least we can do.”
Still, Zellweger noted she still got glimpses of Ryder’s feisty side during a recent visit to the publicist’s home after a long stint traveling to promote her film Judy, in which she plays singer and actress Judy Garland.
“I walked over to her and I said, ‘Listen, I know they’ve been sending you my pictures, and I know they’ve been telling you hello from the various places in the world, and I know you’re mad at me because I’ve been gone for way too long,’” recounted Zellweger. “No expression. And I said, ‘I know that what you’re really telling me right now is that I can go f— myself.’ And she giggled. A quiet, wry smile climbs across her face. Yes — that’s my girl!”
“It’s hard to get her to smile and it means the world,” agreed Cox, who was represented by Ryder since the earliest days of her career. “It’s not fair to place something on a smile, but when you do get a smile from Nancy, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Cox said that, like many friends and family members of ALS patients, she’s had to acclimate to her friend’s increasing physical limitations. “It’s hard because the communication isn’t what it used to be. When she first was diagnosed I was kind of able — she would let me in on the highs and the lows and the emotions and where she was. And it was really special and I was glad to be there to see and hear exactly what was going on with her. And she was always so strong. And now it’s harder to communicate and it’s sad. It’s sad. So I just really, all I want to do is just let her know that I love her and I’m here.”
Cox said she was glad to help shine light on Ryder’s journey if it helps the cause to find a cure for ALS. “It’s just about making sure people talk about it, raise awareness, raise funds, and just keep fighting it because there’s just a lot more work to do, although they’re making great strides,” she said. “You’ve just got to not give up.”
“It makes such a difference in the lives of the people who are navigating the disease and their families who are trying to find a way to help to support them,” said Zellweger. “It’s invaluable, certainly. And as it gets bigger and bigger, and more people show up, we get the word out. I mean, one thing leads to the next, and the science is propelled forward, and that’s what we need.”
“Honestly, I can’t say enough about the importance of contacting and becoming part of that community,” added Zellweger. “When Nancy was diagnosed, we didn’t know what to do. I was calling stem cell science and research in Korea, in Israel, in Germany — I mean, all over the world. And when you find the ALS Association you see, ‘Oh, no, they’re on top of that. They’ve already done all that.’ They’re doing that, and anything that is viable in terms of available treatment and science, they are on top of, and they can help to facilitate your access to that.”
Now that Zellweger is able to spend more time close to Ryder in Los Angeles, she hopes to share her latest film — in which her performance has generated considerable awards buzz — with her friend.
“I was hoping she would come to the premiere, but it’s just logistics are a little challenging, and she would get a little tired from all the noise and the people and everything,” Zellweger said. “So I’ll get her a screener and she’ll have it.”