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Amy Ryan is ready to take over Sundance

She first went to Sundance for her first-ever feature film. Now the Oscar nominee is back, more than 20 years later, with the biggest role of her career.
January 21, 2020 at 02:00 PM EST

Amy Ryan’s entire career in movies has led to this moment.

She’s about to head to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, starring in two of the buzziest movies in the program. One, Lost Girls, a true-crime thriller arriving via Netflix, presents the actress in a rare leading role; the other, Worth, situates her in a starry ensemble including Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci. Speaking a week out of their back-to-back premieres, Ryan feels deeply proud of both movies. They’re markers of her evolution into a movie star, too, delivering full-circle: The snowy indie getaway of Sundance is, after all, where her movie career began.

Ryan’s debut feature-film, Roberta, premiered at the festival in 1999. “I remember seeing Ileana Douglas walk down Main Street, and I thought that was really cool,” Ryan, 51, says with a shy laugh. “That was my first actor sighting. I went very starry-eyed that first time.” Back then, Ryan was known as a stage actor on the rise; the next year, she’d earn her first of two Tony nominations. But while her theater work remained consistent (and acclaimed), Ryan became a regular on-screen presence as well, stealing scenes in indies year after year.

Over the next two decades, she attended Sundance six more times, for everything from the Paul Giamatti vehicle Win Win to the Mindy Kaling-scripted Late Night. She moved through different life stages with each passing trip. (Example: In 2010, for Jack Goes Boating, she brought along her 3-month-old daughter. “It was a little bit of a blur,” she admits.) In between, she also nabbed key supporting roles in HBO classics The Wire and In Treatment; romanced Steve Carell to his romantic Office exit; earned credits in films directed by Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Sidney Lumet, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu; and received an Oscar nomination for her work as the addict mother of a kidnapped child in Gone Baby Gone.

Jessica Kourkounis/Netflix

She’s sort of been everywhere — that rare chameleonic actor to still possess an everywoman quality, translating in deeply human and seemingly effortless transformations. And yet, for the longest time, she’d never been the lead of a movie. That changed with 2017’s Abundant Acreage Available, a quietly affecting rural drama that gave Ryan her debut screen protagonist. But Lost Girls feels like her big moment. It’s a huge, raw, heartbreaking turn in a film that’s got its finger on the cultural pulse. And it appears even more impressive in contrast to her work in Worth, which is subtle and dogged — a microcosmic testament to her range.

Based on a true story, Lost Girls centers on Mari Gilbert (Ryan), a working-class mother struggling to make ends meet. After her daughter Shannan, a sex worker, goes missing, Mari searches for answers, only to uncover similar cases that point toward a crisis — and put her at odds with a police force that doesn’t always seem too concerned with the fates of these women. The real Mari Gilbert worked with director Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) on the script before her death in 2016; the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance has yet to be solved. “My biggest hope for this film is…that it makes [people], after watching it, click on a link about the real story and the real characters in life, and that some justice starts to happen,” Ryan says.

Ryan describes the shoot as difficult, both emotionally and physically. “It was unspoken in our mind: But we’re here. We’re alive. We go home to our warm beds at night, so buck up.” The more Ryan discusses the film, the more her passion emerges — an urgency that rushes through her performance. “The process was so grueling — [Mari] is so disregarded and ignored,” she says. “I would get so f—ing angry.” She laughs to cut the tension. “I just was mad. I was so mad. And I still am as I speak about it.”

Even during Gone Baby Gone, a dark movie in which she played another — if certainly less redeemable — mother of a missing child, Ryan could “leave work at work and come home.” She wasn’t a mother herself yet, she adds, instead at “a very different place in my own life.” Lost Girls was the first time Ryan couldn’t shake her character off. “I feel like I’ve been a really even-keeled actor in terms of the work not affecting the home life,” she says. “This is the first role that affected me in that way.”

Jessica Kourkounis/Netflix

Ryan talks about the pressures of being top of the call-sheet in a surprisingly technical fashion. Usually, she’s worried about making one scene count; here, she worried about being “redundant,” and “making sure, if you’re going to be in every scene, you’re varying up the choices you make in those scenes.” It speaks to the dedicated, veteran kind of actor that she is. (She entered the business at 18, after graduating from LaGuardia High School.) And it’s yet another reminder that she didn’t approach Mari Gilbert lightly.

Glance at Ryan’s credits and the number of great actors she hasn’t worked with appears awfully slim. She loves to collaborate; even better, to reunite. In Lost Girls, she faces off against her former In Treatment patient Gabriel Byrne again — he plays the police commissioner — while in Worth, Sara Colangelo’s sober drama about the 9/11 Fund fallout, she’s the deputy to her Birdman ex Michael Keaton’s conflicted attorney. She’d already worked with both men repeatedly; they’re “pals” for whom Ryan has endless praise.

“There’s a lot of faith to throwing yourself out there and making a fool of yourself,” Ryan says of acting. “So with someone I admire and trust, I feel like my work is freer.” She loves learning from them, too. She says specifically of watching Keaton on Worth: “It’s a very quiet, meditative film, but he would add this physical life to it. Just the way he moved around the room; just the way he would choose to sit in a chair or when he would exit a room. It fascinated me because I don’t tend to think that way.” And how’s this for full-circle? Kevin Corrigan costars in Lost Girls, and long ago was the main star in Roberta — Ryan’s very first movie.

So yes, Ryan knows this is a bit of a moment for her career. “It’s so nice to talk about films you like, and not dancing around it and trying to drag up different experiences out of it,” she says knowingly. “It’s very genuine. I say I really believe in both of these films.” For a long time, she held onto an “any job” attitude; now, 20-plus years into her movie career, she’s making real, strong choices: “I try not to repeat myself. If it’s a mom role, I want it to be Mari Gilbert.”

But really, what hasn’t Amy Ryan done at this point? This is one actor Hollywood has never been able to typecast. “Someday I’m going to get in a corset,” she quips — and there she sees it, yet more uncharted territory. “Whatever that means, I don’t know,” she admits. “It’ll kind of keep people guessing. Like, Is that her? I think that’s her. I’m not sure if that’s her. Is that her?” Not a bad motto for her career, right? She cracks up a little. “Yes, keep people guessing! I just want to keep making sure that people aren’t sure it’s me.”

Keep looking for her, though, because she’s just getting started.

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