After nearly 20 years of working in New York theater and in supporting movie and TV roles, Amy Ryan is finally getting her due. Her turn as Gone Baby Gone’s neglectful, drug-addicted mother Helene McCready recently earned her a Golden Globe nomination and continues to generate Oscar buzz. The New York native called us up to chat about the wild ride she’s currently enjoying.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How has your life changed since Gone Baby Gone opened?
AMY RYAN: It’s gotten busier, and I’ve run out of adjectives. Even my mother is complaining that she has no more adjectives. She sent me an e-mail this morning and she just wrote ”Woo-hoo!” [Laughs] And then on the practical side, I’m starting to get invites to the bigger table at Thanksgiving. I don’t have to sit at the folding card table anymore, with the leg between my knees! [Laughs] That’s the best part of it, that there’s access to better material, directors, and actors.
So you’re already receiving better scripts?
Oh yeah, for sure. Being an actor, we’re so dependent on the writers. That’s why I’m like, God, I hope the strike ends. My big break during the writers’ strike! Oh, crap.
What do you make of the Oscar buzz?
I have to keep scratching my ass. You know when people say ”Knock on wood”? I met this woman who said, ”Scratch your ass,” which is what my grandmother said. It made me laugh so hard that I’ve been scratching my ass for, like, a month. I did some interview online, and I found myself very subtly reaching around. I think I’m caught on tape somewhere, scratching my ass.
And just now?
I did. But I’m in my own house, on my couch, so it’s safe. At least the phrase wasn’t ”Someone else scratches your ass.” That could get me in trouble.
You’re a New York actress. Are you feeling any pressure to move to Los Angeles now?
No — I’ll go when necessary. It’s more grounding to stay here. It’s where you catch your breath, catch your perspective. And I follow actors like Laura Linney, Patricia Clarkson, Phil Hoffman — they haven’t done so poorly here. You do this other stuff [like press and red carpets] because it’s necessary to sell the movies, but at the end of the day, it is that Cinderella factor — turn it back into a pumpkin. That’s what Patty Clarkson said to me: ”Just remember, Amy, it all goes back — the dress, the shoes. Don’t for a second think this is yours.” [Laughs]
What did you like about your character, Helene?
Her survival technique, her pure strength when she’s cornered like a rat up against the wall. She’s not the brightest bulb in the room, but she’s definitely one of the savviest. There’s a different level of survival in neighborhoods that are filled with that much strife.
Clearly, Helene’s not a very good mother. Was that hard to play?
When you’re in it, the best thing is to not judge it, not bring your own opinions to the table. [You have] to get out of her way and never apologize for what she says or does, even though a lot of it made me cringe. Certainly a lot of the language, or the way she uses language so abusively.
How did you nail that particular Boston accent?
A lot of it was on the job. [Gone director] Ben [Affleck], as you know, cast all these non-actors in the movie, people from the neighborhood. So as much as I wanted to sit with people like Casey or Ed Harris at lunch, I couldn’t. I was sitting with the Teamsters, [listening to them]. And then, the woman who plays Dottie, Jill Quigg, I never left her side. She let me record her. Ben gave great freedom, like, ”Don’t worry about it, if you get it wrong, we’ll fix it in post-production.”
Did you have to fix anything?
I had to record a lot of the word ”her.” Because in [Boston], mid-sentence, you don’t drop the r. So I went to the [recording studio], almost a year later, and Ben was dispatched from L.A. on the phone. Suddenly I was very self-conscious about [Helene’s raunchy] language. I showed up in a blue sweater with a ribbon or something. I tried to look really lady-like for the sound guys.
What did you have to say?
”I don’t know where his mother went, but she left her cats in there and I swear to God it smells like c—.” I turned around to the sound guys and they said, ”It sounds like a family film!”
Your next movie is The Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood. Between him and your Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead director Sidney Lumet, you’ll have worked with two masters.
It’s great. I’m really lucky. Clint works very similarly to Sidney Lumet in, like, be very prepared because you’re only going to get two takes. Both have, I think, very rich personal lives they want to get home to. I met Clint for the first time on set. You audition on videotape, so we were getting ready to do the scene and the first thing he said to me was, ”I read you worked with Sidney Lumet.” I said, ”Yeah.” He said, ”So you’re used to doing two takes. Good.” [Laughs] Half-compliment, half-threat.
Who do you play in The Changeling?
I befriend [a character played by] Angelina Jolie. Both characters end up in really dire situations. And I kind of teach her how to survive. I help her through her darkest hour because I’ve been there a little longer than she has. But if I tell you where, it gives away a plot point.
You play a woman of the night?
Yeah, that’s right. It’s set in 1928. They were actually called ”soiled doves,” which is nicer than saying [in her best Boston accent] ”She’s a hook-ah!”