Amy Ryan plays a wife whose husband (Guy Pearce) is contemplating an affair in "Breathe In." Credit: Getty Images
Amy Ryan divides her time between three mediums: stage, where she’s racked up two Tony nominations; TV, including memorable runs on “The Wire” and “The Office”; and film, scoring an Oscar nod as a foul-mouthed mother whose daughter is kidnapped in “Gone Baby Gone.” But she tends to plays nicer characters.
In “Breathe In,” she’s a suburban wife whose bored musician husband (Guy Pearce) develops a fondness for their English exchange student (Felicity Jones).
This was made in 2011. Is it weird talking about a film you made three years ago?
Yeah, kind of. It’s like talking about an ex-boyfriend.
Your character is not just a token killjoy wife. How did director Drake Doremus (“Like Crazy”) pitch her to you?
I didn’t want to be the bad guy, so the audience cheers the husband to go off with the young girl. And he didn’t want that either. That’s just too easy. We didn’t want people revved up because the wife is mean. It was more about Guy’s character living a static life of his own making. He didn’t follow through on his dreams, and someone wakes that up in him.
Did you develop her along with him?
Drake is very open. He wants you to get involved. His outlines said my character is a cookie jar collector. He was like, “Do you want to do that? Are you OK with it? You want her to be something else?” I was like, “Keep the cookie jars because I really want to smash them at the end.” [Laughs] It’d be better than teddy bears.
Doremus doesn’t work with scripts, just outlines. Is that freeing?
There are certain pros and cons to making a film this way. One of the pros is it’s really fun to be winging it — being on your toes and really listening to your other actors, thinking about how you’re going to respond. Those are fun games to play. But there comes a time when I realize, “Oh, I’m not a writer.” [Laughs] You feel vulnerable. You know Drake’s going to cut around what you do, but I’m used to working with writers. I’ll improvise, but I don’t always want to improvise a whole movie.
Doremus is really, freakishly young. He's only 30 now.
He has amazing confidence. We would tease him because he was so enthusiastic about everything. “That’s AMAZING!” After awhile Guy and I were like, “Was it, Drake? Is everything amazing?” But he’s so loving and smart.
You and Mackenzie Davis, who plays your daughter, have great chemistry. How quickly did that form?
You pretty immediately develop an intimacy with all actors. You have no choice but to create these relationships that are going to be believable. You have to work fast, but here it was an amazing group of actors. Felicity [Jones] had gone through this before with Drake [on “Like Crazy”], so we knew how beautifully it would turn out. We could trust the madness of it.
As an actor who started in theater, was it strange transitioning to film and TV, which have very different methodologies?
I went back to theater after seven years of being away from it. I would have to say the transition back to theater was harder. I forgot how physically demanding it is. I was like, “Oh, it’s a one-act play, I’ll be home by 9:30 every night.” But it’s tiring. The energy to play someone when you go onstage till when you step offstage — it’s like running a marathon. I forgot that. It was a good kick in the butt.
But with film and TV, you’re at the mercy of directors and editors. On stage, you have more freedom to sculpt your performance.
Whether you’re doing a play or a TV show, you always wish you did something better. Always. Even with a play, you can do it better the next night, but it’s never nailed down. There’s always something different: a different audience, or you lose your attention span, or there’s loud candy wrappers. If a director says, “We’re moving on,” you have to deal with it. You have to think, “Well, I’m probably not going to get it by the next take, so I have to live with it.” It will never be perfect.
It’s slightly strange that you were in “The Escape Plan.” I’m sure when you started out you never imagined yourself acting in a film with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It felt like being a kid, when you play. You blow up a car, you pretend that bad guys are coming. I had a good time. It was strange being on the set — it took a bit of adjustment. I was fascinated by Curtis [Jackson aka rapper 50 Cent]. That man is extraordinary. I spent a lot of time with him on set. It was fun to be inside arenas I’m not usually in.