Amy Ryan is a serious and brilliant actress, but the Oscar nominee slips right into lighter fare too. She was Michael Scott’s endearingly dorky object of affection over a good stretch of “The Office,” and the same week that her new Steven Spielberg drama “Bridge of Spies” comes out she pops up as the lead’s mom in “Goosebumps.” This makes sense if you meet her. Ryan is quick with a jokey response, ready to play ball before switching right into more serious talk. Though she has lots to say about “Bridge of Spies” — in which she plays Mary, the worried wife of Tom Hanks’ Cold War-era lawyer James B. Donovan, who is seen defending a caught Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) most of American wants to see executed — she’s also up for talking about the last time she worked with Spielberg, in a tiny, tiny role in 2005’s “War of the Worlds,” before she was a staple of the TV and movies.
We’re talking as the New York Film Festival, in which “Bridge of Spies” is premiering, is underway. Have you seen anything else here?
There’s so much I want to see. I want to see “Brooklyn.” But no, is the short answer. You?
I’ve seen a million things. I’m sort of delirious right now, so these questions might be psychedelic.
You want to ask me about my tightrope walking?
How is your tightrope walking?
I don’t have to train. I’m that good.
I can’t imagine you had to do anything crazy like in “The Walk” for “Bridge of Spies.”
I had to walk and talk and serve food at the same time. That’s difficult. [Laughs] I had no stunts, other than wearing a corset and ladies 1950s undergarments. It’s probably easier to walk on a tightrope.
That does sound dangerous.
The clothes, they set the tone. Your body language has to change. I couldn’t sit like I’m sitting now. It makes you sit like a lady, pinned and tucked.
Apart from the restrictive clothing, were there things that drew you to doing a film set in the 1950s?
I’ve always been a fan. I’d daydream a lot about old New York when I was a kid. When I walked onto the set I thought, “This was what it was.” It just felt familiar, even though I wasn’t born yet.
Were you privy to them recreating 1950s Brooklyn, which I suppose isn’t too terribly hard?
Yeah, if you can block out all the new glass towers. But there are some areas. Ditmas Park, which is where their house is, is still quite a throwback.
Ditmas Park hasn’t been totally gentrified yet.
I think when people see the film they’ll be like, “Oh my god, I can have a porch in New York City? I’m moving.” [Laughs]
I actually didn’t realize, until I was prepping for this, that you had a very small part in Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” as “Neighbor with Toddler.”
[Laughs] “Yeah, Steven, why didn’t you name me?” “You’re going to die before the credits start.” It was so long ago. I remember holding a crying baby in my hands. Right before I was about to shoot a scene I was with the costume designer, and I was looking down the street. She whispered to me, “Are you looking for the camera? It’s down the block.” Steven has all the best toys, so there was this huge camera truly a block away that was zooming in. It could film us but there was no camera to be found. It was like, “Is this a joke?” [Laughs] [On “Bridge of Spies”], it was nice to sit with him in an intimate family setting, talking about human behavior and try to create an active, living household with 12 things going on at once.
You don’t get a lot of character motivation if you’re “Neighbor with Toddler.”
“Just get the hell out of there. There’s your motivation. A truck is about to crash into your house.”
Was it weird acting with effects that wouldn’t be there till later?
It’s no different from when you were a kid. You might be weird because you’re an adult, so you’re full of constraints like, “I don’t want to look stupid.” Back then you don’t think that way. You’re playing cops and robbers, and aliens attacking your little brother’s room. It’s just tapping back into that world.
Sorry I keep asking about “War of the Worlds,” but was there a way you got that part?
Steven watches everything. He saw some episode of a cop show I did, randomly. Then I just got a call, “Do you want to be in Steven’s next film?” And I didn’t know what it was going to be or what the part was. But especially with having not really done film yet, of course I wanted to do it. I didn’t care what it was. Same thing here too. They said, “This is not a very big part, but it’s an important part.” “Yes, of course I want to make a movie with you. Why would I say no?” [Laughs]
You could have bragging rights as the one who turned down Spielberg.
I don’t know if people would think I was cool.
You’d seem hard to get.
Maybe someone else did that before they called me. [Laughs] Maybe they’re cool. I don’t need to be cool.
What was the nature of his directing style, especially now that you really got a chance to work with him?
Even though I did have a small part in “War of the World,” Steven really did direct me. He takes time with the details, whether it’s a small part or the lead character. It’s not like some second A.D. coming over there and saying, “You have to stand to the left.” He’s all about creating human behavior and overlapping dialogue. The scenes aren’t just about coverage. They’re about a character’s point of view. The scene where we exit the courthouse, even though I had no lines he says, “It’s about Mary. This is the first time she’s out in the public eye. The public is encroaching on her life. She’s terrified.” He has the flashes going off in my face and the crowd is coming in, and this ups Mary’s protest of James, that she thinks he shouldn’t take the case. Her family is in danger, the threat is real. But she knew there was a great good. She was just fiercely protective of their family, like any good, sane mother would be.
A lot of Spielberg scenes, especially in his early films, have lots of casual chaos. In “Jaws” there’s all these scenes of people talking over one another in town hall meetings or home over family meals.
That’s what keeps it grounded, is the presentation. It’s human. It’s what we do. We finish each other’s sentences, or we try not to. Then you’re checking something on the stove. It’s that huge woven tapestry of life. They show that everything’s normal here — and then you know something’s not right.
I did want to ask, lastly, about the two children’s films you have on the docket. You’re in “Goosebumps” and “Monster Trucks.” Was that just a coincidence or were you actively looking for stuff that was for a younger audience?
I have a kid. My kid can’t see either of these films because she’s too young. But it’s nice that my nieces can finally see something that I’ve done. [Laughs]
They’re usually just watching “Gone Baby Gone.”
Yeah, they have that on a loop in the house.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge