Amy Ryan's Million Dollar "Baby"

photo of  Amy Ryan 

The stage star shines in Ben Affleck's directorial debut film "Gone Baby Gone".  Earlier this month, Amy Ryan talked to The Popcorn Reel's Omar P.L. Moore about her role as Helene, a not-so-likable film incarnation

By Omar P.L. Moore/

October 22, 2007

She is known more for her acting prowess on stage, but audiences are getting to see Amy Ryan's stunning big screen work in Ben Affleck's directorial debut film "Gone Baby Gone", a film set exclusively in Boston, Massachusetts, about a missing four-year-old girl who is being tracked by the doggedness of Boston's police department, especially Casey Affleck (excellent in the current release "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford") and his spouse and police detective partner Michelle Monaghan (also in the film "The Heartbreak Kid".)  The film "Gone Baby Gone" opened on Friday (October 19) across the U.S. and Canada, and features a cast that includes Oscar winner Morgan Freeman and nominee Ed Harris.

The charismatic, slender acting star is sitting comfortably, curled up in a luxurious chair in a suite at a local hotel in San Francisco.  Amy Ryan wears a royal French blue blouse, and dark navy slacks.  She indulges her questioner's request for some water.  She is literally in town for less than a day before she has to fly to Los Angeles.  One gets the sense that it's quite a whirlwind tour for the actor, who is in town for "Gone Baby Gone", which at the time Ryan was in Northern California, was being shown at the 30th Mill Valley Film Festival.  She takes the publicity for the film, of which she is very proud, in stride, and does so with a smile. 

Ms. Ryan plays Helene McCready in Mr. Affleck's film.  This Friday (October 26) she appears as Martha in Sidney Lumet's new film "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead".  Helene is a grubby, foul-mouthed working class mother in Boston who also dabbles in drugs and unsavory characters in the neighborhood.  She loved the acting challenge and when told by a journalist that a little birdie has said that an Oscar nomination was in the works for her performance, she responded playfully by saying, "who's that birdie?"

Says the actor of Helene: "It's quite a character on the page . . . I believe an actor can only be as good as the writing.  And so when I first went on the audition and I read the script, I was like, 'Ho-ho-ho!  This is good!  She's so bad, she's good!  She gets to do it all!'"  The actor is all smiles as she describes the character she plays.  Ms. Ryan, who won Tony nominations for Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Play in 2000 (for a revival of "Uncle Vanya") and 2005 (for a revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire"), has a wish that audiences who watch Mr. Affleck's film take careful note of her character and raise questions about her when the film is over.  "People who may judge her -- it's because she can be scary.  No one wants to take responsibility for her.  My hope is that at the end of the day if you're talking with friends about this film, that you go, 'okay, but why is she like this?  Where did the cycle start?'  She was raised this way.  Here's the single mom, drug-addicted, no healthcare, no childcare.  Very little education -- but why?  Why?  Hopefully, we'll take care of our neighborhoods, take care of our neighbors.  It's not enough just to remove a mother from a child."

When watching Helene on the big screen and hearing her raw Boston accent, many will not know that her creator, Amy Ryan, is actually from New York City.  She graduated from the New York City High School of Performing Arts and attended the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center.  Ms. Ryan has had a number of television roles, including on such shows as "Law & Order", "Homicide: Life On The Street", "The Wire", "100 Centre Street", "Chicago Hope" and "ER".  Though stage and television are her bread and butter, Amy Ryan has had a few roles on the silver screen ("You Can Count On Me", "War Of The Worlds", "Capote".)  Movie goers will get to see her more frequently on the big screen, and soon.  In addition to appearing in Mr. Lumet's new film this Friday, she will also be on the big screen this weekend in the comedy "Dan In Real Life", with Steve Carell.  She has finished filming roles in the upcoming films "Neal Cassady" (she plays Carolyn Cassady) and "Bob Funk" (as Ms. Wright).  Ryan will be filming "The Missing Person" (which she is also a producer on), and "The Changeling" (to be directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich and Colm Feore) over the next few months.

Amy Ryan as Helene in "Gone Baby Gone", Ben Affleck's directorial debut, which is now in theaters across North America.  (Photo: Claire Folger/Miramax)

Of her experience with Ben Affleck on "Gone Baby Gone", Ryan said of the film's director that he wanted her to be free to explore her character in myriad ways and also gave Ryan a framework from which to explore, building Helene and laying out a texture of the environment from which the character comes.  "He laid down the challenge.  He said, 'I want people to believe that you are from Boston, and not from New York.'"  She chuckles at this moment, recalling the director's specific geographic origin request for Helene.  "So just starting with the external world.  He showed me lots of photographs from the community, and then we were filming from within the community.  The costumes were from the shops there, the clothing stores there.  And (she smiles here) you have a lot of lunches with Teamsters."   Ryan recalls one moment where her character Helene is so immersed that she had some trouble getting on the set of the film.  "The first day of filming I went to say hello to everyone, and then I got sent away to do hair and make up -- they put me under the make-up trailer," Ryan jokes.  "There's a bunch of barricades all lined up, and I made my way to the front of the barricades and I got stopped."  She spoke to a security person, using her character's Boston accent.  "I'm in the movie, I'm working with Ben Affleck," she says in her re-enactment of Helene's voice.  "He would not let me through!"  She said she had to watch some of the filming amidst a crowd of spectators and locals.  A producer recognized her in the crowd and escorted her back on to the set.  Ryan said of the skeptical security guard, "I shook his hand and said, 'you have no idea of the confidence you just gave me!'"

"Gone Baby Gone" is based on Dennis Lehane's book.  Mr. Lehane also wrote such novels as "Mystic River", which was also adapted into a film, which Clint Eastwood directed.  Many will compare Mr. Affleck and Mr. Eastwood's approaches to Boston, a city which Ms. Ryan indicated during this interview was a huge character in Mr. Affleck's film.  "I think Boston becomes the main character of the film.  It's great, because you don't see those faces, you know . . . usually you see the romantic side of Boston, and Camden Yards, and such."

Ryan then quickly adds: "It is Camden Yards, right?"

Her interviewer is about to correct her, when she says, "no, it's Fenway Park!!"  And she has her interviewer laughing along with her. 

Fenway Park, for those who aren't sports-inclined, is the home venue of the Major League Baseball team the Boston Red Sox, who yesterday (October 21) reached their second World Series in four years after vanquishing Cleveland, a team that had a three games-to-one lead, and needed just one more win to beat Boston and end the Red Sox' baseball season.  That one additional win never came, as Boston won three consecutive games, including the seventh and final game of the seven-game American League Championship Series at Fenway yesterday.  They will play the Colorado Rockies of the National League, starting this week.  It is a safe bet that Ben Affleck, who is passionate about the Boston Red Sox, will be highly visible this week at Fenway, and perhaps in Denver as well.

Neither Helene, nor Amy Ryan however, will be there.

Amy Ryan did not have trouble disengaging from Helene, even though she is a character that is abrasive.  "I think characters that are more subtle you might carry around with you, because there's something more ethereal about it, but Helene is like -- it's black and white.  There's great method to her madness.  When you play a character like that you get to get it all off your chest right away.  I think if anything I didn't really live with her emotion life as much as I lived the external parts, because I knew that that was imperative to keep that going.  I tried to pull off that Boston accent going whenever I could," Ryan laughs.

"Gone Baby Gone" is now playing nationwide in the U.S. and Canada.  Read The Popcorn Reel review of the film.

Hear, hear!  Omar's audio interview with Amy Ryan of "Gone Baby Gone"  (15 minutes)

photo of Gone Baby Gone,  Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Amy Ryan
Amy Ryan (far right) with fellow "Gone Baby Gone" co-stars Michelle Monaghan and Casey Affleck (in black), who flank Ben Affleck, the film's director, at the film's Los Angeles premiere on October 8.  (Photos: WireImage)

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