Meg Ryan, Director: "I have got a really interesting vibrant life that is separate from Hollywood"

by Gabriel Lerman September 8, 2016
Actress and director Meg Ryan, Golden Globe nominee

Meg Ryan at the premiere of her film Ithaca at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2016

Getty Images

When they reunited in You’ve Got Mail fans were overjoyed to have another chance to witness the chemistry which made them famous in Sleepless in Seattle. The movie, which cost only $21 million to make, grossed over $200 million across the globe in 1993, consolidating both Meg Ryan’s and Tom Hanks’ status as hot movie stars. Now Ryan's directorial debut feature, Ithaca, brings them back for another reunion of sorts. Based on The Human Comedy, the novel which William Saroyan wrote in 1943, the film follows the whereabouts of Homer Macauley (Alex Neustaedter), a 14 year old who couldn't be more proud to work as a messenger for the local post office, even if his daily routine during the early days of the U.S. involvement in Word War II involves delivering telegrams with the sad news of soldiers’ deaths. Ryan plays his mother, Hanks (in just a couple of cameos) his deceased father and Jack Quaid, Meg and Dennis' son who is now 24, his older brother. Ryan, who is now 54, spoke by phone with us from New York a few days before the film’s opening in select theaters on September 9.

How difficult was it to become a film director? 

This is my first attempt at actually directing, so I had never directed television projects or anything like that. And it was really fun. I was surprised on the set by what I didn’t know, but I did know what I know kind of by osmosis and being in thirty something movies. So being on a set and really understanding what everybody else was doing, especially Andrew Dunne who is such a beautiful photographer, that was the best part.

When you were acting full time a few years back, were you thinking all the time that you wanted to direct?

No. It came up later. But really it was a story I thought I could tell because it is such a simple story about complicated things. It’s not technically told from the perspective of the mother but that really informs how I told the story. And the book that it is based on is dedicated to Saroyan’s mom, so there is a really kind of strong bond between mother and son and between Saroyan and his mom in the novel, and obviously the mother/son thing is such a strong theme in this movie.

You say it’s a simple story, but there are a few scenes that seem quite complicated.  So do you admire more the directors who you used to work with before, after going through the technical part of it?

Well, now I can’t help but know that every single movie was like a miracle. That you get the financing and you get the actors and it actually becomes so long and complicated, and I don’t think anyone sets out to make a bad movie and they try to make a good one. So yeah, I think I have a newfound respect not for only movies I have been in but just the fact that any movie gets made. That’s what I mean by it being a simple story, is that it moves along in a simple narrative and it just goes from telegram to telegram from Homer and he delivers three telegrams and in the course of that, he becomes a man. The complicated parts come later in the edit, because the narrative is always telling what is going to happen, always sort of predicting. So teasing out oh no, oh no, even though I know what is going to happen and that was the part that was difficult. But I think Saroyan intended that in how every death is inevitable, everyone of us is going to die. 


Tom Hanks is in the movie very little and his part it’s almost silent. Did he help you produce it?

Well, Playtone was more like a titular help. They weren’t really active producers. But Tom just came and was in the movie as a friend. And yeah, I loved the silence that he had and that presence, he is a national treasure, you know?

It was nice to see you two, if even for a brief moment. Did you have memories of those other three films you guys did together while you were shooting this?

No. It’s just so fun and easy with him and he was literally there for a day. He asked great questions and was there to help. It’s always great to be around him.

I heard that you are working as a director on a romantic comedy. Are you hooked with directing for life?

I don’t know. I realize now if I started working on something now, it would be two years before the beginning of working on it, and we know we had a green light shooting it and it was a 23 day shoot. And the work continues all the way to right now and having to learn about social media. But by now, I feel like yep, I am ready to start another one and I am like everyone else now, who just wants to find a great piece of material and then find the financing.  But Julia Ephron is writing a comedy right now for Working Title and so we will see if that really comes to pass.

What did you discover in directing that you didn’t have when you act?

Well, I always knew that everyone on the set is important but one of the things that was wonderful was to see how much respect the crew has for actors, and there is just something mysterious and magical about actors showing up on a set to enliven the story. It was fun to see how much regard the crew has for that. And we would make our plans, but we would always have the caveat, that we will see what Hamish does. Or we will see what Alex does or we will see what Sam does and I think it was so interesting for me to have had all that experience as an actor and to be around these other actors and to see that every single actor works so differently. And it is just something so magical, you can’t put your finger on it and it’s incredible that artists are willing to come in and put that on the line in an emotional way.

It was also very nice to see you again in this film even if you are not in too many scenes.  Why did you stop working all the time as when I met you back in the 90s?

Well, I don’t know. It wasn’t really any big plan, sometimes when you are working so much, it’s nice to do other things. To discover your life in a different way. My daughter is eleven years now. I live in New York and I have got a really interesting vibrant life that is separate from Hollywood and for me, it’s just important to really live my life. So that was part of it and just do other things. But I am glad I came back to it. I think all of that time away has helped me be a director and it has given me a kind of perspective.  So it all worked out.

Do you miss the sets when you are not doing it?

Every now and then I read something and I go oh that would be really fun. But it’s so rare. (laughs) So it would have to be something funny and where I would be like that would be fun to do that again.  So I don’t know, maybe.

But you didn’t have a big plan to become an actress either.  You wanted to be a journalist right?

(laughs) Yeah.  I am a very curious person, and so I just didn’t have a big plan to be an actress either. So I am just trying to live my life in an interesting way.

You were nominated three times to the Golden Globes, what are your memories of those nights?

So fun, that is such a fun party. That was always a night that I looked forward to. And it’s really become quite a big deal.