Film

“I Try to Get Out of My Own Way”: An Interview With Amy Ryan

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Amy Ryan has been one of our finest actors for some years now, so it’s kind of a crime that she is only now getting her first lead role in a feature film. The good news is that the movie is Abundant Acreage Available (which opens in theaters today), writer-director Angus MacLachlan’s beautifully moving, atmospheric drama about a North Carolina woman whose brother (Terry Kinney), following their father’s death, decides he wants to sell their farm to a trio of men whose family once owned the land. As Tracy, the tough sister who struggles against her brother’s decision, Ryan (who was nominated for an Oscar ten years ago for her supporting turn in Gone Baby Gone) commands the screen. It is one of her finest roles, and one of the best performances of the year. How come it took so long? I recently spoke to her about that, how she likes to prepare for a part, and more.

This is your first-ever leading role in a film, which seems astounding to me. Is it a case of not getting the offers, or is it that the parts you’ve been offered just haven’t been right?

This is not the first lead I’ve been offered, but for the most part I’d say that level of actresses is just so competitive. Most offers are going to go to bigger-known names. Where I might fare better is in a role where they want someone who can hide away, who’s not as well-known. Someone who can try to make people believe that she’s from that area, that sort of thing. So, it’s a little bit of a combination of factors, but to be honest, I think it’s more that there are just really amazing, fancier ladies ahead of me on line.

But it’s also nerve-racking, because when you’re a supporting player in a film and it doesn’t do well, you’re like, “Oh well, that’s so-and-so’s film,” you know? [Laughs] I would say that this was a very hard film for me to watch the first time because I felt that responsibility: Is this audience enjoying itself? Can I keep their interest this long?

What drew you specifically to this part?

Sometimes you get an email or a phone call with information, and having not read [the script], you just hear the people involved. So, I heard “Angus MacLachlan,” and that was the first draw, because I loved his previous films. I loved the humanity and humor of his world. And then, when I read the script, I actually didn’t want to do it because my own father was very ill and dying at the time. But given the nature of independent film, it took a year for this to come back around, and by then I had come around as well. And then it was actually a really wonderful place to go explore. I also love that this is a female lead, and it’s not a story about skipping off into the sunset with another man. She’s a complicated, three-dimensional character who’s not just listening to the problems of a male figure.

Tracy is a fascinating character both very active and very reactive. She’s always in the middle of some kind of action digging or cooking or cleaning. But so much of what she has to do emotionally is react to these men, to her brother, and this predicament she’s been put in, where they might sell her farm. 

Well, she’s definitely the lead of the household. Even though she is the younger sister, she is that caretaker. She has to care for her dying father. I think you’re right. She is always active, like, digging, cooking, on the move. Even when she’s in protest that the brothers are there, you know, it’s her way she’s the one who’s going to make lunch, don’t be ridiculous, you know? I don’t think she resents that she has to go make lunch. That is her comfort zone. She’s constantly fighting: Don’t take away what’s mine. My land, my job cooking, my job taking care of this farm. I think because she is in that routine…she hasn’t really thought of men. She hasn’t had the time. She hasn’t had the luxury.

I love the opening scene, where she’s burying her father’s ashes. You go through pretty much every emotion there is. There’s even some comedy thrown in there.

I think that scene in the movie actually came along in a second cut. There was a scene we shot that was just the brother and sister working in the field, and you’re just hearing the sounds and the birds and things like that, but I think Angus felt like it was better to just jump into it. But that humor that’s what I love. Most siblings do have that, even if you’re so opposite from your sibling. That go-to humor. Personally, I will get the giggles at funerals and memorials and I’ll think dark thoughts because, you know, it’s just too big an issue otherwise. That’s where I think Angus’s talent and eye and ear come in. That is human nature, to feel a bunch of emotions going on at once that are in conflict with each other. And that’s peppered throughout the whole film.

There’s an interesting echo between the first scene and the final scene. We sense that Tracy is very exhausted at the beginning that she’s been taking care of their father for some time. But her response is to persevere and stick to her routine. At the end, we see that Charles, one of the trio of visiting brothers (played by Steve Coulter), has similarly been a caretaker, and that he is also exhausted, but his response is very different: He just wants to retire to a couch and drink himself silly, to basically disappear.

Yeah. Oh god, isn’t it heartbreaking? There are so many moments where, yeah, you do think that Tracy and Charles do share something: When they both get the giggles over the urns, for example. And the way Charles is presented in the film, you feel like he’s almost the audience: He’s the one who recognizes that all this is crazy. But then it turns out he’s the one who’s probably not the most stable. Tracy, meanwhile, is being pushed along in this story by her brother to let go, and in that final moment, something is released in her. She knows that she will be fine no matter what comes next. Otherwise, she’s a very controlled and controlling person, wanting things done by rote and on time in her way.

Have you known people like this?

Like Tracy? Yeah. Some older people, friends of my parents. As a kid I wondered what their life was like, and even now I wonder.… I guess I could ask [laughs], even though that might be rude. I grew up in New York. This film was shot in East Bend, North Carolina. [It has a] population of six hundred, but Angus shared with me that at a screening last week in Winston-Salem, the crowd, mostly local, was saying, “Thank you for portraying us so fairly and so accurately, without making fun of us.” Because that’s what often happens with Southern characters. They all too often are murderers or uneducated folk.

How did you approach building this character? I get the sense that she has a lot of emotional history. Do you like to sit down with the director and talk through this stuff?

Yeah, we talked. Angus was saying, “She doesn’t have love in her life, but that doesn’t mean she’s not feminine.” So you see that her nightgown has little flowers on it, and she has these little images of femininity in this stark world. But she never gave it much notice, never took the time for it. That was the conversation I had with Angus. And then Terry Kinney is an old friend and lives in New York, and before we went down to North Carolina, we just sat for a meal together and read through a couple of scenes. We shot this whole thing in seventeen days. I think just having known Terry for a long time kind of informed the piece.

We were so lucky to film in the location that the story takes place. I’ve had this advantage on other films where you sit with the locals at lunch and just try to learn about their life and hear the sound in their voice and the manner in which they carry themselves. I try to blend in, basically. And by doing that I feel like I’m able to honor them. I don’t want to judge them.

Terry was on the same quest: How do I play this conservative religious man without judgment and without making fun of him? Just letting him be. That seems so radical in an independent film these days. It’s not radical anymore to, like, have a gay character in a film. What is kind of radical is having a conservative Christian character in a film and trying not to judge them. Because the audience who’s going to go see an independent film I assume is mostly a liberal audience, you know. And the brother and sister may not agree with each other, but they don’t harbor resentment or judgment. Tracy’s not religious. He might try once or twice to show her the ways, but she snaps back to him, like, “This is who I am.” When he says, “Oh, the Devil got inside him,” she replies, “No, it was a burst blood vessel.” She’s not going to bend easily.

You’ve obviously done a very wide range of work: theater, big studio movies, TV shows, cable shows, tiny indie productions like this. Is there a specific way that you prefer to work?

I like speed. That doesn’t mean I like to rush over things. At an early age I was lucky enough to meet Sidney Lumet, and with him, working fast meant you had to be prepared. Before that, it just so happened my first jobs were in the theater: There you really had to be prepared, and know your lines. Now in theater, of course, we get a longer rehearsal period than you do film, but I like to almost go on gut instinct. I do homework on paper, but I prefer not to talk too much about it. When the film’s done, you can talk about it, analyze it.

I equate it with the one time I jumped out of an airplane, went skydiving, and I was really scared. I was strapped to an instructor, but the thought that went through my head right before was, “Well, you’re gonna die, or you’re gonna have the time of your life, so choose one.” And I remember thinking, “OK, wheee, this is going to be fun. I’m not going to fight this the whole way.” And so I try to remember that sometimes. Especially theater, on opening night or first preview. You’re literally standing in the dark waiting to cross over that threshold, and that feels to me like skydiving. “OK, this is gonna go splat, or this is gonna soar.” So, the short answer is, I try to get out of my own way, and not to overthink things.

But I also just try to follow really good writing. If it’s on TV, I’m so happy to be there. If it’s theater, I’m happy to be there. Even if it’s a blockbuster film, I’m also happy to be there for, you know, school fees and health insurance, and to pay mortgages [laughs].

What do you get recognized for the most?

Oh, The Office. I feel like there’s this whole new generation of teenagers who’ve discovered it now, who were too young to watch it when it was on the air. A whole new wave of fans. But one day, a young woman on the train started speaking to me. “Are you Amy Ryan?” And in my mind, I’m thinking, “Oh, she’s gonna say The Office.” And she says, “Changeling is my favorite film.” And I just burst out laughing! “What? Why?” Not that there’s anything wrong with the film, but I never saw that one coming. [Laughs] That’s the first and last time I was ever recognized for that.

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