I attended Roundabout Theatre Company’s Love, Love, Love with one of my best friends. She is 20, I am 19. The play starts with the main characters, Kenneth and Sandra, at just about that age. It’s the 60s, a time of love and revolution. The moment Amy Ryan stepped out onstage as Sandra, something hit close to home. My friend and I could see ourselves in her passionate spirit. Through the night, the play took us on a wild ride of 40 years full of love, defeat, goals acomplished, and dreams crushed. It was one of the fullest, most gratifying theater experiences I’d had in a while. The play pushed us to consider, “Do you do what you love and risk failure, or do you play it safe, go for the money, and look for security?” For someone intertested in enterting entertainment, that’s a tough question to answer. We all know how hard the business is, so should we really go for it? Ms. Ryan was nice enough to give us some answers. She started her career at 18 and hasn’t stopped since. She loves the work and does it so well. In this interview, the Academy Award nominee talks about her youth, her craft, and how she achieved success.
When did you catch the acting bug?
Going to see theater in New York: my parents would take my sisters and myself. We would go to the TKTS booth and get discounted tickets. The earliest memory I have is A Chorus Line, the musical. That sort of did my head in. I wasn’t a singer-dancer. I knew I wasn’t going to be that. But I knew I wanted to be a part of the theater some how. So that was about 6th grade.
Would you credit A Chorus Line as the big thing that inspired you to pursue a career as an actor?
That was the first thing—my first exposure to theater in general. As I got older…a big influence for me as an actor was watching Mike Leigh films. I was mesmerized and kind of astounded that these were actors. I felt as though they were just real people and he took them off the street and put them in the movie. The idea that you could hide away every part of yourself and change your own molecules and DNA to become someone else really thrilled me [Amy laughs]. But I would say the influences kept changing overtime. As I matured, my taste started to change.
You went to the High School of Performing Arts—now known as LaGuardia—where you learned Stanislavski technique. How did that training benefit you and do you still use elements of it today?
Somewhat. They were quite strict with it in the school. Then by senior year I remember the head of the drama department saying to us, “One trick of the method is when all else fails you now have a bag of tools to turn to. Don’t feel burdened or held down by this method. It’s for when you don’t know what else to do.” That was very freeing. Sometimes I didn’t know: “I don’t know what my intention is. I don’t know.” I do use it before as I’m working on a script. I might write down, “What does this place say about my character? What do other characters say about my character? What do other characters say about my character?” Just more homework and backstory. But then I let it all go. I really rely on the writer and the writing and to be taken with them. If something confuses me, then I’ll go back to method.
You started working at 18, so you must have learned a lot on the jobs you were doing, too.
I remember little, subtle things along the way. One of the first or second plays I was in, I remember my sister coming. There’s no fooling your own family. They know you. I remember my sister seeing the play and say, “Yeah, it was good, but you didn’t know what to do with your hands.” I translated that to, “You’re really self-conscious, you’re not focused. You’re outside the whole world. I shared it with the director—it was an Ibsen play—and he was like, “We’ll just give you a shall.” Just having this simple scarf to hold on to, everything else started to melt away. I wasn’t fiddling with my hands the whole play because I was nervous or self-conscious, it was just a matter of putting it into some other prop or action. With those tiny little things, the returns were huge in confidence.
Having started young I was at such an advantage because I was surrounded by older, more experienced actors. I stayed quiet a lot, observed them, asked them questions. I feel grateful I was around them and not largely around a group of 18 year olds where none of us knew what was going on. That was really helpful.
In Love, Love, Love we first meet Sandra at 19. She has an undeniable passion to make change and be part of something special. Were you like that at 19? If so, how did you harness that energy to help you in the beginning of your career?
I certainly didn’t have Sandra’s confidence. I was much more shy of a kid. I did believe wholeheartedly that I was going to be good at this thing. Whether it was blind passion and ignorance, I don’t know. Also, which is the opposite of having self-esteem, I didn’t believe that I’d be good at anything else. I didn’t know what I would do. It was a this or nothing mentality. That was the drive. And I really credit my parents, who were on the sidelines but involved—not in a meddling way. My mom would constantly tell me if I didn’t get a job, “Well, there’s something better around the corner.” It kept me from dwelling on the why didn’t I get that? and feeling sorry for myself. I was like, “Oh great something else will come up and now I’m free for that.” That was the beginning of passion and drive.
Working right away out of school helped. But after my first job I didn’t work for another six or seven months after that. It was tricky. I was like, “What do I do?” I started setting goals for myself—being proactive. I started writing to theaters to learn about their season and see if there was something right for myself. I wrote to directors I admired. Today I’d be more shy to do that. But at 18 and 19, I had to let them know! [Amy laughs] I don’t think I’d do that today. I miss it.
I feel like today we create such barriers between people—especially in the entertainment world. People we admire are made inaccessible, when really we’re all just trying to accomplish the same thing. So did you find that tactic of contacting directors successful?
I did. Yeah, there were days when it didn’t work so well and I was wondering what am I going to do next, but I also learned from older actors as well to save your money so you can afford to do theater. At first you won’t make a lot of money in theater so, when you make money, save it so you can have artistic freedom and more choices. That’s very freeing.
The play offers a harsh reality of following your dreams, particularly in a creative field. Of course success is not guaranteed and so much about the arts is subjective. That said, from your years in the business, what are some things that make achieving your dream more possible than not?
For me, an actor really needs that collected group. You need that play to get written. The movie to be written, and then be chosen and assembled with another group of actors to work. And, for me, I had a list in my head and my heart: What actors do I admire? What choices do they make? And I would try to make similar choices. Back in the early days in New York, I had no aspirations to move to Hollywood. I would follow the careers of Laura Linney, Patricia Clarkson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, just great solid character-actor New Yorkers. I aspired for their choices for myself. I [wondered], “How do you achieve that?”
There are choices on my resume that I am not excited about but I was very excited they paid my health insurance, like an episode of a TV show here and there, and then I was able to do a play at Second Stage, things like that. So, it’s a balance. It’s not all one or the other. Especially for me, I started doing a lot of theater out of town. It dawned on me that as wonderful as these theaters were with their plays and opportunities, it wasn’t going to get me cast in a play in New York City. After a while as an actor, you have to start saying no to the thing that’s expected of you, be it your agents expects you would want to do this play or that director thinks you can only do that. So that’s something, thirty years into it, I’m still trying to do: convince people that I can do something they haven’t seen yet.
In the case of this play, I was so lucky that Michael Mayer, our Director, was someone I met when I was nineteen years old at the Hangar Theater summer stock. He was a new director and it was my second or third play ever. We didn’t work together then, but he was there in the same company. So, it’s growing older with your community and supporting one another along the way…
The play is set over the course of 40 years. How did the time aspect influence how you approached the script with so much mapped out about your character?
The speed of the play is very jarring every night. Once in awhile it really hits me, the line, “We’re going to die. We shouldn’t waste our lives.” Oh my god, you spend, obviously it’s fictional, but you spend forty years in two hours! It gives me goosebumps, “Oh, what am I doing with my own life? Am I doing enough?” It’s very moving to me to play that…I was a part of designing the wigs, the costumes—even just doing Google searches for hair that I thought would be the right spirit for the character who was already forming in my head. So it was a total collaboration with Susan Hilferty, the costume designer who also helped in designing the wigs. Once that was set, [I found] so much freedom in the head of hair she has. [Sandra] wasn’t the teenager I was. There’s a brazenness that comes with her, I think the energy is mostly from Mike Bartlett’s script: the language that’s used when she’s nineteen and then as she ages. The speed of [the show] really helps the energy that’s needed to suggest those different ages.
What’s your pre-show routine?
I do warm up my voice because I’ve never spoken this much or this fast on stage. Also, I’ve never smoked cigarettes in my entire life. I was very nervous about that—for my health, even though they’re herbal cigarettes. It’s always been something I’ve been really repulsed by and now I’m playing someone who loves it [Amy laughs]! Judi Dench in Amy’s View, her character was a chainsmoker. I remember seeing that play. Someone told me she only ever lit [the cigarette]. The trick was just to be seen with it. So it’s always in your hand and it’s always near your face. You can talk with it like a prop, and I thought that might help. There’s not much time to smoke [in Love, Love, Love] as I’m speaking because the dialogue comes at such rapid fire, but that was great trick to learn. And then I just throw on my clothes!
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
See everything you can. Read everything you can. Read articles. Sit on a park bench in a crowded area and watch people. Take notes, because life is theater. You may be in the rehearsal process and think there’s no way my character would do this or that. You’ll find permission off the streets, especially in New York. People do behave in funny ways that defy our expectations. And, save your money. Be kind to yourself. You are good. You do deserve to be here. I remember our teacher at LaGuardia said that, if you can think of anything else you really would enjoy just as much and there’s something else you might really be good at, then do that, because this is hard. When it’s great, it’s great and when it’s hard it fucking sucks!…
I’ve had a lot of talented friends who aren’t working now and it’s not because they’re not talented, it’s because they either dwell on why they didn’t get that part: “Why did she get that part? Why did he get that part, they’re not good?” Maybe they’re right that they’re not that good, but that has nothing to do with you—absolutely nothing to do with you. It’s not a conspiracy.
To sit and be a reader at auditions is one of the best, eye-opening experiences a young actor can have. You see how many people have an opportunity to stand before a director and casting director and are unprepared. They didn’t make a choice; they just printed out their pages the day before or that morning. It’s shocking. I promise you, all those directors and casting directors want you to be the person to get the job because then their day’s done. They are really rooting for you. Chris Bauer, the actor on The Wire who I was friends with when I did the show, he said one thing to me once. He said, “Ryan, get out of your own way.” So true. Stop with the negative. I repeat that in my head a lot.♦