Indie darling Amy Ryan has it all, even though I’m guilty of often forgetting that. Because of the way she carries herself in real life – with kindness, gratitude and earnest thanks – I tend to forget the power of her range. Despite her seemingly delicate figure and timid demeanor, Ryan is a perfect storm of fury, enchantment and desperation. She may be known best for playing nice, but this woman can do it all. The six roles below highlight just that: an impeccable range of talent from one of the most unsuspectingly powerful character actors in the game.
The Wire (2003-2008)
HBO’s The Wire was great for many reasons, one of my personal favorites being the character arc of Beadie Russell. When we first meet Beadie in Season 2, she’s an unimposing port authority officer who discovers a tragedy that far exceeds her qualifications. She heads the season-defining investigation before Jimmy McNulty takes it over. As the show progressed, we saw less of Beadie, but her impact was made clear in her scenes. We watched her help McNulty battle his (many) inner demons through love and understanding, before he threw it all away. By Season 5, Beadie was a jaded lover of an emotionally-manipulative, alcoholic man-child. The angst and confidence Beadie unleashed on McNulty made for some of the season’s best moments. For example, Season 5 is filled with powerful, character-defining scenes, and Beadie’s reaction to McNulty coming clean about his current crooked investigation ranks with the best.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
There’s a spite in Martha that I am undeniably drawn to. It’s the perfect role for a perfect character actor: you get a few scenes to make an impression, and you kill every one of them.
In Sidney Lumet’s enthralling crime thriller, Ryan plays Ethan Hawke’s ex wife, a woman who seems to get off on her ex’s misfortune. Everytime we see Martha, she’s bitching about the child support she doesn’t have, or the many ways in which Hawke’s character, Hank, is a crap father. This manifests itself remarkably in a brief scene when Hank and Martha’s daughter, Danielle, asks her father if she can go on a school trip to see The Lion King on Broadway. Hank says sure, but then asks how much it is. Knowing he doesn’t have a dime to his name, the camera cuts to Martha, who smiles devilishly at Hank as if to say, “See, look at what a fuckup you are.”
The Office (2008-2011)
Many people cite the downfall of NBC’s sitcom romp, The Office, with the departure of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott. In my opinion, the show was sinking long before Carell got off board, but as it was going down, there was a quiet resurgence in the form of Holly Flax. It was so satisfying to watch Michael find his match – a kind lady who got his jokes and, more importantly, dished them back with perfect comic timing. Amy Ryan was a breath of fresh air when the show needed it most. It’s true, I stopped watching The Office for good when Carell left, but Holly’s departure was another, definite motivating factor.
Jack Goes Boating (2010)
It’s funny, when I think of Amy Ryan, I identify her with these bubbly romantics who win the heart of the leading man. Then I think about it, and realize that she’s far more than that. A perfect example is her Connie from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Jack Goes Boating. Connie is the kind of loopy, shy, attractive girl we see often in independent romance dramedies. But there’s a depth to her that is the true stamp of Ryan’s value as an actress. The way in which Connie hesitantly falls for Hoffman’s character is one of the film’s most pleasant qualities. Jack Goes Boating may be a slightly flawed film, but there’s no denying Ryan’s effectiveness at sweet candor.
Win Win (2011)
There’s an authenticity to Jackie Flaherty that I just love. Playing the strong and sensible wife to Paul Giamatti’s confused and anxious character makes for some of Ryan’s best, most entertaining work. Maybe it’s the genuine New Jersey accent, or, better still, the Garden State attitude. Maybe it’s the way Jackie always speaks her mind, but knows when to keep quiet. Or maybe it’s the way in which she understands. She understands that life is hard. She knows that some people cheat, steal and lie to make amends. She doesn’t agree with it, but when push comes to shove, she’s steady as a rock, armed and ready to be a saving grace. She just feels real.
The Best of the Best
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
No surprise here, but for my money, Amy Ryan had the hardest acting job in Gone Baby Gone. From her first scene, we are given not one shred of reason to sympathize with Helene McCready. Sure, her daughter has been kidnapped, but the way in which Helene handles it is utterly pathetic. She continues to drink and do drugs, and berate those trying to help her. Her white-thug, elitist attitude is hauntingly real and aggravatingly pitiful.
Now, make no mistake, it is my belief that Ryan wants you to initially despise Helene, which makes her emotional arc late in the movie that much more powerful. Take, for instance, the scene in which Helene randomly (but genuinely) pleads to Casey Affleck’s Patrick that he find her baby girl. They walk through the street as Helene cries and promises to change, so long as Patrick finds her child. In that moment, I’m hooked – I get where Helene is coming from, and I want nothing more than for her to get what she wants.
And then, to come masterfully full circle, we’re left feeling about Helene how we started off: utter contempt. Every time I watch her doll herself up with white trash attire, caked-on makeup and swigs of liquid courage, my head just shakes back and forth, and I question if Patrick made the right decision. Me personally, I’m a firm believer in the notion that people don’t really change. Sure, they can alter aspects of themselves, but by and large, after a certain age, people’s general attitudes stay the same. Maybe Patrick should’ve realized that about Helene. Or not. You tell me.
Other Notable Roles
You Can Count on Me (2000)
100 Centre Street (2001-2002)
Dan in Real Life (2007)
The Missing Person (2009)
Green Zone (2010)
In Treatment (2010)