Wednesday, May 8, 2013

In Character: Amy Ryan

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.

Five Essential Roles
The Wire (2003-2008)
Beadie Russell

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.”

That’s cold.

The Office (2008-2011)
Holly Flax

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)
Jackie Flaherty

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)
Helene McCready

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
In HBO's In Treatment
The Naked Truth (1995-1996)
You Can Count on Me (2000)
100 Centre Street (2001-2002)
Keane (2004)
Capote (2005)
Dan in Real Life (2007)
Changeling (2008)
The Missing Person (2009)
Green Zone (2010)
In Treatment (2010)


  1. Ah ... Beadie! I stared at Amy Ryan's picture for a full minute, before clicking open this post, trying to place her. I couldn't agree more about her character arc in The Wire. I haven't finished the series -- just finished Season 2, where she's introduced. But it's already apparent that she is blossoming as a character and as a cop. I'm saddened to read that she gets her heart broken by fucked up alcoholic man-child McNulty, but damn, I'd already TOTALLY seen that coming. :-( It wasn't exactly hard to guess.

    I can't remember her character in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and that's bugging me. I've accepted the fact that I'm a middle aged mom, ergo, my memory has gone to shit. But I've always prided myself on being able to remember my books and movies, if nothing else.

    I **love** your "In Character" banner, above. Is that new?

    1. Ah, sorry to somewhat spoil Beadie's arc on the show. But trust me, I didn't ruin it all. There's A LOT more to see there.

      Ha, you're too funny. I can't fault you for not remembering her in BTDKYD... she's literally in it for about 3 and a half minutes.

      Yep, the banner is new! Once I hit 50 subjects, the lists at the end just got too long, so now you can just click the banner and head to the In Character page. I did them for my Directors profiles and My Favorite Scene write ups too :)

    2. Nice! I thought I hadn't seen the banner before. Glad to know memory serves, albeit erratically. ;-)

      No, you didn't ruin anything. As you said, there is undoubtedly a lot more to see, plus I definitely saw this coming. In the 2nd season, Beadie was beginning to become attracted to McNulty. I was saying, "No, Beadie, no, no, no, NO! You do *not* want to go there ..."

    3. Haha that's so funny. We know so much more about him than she does. It's really sad that we hope good girls don't fall for him. That dude is a mess.

  2. I still haven't seen Gone Baby Gone but I do love her in Changeling and Win Win where in the latter, there's no bullshit about her as well as the fact that she's really cool by showing that Bon Jovi tattoo.

    1. I LOVE when she shows that JBJ tat. There's no shame in her voice, she's legit proud of that damn thing.

      Dude, you would love Gone Baby Gone.

  3. I want to buy you a beer for spotlighting Amy Ryan.

    I want to buy you a shot to go with the beer for spotlighting that smile she gives to Ethan Hawke in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

    1. Shit man, a shot and a beer is a damn fine start. If there's anything else I can do to contribute to this, please do let me know.

      Ha, but seriously, so happy you're a fan on Ryan. She's the best.

  4. Man I really need to watch The Wire. Great post as usual and Amy Ryan is of course super talented and adorable. I'm always hoping I'll randomly bump into her in Queens.

    1. I know The Wire gets a lot of praise, but trust me, it is so worthy of the hype. An amazing show. Glad you're a Ryan fan!

    2. I'll probably start watching it once the semester is over and summer starts since I've heard it's a show you need to give your full attention to. I avoided what you had to write here because I want to go into the show knowing as little as possible....even though a few plot points were already spoiled for me. >_>

    3. I definitely agree with that, this is a show that demands your full attention. The more of it you can watch in a short period of time, the better. And yes, do try to avoid everything you can about it, until you see it.

    4. I know a few plot spoilers without knowing the context of any of them such as...

      1. Some guy hangs himself in season 2
      2. The how's my hair shooting scene
      3. Littlefinger from Game of Thrones becomes the mayor
      4. Omar dying
      I was talking to my friend about this and he said that those spoilers don't ruin much even though it is a shame that I know about Omar's death.

    5. Ah, shame you know about Omar, but that one is pretty hard to avoid.

      When that dude is elected mayor... his reaction makes for a GREAT, subtle moment.

    6. Yeah I really like him on GoT and I'm sure he delivers here. I hope The Wire is filled with alot more surprises than the ones I listed here.

    7. Oh my god, is it ever. Just wait.

  5. I'm only really familiar with her from Gone Baby Gone but damn, Ryan was good in that.

    1. She was, wasn't she? Her second best is The Wire, in my opinion. A hefty undertaking, but you should definitely watch that at some point.

  6. Nice work Alex. Superb actress and one I'd very much like to see more of. Loved her in Jack Goes Boating and Gone Baby Gone.

    1. Thanks Mark! As far as I'm concerned, we can never see too much of Amy Ryan. Glad to hear you're a Jack Goes Boating fan.

  7. Everything you said about her in introduction is Gold! Fortunately, the first role I saw her in was Gone Baby Gone. After the last l0 minutes of that movie, she is by far the best thing in it and I LOVE that movie. So I never had problem believing she can go there. But after The Wire and The Office, I was surprised to see her doing such roles with equal finesse.

    1. Thanks man! I'm so happy to hear that you admire her range. She really can do anything.

  8. Oh, she is amazing! I'm not a fan of Gone Baby Gone but she was fantastic there. So glad you included The Office here - I loved her character and her romance with Michael was so sweet and charming, that scene where he proposed to her was one of the loveliest proposal scenes I've seen.

    1. I honestly think that proposal scene marked the true end of a very fine sitcom. Shame that The Office turned into the muddling crap that it did.

      But anyway, really happy to hear you're a fan of hers. She's just the best.

  9. Completely agree with Gone Baby Gone's placement, and I'm glad you included her performance in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. She really stood out when I rewatched it a few months ago. Brilliant cast all around in that film, though.

    1. So pumped that you dig her work in BTDKYD as well. I love her brief work in that film. And GBG... shit man, just perfect.