This story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Downtown Magazine
America’s Sweetheart is all grown up and happily filling the role of a Downtown mom and leading lady, the setting of whose successful movie career has been right here in the City.
In the 1980s, Meg Ryan burst onto the movie scene and quickly became the girl every guy wanted to marry and every woman wanted to be. By the time she became a household name after bringing the classic 1989 comedy When Harry Met Sally to a hilarious climax, Meg was everybody’s favorite girl next door. Luckily, she has chosen Downtown to make that dream a reality for all of us! “Wherever I am in the whole world—I always judge it by how far it is from right here!” she proudly said of her favorite neighborhood. “I’ve been here my whole life. I know it completely, but I’m never bored.” She even took years away from her career to focus on raising her two kids in Downtown, and according to Meg, she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Her son Jack, 25, with actor Dennis Quaid, and adopted daughter Daisy, 13, from China, have made these streets their childhood homes and have even been made better by that experience, Meg thinks. “Jack followed my path from NYU to becoming an actor, so he was exposed to so many creative influences that the community around the school offers,” she recalled. “And Daisy, my daughter, now she’s really a New York kid! She’s been exposed to so much by this city, and it’s made her such an interesting human being! When you grow up here you develop an incredible appreciation for the differences in people, and it’s made her incredibly well-rounded.”
By contrast, Meg was a child of the suburbs. The daughter of two teachers, Meg’s childhood was spent in the comfortable confines of Fairfield, Conn. But even back then, she was always drawn to Manhattan, sneaking off with her friends to spend time in the exciting city whenever possible. “Some of the best times I ever had was when we were in high school and my girlfriends and I would experience all these magical wonders like Coney Island or Times Square and, of course, Washington Square Park,” she recalled. Soon, the draw of Downtown was too powerful for her to ignore and she enrolled at NYU—and drew her lessons from the area all around it. It wasn’t long before casting directors took notice of this angelic beauty in their midst, quickly casting her in the daytime drama As The World Turns, and launching her creative journey. “NYU’s really a university without walls,” Meg explained. “Before you know it, you’re absorbed by the lessons of the city that it calls home. My son Jack had the same experience and he’s now a successful working actor.”
MOVIES AND MEMORIES DOWNTOWN
In fact, Downtown has left many imprints on both Meg and her work. “Everywhere I look here, I am instantly returned to a cherished memory,” she said. “I walk through Washington Square Park, and I see various chapters of my life,” she said. “On one corner, I’m brought back to where I was a student. My trailer for When Harry Met Sally was parked on the North End. For Addicted to Love, my trailer was parked on the East Side. There are layers after layers where my different selves can meet each other.”
Meg, as youthful and beautiful as when she emerged in a string of rom-coms that ran the gamut from Prelude to a Kiss to Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, has pulled together a resume that is as impressive as she is adorable. While she may have been anointed the “Princess of Perky,” impressive performances in such powerful dramas as 1987’s Promised Land with a then-unknown Kiefer Sutherland, When a Man Loves a Woman with Andy Garcia, and Oliver Stone’s The Doors offered compelling evidence that she was far more than just another pretty face. The films offered deep and often disturbing insights into alcoholism and addiction, failed expectations and the dark and destructive side of celebrity—and each gave Meg the opportunity to show how versatile and talented she really is.
Her appreciation of the wide variety of work that has come her way is obvious when she speaks about her career. “I feel like I’ve been lucky to investigate what’s interesting at the time,” she said of her more challenging roles. “There’s a time when you look back and realize you learn something important and share that with an audience—you’ve been a part of something worthwhile.” That was especially true in When a Man Loves a Woman, a film that saw her take on the dark role of an alcoholic wife and mother whose drinking destroys her marriage and endangers the life of her children. The character was everything she is not—and consequently one of her favorites. “I love that movie,” she said when asked what her favorite Meg Ryan films are—skipping over such classics as When Harry Met Sally and Kate & Leopold. “It means so much to me when people talk to me about having seen [When a Man Loves a Woman] and how it moved them to take positive action in their own lives.”
MUSINGS ON LIVING UNDER A MICROSCOPE
She was less comfortable with the celebrity that followed her talent and incredibly infectious charm. Her marriage to fellow actor Dennis Quaid—who had achieved his own fame with such sterling credits as The Right Stuff and co-starring with Meg in D.O.A.—put her under a media microscope she could never escape. The marriage ultimately wilted under the pressure of constant public scrutiny, and Meg forever maintained a distance from the celebrity spotlight that Hollywood had thrust upon her. “I always felt like that attention is just too weird to metabolize,” she’s previously said. “So it’s nothing I ever chased.” In fact, she thinks that today’s hyper-intense focus on celebrity may have kept her from her beloved creative focus altogether had she risen to fame in the current environment. “If I started my career today, I wouldn’t have a chance. It’s a totally different experience,” she said. “Social media has changed things. I couldn’t handle the constant attention and the judging.”
That kind of dichotomy made her perform in The Doors as Jim Morrison’s iconic girlfriend Pamela Courson—who some historians blame for the excesses that hastened his tragic early death as well as her own, not long afterwards. “I never had any interest in stepping into that world,” she said. “It’s just never been my thing. I’m such a straight person…that’s not my kind of life.” But leave it to Meg to take a completely foreign experience into one that enhanced her already impressive acting chops. “I thought it was a really interesting story and I learned a lot by working with Oliver Stone who was a great fan of the band. He taught me so many things that I was able to use both in that film and many more to come.” Those lessons would help her prepare for such challenging and foreign—to her—parts as a lonely high school teacher in the 2003 erotic thriller In The Cut, or as sassy boxing promoter Jackie Kallen in 2004’s Against The Ropes, and especially in her directorial debut in last year’s instant family classic, Ithaca.
THE MOTIVATION OF MOTHERHOOD
The film was sort of a perfect storm for today’s Meg, 55, who was deeply moved by the coming of age story set against the backdrop of small town America during World War II. The period drama focuses on one family guided by a widowed mother whose oldest son is in the army, leaving her to watch over and protect her three other children from the horrors of the world encroaching on their idyllic small town.
Ithaca came 35 years after she broke into films and 15 years after she made a conscious decision to focus on being a mom. The film allowed her to slip behind the camera and focus on the work while drawing on all the emotions and experiences she nurtured in motherhood. “Being a mom was the best experience that I could’ve called on,” she explained. “You call on that, you call on understanding. You’re very fierce. You’re very protective of all the other artists. You’re making sure everybody feels good and everybody is contributing their best towards this film. The little things, I knew from being an actor.”
It also gave her the opportunity to direct her own son Jack, who has a critical role in the film. “That made it a little easier,” she admitted. “It was like telling him to pick up his clothes or go to bed. And, let’s not forget, he also happens to be a very talented actor.” And as easy as it was to work with Jack, it was just as demanding to manage all the responsibilities of directing a feature film. But those demands were not too daunting for Meg, who was happy to take on the challenge. “I loved it,” she confessed. “It was a hard thing to do, because you need to be on your toes in order not to miss anything. You have to know a little bit about everything.”
The coming of age story is based on the 1943 novel, The Human Comedy, and resonated with Meg who had long wanted to tell it on film. “It’s a simple story about complicated things, and I felt like, given my lack of experience, I could serve it that way. I could tell it simply, in tableau mostly: ‘We’ll make the pictures work, and the light beautiful, and these actors are incredible, and that beautiful music, and keep it simple and spare, and the story will carry it.’” The story of a boy forced to deliver telegrams telling local families that they had lost their sons pulled at her heartstrings and maternal desire to protect her family. “I read the book when I was getting divorced [from Quaid],” Meg recalled. “My son was about eight years old, and I got that intense feeling of how do you keep your kid safe? Horrible and tragic things happen, and it’s impossible to keep the hurt away from the people you love. As a mom, I could really relate to the material.” And while she helmed the ship on her own, she made sure to load it with a crew of companions she knew that she could depend on.
A LITTLE HELP FROM HER FRIENDS
In addition to Jack, the cast includes longtime director and sometime mentor Sam Shepard, newcomer Alex Neustaedter as her 14-year-old son, and Homer and Tom Hanks—who flew across the country to film scenes for his three-time co-star and close friend. “What a solid he did me, right?” Meg said. “Tom shot for about half a day, and at the end of our time together, he calls the crew together and he goes, ‘Okay, we’ve gotten very close these past 10 hours and we now know each other really well. And I just want to thank you for being there for my friend, Meg.’ How can you not love him?”
“You know, the thing about Tom is that he’s as great as you think he’s going to be,” she beamed about her buddy. “He has what many great artists have—a great curiosity about other people and things,” she said. “We share that, along with a deep affection for each other.”
The experience was so positive that she is looking for new projects to direct. “I’m looking at all kinds of stuff, and that’s what New York does for you; it offers you a lot of choices.” One choice is a return to television for the first time in decades to participate in a project written by former Saturday Night Live star and TV director Brad Hall—who also happens to be married to Veep and Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. “I’ve learned it’s best to have a lot of balls in the air and see which one lands,” she said.
In the meantime, she’s enjoying bringing up Daisy in her favorite neighborhood where she basks in the power and warmth of Downtown’s rebirth since the dark day of the terror attacks 16 years ago. “It was a horrible event, but the ultimate result was that we all got a lot nicer to each other,” she reflected. “It’s a very powerful thing. People care about each other here. They look after each other. I mean—what more do we have, but each other?”
Photography by Udo Spreitzenbarth