She is the all-American girl next door. The queen of romantic comedy.
But in her last movie, she drops the gags - and her underwear - to star
in Jane Campion's erotic thriller.
Meg Ryan is the owner of one of the most expressive mouths in cinema.
Wide and admirably flexible, it's a mouth that seldom gives up its lines
without a struggle. A gape here, a grimace there, and just when it's shaped
itself into a gash of speechless disappointment, out pops a piece of exquisitely
timed dialogue. In short, it's a great comic mouth.
But now America's so-called sweetheart, the girl-next-door who looks like
she's from another world, has acquired something else: comic lips. I am
forewarned of this cosmetic development by the Daily Mail, which runs
a forensic full page of Meg's 'trout-pout' the day before I see her.
With this image lodged in my mind, I find my gaze fixed on her mouth
when we meet. This, in fact, is perfectly normal. The mouth is where you're
supposed to look when someone is speaking to you. But because I am aware
that I'm staring, I then consciously try not to look at her mouth, which
means that I find it more difficult to concentrate on what she's saying.
As a consequence, there are a number of important questions that, to
my professional shame, I fail to raise. Questions about the break-up of
her marriage to Dennis Quaid, her relationship with Russell Crowe, her
estrangement from her mother, and, of course, whether she has had collagen
implants in her lips. So, instead, we talk about something quite unexpected,
a subject that is usually to be avoided when interviewing famous actresses.
We talk about her latest film.
A dark, psycho-sexual thriller adapted from Susanna Moore's novel, In
the Cut is not the kind of drama one naturally associates with Ryan. Although
she has experimented with various off-beat roles, including that of a
coke-head stripper in Hurlyburly, Ryan remains in the collective imagination
the unchallenged queen of romantic comedy. She excels at playing slightly
ditzy women who are in search of true love. 'I've made a living as a neurotic,'
she has perceptively observed.
When we think of Meg Ryan, we think of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless
in Seattle. What we don't think of is her graphic proximity to a close-up
of a fellated penis. Nor do we think of her naked - at least not on screen
in scenes of passionate congress.
But these are the images that confront us in In the Cut. In terms of
cinematic surprises, it's a little as if Doris Day had starred in Deep
Throat. Not that In the Cut, for all its sexual candour, is pornographic.
Directed by Jane Campion, and openly inspired by 70s noirs like Klute,
it's a film that shows its characters' skin only as a means to get under
'To me it's a movie about intimacy on all different levels,' says Meg
Ryan. Dressed in jeans and a slinky blouse, her wisp of a body reveals
a generosity of cleavage that informs you she is not promoting a light
romance. Her doll's face, all smiling cheekbones and dreamy eyes, shows
precious few signs of her 41 years, except, of course, the lips. Are they
calling time-out from the march of time?
It cannot have been easy for an international star to display her body
so, well, nakedly. I wondered if she was concerned at all about being
physically judged as she entered her forties - not a decade, when it comes
to actresses, upon which Hollywood looks too kindly.
'Oh, I don't know,' she says, as if the suggestion were too footling
to consider. 'That happens, but what can you do, man? I think there are
more important things than that. Really, I think my job is not at all
about being separate, it's all about being as flawed as everybody else.
An actor's job is not at all about ego, it's not at all about "Look
It's true that, even when clothes feature, In the Cut is a very dressed-down
film, a moody and edgy depiction of single life in downtown Manhattan.
But, all the same, I imagine that most of middle-age womanhood would dream
of being as flawed as Ryan looks on screen.
Originally, Nicole Kidman was slated to play the part of Frannie, a frustrated
poet and lecturer who becomes involved in a murder investigation and an
affair with the officer in charge. But Kidman pulled out and Ryan wanted
the part so much that she auditioned. With her hair a lank red-brown colour
in the film, she bears a strange resemblance to Kidman. It's a brave,
minimalist performance, stripped down in every sense. She admits it is
not something that she would have taken on five years ago.
'I wouldn't have been ready for Jane. Talk about a blunt force. She's
a beautiful artist, but she's uncompromising. But now she's just my hero.
I adore her. I love her.'
She denies that she felt any pressure to reinvent herself in her fifth
decade, claiming that, unlike many actresses her age, she has no shortage
of parts on offer. Instead, she puts her willingness to take such an apparent
risk down to what she calls life experiences. 'I understand that contradictory
things exist in one person,' she says, a little enigmatically.
The defining life experience of her past five years was the end of her
nine-year marriage to Quaid in 2000 and her simultaneous affair with Crowe,
her co-star in Proof of Life. What kind of internal contradiction that
wrought is not something upon which she wishes to elucidate, but the radical
departure from her screen persona was there for everyone to see. Her characters
were not the type to leave a husband and son to travel around the world
with an Australian womaniser.
'There's this play put on by the zeitgeist and I've got a role,' she
says. 'There's this archetype that's been assigned to me, nothing I've
constructed. But if you betray the archetype then you suffer the consequences.
I was really able to distinguish between that and me. And what it's given
me is this completely great freedom. I really don't care. People can write
whatever they want, say whatever they want and I don't care.'
She may not care, which can only be a sane attitude for a celebrity to
develop, but it's not true that she played no part in the building of
her archetype. There are whole libraries of magazines in which she appeared
celebrating the virtues of her marriage. In September 1999, she told Vanity
Fair: 'The whole situation with Dennis is so outrageous and fun.' A few
months later, she told the world that her marriage was not only over but
that it had been effectively dead for a long time.
That's the Hollywood game, of course, and who can blame her if she no
longer wants to play? Whether she has exchanged one pose (the faithful
mother and wife) for another (the artist of integrity) remains to be seen.
Her mother, for one, was never a fan of the first version.
'Meg created an image of herself to mask her insecurities,' she told
one interviewer. 'She became this "perfect" girl. She has a
huge determined streak and knows exactly what she wants. She created this
persona of America's sweetheart.'
Needless to say, Ryan and her mother are not on great terms, or even
talking terms. The estrangement began when Ryan became engaged to Quaid.
By her mother's account, she told Ryan that the actor was a cocaine abuser
and, apparently, her daughter did not appreciate the warning.
In any event, Ryan helped Quaid overcome his addiction and they wed on
St Valentine's Day 1991.
Her split with her mother was confirmed when her mother's husband went
on record with his opinion of his stepdaughter. 'There's an element to
Meg that is quite shocking. It is all steel and determination and ruthlessness.
Looking at her now, she's become a machine.'
When she first met Quaid, he was the star, she the ingénue. But
she was already the headliner in the house by the time they married. She
says that she backed into acting, that it was never her ambition. Born
Margaret 'Peggy' Hyra, she grew up in Connecticut, where she was a cheerleader
and homecoming queen, before studying journalism at New York University.
Her mother was a casting agent and she landed Ryan a part in a film,
Rich and Famous, which led to regular work in a day-time soap opera called
As the World Turns. She played the wife of a wheelchair-bound psychotic
who would get up and walk each time she left the room.
'Yes,' she says, when I remind her of this unusual plot device, 'and
he was also impotent and sterile, and yet I was pregnant. So it was fantastic.'
I suggest that there must have been a great deal of cynicism on set.
'No, not really,' she replies. 'When I think about it, we were so innocent
because we were all trying our best.' Even back then, she would argue
with directors about her part, demonstrating a stubborn quality for which
she would later become well known. As Tom Hanks, her co-star in three
romantic comedies, once noted: 'The real Meg is not "pert" or
"perky" or "soft". She is talented and tough.'
The way she tells it, she was the recipient of a succession of film offers,
although she never made much effort to get them. 'They just kept coming
at me, what can I say?' It was at this stage, she says, that she recognised
she had a gift for comedy.
'I can just hear it like music.' And woe betide those who can't. I asked
her if she liked to share her views with her directors.
'Yes!' she screams. 'Based on what, I don't know. Based on, "I think
you need more syllables." Who could deal with that?'
Her breakthrough moment was the simulated orgasm in When Harry Met Sally,
when she acts out a climax in a packed restaurant. It was quintessential
Ryan: a pitch-perfect ear for the comic rhythm of the scene, lots of mouth
movement and a sexuality that goes nowhere but the funny bone. Her co-star
in that film, Billy Crystal, indirectly hit upon Ryan's sexless appeal
when he described her as 'everybody you ever wanted to go out with in
high school who said no to you'.
There are lots of orgasms in In the Cut, but few jokes, and the only
debate she had with Campion was over what sexual positions she would agree
to. 'She showed me some storyboards and I said, "No, I'm not doing
In one scene in the film, Ryan stares at a poem on the subway (when she's
not receiving the favours of the excellent Mark Ruffalo, she spends a
lot of time absorbed in subway poems). In fact the poetry is a famous
passage from Dante's Inferno - 'Midway along the journey of our life,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood. For I had wandered off from the
straight path' - that is often taken to be the first recorded reference
to a midlife crisis.
It's a little tempting to think not only of the part of Frannie as a
kind of midlife crisis, but also Ryan's decision to take it. But Ryan
herself is not tempted by the theory. She disputes that the film is about
a female midlife crisis in the first place, and in particular the idea
that she is reacting to her age in what we civilians like to call real
'I think 40 is a really meaningless statistic,' she tells me. 'I really
do. I have had much more seminal changes, much more distinct than 40.
And also I don't think it has the same meaning as it did to our parents.
What I like, and I felt this way at 38, is that I have some confidence
in my experience and my ability to judge my experience. You can relax.
I feel like it's become this whole process of acceptance and relaxing.
And not about that stuff that happens when you're younger, about pleasing
other people or second-guessing yourself, which is a huge fucking waste
of time. If it's taken me this much time to get here then I'm just grateful
whatever age I am.'
She says that a pivotal moment of self-liberation came in London during
the Crowe scandal. The pair of them had been stalked by paparazzi, and
by the coverage they gained it seemed for a brief period as if the very
future of western civilisation hung in the balance.
'It was in One Aldwych Hotel,' she recalls. 'This thing happened [her
affair with Crowe] and I was all over the tabloids and I walked through
the lobby and the place stopped. People stopped talking and stared at
me. And then I got to the elevator and instead of falling apart and going,
"Ooh," I just started laughing. This thing that people are so
afraid of all the time - public censure or disapproval - has no power
if you know yourself.'
There's more than a whiff of the therapist's chair about some of her
language. She returns a number of times to theme of being authentic, honest,
direct. In the film, the police detective played by Ruffalo propositions
Ryan's character in a particularly forthright manner. I won't go into
details, but let's just say that he doesn't beat around the bush.
I pointed out that women have often complained in the past that men can
be a little hasty in their approach to courting. But one message that
might be drawn from this film is that, if anything, they should spend
less time dilly-dallying around.
'I think her attraction to him is all about his authenticity,' she says.
'He may be crude but I completely understand the attraction.'
It's no wonder that some men are confused, I say, hoping to spark a little
'Why are men confused?' she comes back, almost getting out of her chair.
'Is it because they have this role to play and women don't need them to
play that role any more? Because women are more self-reliant. I don't
understand why it's so mystifying for men.'
Well, I say, let me put it this way. If you met a man and he made a lewdly
blunt pass at you, would you think, 'That's good, men have found a new
honesty and finally got in touch with themselves'? Or would you think,
'My God, that's a bit forward'?
'I really like people who are just real. And believe me I have a bullshit
meter that is so refined about who is faking it and who's for real. A
lot of people lie to me every day all the time, as if I don't know. Because
of that, when I come across something authentic, even if it's crude, I'm
interested in it. I am! I may not want to sleep with it, but I'm interested
I'm not sure what my own bullshit meter reads in the company of Ryan.
The dial seems to flicker all over the place. She doesn't go out of her
way to charm, which you sense she could if she wanted to, and that's probably
a good sign. But then I don't buy all the guff about being the victim
of an image she's played no part in projecting. In the end, I suspect
she's a little older and perhaps even a bit wiser than she was three years
ago, but that she's also a talented actress whose talent doesn't stop
when the camera does.
I think you have to take your hat off to her in In the Cut, and not just
because she takes her knickers off, but because she removes all trace
of her celebrity. But as for her lips, that's a mystery, and one, I imagine,
on which they will remain firmly, if voluminously, sealed.