Right before we started the table read, [Ed Harris] sizes me up and down and goes, 'That's some part you got there.' Now I'm really shitting bricks.
In 2008, Amy Ryan was up for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her brazen take on a foul-mouthed, drug-addled mother in Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone.
Some might argue she was robbed that night—Tilda Swinton walked with Michael Clayton—but winning isn’t everything, according to probably those same, sage people. Thankfully, there was a different kind of winning moment during the telecast that humanized Ryan in such a way that it’s felt even today as we sit down to chat with the actress. It was the twinkle of a tear in her eye and a jubilant smile flooding across her face as Marion Cotillard climbed the stage to collect her award at the Oscars—in the lead role category—declaring, “There are some angels in this city!” with her trembling, broken English. Ryan’s gift is unmistakable to us all. It’s just funny that an opportune cutaway that most people don’t remember could cement her likability factor in the eyes of a few.
In Angus MacLachlan’s Abundant Acreage Available, middle-aged siblings Jesse (Terry Kinney) and Tracy Ledbetter (Ryan) live together on an expansive, North Carolina farmland. When we meet them, they’re newly orphaned and quarreling over what to do with their father’s ashes. And the paradox of their existence is that, even though they manage to stay busy, not much happens in their day-to-day. This makes Tracy’s discovery of a pitched tent on the far end of their property something of an event. She grabs the family rifle to investigate and finds three affable brothers (Max Gail, Francis Guinan, and Steve Coulter) who’ve come to bury their own father on the land they say once belonged to their family. This only drives the wedge deeper between Jesse and Tracy.
Abundant Acreage Available opens in select theaters on September 29.
To start, I’d like to throw a question back to you that you once asked your friend Michael Shannon: “Do you think you approach each film or each part depending on how the director works? Or do you always work the way you work and hope that they let you do that?”
I asked that of him? That’s a pretty good question! [Laughs] I definitely start on my own and work on scripts before I get to set so I can have some ideas to share with the directors and so I’m not a total lump of clay. In terms of working mechanically on set and how the day is gonna go, I definitely go by how the director wants to shoot the film. For example, Clint Eastwood and Sidney Lumet want you to be ready by the first take. You might get a second take. So know your lines, know the world, ask my questions before, don’t use the first take as a warm up—that kind of stuff. When you’re in that world, you do as that director asks. With Angus [MacLachlan] on Acreage, and also just by the nature of being the lead character, we had many more phone calls before I got down to North Carolina to start working on the accent. He would guide me towards certain films and characters, and pull me back or push me further into the sound. So we’d shape the character together, or try to just answer to the character together before I got down there. I’d like to think I’m not stubborn in, “This is the way I do it and follow me.” I feel like I’m there for them and for the writer. I’ll do what I know works well and you tell me. I actually have this thing where I tell the directors, “I know you like me, you hired me, so don’t be shy in telling me something flat out sucks. I’m not going to be offended. It might take a second to gain footing, but I’ll know that. Just don’t waste time.” I’d rather get to the truth, even if the truth hurts in getting there.
It seems beneficial to establish that kind of mutual understanding right away.
Yeah, I think so. By nature, it’s vulnerable work to put out there. It’s still a part of yourself, even if you’re playing a character. It’s still your experience or your take on someone’s experience. But I try as best I can to not take that personally for myself, if that makes sense. I really try to be this advocate, a three-dimensional being for something that’s on paper.
Angus is like the poet laureate of rural North Carolina, having also written Junebug.
When something like Acreage comes along, is it that noticeably different to you on paper?
Yeah, because I feel like this is a script you don’t see very often. I like character-driven pieces. I like watching acting, as you do. I’m never much like, “The cinematography is so beautiful!” I mean, it is, but… [Laughs] I find myself watching performances first. I feel like this world is not one we see much anymore: a five-character piece on one set and a lot of dialogue. When reading it on paper, you can hear the rhythms and the language that’s not like many other scripts. It is Angus’ world. It has such a deep root in humanity. There’s no judgement on these characters and their lives. There’s also a lot of humor, without making fun of them. I feel like that’s what his other work has done so beautifully as well. It’s wonderful that cinema takes us there.
There are so many moments in this film where it feels very much like a chamber piece. It’s no surprise that Angus comes from the world of theater. You have your own great stage career. Casting stage actors like Terry Kinney and Francis Guinan furthers that impression. Does Angus maybe work more like a stage director with film, if there is such a thing?
No, I don’t think so. We only had 17 days to shoot this, so we had one day of sitting around the table before we went out to the set. The brothers [Max Gail, Francis Guinan, and Steve Coulter] did a lot of musical rehearsals together, which I think was a really good bonding exercise for them. In theater, you have eight hours a day for about a month to rehearse. I think the beauty of all of us having theater backgrounds was kind of being able to apply that work without doing it and as best as we can, really. So the short answer is: He did not rehearse it like a play in directing, but he was very tuned into each character’s journey and covered it in such a way.
If Tracy has a cold exterior—or in her own words “not warm”—she’s really just protecting herself. There are no villains in this story and everyone’s just trying to make sense of things in their own way. Were you ever concerned Tracy might come across as being unlikeable?
I actually never thought that, especially since the film opens with a woman burying the ashes of her recently deceased father. I thought, “If she shows any negative sides to herself, the audience knows right away where she’s coming from.” I really try not to judge. I can’t worry about the character being unlikeable because then it would just soften it. It makes choices and scenes—it just doesn’t make sense. You would not react that way. You wouldn’t be that soft if someone comes and tries to steal your land, even though they’re three likable, older men. It would just be too false to the story and that would actually make me feel physically ill. I think that would hurt in the longer run.
The film ends on a contemplative note, suggesting that maybe none of us really change as much as we want to and accepting that fact. Career-wise, do you feel very different in how you approach acting now if you compare it to how things were when you first started?
Yeah, when I started professionally at 18, I think there was a bigger boldness like, “I could do that! That’s my part!” They’re thoughts all teenagers have, no matter what they’re doing. You feel like you know it all in some ways. Now, I don’t know. [Laughs] But I’m not as nervous. I definitely know I don’t know as much as I thought I had, but that doesn’t make me nervous. I do feel a bit more freedom: “Okay, here it goes. I don’t know what’s going to come of this, but…” I want it to be well-received, but I’m not gonna be up at night with a stomach ache after meeting a director or an audition. It’s muscles you develop, too. At 18, I just didn’t have any experience. I had a passion to want to be in theater and in films and in TV, but I didn’t know what those worlds were.
You brought up Clint and Sidney. You’ve worked with some amazing filmmakers. You’ve also worked with Steven Spielberg, Kenneth Lonergan, Bennett Miller—all of those guys.
I know! I’m so lucky! [Laughs]
I’m most curious about your performance in Gone Baby Gone under the direction of Ben Affleck, if only because we’re all more aware of his acting, his celebrity, and tabloid fodder. I wonder what you found very different about his way of working. What stuck out to you?
First of all, working with Ben was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had. Because he’s an actor—I shared this with Philip Seymour Hoffman, too—they have the language. They’re not just gonna say, “Okay, do it again.” He’s gonna say, “Do it again, but this time, I want you to…” and give you an emotional reason and an action. It was very specific and also incredibly freeing. He was really nervous. I was really nervous. I love Ed Harris. Right before we started the table read, Ed sizes me up and down and goes, “That’s some part you got there.” Now I’m really shitting bricks. I knew what he meant, which is just, “Don’t fuck it up!” And obviously, Ben was like, “Here goes my first film.” He said to me, “I may not turn out a great director, but I’m gonna get Boston right, so I have that on my side.” In that way, I felt like we were very much leaning on each other, or I knew I was leaning on him. In a lot of takes, he would just come whisper in my ear. We would surprise Ed, and when he would react in a really positive way, you’d see him fire up and we’d know we’re on the right track. [Laughs] I loved working with Ben. He’s very hands-on and so encouraging, even with the accent. I had most of it there on set, but I would get nervous: “I know that sounds too New York.” And he would tell me, “Don’t worry, I’ll fix that in post. Just stay in your performances.” There were all these freedoms built in to just go for broke. With Casey [Affleck], too, it really was this family affair and just like, “Do it, don’t worry about it.” I adored working with Ben.
I went back to watch your appearance on Stephen Colbert where you mention having wanted to comb your hair and appear in a comedy after Gone Baby Gone to ward off getting similar, drug-addled parts. Then you were on The Office. That must be a difficult thing to do for actors: convince people that you can do much more than what they already know you for.
Yeah, I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. I feel like every actor has that, you know? The trick is trying to stay a step ahead of where they’ll see you and how they’ll see you. The flip side of it is that they may never think of you for these parts because you haven’t said that’s what you do all the time. So they’re gonna go to those choices who are always doing that. For me, if I’m in a play or a film and the character wears the same clothes that I wear and their hair is kind of similar, I feel really funny. [Laughs] I don’t want to see myself there. So however best I can find a way to be part of the story without making the story about me, I’m much more comfortable to be free.
You have Beautiful Boy coming up with Steve Carrell. You’ve worked together several times since The Office. Everyone always says that he’s one of the nicest people in the business.
Yeah, after I was on The Office, we definitely said, “I hope we can do this again.” It’s just a matter of finding that script. Beautiful Boy is quite a departure from The Office. It’s a really heavy drama where we play exes. [Laughs] So it’s not a fun-loving character. It’s about two parents who come together because their child is battling a drug addiction. It’s pretty intense. But yeah, Steve is amazing to work with. He’s truly one of the nicest people in the business.
What do you get most recognized for these days?
It’s mostly The Office. There’s this new wave of fans with teenagers who’ve found the show now and binge-watching it. So there are these 13 year olds suddenly coming up to say hi to me. That and still The Wire. Television always just had a wider audience. I definitely think about that. It’s different with theater: “Oh, you missed that show? It’s amazing.” [Laughs] It’s not like, “I wonder what my kid will think of this down the line. Will it be found or not?” Especially with a film like Acreage, which is so intimate. I do hope it reaches people. I think it’s such a special little gem.
You also have the film Strange But True coming up. It’s a great ensemble. What observations do you make while working with this new generation of actors like Margaret Qualley, Connor Jessup, and Nick Robinson? How do you imagine things might be different for them?
That’s a good question because I did do that. They’re such cool kids—well, not kids, young adults. They’re smart. They travel. They read. I would ask them what books they read and they’re so far mature than I ever was at that age. They’ve really done their homework and take it very seriously, and their work shines because of it. Greg Kinnear and I’m more at craft services getting a snack. [Laughs] I think that’s what you get to do as you get older. Maybe some of us are just more used to a longer exercise because it’s muscles. It’s not that we’re better, we have more experience on set. And I did see versions of my younger self, in the way you prepare for a scene and staying away from any conversation on set that you can easily fall into, which can totally distract you. They were very committed to being truthful and emotional. They’re really fun to hang around with, too.
What big lesson have you learned over the years that’s really important to you in acting?
Two things: less is more, and get out of your own way. Just don’t over think it. I remember doing a play years ago and I put such a heavy weight of importance onto this scene and this role, and I was laughed at from the audience. So true. I was humiliated. The next night, I had to literally get back up on the horse and do a show again. Derek Jacobi was in the play with me and he just said, “Throw it all away. Say the words. Be simple.” It worked a charm. That was the play Uncle Vanya.