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< Amy Ryan: From 'The Office' To The 'Green Zone'

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March 11, 2010 - TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Office")

Mr. STEVE CARELL (Actor): (As Michael Scott) In his infinite wisdom, David Wallace has authorized us to put on a little presentation about the history of Dunder Mifflin.

Ms. AMY RYAN (Actor): (As Holly Flax) Yup, our little comedy team is back together again.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) That's right.

Ms. RYAN: (As Holly) Have you heard the news? Extra, extra, read all about it. Newspapers for sale.

GROSS: That's Steve Carell and my guest, Amy Ryan, in a scene from the NBC series "The Office." Ryan played Holly Flax, a human resources officers who may very well be Michael Scott's soul-mate, although they're no longer together.

You may also know Ryan from another great TV series, HBO's "The Wire." She played port officer Beadie Russell. Ryan received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in the 2007 film "Gone Baby Gone" and Tony Award nominations for her performances in "Uncle Vanya" and "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Ryan costars in the new film "Green Zone," which opens tomorrow. It's directed by Paul Greengrass, who directed the Bourne movies. "Green Zone" is a thriller set in Iraq after the invasion. Matt Damon plays an Army officer leading a team searching for weapons of mass destruction. Each site he's been told will have WMD has ended up having nothing. So he's growing suspicious of the secret source giving the information. Amy Ryan plays a Wall Street Journal correspondent who reported that there were WMD in Iraq, but she's growing skeptical of her source.

In this scene, Damon has just met with a CIA officer who's also skeptical about the WMD claims. They talked poolside in the protected Green Zone, where they were seen by Amy Ryan. She introduces herself to Damon.

(Soundbite of film, "Green Zone")

Ms. RYAN: (As Lawrie Dayne) You're the 85th, WMD unit, right?

Mr. MATT DAMON (Actor): (As Miller) How did you know that?

Mr. RYAN: (As Dayne) It's right there on your rifle. Lawrie Dayne, Wall Street Journal. How's it going?

Mr. DAMON: (As Miller) You know, we haven't (bleep) yet. Hey, Sergeant Perry?

Ms. RYAN: (As Dayne) We'll find it. It's frustrating, right?

Mr. DAMON: (As Miller) A little bit.

Ms. RYAN: (As Dayne) So what are you and Marty talking about?

Mr. DAMON: (As Miller) Oh, you know I can't talk to you about that.

Ms. RYAN: (As Dayne) Oh, come on. You come in fresh off the field to have a lemonade with Martin Brown? Something's got to be going on.

Mr. DAMON: (As Miller) Or you could ask him.

Ms. RYAN: (As Dayne) I'm asking you. Does it make sense to you that we're still coming up empty?

Mr. DAMON: (As Miller) No. No, it doesn't.

GROSS: Amy Ryan, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, there's all kinds of, like, technical advisors and stunt men for the movie "Green Zone," and for your part, you didn't need any of that.

Ms. RYAN: I did, actually, need that.

GROSS: You did?

Ms. RYAN: Yeah, and I had the pleasure of speaking with Anne Garrels before I started this film. A friend of mine put me in touch with her, and because, you know, detail is important to me in a film or anything I do, and if anything is going to stick out like a sore thumb, I don't want to be around it.

So I spoke with Anne on the phone one day, and she went through as much as she could in the time she had. Her experience, even down to the type of clothes that she would pack and what she would wear and what was in her bag and what her pad looked like and what kind of pens she had, and so - and as well as Rajiv Chandrasekaran; he was on set now and again, and he would help me out as well.

GROSS: He wrote the book that the movie is very, very loosely adapted from.

Ms. RYAN: Yeah, right, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City."

GROSS: So it's interesting that you spoke to Anne Garrels and not Judith Miller, because a lot of people will assume that part of your character is inspired by Judith Miller, who was misled by sources about WMD.

Ms. RYAN: Right. I mean, she is probably the most famous. I mean, certainly her articles that were in the New York Times, you know, were a great source, one of the reasons we all said, well, they must be there, we must go to war.

So she's the one that came to mind, but Paul Greengrass and I, when we got on set, we thought, well, it's almost too obvious, you know, to you know, didn't want to suddenly cut my hair short with, you know, dye it dark brown with bangs and try to emulate her physically in any way, because my character really represents a bunch of journalists who got it wrong in the press, and it could be from, you know, U.K. paper or American paper. It didn't really matter as much as it mattered that I represent the failures in the press on the whole.

GROSS: Now, I read part of the movie was reshot.

Ms. RYAN: Yes, we did a bunch of reshoots about, I think it was about six or seven months after we first joined up, because Matt Damon had gone away to do both "Invictus" and "The Informant," and then we joined back up in Morocco right around the election. Actually, it was in Morocco on the election, and thanks to also CGI involved in the film, you would never know.

Some of the reshoots were in London, and part of the other scene was shot in Morocco, and you'd never know it.

GROSS: What about continuity? Like, say you gained two pounds, or you've cut your hair or something's like ever so slightly changed, and it has to consistent with how you looked months earlier?

Ms. RYAN: Well, certainly, well, Matt Damon did put on weight for "The Informant," and in between that time he was frantically working out and trying to get back his military look. I mean, he had quite the transformation in between. I just didn't cut my hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: That was my (unintelligible) I waited, you know, we all knew we were coming back for reshoots. So I didn't want to mess with it too much, the way I didn't want to get too involved, the way he had.

But you know, that's you have, you know, incredible crew who'd kind of keep all that intact for you, but there was a time, actually there's a scene I have in the movie with Matt, and it's so subtle. What we did - the first part of the scene we shot in Morocco the first time around, and when the camera's turned around on him, we were in Morocco seven months later, and then when they turned around on me, I was in London two weeks later, and the only difference I mean, every hair is in place. I had this messy ponytail. Every single strand of hair was in place except my forehead didn't have a little bit of a dewy sheen because it was colder in London. So I wasn't, you know, as warm as I was in Morocco, but that is the only thing that I could tell that it wasn't all continuous.

GROSS: Now, watching the movie, I wanted to learn more about your character, the reporter, and I couldn't help but wonder if maybe there was part of your character's story that was edited out at the end.

Ms. RYAN: Well, we started one of the original scripts, I mean, we tried to show a little bit of the back story with the character Poundstone because how does she have this access, you know, to these senior officials.

And you know, there was a slight there was a quick scene that just implied that they had had a romantic relationship in the past. So they were very familiar with each other, but...

GROSS: This is the Greg Kinnear character, who - he was your misleading source about the WMD.

Ms. RYAN: My misleading source, exactly, and...

GROSS: And he works for the Bush administration, and he's in he's one of the key people in the Green Zone, overseeing the occupation.

Ms. RYAN: Yes, and, you know, we like to say there's a scene where things got a little quiet in the Green Zone, and Matt Damon and I have a chat about where you come from and what brought you here, soldier, you know, one of those scenes, and it just seemed out of place. And I think also it diminished her a bit in some way, that being the only woman in a movie, therefore there must be sex involved or some kind of romance, and we just thought there wasn't any time for that, and let's just keep the story moving forward because it is, you know, really the story is just a thriller and a chase movie, and we had to keep that energy going forward.

GROSS: Now, was it your first thriller chase movie?

Ms. RYAN: Yes, it was, yeah.

GROSS: What are the ups and downs of doing a thriller chase movie? And I should say you're not in the chases.

Ms. RYAN: Well, the way Paul Greengrass works is sometimes we did film a lot of scenes that he wasn't sure if they would end up in the movie or not. So there would be a day where Greg and I, we were going through, we had a tour of Saddam's torture chambers, and as we're going through there, Paul says, you know, you're going to hear some gunshot, and just, you know, just run out and follow it, just and Amy, just try to get the story and go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: You're like what? And so, you know, there's a huge crew and a bunch of extras, and here come the gunshot, and part of it, your heart starts pounding. I mean, it sounds like real gunshot, and you're running over real rubble, and, you know, there's lots of military pulling up, and here comes Matt jumping out of the Humvee. In some ways you go back to just being a kid, you know, you know, the games you make up on the spot with your friends. It was kind of like but with a bigger budget.

So that part was thrilling. I loved it. I loved it. I didn't know what to expect, and I guess in terms of the downside, and I wouldn't say this is such a negative as much as you just didn't know where I feel in some ways, as an actor, you're more of a pawn across a chess board, you know, there's a you know, as opposed to a real deep character study. You know, these characters are really just there to move the story along.

GROSS: My guest is Amy Ryan, and she costars in the new movie "Green Zone." Let's do a little retrospective of some of your work, starting with "The Wire," which is where I think many people first discovered you. This is the HBO series "The Wire," and you started in it in 2003?

Ms. RYAN: That's right, yes. I joined the second season of the show, when the story went to the port. I played port police officer Beadie Russell.

GROSS: Yeah, and who's also a single mother, and in Season 2, while you were working at the port, you uncovered a human trafficking ring with the help off Officer Jimmy McNulty, who you ended up living with. He moved in with you eventually, and he'd had problems with drinking, but he gave that up to live with you and your children, but by Season 5 he was drinking again a lot, and I want to play a scene in which you go visit at the police station his former partner, Bunk, who was also frequently his drinking partner, and you ask Bunk if he thinks that Jimmy can straighten out again. And Bunk is played by Wendell Pierce. So here's the scene.

(Soundbite of television program, "The Wire")

Mr. WENDELL PIERCE (Actor): (As Detective William "Bunk" Moreland) Hey.

Ms. RYAN: (As Officer Beatrice "Beadie" Russell) (Unintelligible).

Mr. PIERCE: (As Bunk) Just - Jimmy's not in yet.

Ms. RYAN: (As Beadie) I know. He's sleeping one off.

Mr. PIERCE: (As Bunk) Late night, huh?

Ms. RYAN: (As Beadie) They're all like that now. Relax, I'm not looking for a snitch. I know you're his partner in crime. I don't care.

Mr. PIERCE: (As Bunk) Whoa, Beadie.

Ms. RYAN: (As Beadie) I just want to know from you where this is going. I mean, you know him. You know what it is that he can and can't do.

Mr. PIERCE: (As Bunk) I don't know if I could speak on that.

Ms. RYAN: (As Beadie) Look, I'm ready to put him out, okay? For me, for my kids. I mean, if in the end, if this is all there is to him, if he can't be better than this, I just want to know.

Mr. PIERCE: (As Bunk) He's working this case right now, serial killer, actually.

Ms. RYAN: (As Beadie) You are not going to try to tell me that this is about a case. Try that (bleep) on some civilian.

Mr. PIERCE: (As Bunk) Look, he'll get his in a certain place, he'll take a drink. I mean, a lot of us will.

Ms. RYAN: (As Beadie) It's more than just a drink he's taking.

Mr. PIERCE: (As Bunk) Well, Beadie, I can't tell you what to do.

Ms. RYAN: (As Beadie) I don't like giving up. Okay, I've got to go back to work. Thanks for letting me vent.

GROSS: That's my guest, Amy Ryan, with Wendell Pierce in a scene from Season 5 of "The Wire." You're so great. How did you get the part in "The Wire"?

Ms. RYAN: At the time, Alexa Fogel was casting director here in New York. She works with David Simon quite a lot, and I'd known Alexa for years. She'd been someone who really was a champion of mine since I started my career, and Alexa brought me in for it, and that was that.

But I'd been a fan of the show from the first season, and it was really, it was quite surreal to join that cast, to go down to Baltimore and meet this incredible group, this company of actors. It was a real thrill.

GROSS: I can imagine. That's such an extraordinary group that worked on "The Wire." How did the prep and the direction compare to other shows that you'd worked on, and you'd worked on other shows as series regulars but also as, you know, like, the guest star on various cop and other shoes.

Ms. RYAN: Well, I think in the world of David Simon, story really does come first no matter what, and without giving anything away I know a lot of people are new to "The Wire" through DVD rentals and he even, it wouldn't matter which character was the most popular on the message boards or, you know, fan write-in letters or whatever it may be. If that character had to go because the story, it needed to go in that direction, they would get killed or die or something.

I think David had a formula where every five episodes someone died, whether it was a main character or just a passer-by on the street. So we all quickly assessed that right away. I mean, we as a company were really respectful and excited by that, that story was going to drive it, and there weren't going to be any great stars that, you know, like a I think other shows have the potential to spin off characters, and you can become a star from that.

With David, the story is always the star, and ultimately, I think that makes actors look better.

GROSS: Did you feel vulnerable not ever knowing if your character was going to get killed or if your character was going to be written into the next season?

Ms. RYAN: No. I mean, certainly, I mean, I I actually believe I signed on for maybe, like, a four-year contract, and Season 2, I was in every episode, and then Season 3, 4 and 5, David told me, you know, look, I'm not going to use you as much, and it's not personal, but the real truth is I couldn't make you detective. Just, that's not the way it works. You're a port police officer.

If this were a network TV show, I could write one scene where, oh yeah, Beadie went away and she passed the test, but that's not how it works. You couldn't you know, you couldn't go from port police officer to homicide detective in, you know, a hiatus break.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: Like it's just, it's not going to happen. So you know, at the time I was disappointed because I loved, you know, being a part of the show and the company, but you know, my mother always, you know, tells me over and over something better is around the corner, or not better but in this case different, and a whole bunch of other things happened in my career simply by being available.

GROSS: What happened?

Ms. RYAN: I was nominated for an Oscar, for one. I was nominated for a Tony, for two, not in that order, but just variety, variety. I mean, that's you know, being on a series is in some ways a double-edged sword. You know, it's great, it's great security, and certainly artistically it can be a phenomenal experience, like "The Wire" was for me, but then you're also, you know, you're signed on for five years. So you just simply aren't available if other things come along.

GROSS: So the Tony was for "A Streetcar Named Desire"?

Ms. RYAN: That's right.

GROSS: And the Oscar nomination was for "Gone Baby Gone."

Ms. RYAN: That's right.

GROSS: My guest is Amy Ryan. She co-stars in the new thriller "Green Zone," which is set in Iraq and opens tomorrow. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Amy Ryan, and she's now in the new movie "Green Zone." I want to play a scene from a great movie that you were in, "Gone Baby Gone," and this is a crime drama based on a Dennis Lehane novel. It's directed by Ben Affleck and stars Casey Affleck, his brother, and...

Ms. RYAN: And Dennis was also a writer - excuse me for interrupting. Dennis was also a writer on "The Wire."

GROSS: Oh yes, that's right. Good point.

Ms. RYAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Is that how you got the part in "Gone Baby Gone"?

Ms. RYAN: No, I hadn't actually met Dennis until I went back to, you know, the fifth year, Season 5, rather, after I'd done I think I'd already filmed "Gone Baby Gone" and went back and did that final episode.

GROSS: Oh, okay. So let me set up this scene, and then we'll hear it.

Ms. RYAN: Okay.

GROSS: So Casey Affleck is a private eye who sees you on TV, saying that your child, Amanda, has been kidnapped, but you turn out you know, they take the he takes the case, but you turn out to be a pretty bad mother and not a very nice person.

You and your boyfriend, Ray, have been selling drugs, and in this scene you're being questioned by two cops. Your sister, Bea, played by Amy Madigan, is also in the room listening. Ed Harris plays the cop who's asking most of the questions, and he wants to know what you know about a drug dealer named Cheese, who was ripped off, and you've just confessed that you worked for Cheese as a mule, carrying drugs, and that you took tens of thousands of dollars that belonged to Cheese, and you're explaining here how that happened.

Ms. RYAN: Okay.

(Soundbite of film, "Gone Baby Gone")

Ms. RYAN: (As Helene McCready) Me and Ray had to this run up (unintelligible), right?

Mr. ED HARRIS (Actor): (As Remy Bressant) Yeah.

Ms. RYAN: (As Helen) We dropped four keys on these bikers. When we was walking back through the motel with all the money, these cops just swooped right in, went right for the bikers, and Amanda was with us, so we just pretended to be like a family, and we got in the car and took off.

Ms. AMY MADIGAN (Actor): (As Bea McCready) You took Amanda with you?

Ms. RYAN: (As Helene) What am I gonna do, leave her in the car, Bea? I don't got no daycare. It's really hard being a mother. It's hard raising a family, you know, all on my own. But God made you barren. So you wouldn't (bleep) know. So I understand, Bea, okay?

Ms. MADIGAN: (As Bea) You are an abomination.

Mr. HARRIS (As Remy) Hey, hey, hey, right here. Right here. What happened next?

Ms. RYAN: (As Helene) We was driving back, and Ray, (bleep) Ray was like, you know, everyone's gonna think the cops got the money.

Mr. HARRIS: (As Remy) You told Cheese the cops got it.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) But you and Ray kept the money.

Ms. RYAN: (As Helene) This whole (bleep) is Ray's fault.

Mr. HARRIS: (As Remy) Where's the money now, Helene?

Ms. RYAN: (As Helene) It's with Ray.

Mr. HARRIS: (As Remy) And where's Ray?

Ms. RYAN: (As Helene) Chelsea.

GROSS: Okay, that's Amy Ryan in a scene from the movie "Gone Baby Gone." It must be so great to read lines like: It's hard being a mother, but God made you barren, so you wouldn't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: Words are her weapon, huh? She's got an arsenal of weapons in her vocabulary.

GROSS: Who did you think of when you were taking on this character? I mean, she is a really, like, tough, nasty person and very, like, local neighborhood kind of person. Like you'd know the neighborhood she was from, I suppose.

Ms. RYAN: Yes. Starting with Dennis' book, there's so much beautiful and detailed description about Helene and her even her thoughts, what's going on in her mind from moment to moment. So that was a great springboard.

And then, you know, honestly, when we got to Boston, and we're shooting in Dorchester, and this is the neighborhood in which Helene comes from, and just meeting the local people there and it's not to say that there are Helenes on every block, but there are a few and with any part, I try to humanize them as much as she is a monster.

But there is a reason she ended up in this situation, and I started with there's a moment where she was the child born to a similar mother, and how do you break this cycle, and where does it start, where does it end, and try to think of it from her point of view. Certainly don't condone her behavior, but I could understand it. You know, even that moment she says to Bea, what am I gonna do, leave her in the car? That is her best parenting. You know, I'm happy to know I'm a better parent than she is...

GROSS: Oh, I hope so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: But, you know, that's what she knows, and so with any part, it's trying not to judge the character as much as just be them.

GROSS: Amy Ryan will be back in the second half of the show. She co-stars in the new movie "Green Zone," which opens tomorrow. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross, back with actress Amy Ryan. She co-stars in the new thriller "Green Zone," which is set in Iraq, just after the invasion. "Green Zone" opens tomorrow. Ryan played HR officer Holly Flax in the NBC series "The Office." And she played port officer Beadie Russell in the HBO series "The Wire."

When we left off, we were talking about her performance in the 2007 film "Gone Baby Gone," for which she was nominated for an Oscar. She played a single mother and drug dealer from the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester.

What about the Boston accent - very neighborhood Boston accent? How did you do it without overdoing it?

Ms. RYAN: Well, every moment, you know, every time there's a break on the set, you know, lots of actors go check their phone or messages, or you go over to the craft service and you get a snack. I would sit with every teamster possible who were from the area and just, oh, talk to them, how was your weekend? What's your kid up to? And keep that sound going constantly with me.

And then, I had the good fortune of my director, Ben Affleck, and my - the star of the movie, Casey Affleck, who were helping me along the way. They would just say oh, its like, I dont even know if I can do it anymore. But they'd say its not, you know, it's not mother, or actually, I can't do it. But they would keep me on my toes there.

And also, the young woman who played my best friend in the movie, Jill Quigg, is - she was a non-actor. She's an actor now, but Ben discovered her, just literally, on the street.

GROSS: Oh, I'm so glad you say that because she seemed like a non-actor.

Ms. RYAN: Yeah.

GROSS: There just seemed to be something just like so authentically who she was in the movie.

Ms. RYAN: Yeah. She actually broke through - there's a story my first of shooting, I couldnt get on to set. They called for me and I walked over from my trailer, and there were a lot of neighbors out watching filming. And there's a little police barricade set up - asking them to stand behind - and I had to walk through that and I couldnt get on set. One of the production assistants thought I was a neighbor just trying to meet Ben Affleck. And I tried out the Boston accent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: I was like no, no, I'm in the movie. He says no, no, no, just stand there. Stand there. So I was late 20 minutes, until a producer finally recognized me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: And she got me through the barricade. But Jill Quigg, watching filming one day, broke through the barrier. No problem. Went right up to Ben Affleck and demanded a part in the movie, basically. So...

GROSS: How did she break through? What was her thing?

Ms. RYAN: She just - that's her savvy. That's her survival skill in that neighborhood. So...

GROSS: And what did Ben Affleck recognize in her?

Ms. RYAN: Authenticity. Ben had said, before we started this movie, he said, you know, I dont know if I'm going to end up being a good director. I dont know if I'm going to get it right, but I know I'm going to get Boston right. And it's been - he expressed how it was frustrating to him all these years watching movies that, you know, people just get up there and it's like park your car and Harvard Yard. You know, the whole kind of exaggeration of Boston. But he really wanted to show, you know, a much more real side to it. And by casting locals he also said, you know, it's going to be a bigger challenge for the actors in the film. You have to blend in. You have to assimilate with them.

GROSS: You know, you said that when you tried to - there was a moment when you tried to get on to the set and they wouldnt let you through...

Ms. RYAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...on the street in Boston, because they thought you were just a fan and that you were lying when you said that you were actually in the movie.

Ms. RYAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Does that mean that they didnt think you looked like a genuine movie star?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: I think they thought I was genuine Dorchester, which was even better. But no, I rarely get mistaken for a genuine movie star.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: And I prefer that. That's why I live in New York, because I think once, too, youre a genuine movie star then, you know, it's hard to hide away and become other people. You know, certainly movie stars like Sean Penn can do it and Meryl Streep can do it, but I'm wary of being too glossied(ph). Because then, you know, you dont get to play the real people - and that's what I find most fascinating.

GROSS: I was so delighted to see you in "The Office," to see you in a comedy because I hadn't seen you in a comedy before that and you do it so well. So I want you to describe your character Holly in "The Office."

Ms. RYAN: Holly Flax was the new head of human resource at Dunder Mifflin, and quite serious about her job - and shortly finds, you know, a comrade and kinship to Michael Scott, played by the great Steve Carell.

GROSS: And, you know, Michael is such a clueless person and he gets everything wrong. He always thinks he's funny when he's really not. What makes it possible for your character to click so well with him?

Ms. RYAN: I think Holly shares the same cornball sense of humor with Michael. You know, they're both, you know, he's more odd but she's slightly odd. And, you know, I just like say there's a lid for every pot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Let's here a scene from "The Office" with you and Steve Carell. And this is after youve left the Scranton branch for another branch. And then you and Michael meet again at a company picnic that's bringing together the employees from all the branches, but you show up with your new boyfriend.

Ms. RYAN: Oh yeah.

GROSS: Nevertheless, you and Michael decide to write a sketch together to perform at the picnic. And the sketch is supposed to be a history of the paper company you work for, Dunder Mifflin, but youre doing it as a parody of "Slum Dog Millionaire." And for any of our listeners who haven't seen "Slum Dog Millionaire," it's a film set in India in which a young man from the slums ends up being a contestant on the Indian version of the quiz show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" And when this young man keeps getting answers right in spite of his lack of education, and he keeps winning more and more money, he's taken by the police who torture him to find out how he's managing to get the right answers.

So here's you as Holly. with Michael, played by Steve Carell, doing the "Slum Dog Millionaire" satire at the Dunder Mifflin picnic.

(Soundbite of NBC series, "The Office")

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. STEVE CARELL (Actor): (as Michael) And now presenting SlumDunder Mifflinaire.

Ms. RYAN: SlumDunder Mifflinaire.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) (unintelligible).

Ms. RYAN: (as Holly) Are you ready to play SlumDunder Mifflinaire?

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) Yes, I am.

Ms. RYAN: (as Holly) For $100, where did Dunder meet Mifflin? A: on easy street, B: a tour of Dartmouth College, C: they never met, D: brushing their teeth.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) Oh, I'm thinking. I'm going to say B, tour of Dartmouth College.

Ms. RYAN: (as Holly) That is correct. How did you know that?

(Soundbite of screaming)

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) Ah. Oh. Ah. I was there. Ah. I was a tour guide at Dartmouth College. No.

Ms. RYAN: (as Holly) Nice campus. Think you'll get in?

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) Yeah, I'm definitely getting in. I'm a shoo-in.

Ms. RYAN: (as Holly) I'm Robert Dunder.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) I'm Robert Mifflin. Ah, okay.

Ms. RYAN: (as Holly) Robert Mifflin had a great life, but unfortunately, had undiagnosed depression, which over nine million Americans suffer from and it's very treatable. For $250, how did he kill himself? A: a rope, B: a knife, C: a gun, D: brushing his teeth.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) Two hundred and fifty dollars is more money than I've ever seen in my life. I will say, C, a gun. He shot himself in the head.

Ms. RYAN: (as Holly) That is correct.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It is so funny. You know, the children at the picnic are horrified, and actually...

Ms. RYAN: Horrified.

GROSS: ...everyone is kind of horrified as they hear you doing this like awful routine - tasteless routine.

Ms. RYAN: I know. And the thing is they thought, I mean that's what I love about those characters. They think they're killing it. They're just, you know...

GROSS: I know. You can't wipe the smile off youre face. You were enjoying it so much.

Ms. RYAN: No.

GROSS: You think it's so funny.

Ms. RYAN: Thank you so - yeah, they're wonderful. And you know, when we, obviously Steve and I knew that was the joke, you know, that they bomb. But when we had to get up and perform it, and obviously everyone else is directed not to laugh and look horrified - there's a part of you as an actor, youre still standing on the stage, however makeshift, in the middle of a park and youre not getting a reaction - you start, like, breaking out into a cold sweat, like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: ...and trying to get a laugh, trying to make them like you. But we just both, we - and every time we had to redo it we're like, oh my god. I dont think I can go back out there. Yeah. But it was a good laugh.

GROSS: So did you write any of the lines yourself?

Ms. RYAN: Not in that scene, I dont think. I remember the part obviously what the listeners won't be able to see is the visual of that scene is as we're torturing - I get to torture Steve, I started pulling out his fingernails with my teeth. That was one form of torture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: I was very chuffed with myself for coming up with that. But, you know, "The Office" is pretty tightly scripted and it's not until the third or fourth time through a take that they let you play around. Most certainly Steve, and I wait and take his lead. If he starts going off course then I'll follow him if I can, if I can keep up.

GROSS: How did you get the part in "The Office?"

Ms. RYAN: You know, "The Wire" actually led to "The Office," funny enough. All the writers on "The Office" are all huge fans of "The Wire." And it was really just off that and there's part coincidence that right after the Oscars, I knew the next choice I made would have to be a good one. And I was also well aware that all the offers I was about to get would be of, you know, parts of single drug-addicted mothers. It's what was on people's minds. And so, I wanted to keep a couple of steps ahead of people.

GROSS: Because that's what you played in "Gone Baby Gone." Yeah.

Ms. RYAN: Yes. Exactly. And so I thought well, what would surprise people? One would be a comedy, and two would be if I put on a skirt and brushed my hair I thought that would work well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: So I had mentioned that to my agent and he had called over to "The Office" just to see if there was anything coming up that I might be right for and they coincidentally had been thinking of me because they were familiar with "The Wire."

GROSS: My guest is Amy Ryan. She co-stars in the new thriller "Green Zone," which is set in Iraq and opens tomorrow.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Amy Ryan and she's now in the new movie "Green Zone." So, I'd like to hear more about you. Where did you grow up?

Ms. RYAN: I grew up in Queens. I grew up in Flushing, Queens in the house my father grew up in.

GROSS: Really?

Ms. RYAN: I have two older sisters. Mm-hmm. The very neighborhood. My grandmother and grandfather lived five blocks away.

GROSS: What was the neighborhood like? What was the ethnic makeup?

Ms. RYAN: It was mixed. It was Jewish families, Chinese families. There's a Korean family at the top of the block. My family, which was Polish and Irish and English. We were kind of a mix - mutt of it all. And, yeah, it was very much I'd like to say Archie Bunker but with a driveway. We had, you know, house, house, driveway, house, driveway.

We could play kickball in the street. Every five minutes or so, we'd have to stop because a car came down the block. But it was a fun neighborhood to grow up in and we still, you know, you could be a kid but yet, we still had access to Manhattan, which my parents, they took us to the city as much as possible. And I think that's what got me interested theater was just - as we stood in line at TKTS whenever we could.

GROSS: Well, you went to the high school of performing arts.

Ms. RYAN: I did. Yeah.

GROSS: So, how did that compare to either the movie or TV version of "Fame?"

Ms. RYAN: It actually compares, it's pretty similar to the original film. It's nothing like the TV series, and I didnt see the remake of "Fame" that just came out last year, so I can't speak of that. But it was quite a magical place. You know, for me, coming from Queens where, you know, my school friends I'd known since kindergarten and then like I said, I was 14 years old when I went in for sophomore year, or so. I'm surrounded by a bunch of really creative kids, and from all economic backgrounds and all five boroughs of the city, and it was a real eye opener.

I was just - it was great. It's a small - and the building used to be on 46th Street, and its this tiny little conservatory and you would be in history class but you can hear chamber music echoing through the halls. Or, I remember one day, actually being bored in history class daydreaming out, you know, looking out the window, or rather the doorframe and this dancer walked by and he caught my eye and he kept walking. But then he came back and he did this huge leap, probably like six feet in the air so it seemed to me. And no one else saw it. It was just this moment. There's this dancer flying by and I just thought, I can't believe this is high school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: But it's was - it's a beautiful place. And also, you know, to have training in theater and not put my parents in debt. You know, it's a school. It's a New York City public high school, so it was free.

GROSS: So when you were in the high school of performing arts studying acting, how important was being pretty? Because being pretty is pretty highly prized in high school period, but also in acting, being pretty or handsome is very highly prized if you want leading man and leading lady kind of roles.

Ms. RYAN: Yeah. You know, I did not see any of that within my class. There was - unless I was na�ve. But I remember kids being body conscious or, you know, beauty conscious. We were really all about the work. We were so immersed in that world and, you know, we would study Stanislavski's the Method. I mean we took ourselves very seriously.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: And it wasnt about having the right hair and clothing and, you know. Although, we did know who the pretty people were. And, you know, that Jennifer Anniston was one of those people.

GROSS: Was she in your class?

Ms. RYAN: She was a year younger than me. Yeah, she - and so we, you know, you know who they are then. She had great hair then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RYAN: But, no. But it was all a pretty tight-knit group of kids.

GROSS: So this was in the 80s, right, that you would've been in high school?

Ms. RYAN: Yeah.

GROSS: So what were some of the touchstone movies and shows for you then?

Ms. RYAN: Well, upon graduation, my first job, I did "Biloxi Blues." I did this touring production of "Biloxi Blues" and there's an actor I worked with called Andrew Polk, and - who really was like a big brother to me and he took me to see a bunch of movies that were, which would later influence me. The first one was "Down By Law," the Jim Jarmusch movie.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RYAN: And after that I suddenly started loving the world of Mike Leigh and all these regular people I think that's where that influence came from. And the first movie I saw of his was "High Hopes." So that's kind of the - that was the big influence.

GROSS: Did you have stage fright then, because the shows that you'd done had basically been in high school and suddenly you were touring around the country?

Ms. RYAN: I didnt have stage fright then; I was way too young to even think of it. I had a bit of stage fright during the final week of "Streetcar Named Desire" on Broadway, and I think it was just out of pure exhaustion, and that play, it really takes a toll on you physically and emotionally. And there was a moment where I - it was the opening scene and we had a week to go, and I for the first time ever had this - I had this dialogue going on in my head where I just said oh, I'm just so tired. I just want to sit down and cry. I just want to sit on the stage right here.

And at the same time, miraculously, these lines are coming out - Blanche. Oh, you know, that whole first scene when Blanche and Stella are, you know, reunited and it's joyous. And my body - I actually got a little scared because my body started to, you know, I probably lost three inches in height because I started to go down and I was a little afraid to go back on to the next scene. But, actually, it was Natasha Richardson who I was playing that version of "Streetcar" with, and she just gave me a big hug and said, right. Back out we go, you know, and set me on the right course.

GROSS: So, you know, in talking about "Streetcar," what were the difficulties of playing Stella? "Streetcar" is such a sexual play. I mean so much of the text and the subtext is all about sex.

Ms. RYAN: Oh it's, yeah. I had the great fortune of doing this play twice. The first time I got to do it down at the Kennedy Center with Patricia Clarkson as Blanche, directed by Garry Hynes. And Patty actually found old letters that Tennessee Williams had written that said, I'm writing a new play. It's about two sisters. And I think often, you know, because of the, you know, obviously Marlon Brando made such an impression on Stanley, and the Blanche, that play usually finds two stars to play those roles and it outshines Stella. But we brought it back to the triangle. And if Blanche and Stanley aren't fighting over Stella, I feel like productions really miss out a huge point to that play.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RYAN: And also, Stella, her, you know, Tennessee's description of Stella is that she's lying in bed, reading movie magazines, eating chocolates with her painted fingernails. And she's just - she's waiting in bed for her husband to come home. And that's the first part of "A Streetcar Named Desire," her desire. You know, it's more famously, you know, gets into Blanche and Stanley's relationship. But it's starts - I mean that's why she's with him, you know? She doesnt have any more money. They came from money but she doesnt have any more. Stanley doesnt have any more. They come from different, you know, class, you know, backgrounds, so why else would these two people be together? And that's just because they're mad for each other. They can't keep their hands off each other.

GROSS: Amy Ryan, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. RYAN: Oh, you too, Terry. I appreciate it.

GROSS: Amy Ryan co-stars in the new thriller "Green Zone," which opens tomorrow. Since she was in two TV series we love, "The Office" and "The Wire," weve put links to all of our interviews with people from those shows on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. where you can also see clips from her new film.

Coming up, our TV critic David Bianculli reviews the new HBO World War II series, "The Pacific."

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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