Oscar-nominated actress Amy Ryan (“Gone Baby Gone”) has worked with some heavy-hitters in the film industry over her 15-year career, including fellow Oscar nominees like directors Bennett Miller (“Capote”), Ben Affleck (“Gone Baby Gone”), and the late Sidney Lumet (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”). In her latest film “Bridge of Spies,” Ryan takes direction for the second time from three-time Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg after her bit part in his 2005 sci-fi remake “War of the Worlds.”
In the true-to-life story, Ryan plays Mary Donovan, the wife of James Donovan, an American lawyer who is recruited by the CIA during the Cold War to defend a captured enemy spy in the courtroom and then to oversee the safe return of an American pilot held prisoner in the Soviet Union.
During our interview, Ryan, 47, who has also starred in last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner “Birdman” opposite Michael Keaton, talked about how she learned about the real Mary Donovan when not much information was available online, and what it was like working with Spielberg this time around.
What resonated with you the most about your character Mary Donovan? Was it because she was a devoted mother and wife or did you look at this with more historical context?
I loved how strong she was. This film is set on the background of the Cold War and during a time when this country was living under a blanket of great fear. I love that this college-educated mother of three is able to stand up to her husband. She loves him dearly, but she’s right in protecting her family. She’s right that if James takes on this case, it puts the family in a great line of danger to defend what was considered at the time America’s No. 1 enemy. She has no problem expressing herself. You don’t see that much in film. Women usually just stand by their man.
What kind of research did you have to do on Mary herself? Was there anything out there that you were able to use when creating this character?
There’s wasn’t much you could find on the internet about Mary. There is a lot about James Donovan, of course. Coincidentally, a really dear friend of mine knew [Mary’s] granddaughter, so he put me in touch with her. She shared with me tons of family photographs and stories and details about Mary. I was even able to ask her if she had an accent because she was from Brooklyn. She could talk about her in such detail. All of that helped me portray her. You’re never going to quite see the full person, but you can see a version of them. You want to get that truthful somehow.
It’s amazing you were able to connect with her granddaughter like that. What if you hadn’t been given that opportunity?
I would’ve just guessed! (Laughs) I would’ve just made stuff up. That’s why it was such a gift. I would’ve made it up, but I would’ve also been holding my breath the whole time like, “What am I doing?!” But just having those images of her – all these beautiful photographs with me in my dressing room – helped me fall into the look and expressions on her face. It helped me try to recreate those little details. Any little detail helps when you’re building a story based on true events.
You’ve worked with Steven Spielberg before. How was this experience different from the small role you had in “War of the Worlds?”
When you’re working with Steven Spielberg, you really don’t want it to ever be over. Having a larger part just means having this great gift of being with him longer and seeing how he makes films. When I first met him during “War of the Worlds,” even with a smaller part, he treated me with such great respect. He treated me as if I was a major part of that film. That is such a testament to Steven. Every detail of his film matters to him. He gives everything great attention and makes you feel like you’re an equal.
Tom Hanks and Steven have such a longstanding relationship with each other. This is their fourth film together. Would that be something you’d like to do – build a really strong relationship with a specific director who always thinks about you when he or she is making a new film, or are you more interested in different experiences as an actress?
A little bit of both. It depends on the director. I had the great fortune of working with the great, late Sidney Lumet three times. Each time you’re language gets shorter and you can talk in shorthand. You drop away any nerves because you’re more familiar with the person, especially when you work with great directors. The relationship gets deeper. I’d love to work with dozens of filmmakers again that I’ve already worked with. I’ve been spoiled with working with some of the best in the business. In a heartbeat I would work with all of them again.