Meg Ryan, it turns out, was almost a journalist, but then she got her big acting break on the popular soap opera As the World Turns through pure serendipity. "I was a journalism major at NYU [New York University] and was paying my way through school doing commercials every now and then," she says. "I went to the As the World Turns auditions so that I could write about auditioning for a soap opera and I got the part! I only wanted to write about it."
Since then, she has been called the "queen of the rom-com" and "the ultimate girl-next-door". In fact, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Meg Ryan represented the very best the American dream had to offer. In her films, which include classics such as When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Proof of Life and You've Got Mail, Ryan is smart, cool, kind, and impeccably blonde – the perfect shade of blonde, in fact. So much so that even today, Meg Ryan's hair has its own Facebook page.
During the Locarno Festival, which runs in the Swiss town until this Saturday, The National caught up with a grown-up and wonderfully comfortable-in-her-own-skin Meg Ryan. Her hair is still the golden stuff dreams are made of, and she is one of that handful of movie stars who seem more dynamic up close, once you get to actually speak to them. When I mention where The National is based, Ryan lights up, "I love Abu Dhabi!" It turns out she's a frequent visitor to the UAE.
The actress is in Switzerland to receive the Leopard Club Award from the Locarno Festival. The honour pays tribute to people in film whose work has left a mark on the industry. So Ryan joins her colleagues Adrien Brody, Mia Farrow, Faye Dunaway and Andy Garcia – who have all been inducted into the festival's exclusive club.
During her time in Locarno, Ryan introduced screenings of her films, gave a public talk and met with journalists during a super-packed schedule, and in an intense humid heat. And yet, she was impeccable throughout, head-to-toe black for the evening, and in her favourite white cotton dress during the day. "It's not by any designer," she volunteered, adding that her prescription sunglasses are "necessary, I can't see", her look was topped off with a tattoo that spells out, in black ink, "Life is Short".
Ryan’s career hasn’t been short, however, and her most famous collaborations are with long-time friend and four-time co-star Tom Hanks: “He doesn’t surprise you; he’s the guy you imagine him to be,” she tells us of him. “He’s smart and funny and he listens, he’s really curious about the world and other people.”
She's as complimentary about her other co-stars: "Every one of these men, they have been different and fantastic; I laughed so hard with Alec Baldwin and Tom; you can't help but admire Hugh Jackman for the gentleman that he is. I've been so lucky with these men! Every movie is a little miracle," she says of her many roles. And she uses that same word again, "miracle", when talking about getting the role of Sally in Rob Reiner's classic When Harry Met Sally.
So, what is the best advice Ryan has heard in her career? The late Oscar-winning filmmaker George Cukor told her "don't act! Stop acting!" when she was working on his last movie, 1981's Rich and Famous, which also marked Ryan's big-screen debut as Candice Bergen's daughter. She also remembers American playwright John Patrick Shanley telling her, "Meg, you don't have to get it right!" while Ryan struggled with the three different characters she played in Joe Versus the Volcano opposite Hanks.
"There is a school of thought that what you heal in yourself on stage, you heal in an audience," Ryan says of her preparation to play the alcoholic Alice in When a Man Loves a Woman opposite Andy Garcia in 1994. She also discloses how seeing her ex-husband Dennis Quaid go through rehab at the time, and seeing his struggle, helped her define her character.
The actress has a young daughter called Zoe Grace and a son Jack, also an actor who starred in Ryan's own directorial debut Ithaca. "I liked doing Ithaca because it was about being a mother, but it was not about a mother raising a daughter, but a son, and how a boy becomes a man."
“Being a mum can’t help but change you as an artist, it increases your compassion and empathy for another human being and it actually reminds you how fragile and strong everything is,” she adds.
While many blamed the actress's bold turn as Frannie in Jane Campion's raw thriller In the Cut for the slowdown of her career from the mid-2000s onward, Ryan says she knew what she was getting into, but that her playing a darker role "offended people".
“People did not like it and they didn’t like me doing it. What I really learnt is that I had assumed a kind of girl-next-door archetype, and when you mess with an archetype, you have to ask permission.”
Ryan is now turning to producing, and has just announced that she's sold a half-hour comedy titled The Obsolescents to NBC. "When you're a producer, mostly what you do is you try to find material, you throw like a hundred things at the wall hoping that two stick," she adds. From the other side of the camera, Ryan isn't interested in only telling stories about women, but thinks that what makes a female-centric tale unique is if the story is told "through a feminine lens".
When asked about fame, Ryan admits it requires "an armour … a bulletproof plate, because you are up for grabs – theoretically." Does she have advice for her younger self, knowing what she knows today? "So many things are not personal, don't look yourself up, don't read critics, and be a jack of all trades."