Meg Ryan: An accidental movie star returns

Back in 1993, the summer screen featured Meg Ryan in the romantic comedy “Sleepless In Seattle.” In a new film THIS summer, Meg Ryan is making her mark out of camera range.  Here’s Jane Pauley on Ryan’s career ... past, present, and future:

Meg Ryan introduced a new generation to the romantic comedy in 1989’s “When Harry Met Sally.”

“I remember reading the script and thinking it was such a delight because the dialogue was so fast,” Ryan said. “It was very old-school kind of rhythm. And when I read it I thought it was music that I would want to play.”

And more than 25 years later, the deli scene is a Hollywood classic:

When Harry Met Sally... (6/11) Movie CLIP - I'll Have What She's Having (1989) HD by Movieclips on YouTube

Pauley asked, “How many takes did that take?”

“I’m sure it was all day. Because by the end, who cared what sound I made?” Ryan laughed. “Just making all kinds of big sounds! Everybody was used to it by then in the deli.”

Ryan’s Girl Next Door-meets-Modern Woman appeal paired with Tom Hanks in the 1990s romantic comedies “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.”

“Romantic comedies in particular are not too funny,” Ryan said. “The notes you have to hit are -- you really have to be kind of very specific. It’s very sort of refined little place you have to get to.”

“And in a great romantic comedy, maybe the actress doesn’t get her due professionally because, well, it just looks so natural?”

“It looks easy. Those are the hard ones to do, though.”

Ryan made them look effortless, though she was not a trained actress.

meg-ryan-with-jane-pauley-marthas-vineyard-620.jpg

Meg Ryan, right, with correspondent Jane Pauley.

CBS News

So how did she become an actor? “I was paying my way through journalism school,” Ryan chuckled. “Jane, you scoffed when I said it before, but you, on television in the morning, were such an inspiration to me -- so elegant, so funny, so smart.”

“So out of her depth?”

“So not out of her depth, so making everything accessible to everybody. I guess it’s hard to hear that. But it is true.”

“Well, that’s pretty thrilling. But your path was meant to be dramatically otherwise?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Known as Peggy Hyra at New York University, in the early ‘80s commercials helped pay tuition.

Meg Ryan in 1982 Burger King Commercial by Beta MAX on YouTube

“I’d go uptown and do auditions,” she said. “And then I would write papers. Like, I wrote a paper about my audition for a soap opera. And then I got the soap opera!”

“As the World Turns,” where Betsy Stewart Montgomery Andropoulus was beloved by millions.

Her first movie, “Rich and Famous,” sealed her fate as a Hollywood actress. She played the teenaged daughter of Candice Bergen.

“And that didn’t make you just crave fame?” asked Pauley.

“No, no. I never -- I always felt like that attention is just too weird to metabolize. So it’s nothing I ever chased. But once I got the parts, I wanted to be good at them.”

And parts kept coming. One of Hollywood’s Top 10 actresses in the 1990s … a billion dollars at the box office. Not bad for an accidental movie star.

“Then what happened?” asked Pauley.

“It wasn’t planned, but I would turn things down. Instead of going to work -- I don’t have to work, which is a wonderful thing to be able to say -- so I traveled instead. And ten years ago, I adopted my little girl. I love being a mom. And that’s a big part of my life.

“And I think sometimes as an artist, for me anyway, I felt a real desire to do nothing, to lay sort of fallow, like a field, you know? And do other things and meet other people and have the terms of life be different than the terms of Hollywood life.

But as Ryan has learned, Hollywood fame sets its own terms.

Pauley noted, “My husband once said of public figures, what you withhold, that blank you leave, people will fill it in. And they don’t do it in your favor.”

“That is true,” Ryan said. “Especially with the Internet. If you leave a vacuum, garbage will fill it!”

Ryan’s private life made tabloid headlines: her marriage, then divorce, from actor Dennis Quaid; the way she looked; or who she was seeing.

Ryan chose to stay above it all.

“There’s almost no win in any of that world of tabloid,” she said. “Because as soon as you defend yourself, there’s more story. And then more story that’s possibly a misnomer, too. So most of the time it’s just not worth it.”

So she concentrated on what mattered most to her: Being a mom.

And that doesn’t include her films. “Don’t you watch your movies with your kids?’ Pauley asked.

“No,” Ryan chuckled.

But she is is excited about making movies again. Now at 54, she’s behind the camera.

On Martha’s Vineyard -- where Ryan spends her summers -- she introduced “Ithaca,” her first movie in the role of director.

“I’m glad this little movie is going to make its little way out into the world,” she said. “It’s like a poem on a postcard.”

Based on the William Saroyan novel “The Human Comedy,” set during World War II, the movie’s central character is a 14-year-old boy on the cusp of manhood. Ryan plays his recently-widowed mother.

“I’ve always been more interested in being an observer,” she said. “So I feel now, this one movie, this little movie I directed, I felt like I came home to myself.

With a score by former boyfriend John Mellencamp, and featuring her 24-year-old son Jack Quaid, veteran Sam Shephard and a dear old friend, Tom Hanks.

“He did me this great favor by coming and playing this little part,” Ryan said. “And at the end of his day, he gathers everybody around [and] he says, ‘I know we’ve gotten really close in these last ten hours together! But I just wanted to thank you for for being here for my friend, Meg, and her first experience. Thank you all.’ And I mean, that’s a friend.”

“Ithaca” opens in theaters next week. And Meg Ryan is planning her next project: A romantic comedy.

And she’s not in it.

“No. No. No, just gonna direct that. We’ll see if I can do it. We’ll see if I can pull that off!”

To watch a trailer for “Ithaca,” click on the video player below.

Ithaca - Official Trailer by Momentum Pictures on YouTube

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