Amy Ryan is an actress who is possessed of impeccable instincts about her choice of roles on television (The Wire, The Office) and in features (Gone Baby Gone, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). She co-stars with Paul Giamatti in director Tom McCarthy’s Sundance hit Win Win, which opens in the UK this Friday, and in July she appears with Philip Seymour Hoffman in his assured directorial debut Jack Goes Boating. I spoke with Ms. Ryan recently about Win Win, her career to date, and what interests her when choosing parts.

HeyUGuys: Win Win director Tom McCarthy was a fellow cast member in the final season of The Wire, and he also plays your employer, the creepy Dr. Bob, in Jack Goes Boating. You were also neighbours at one point in Greenwich Village, and I read that he wrote the part of Jackie with you in mind. Had you discussed working together on one of his films in the past?

AR: When I first saw The Station Agent I knew this was a director that I wanted to work with, and I think I just mentioned that in passing to Tom at one point when I was congratulating him on the film. It was unexpected to get a phone call from him one day saying that he was writing something that had a part he had me in mind for, and I just thought ‘great!’ before I even read it. When I did read it I was very excited about it, and about Tom’s process, which is truly collaborative. He gave me an early version of the script and we had a lot of contact as the character evolved; he’s very inclusive with that. That was a fulfilling way to work.

HeyUGuys: You’ve played a mother in the past (including a particularly bad one in Gone Baby Gone, a film I adore), but you were actually a very recent first time mother when you worked on Win Win. Do you feel that effected your portrayal or brought something to your understanding of parenthood you might not have had before?

AR: It had to have. When I started filming my daughter was 6 months old, so the hormones alone had to help the performance, even just in making me very protective of the younger girls, played by twins, on set. Between their nap and food schedules, I knew why they were crying, and I would never have known that before. Maybe in the past I would have thought that being a good mom is the boring part, but it’s actually very fulfilling. I have a new appreciation for those roles. That said, in Tom’s script he wrote a really active character who is a big part of the story, she’s not just a witness to Mike’s (Giammati’s) journey in the film.

HeyUGuys: As a parent myself I found the arc of your relationship with Kyle very believable, moving as it does from suspicion and distrust, which is a protective impulse towards your daughters, to feelings of maternal tenderness for him. Did you work on developing that emotional change and growth in advance, or did that just emerge from the script when you were shooting?

AR: A little bit of both, and a lot of it was in the script. I remember Tom and I talking for a long time about the lock, that moment when she tries to lock him (Kyle) in the basement. Why would there be a lock on the outside? Well, you put those locks on because you don’t want the kids to be able to open the door when they’re smaller. I think that moment is so true because she IS a protective mother, and she’s right in the beginning; she doesn’t know who this kid is, and she has small kids of her own, she’s right to be nervous and skeptical. She’s not perfect, locking someone in a basement is a fire trap, but that’s her instinct, to protect her own first. I think I’d do the same.

HeyUGuys: Alex Shaffer who plays Kyle had never acted before, and perhaps that is why his character seems as 3 dimensional as he does; there is none of the self-conscious artifice about him that there is with many teen actors. Does working with very green young actors make the process of building sincere on screen relationships quite different than working with much more experienced actors?

AR: One of the big differences is the time spent. Alex needed more time when the cameras were on him in close-up because he had to be reminded of certain technical things, like not overlapping dialogue, or holding your prop in the correct hand so that it matches the master. He still brought the same devotion and dedication as a more experienced actor, and he was very serious and passionate about it. The difference when working with someone like Paul Giammati is that we would do a scene faster, I mean it’s Paul, he’s a different kettle of fish. Alex was so deeply impressive though, he was never intimidated and was always enthusiastic. The big thing about him being a teenager is that he listens, I think that’s a big reason why he is so good in the film. He really listened to Tom and his direction, and I think Tom did a beautiful job with getting him to simplify and to throw things away and trust his instinct.

HeyUGuys: Having watched many of your performances I feel that you communicate a lot of emotion with your eyes and I think that forms a big part of how you play off Mr. Giammati in Win Win and how the audience reads you. Jackie clearly knows something is amiss with him but as in a lot of marriages she asks him about it gently and he reassures her that all is fine, and she doesn’t force a confrontation with him. Is that a fair reading on my part?

AR: I think so and again I think that’s credit to Tom as well, who allows for those moments that aren’t necessarily written on the page. That human interaction is what excites me and is what I enjoy.

HeyUGuys: I interviewed director Ken Loach recently, and he made an interesting observation when I asked him about genre films, something which he very definitely doesn’t make. He said that he strongly dislikes genre films and their conventions as he feels they dehumanise actors’ performances and make the characters far less believable. I think it’s safe to say that even when you have appeared in things which can be said to belong to a specific genre (The Wire is a police procedural, The Office is a sitcom) they are usually things which have a fresh take on it. Do you deliberately seek out these kinds of more inventive projects that have fresh takes on old tropes?

AR: Definitely. For me it’s the writing; if it’s not on the page there’s no way, no way, that it’s going to get on the screen. You might find moments that you can make interesting but as a whole, if it’s not on the page, no way. I read something Jane Fonda said about this, which was interesting. She said that when you play 2 dimensional characters in something that’s poorly written, it hurts your body, it hurts your 3 dimensional self to shove it into a 2 dimensional role. And it’s true, you start feeling insecure and not as good an actor. Ultimately, it’s bullshit, it’s just following a formula. In the worlds of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Jack Goes Boating and this film, they take equal time in telling a story and letting it unfold and also allowing air in, just enough air where it’s not indulgent but enough air for those human moments that make an audience go ‘oh, I remember that’. That’s the moment that pulls an audience in, as opposed to just letting an audience sit back on the back foot and simply being told something or just being entertained. Those moments of air pull them in and make them an active part of the story.

Win Win is out in cinemas 20th May