TORONTO - Imagine Doris Day deciding to skip her next romantic comedy with Rock Hudson and partake in a little creepy soft porn and you see the uphill battle Meg Ryan faces with her new erotic thriller In the Cut. When we think of Meg Ryan we think neurotic screwball with the lips of the cutest trout ever and eyes with a comic sparkle.
She knows this, of course; she said it herself during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. When we think Meg Ryan we think Queen of Romantic Comedy and buddy Tom Hanks and Norah Ephron and date movies you have to drag men to see, assuming these men aren't Harry Connick, Jr.
We think America's Sweetheart - this stops her dead. Mention her nickname, and you solicit one of three reactions: a sigh, a wince, or a stare that says “You want me to react but I'm not going to.”
Then after a pause she says “That's an archetype people want me to play. It's not me.”
Fair enough. But it's safe to say when we think of Meg Ryan we don't think dismemberment and serial killers and a sweaty New York City murder investigation that feels like it takes place in Lower Manhattan in 1973, just around the corner from Jane Fonda's Klute, before they closed the strip joints and swept away the trash. We don't think sex scenes that flirt with an NC-17, and America's Sweetheart at their center, extremely naked. We don't think art house icons like director Jane Campion, best known for The Piano.
But that's In the Cut, a Campion adaptation of Susanna Moore's sexually charged serial killer novel - opening in Toledo on Halloween, appropriately enough. In it Meg Ryan tries on an outfit we haven't seen: the edgy indie screen siren with a fatalistic fetish. (And because typically edgy indie siren Jennifer Jason Leigh co-stars, things really get confusing.)
“I had never read for anything like this before,” Ryan said. “The truth is I just don't get offered these kind of movies. I know what they are. I know they're out there. I love the movies of the '70s, I really love those movies. Jane always said she was going for a Klute feel.
“Those sort of films never came to me. When you think of it, she was really pretty brave to cast me. I mean, a few days ago, Jane saw French Kiss on TV and - this is so funny - as soon as we saw each other she said, ‘I believe you have some kind of facility for comedy.'”
The shoe fits, for better and worse. Since When Harry Met Sally, her 1989 breakthrough, Ryan has starred in the following light comedies: Joe Versus the Volcano, Prelude to a Kiss, Sleepless in Seattle, I.Q., French Kiss, Addicted to Love, You've Got Mail, Hanging Up, and Kate & Leopold. You could say this woman needs a change. But for this interview I got the usual Meg: vintage leather skirt, brown shirt unbuttoned but not too revealing, fly-away haircut, smart, spunky, happy. Only her face looked somewhat different than I expected, somewhat spacier, like that frozen expression on Mickey Mouse as he wanders Disneyland.
For In the Cut - whether you think she works in it or not, and reviews have been wildly mixed - Ryan strips away most that familiar celebrity (along with all of her clothes), to play Frannie Avery, a lonely romance-sick creative writing teacher who finds herself dodging a serial killer and sexually involved with a police detective (Mark Ruffalo), all the while wondering if her lover and her stalker are related in some way.
“The chance to do an exploration of a complicated woman was a dream come true,” she said. “I really wanted this, to do a character so full of gloom and heartbreak, so disappointed by life. She's sunken into herself and yet the universe, in all its benevolence, says no, you don't get to just disappear.”
Nicole Kidman was the first choice for Frannie. Her you can see tackling the existential crisis and getting lost in poetry on the subway. Indeed, Kidman bought the rights with Campion in mind, but dropped out when her public split with Tom Cruise was taking its toll.
“The hardest part of directing is casting,” Campion said. “Because the cast is a leap of faith. Meg was the best leap we could make. I knew it would be brilliant if it worked. Because I like courage. I like people who try something outside themselves and don't want to try but do it anyway. That's courage. The only thing Meg complained about, a lot, was the coffee.”
Ryan said she auditioned - which is movie star code for, I wanted this role so badly I showed up on time - and took a pay cut. “The experience just changed everything for me,” Ryan said. “It introduced me to someone like Jane and just that bit helps. I think the first thing she said to me was, ‘This is like a restaurant that serves one thing; if you don't want it, don't come.' She's busy expressing herself. I love the outsider vibe she has. She would say to me, ‘We're going to kill romance with this movie.' She is not about pleasing anybody. She has freedom as an artist because she has freedom as a person, and that was a revelation.
“That gets lost making a big Hollywood comedy. It's less about the personal expression of ideas about life and something simpler, like making people laugh or hitting a familiar note.”
On the upside, the first assistant gaffer on a big Hollywood comedy doesn't see you naked. Campion saved the sex scenes between Ryan and Ruffalo for the last days of production. “It wasn't terrible,” Ryan said. “Just awful and hysterical. You feel awkward, the set looks strange, you're worried about having a good butt. It's not like the greatest day in your life.”
What was more important, she said, was that someone look beyond typecasting. “It's a dream for an actor to find an environment where the camera is reading your mind and the director is as interested in your interior life as you are and somehow finds a way to express it in film. You are seeing into your own head as opposed to what someone else thinks of you.”
The irony of In the Cut is that it coincides with a moment when her public life, the one playing out at supermarket check-outs and on Entertainment Tonight, has diverged from her on-screen persona. A cynic would say it's as if her divorce from husband Dennis Quaid and fling with Russell Crowe - which she won't talk about and I don't care enough to ask about - has given her the license to stretch. Ryan herself says she would have never considered a film like In the Cut during her You've Got Mail days of Tom Hanks and roses.
The problem is going back.
“It's like climbing in a tiny high-performance jet instead of a big 747. You can make any little move you want and it doesn't throw everything into disarray. When it rained, Jane used that. When something went wrong she would just say, ‘It's a brave new world.' I love that.”