No matter which roles Meg Ryan signs on to play, for some reason audiences always remember her -- and want to see her -- as the quirky, perky, lovable heroine in romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. While that has given the Fairfield, Conn., native a nice life -- she recently sold her New York apartment and lives in Los Angeles full-time with her son, Jack Henry (dad is Ryan's ex, Dennis Quaid) -- it's also given her quite a battle when it comes to convincing studio executives, directors and critics that she has a range.
Even a full-frontal nude scene -- her first -- in her last film, In the Cut, wasn't enough to fill theater seats. The crime thriller, about an erotic affair between a professor (Ryan) and a detective (Mark Ruffalo), was largely panned by critics and deemed "too dark" for someone who had been dubbed America's Sweetheart. Her collaboration with Russell Crowe in the 2000 action adventure Proof of Life fared no better, though that's probably because her real-life drama (an affair with costar Crowe and subsequent split from hubby Quaid) was more thrilling than the movie's plot.
Despite this, Ryan, a former soap star, defiantly continues to go against the grain, choosing roles that appeal to her, not just rake in box-office dollars. It's this fighting spirit that plays a large part in her latest film, Against the Ropes, a comedy/drama that's a fictionalized account of the life of Jackie Kallen, a female boxing promoter who struggled to succeed in a male-dominated sport.
"Did I have to convince a lot of people that I was right for the role? Maybe," laughs Ryan. "But I think Roc [director/costar Charles S. Dutton] and I found the same things funny about her, and the same things audacious about her, and the same things touching and inspiring. Jackie's definitely not a character that I've done before, so this was a great opportunity for me."
Ryan knew very little about boxing when she signed on ("I knew nothing at all!"), so she signed up for lessons herself, though she claims not to be very good, and logged many hours with the real Jackie Kallen learning all the ins and outs of the sport.
"We spent quite a bit of time together," explains Ryan. "Poor thing, actually -- I'd be in a room with her just examining what kind of nail polish she was wearing (laughs). We watched a lot of tapes together and went to a lot of fights. She gave me lots of advice -- life advice, boxing advice. A lot of information."
By Hollywood standards, three-time Golden Globe nominee Ryan has a fairly no-fuss appearance, so the two-hour daily visits to the makeup chair to become Jackie were an adjustment, as were the hair, nails and breasts, which were all enhanced as part of her transformation. Ryan also took baby steps adjusting to Jackie's penchant for high-heeled shoes -- at first she was so bad that the producer offered to hire someone to teach her to walk in them! Luckily, her performance soon came more naturally.
"Playing a character that's a real person is not much different of a job than playing a fictional character, because my job as an actor is to interpret either what's on the page or a real person for the purposes of the narrative," Ryan says. "In a way there were a lot of shortcuts in this movie. I could ask her anything I wondered about. Then I felt like I had to take it away from the real person and just make it a character for myself."
Although Ryan logged many hours watching fights, ranging from parking lot bouts to a championship in Vegas, it's a retired boxing legend that she thinks is the greatest.
"Well, I have to say that my heart is still all about that Muhammad Ali," she smiles. "I can't help it. He's really, really hilarious and moving. I love his story. That's the thing about the boxing world that I realized: So often the sport is interesting or not just because of the personalities of the boxers. Roc said, and I think it's so true, in the world of boxing, at least in our world of boxing, all of these characters think they're big shots. They're all really self-important and, to me, there's something really hilarious with that."
Though Ryan isn't currently attached to a new project, she does have a few things in the works. "I'm going to go do a couple of independent movies next," she teases, "but the financing is always cobbled together so they tell you not to talk about them."
Whatever it is, we're sure she'll come out swinging.