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After years out of the spotlight, Meg Ryan's ready to claim a spot behind, and in front of, the camera

Meg Ryan is an overwhelmingly familiar woman. Her warm, smiling face, which looks up from a table at the restaurant in the Hotel Bel-Air where she is scribbling on a pile of papers, offers the sense that you really know her. And in many ways, you do.

Ryan, visiting Los Angeles for a few days before jetting back to New York, is a woman we grew up watching, one who gave us hope that there was a kind, perfect man (usually resembling Tom Hanks) out there for all of us. That life, even with its turbulent ups and downs, was colorful and quirky — and always ended with a passionate kiss in front of the glowing New York skyline.

The actress is one of the most essential romantic comedy icons of our time, whether it’s faking an orgasm in a diner in “When Harry Met Sally” or chasing Hanks’ widower across the country in “Sleepless in Seattle.”

For more than a decade, Ryan was the go-to heroine of these happy-go-lucky stories, but in the late ’90s that started to shift. She reunited with Hanks in “You’ve Got Mail” in 1998 and tested her hand at a pseudo-period comedy in “Kate & Leopold” in 2001. Adjusted for inflation, her 30 films have made $2.3 billion. 

But for the past 15 years, Ryan has appeared in only a handful of films, most of which didn’t really register with the public. To many, in fact, it felt as if she vanished.

“There’s this idea that being out of the spotlight is somehow dissatisfying,” she says, letting her coffee go cold while she talks. “It’s not. It’s actually pretty enriching and great.”

Ryan has been off living a life we just couldn’t see. She’s been raising her two kids, actor son Jack Quaid, from her marriage with Dennis Quaid, and daughter Daisy, whom she adopted from China in 2006. She moved back to New York, leaving behind the world of Hollywood. She doesn’t care that her name isn’t emblazoned on cinema marquees anymore.

There’s a liberty in knowing you don’t need the spotlight anymore. That’s allowed Ryan, 54, to handpick the projects she focuses on, particularly her recent directorial debut “Ithaca,” a film that was several years in the making.

“I had the big ride,” she says, with pride evident in her voice. “I went to the moon. I had all that. I don’t need that anymore. So I have a real freedom, a real free operating principle. It’s about what’s interesting. What is a story I want to share? What environment do I want to be in? Who do I want to be around?”

“Ithaca,” based somewhat loosely on the 1943 novel “The Human Comedy” by William Saroyan, follows a teenage boy named Homer Macauley (Alex Neustaedter) who comes of age while delivering telegraphs in his hometown during World War II. It’s a quiet, poetic story that Ryan likens to European films. She calls it “a simple story about complicated things,” and she wanted to explore the idea that though death is inevitable there is also inherent hope and beauty.

Ryan first discovered the novel nearly a decade ago, when her son was still young, and was moved by Saroyan’s observations about life. She had never intended to direct a film, but something about this felt right. “I just came to it,” she says, shrugging. “I thought I could tell the story.”

For Ryan, there were three sets of skills she called upon when she arrived on set in Petersburg, Va., where the cast, which also includes Jack Quaid and Hanks, and crew spent 23 days filming. The actress has obviously spent  a great deal of time on set, but her talent at renovating houses (which she’s been doing since she first moved to L.A. and redid a home in Laurel Canyon) and as a mother gave her the drive to build “Ithaca.”

“You just want to create a world that people want to be in,” Ryan reflects. “I know when I watch a movie there’s either worlds I like to be in or worlds I don’t like to be in. In this case, I felt like we could create a world that an audience would just want to be in. When you’re renovating a house you have this idea — you're not a craftsperson but you have to be able to communicate visual ideas to craftspeople — and you have a budget and you have a time. It’s pretty similar.”

Ryan’s enthusiasm and intense focus on the story translated outward. “She was so passionate about the film,” Neustaedter says of Ryan, who cast him an hour after seeing his audition. “It was inspiring. The passion really translated through everyone on the film. There was a creative, collaborative atmosphere the entire time.”

“Coming from acting, Meg has a strong knowledge of set life from the actor's perspective,” adds producer Laura Ivey. “She had an easy relationship with the actors while also making sure she got what she needed. She wanted to know their thoughts and trusted their instincts. She created a warm, friendly and professional tone on the set.”

Ryan refers to herself as “not a natural performer,” emphasizing that she arrived at her acting career accidentally. The Fairfield, Conn. native was a journalism major at New York University who took acting gigs to pay the bills and then suddenly found herself cast in movies like “Top Gun” and “Armed and Dangerous.” She claims not to have the same drive to perform that she sees in her son. “It turned out to be fun to tell the stories,” Ryan says of the reason she carried on with her acting career. “That’s the flat-out, straight truth: It turned out to be fun.”

But now, after making “Ithaca,” in which she directed herself in a few scenes, Ryan might want to give acting another shot. She has a deal with Working Title Films to direct a romantic comedy set in the publishing industry that currently is being penned by Delia Ephron, and she’s looking into optioning several novels for possible development. But being behind the camera reminded Ryan of why she likes being in front of it.

“I’m interested in it again, but it’s not like this enormous desire,” she says. “But I am interested. On a movie set, anything else is somewhat quantifiable. Two plus two equals four in most ways. You can set the camera at a certain stop with this lens. But you don’t know about the actors. They’re going to come on and there’s a real mystery and a magic to it. Will this scene live or not? I think the actors sometimes don’t know or not if they’re going to be able to bring something to life. It’s very mysterious, you know?”

Ryan doesn’t know where this newly rediscovered desire will take her. She cares about surrounding herself with creative people and artists, both with films and in other aspects of her life, but there’s no real plan. The sole blueprint is a tattoo on Ryan’s inner arm, which she got a few years ago in Brooklyn on whim. It reads, “Life is short.” And the actress follows that sentiment. She doesn’t look back, only forward. “You know what you know and you do what you do,” she says simply. “And hopefully you’re just alive and curious.”

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