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Love, Cosmic Style

David Kronke, an occasional contributor to Calendar, is the senior writer at TV Guide Canada's L.A. bureau

In the world of celebrity pro-am invitational journalism, the best defense is a good offense. And Meg Ryan is artful at being defensive without giving offense--she studied journalism at New York University before becoming an actress, so she knows the rules of the sport.

“When I was in journalism school, they would tell you all these tricks, like try to talk to the person for a long time, wear ‘em down,” recalls Ryan, 36, sitting in a plush chair at Santa Monica’s beachfront hotel Shutters one recent afternoon, while the outside sunshine was being nudged aside by a lingering punch from El Nin~o.

“Then,” she continues, pointing to the center of her palm, “say this is the question you want answered--you ask all the way around it.” Her finger spirals inward on her palm, taking its sweet time to reach the center again.

She theorizes that she might be a “lousy” interview subject--then again, she self-deprecatingly offers that she probably wouldn’t have been much of a Woodward or Bernstein either. But she adds that she never tests her hypothesis by reading her interviews. So, when a recent magazine interview is quoted for her, in which she commented that she feels pretty much tapped out in terms of finding notes to play in romantic comedies, she cocks her head with great interest. (After all, she is currently shooting “You’ve Got Mail,” a romantic comedy with Tom Hanks directed by Nora Ephron, her collaborators on the hit “Sleepless in Seattle.”)

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“I am?” A bemused smile erupts on her face, but she doesn’t go the I-was-misquoted or my-comments-were-taken-out-of-context route so popular with many of those chagrined to find words come back to haunt them. The idea of her words carrying some sort of resonance with someone somewhere clearly amusing her, she smiles sweetly as she proclaims, laughing, “I am so full of [expletive]!”

Meg Ryan in repose is very similar to the Meg Ryan of the romantic comedies through which America has taken her to heart--on this afternoon, she’s looking very reminiscent of her “When Harry Met Sally . . . " character, in a sporty tan pantsuit accented with a black shirt with thin white stripes and white socks inside black leather loafers, her smile at the ready.

Observes Ephron, who also wrote “When Harry Met Sally . . . " and directed “Sleepless in Seattle” and the coming-at-Christmas “You’ve Got Mail”: “If you’re making a movie where the lead actress is supposed to be funny, Meg is funny--she does that better than almost anybody. And yet she can also make you cry. She can also be in movies where she doesn’t do either and is great.

“What she brings to a romantic comedy is not the comedy or the romantic, but that movie-star thing where you like her and think you know her, where you think you would be close friends with her. She brings that right into a movie with her.”

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And yet Ryan insists on showing that there is much more to her than the ability to charm a nation of moviegoers. She possesses a keen edge that drives her to stretch herself, to take on less comfort-inducing roles, such as an alcoholic in “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a gung-ho military sort in “Courage Under Fire,” or her current turn in “City of Angels,” in which she plays Maggie, a heart surgeon who, after losing a patient, suffers from a crisis of faith in her science.

Ryan states flatly, “I probably wouldn’t be able to do romantic comedies if I didn’t do these other things, because I wouldn’t find that I was growing.”

“City of Angels,” which opened Friday, is based on German director Wim Wenders’ 1987 art-house classic “Wings of Desire,” which was optioned by Disney nearly a decade back. (The original German title is more approximately translated “Heaven Over Berlin,” and therefore proves the Hollywood-ized title closer to its inspiration’s tone than cynics might expect.) Rights were subsequently diverted to Warner Bros. (Wenders recently admitted surprise that Hollywood would buy rights to his movie, since the idea of an angel alighting upon Earth is, as he conceded, not terribly new.)

In both films, brooding angels sift through the psychological wreckage of a large city, divining its populace’s hopes and despairs. One angel (Bruno Ganz in Wenders’ version; Nicolas Cage in the remake) happens upon a young woman (a trapeze artist in the original, Ryan’s heart surgeon here) and is smitten. A former angel (Peter Falk in the Wenders’ film, retooled today as “NYPD Blue’s” Dennis Franz) aids the fallen angel in his journey upon this faulty yet glorious Earth.

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Hence, Ryan--perhaps not such a stretch--plays a woman who can coax an angel from his heavenly perch. Yet there is more to her character than her moving yet evanescent glow. Ryan attacks the unromantic, troubling, earthy aspects of her character expertly, and slowly, surely, she is convincing others of her range.

“It was easy to play scenes where I was in awe of Meg’s character,” says Cage, who portrays the earthbound angel Seth. “The way she played her heart surgeon was with such a celebration of life. Everything Meg did made my job easier. She’s a serious actress, and I appreciate that, and yet she’s playful, she makes the day go by easier. She just naturally exudes that charm that we’ve all come to love about her.

“I do believe this is her best performance,” Cage says. “She has been given a part that gives her an opportunity to play notes she’s always had, yet other material didn’t allow her to display. A heart surgeon is something difficult to pull off convincingly. I was not surprised, but very impressed.”

Wenders, who had some initial questions about a Hollywood remake, gives the film and Ryan high marks. He says of the actress, “She has a rare gift. Even some great actors, even movie stars, don’t have her gift. They rarely let people look right through them. What she is in films is what she is, which is a rare quality. She says to the audience, ‘This is me, and I’m not phony and you can trust me.’ She’s not hiding behind her parts--she is those parts. I like that. In her roles, she’s saying, ‘I’m also giving of myself 100%.’ ”

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“City of Angels” director Brad Silberling--who admits he’s making a 180-degree turn from his previous film, “Casper"--says of Ryan: “Her biggest leap of faith here was not trying to charm, but being absolutely strong, aggressive and not apologetic, as her character needs to be. She absolutely went for it. After we’d shoot, she went, ‘Ohmigod! Isn’t it amazing?’

“She never second-guessed herself while we were shooting. She was stripped down and honest enough to want audiences to accept her as a cardiac surgeon. She knew it was a stretch for people to buy it, and she wanted them to have the tools to buy it. She did not want to cute-up the performance.”

Silberling adds that for the love scenes, he, Ryan and Cage spoke in a form of shorthand that included references to MTV (for more romantic, rhythmic movements) and ESPN (for more athletic achievements).

For her part, Ryan says she knew she wanted to inhabit “City of Angels” before she ever finished reading the script.

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“About 30 pages in, it goes past your head and into your body, that you just have to do this script. I thought it was a great love story because of the obstacles that kept [Maggie and Seth] apart. They’re able to be in the same frame, but still apart. I thought how the script cultivated the desire and the lust and the longing and kept them apart long enough and put them together at the right place.

“I just thought it really worked as a romance. Romances are generally as good as the obstacles are, how believable the obstacles are that keep the people apart for as long as you can--where people want them to be together, and then put them together in a way that’s great. . . . That’s comforting and romantic and sexy, too.”

Ryan adds that over the years, her attitude toward film has changed. “It used to be that I was interested in the technical challenges of a movie--can I play three different parts in a movie? [as she did in ‘Joe vs. the Volcano,’ her first film with Hanks]--and I didn’t care what a movie was saying. But I’ve become much more interested in what it says. I love what this movie is getting at. I like to serve an idea that appeals to me.”

Still, she was engaged by this film’s challenges, including playing opposite a soulful-eyed Cage, yet not acknowledging his presence--he being an angel, and she being an earthbound human who didn’t know he was there.

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“The hardest thing about having to work with that man is having to ignore him,” she says with a laugh. “It’s almost impossible. All you want is to be in the zone with that other actor. He’s just heaven. I had to come up with something logisitically every time we shot that way. The first day of shooting, we had to do a scene where I’m on a stairwell, and my character is extremely upset, and he’s a couple of inches from me. I had to figure out a way not to see him, so I focused on a small section in the white of his eye, and it looked like I was looking right through him. Each scene, we’d have to figure something out like that.”

Wenders, whose father was a doctor and who also studied medicine, also gives the actress high marks for her ability to play a surgeon convincingly. “After her first scene in an operating room, I totally believed in her. I would undergo surgery with her. She must have done much research. Her casualness about it is the most amazing thing.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever played a professional like that,” she says. “There are very specific things to learn. I went to a number of open-heart surgeries. It was such a huge experience--I never, ever thought that this was a place I would be. Last March, I was standing in an O.R. looking at a human heart, beating and then not beating.

“You’re right there, you’re standing at the head of the table and the heart is right there. [She reaches out to a point just a few feet from her.] The first time I went--I didn’t want to go, I thought I would die, it would be nauseating. But when you step up and get the courage to take a peek, it’s a pretty incredible, beautiful, perfect thing. You become aware that there’s this room of people whose job it is to do this three or four times a day. They don’t even consider it compassion.

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“The first time you’re very aware of the miracle of it, and the next time you’re watching the way she’s tying the knot, and the next time after that, you’re just talking shop. That was what I wanted to understand--how it could evolve from a miracle to a job.”

Once, she accompanied the doctor to meet with the patient’s family--who recognized her. “The doctor said, ‘You’re husband’s gonna be fine.’ That was major. It was so odd that I had seen her husband’s heart, his literal heart.”

So what did she learn about the human heart, the organ that beats and pumps blood and doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the actual process of falling in love?

“It looks like chicken,” Ryan says, laughing. “You know how when you’re washing a chicken, there’s skin that collects in between the wings--I asked, ‘Can’t you liposuction that out of there?’ He said, ‘If this was Beverly Hills, I could.’ ”

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And what does Ryan believe to be at the heart of successful romantic comedies, her most celebrated genre?

“What’s funny to do in romantic comedy is hate-and-love, hate-and-love; all that great antagonism is really fun,” she says. “They have to really be fighting about something, they have to have really strong opposite opinions about something.”

In “You’ve Got Mail,” her character runs a neighborhood children’s bookstore threatened by Hanks’ character’s successful chain bookstore. In a ‘90s variation of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 film “The Shop Around the Corner,” she and Hanks’ characters become involved through computer e-mail.

It’s also worth noting that the “hate-and-love” thing recalls her early days of courtship with her husband, Dennis Quaid. Ryan has recalled that she initially resisted his charms.

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“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, no! Him?’ ” she once said. They married Valentine’s Day 1991.

At one point in the interview, her and Quaid’s 6-year-old son, Jack Henry, bursts in the room, collapsing dramatically on the floor. “I need a toothpick!” he exclaims, writhing about in a “Rugrats” T-shirt, insisting he senses a weird smell somewhere. “I need a toothpick for my nose!”

Ryan corrects him: “A clothespin, not a toothpick!” But Jack will not be so easily swayed: “I need a toothpick and a clothespin!” he roars a couple of times.

When he leaves, Ryan is told that it appears there is yet another actor in the family--Jack Henry definitely has a presence. “Major!” she says, laughing. She adds, with a mock shudder, “Shocking!”

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Still, she’s fiercely protective of her private life--she even declines to speculate on what kind of project it would take for her to appear again on-screen with her husband. “It’s not really what we talk about,” she says, flatly.

She has scant interest reviewing her career. Her first film was 1981’s “Rich and Famous,” followed by a spate of B-movies.

Of “Amityville 3-D,” she recalls, “The only direction we ever got was to do things toward the camera--'Really reach for that, Meg!’ ” She makes her point by throwing her arms in slow motion toward an imaginary camera. She also did some bad TV (including a stint on the soap “As the World Turns”).

“At this point, I have to own up to all this crap that I’ve done,” she says with resignation.

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Since her breakthrough, critics and audiences alike have become so enamored of her as the beguilingly ditsy heroine of romantic comedies that not only can they be thrown by her more serious roles, they also seem to balk at her oddball performances in more skewed comedies like “Joe vs. the Volcano” and last year’s “Addicted to Love.”

“I like playing ‘characters'--that, to me, is fun,” she says. “It’s harder to play it closer [to myself], there’s less to hold on to. I’m [engaged] by the vividness of the character on the page, there’s something to grab on to and use. A lot of times, scripts are sent to me in varying states of unreadiness.”

Here, she hits unsuspectingly upon an element of her success--her ability to sell what might otherwise be a hokey or humdrum moment. Ephron notes that Ryan made her character’s brief initial encounter from afar with Hanks in “Sleepless"--they had never met, yet all she does is gaze at him from across a highway--such a climactic moment.

“I kept thinking, ‘Is anyone gonna buy it?’ But they did,” Ephron says. “She makes everything completely believable. You sit and write stuff, and have no idea if you’re going to get Meg when you write. You think, ‘If we get Meg, this will work, and if not, we’ll have to rewrite it.’ ”

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Ryan now has her own production company, Prufrock, which has a number of projects in development, including a remake of the bitchy 1939 classic “The Women” and a Sylvia Plath bio-pic, a film she most fervently would like to see completed.

At present, however, she remains haunted by “City of Angels” and the questions it poses about the search for meaning in one’s own life.

“They’ve captivated great thinkers for thousands and thousands of years,” she says, then personally offers, “I don’t have any answers, but I’m enjoying the questions.”


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