Brow Beat

Sex Scenes Didn’t Kill Meg Ryan’s Career. Being a Woman in Hollywood Did.

Meg Ryan stands in front of a Friars Club Entertainment Icon Awards banner, smiling with shoulder-length blonde hair.
Meg Ryan at the Friars Club Entertainment Icon Awards in 2018.
Kena Betancur/Getty Images

In a new interview with the New York Times Magazine, Meg Ryan says her career in front of the camera tapered off in the early 2000s because she was cut out for neither acting nor fame. The former left her feeling like she was “burning through life experiences” in the roles she played without having any of her own. The latter placed a barrier—“so much metal,” like the impermeable shell of a fancy car, she says—between her and the rest of the world.

Now that she’s out from under the gaze of the paparazzi, Ryan says, she’s “free to have fun” with fiancé John Mellencamp, and free to write or direct without being pigeonholed as an actress. And not just any actress—a very specific type fit for very specific roles. Known as “America’s Sweetheart” for her roles in beloved romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally, she drew criticism for her star turn in 2003’s much racier In the Cut.

“The reaction was vicious,” Ryan tells David Marchese. She continued: “Since then, I’ve had publicists say to me, ‘You should’ve prepared your audience for your doing something different.’ … I’d never presented myself like that before; it was so different from my assigned archetype. Probably I had a very neutered image.”

Journalists covering the film at the time didn’t hide their—possibly feigned—shock at Ryan’s participation in In the Cut’s graphic sex scenes. She recalls British talk show host Michael Parkinson scolding her, “How could you be naked?” In a 2003 Entertainment Weekly piece titled “Meg Ryan Bares All, Makes Leading Man Nervous,” In the Cut co-star Mark Ruffalo claimed that, during filming, he was scared of underperforming because of Ryan’s romantic history with sexy men. “All I could think of is ‘what am I going to be like compared to Russell Crowe?’” Ruffalo said.

In contrast, Ryan and her co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh spent the Entertainment Weekly article downplaying the significance of those scenes. “There are some things in the movie that were much more difficult than the sex scenes, like playing a character who doesn’t talk much, which is something new for me,” Ryan said. Leigh noted that Ryan had always been able to act with the sort of eroticism she channeled in In the Cut—“It just wasn’t asked of her before.”

In the new Marchese interview, Ryan calls her In the Cut role a “real turning point” that marked the end of her stardom. (She says she and Hollywood tired of each other around the same time; she’s appeared in a handful of movies since then but is trying to turn to directing.) That self-diagnosis adds a new data point to our broadening understanding of the twisted and treacherous paths to success for women in Hollywood. Ryan says that early in her career she shied away from marketing herself as a sex symbol, and had decided to be “the funny person rather than the pretty person.” Then, when she split from husband Dennis Quaid and starred in a film that called for explicit sexuality, her audience felt betrayed.

Ryan’s sweet, fresh-faced persona was a fickle sort of cultural currency, a cachet that could be undone by a single unexpected role. But the opposite route would have been no easier: Actresses who start off in sex symbol mode (see: Megan Fox) have found it difficult to be accepted as anything else. Ryan now says the “America’s Sweetheart” nickname didn’t allow for “the full expression of a person.” “But,” she says in the new interview, “that’s what movie stardom is. There’s a blankness required.” And that’s how a brilliant comedic actress decides she’d rather take up photography and attend TED conferences than take risks on the silver screen.