Meg Ryan, America’s sweetheart in the ’90s churning out iconic films like You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, is returning to the big screen after eight long years. Not only that, but the 61-year-old actress is going back to her rom-com roots with What Happens Later, a movie she also co-wrote and directed. In the film, Ryan plays Willa, who winds up delayed at an airport overnight with an ex-lover, played by David Duchovny.
“Sometimes there’s a question of: Will they be together? Will they not be together?” Ryan teased to Entertainment Weekly. “For that reason, [What Happens Later] sort of evolves the rom-com genre just a little bit. It’s also about old people, and it’s still romantic and sexy.”
This is Ryan’s first onscreen role since 2015’s Ithaca, which she also directed. Although the actress mastered rom-coms, her stardom superseded the genre with successful dramatic roles as well. But she all but disappeared from Hollywood over a decade ago — here’s why.
“I never wanted to be an actress.”
In a rare public appearance in 2018, Ryan attended the In Goop Health wellness summit where she spoke with Gwyneth Paltrow about leaving Hollywood, explaining she had been “very reactive instead of proactive,” when it came to her career.
“I didn’t really aim to be an actor,” she revealed. “I was a journalism major at school, and a curious person, and I wanted to go back out into the world and figure out who I was — am — in relation to other things and other people and other environments.”
Ryan told Paltrow she never wanted to be an actress and being famous added a whole other layer as she felt she had to be “this jiu-jitsu master to figure out what mirror you should actually be looking in.” The actress also weighed in on that infamous “America’s sweetheart” label.
“When you get labeled anything like ‘America’s sweetheart,’ I didn’t even know what that meant,” she explained. “Nora Ephron’s parents wrote scripts in old Hollywood and there was such a thing as America’s Sweetheart in the ’40s and she decided to say that about me one day and I remember thinking, ‘Is that good?'”
“I was burned out.”
In 2019, Ryan gave a candid interview to New York Times Magazine and had a pretty reasonable answer as to her absence: she was tired.
“I felt in a crazy way that, as an actor, I was burning through life experiences. Somehow I was a helicopter pilot or a journalist or an alcoholic,” she explained. (Ryan played a pilot in the military drama Courage Under Fire, a journalist in both classic films When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle and an alcoholic in When a Man Loves a Woman.)
“I didn’t feel like I knew enough anymore about myself or the world to reflect it as an actor. I felt isolated,” she continued, noting she felt isolated both in fame and in Hollywood.
“Ever get in a car — maybe it’s a superexpensive car — and the inside’s lovely, you can’t complain about it, but you can’t hear anything outside, because there’s so much metal? There’s so much between you and everything else,” Ryan added. “You’re at a disadvantage as a young, famous person because you don’t know who’s telling you the truth. I’m not complaining — there are so many advantages to being famous — but there are fundamental disadvantages for a part of your brain, your self, your soul. My experiences were too limited.”
Putting Hollywood on the back burner meant Ryan had more time to spend with loved ones — and she told People in 2019 she was “happy” with her life. Over the last 10 years, Ryan prioritized her two children: actor Jack Quaid, 31, whom she shares with ex-husband, Dennis Quaid, and Daisy True, 19. Ryan adopted her daughter in 2006 after her highly-publicized split from Quaid.
Ryan was in an off and on relationship with John Mellencamp during most of her acting hiatus with the two calling off their engagement at the end of 2019. A few months before the split, the actress admitted her priorities shifted.
“Most of all, what I’m ambitious for in the 12 hours a day that I’m awake is my kids’ happiness,” she shared. “I just am. I’m either figuring out how to provide for them, figuring out how to say it right, figuring out all those mom things. I want them to be happy.”
Catch Meg Ryan’s return to the big screen in What Happens Later, which hits theaters on Friday, Oct. 13.