Meg Ryan’s Comeback: The Rom-Com Icon on Acting Again After Eight Years, Nora Ephron and Whether the Genre Pigeonholed Her

Meg Ryan is “enchanting.” It’s hard to think of a better word to describe her than the one Nora Ephron used in the “You’ve Got Mail” script — a word repeated four times in the first 30 minutes of the 1998 film.

My ears perk up when Ryan uses it now, nearly 25 years later. We’re sitting across from each other in a suite at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills, meeting to speak about her new film — her first in eight years. She’s the co-writer, director, executive producer and co-star, alongside David Duchovny, of “What Happens Later,” an enchanting romantic comedy about ex-lovers who find themselves stranded by a snowstorm.

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There’s no denying that Ryan, 61, is a movie star. Only, she doesn’t seem to know it: She pulls her overcoat tight around her body to cover up any ostentatiously fancy garments she may have underneath. Throughout our conversation, she fidgets with her rings and pulls up her long skirt to fix her combat boots. When a firetruck passes in the street below, she gets up mid-answer to close the door to the patio, to make sure my recorder can pick up the interview.

She doesn’t break eye contact or give rehearsed answers — she takes a moment to ponder every question. Even as the film’s co-writer and director, she doesn’t feel comfortable saying “my DP” when talking about the cinematographer.

Ryan’s film history can be found on any “Best Rom-Coms of All Time” list — “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” “Kate & Leopold” and “When Harry Met Sally …” — the latter of which earned her a Golden Globe nomination. Her last project was 2015’s “Ithaca,” which she directed and starred in alongside her son, Jack Quaid, and reunited on-screen with Tom Hanks for the fourth time.

But Ryan isn’t interested in talking about her very clear impact on the rom-com world, because she doesn’t think of it that way. At one point, after I ask what her new film could do for the genre, she gets genuinely choked up — “Forgive me, I’m a little weepy,” she says. Flustered, she takes a gold ring off her finger, puts it on the table, picks it up and puts it back on her finger. Then she says, “It’s like sending your youngest off to college — it’s not ours anymore.”

What Happens Later
David Duchovny and Meg Ryan
Credit: Bleecker Street
What Happens Later David Duchovny and Meg Ryan Credit: Bleecker Street

The idea for “What Happens Later,” in theaters Nov. 3, was given to Ryan during lockdown, for her to direct. The film, based on Steven Dietz’s 2008 play “Shooting Star,” has no other characters but Ryan and Duchovny’s, two people who dazzle and irritate each other in the same breath.

Ryan hardly knew Duchovny before they started working together.

“It’s very hard to be precise and relaxed, and he is. That was inspiring to me to be around,” she says. “He’s a great tennis partner.”

Duchovny had seen Ryan’s hits. “Even the most anti-rom-com, jaded, cynical heart has seen ‘When Harry Met Sally …,’ ‘You’ve Got Mail’ and ‘Sleepless in Seattle,’” he says with a laugh. But he was still taken aback by how, dare I say, enchanting she was.

“I just remember the first day, we’re doing a couple of scenes, and I was thinking, ‘Damn, she’s charming!’ It was like I discovered it for the first time. I probably should have known that going in,” he says. “I knew she had immensely charming screen presence, but when you’re actually in the moment with her, she’s very, very real and very grounded. And all those charming things come from a real place. That was really the powerful thing that I was experiencing. It is not smoke and mirrors. This is real charm. It can exist!”

He calls the experience “eye-opening,” working alongside Ryan, who “makes everything look easy” despite the hard work she puts in.

Ryan didn’t plan to be Duchovny’s co-star. “There were several ideas about who the couple would be,” she says. But when financing didn’t come through, she stepped into the role. “The script had evolved enough into scenes that I thought would be so fun. I started to get to know her, and it became music I wanted to play.”

Ryan’s character is a free spirit — the actress calls her “a very disorganized thinker”— which worried her, since, as a director, she had to be the opposite. “But it ended up being a relief from the micromanagement of a director’s head, being in her head,” she says.

The opposing roles are only one of the many challenges Ryan had going into the project. After taking an eight-year break from the business, she was nervous about diving back into acting, let alone while wearing all of those hats.

“I was trepidatious about the whole thing… ‘Am I going to be free enough to be there with David?'” she remembers thinking. “I didn’t want to be distracted by [producing and directing], because if the two characters don’t work, it just doesn’t work.”

What kept her going was the narrative: “It’s a story that I feel like should already be in the world. Did someone do this already?”

The answer is no. Few romantic comedies home in on two people later in life, revisiting a love lost. “There’s a perspective you have when you’re older, about love. It’s different than puppy love. You slowly learn that love is easy, while relationships are hard,” she says.

To capture the brisk pace of the characters’ back and forth, Ryan and Duchovny shot multiple long scenes in one uninterrupted camera shot. They had 21 days to film, so there wasn’t a lot of time for multiple takes. But they did well, Ryan says, because she and Duchovny were in step with one another. “Often, his best take was my best take. It was magical.”

Duchovny agrees. “I think we’re both very reactive actors. It’d make sense that in our best takes, we’re reacting to one another in a really realistic or funny way,” he says. “It is just like tennis — and we both played well.”

Ryan never set out to be the queen of romantic comedies. In fact, she isn’t fully aware she is that. She’s never read an article written about her or her work. “I just feel like that would be a really hard way to live, to have an awareness of what other people think. I’m too vulnerable,” she says. She pauses to imagine reading something negative about herself. “Ouch!”

“You’ve Got Mail”
“You’ve Got Mail”

That also means she misses the fun stories — like the ones about Easter eggs in movies. I ask about one scene in “What Happens Later” during which she and Duchovny sit back to back in a café. Is it a nod to the “You’ve Got Mail” scene in which she and Hanks do the same?

“In ‘You’ve Got Mail,’ they do that?” she asks. I remind her of the above moment when Kathleen Kelly takes out her compact and sees Joe Fox in the reflection. “Oh, yeah!” she responds and laughs. “No,” she says, she can’t take credit for that.

Ryan never thought she’d be best known for her rom-coms. “I’ve done more than 30 movies, and maybe only seven of them are rom-coms. I was trying [to do other genres],” she says and shrugs. “It didn’t really work.”

Does she feel she was pigeonholed? “If I was, I’m not resentful about it,” she quickly answers. She’s proud she’s able to perform the “high-wire act” required in a romantic comedy, able to connect with a co-star whether sharing a laugh or a kiss.

Oddly enough, Duchovny was interested in doing more rom-coms after starring in 2000’s “Return to Me,” but didn’t get any offers. “I was looking around for stuff like Nora Ephron movies,” he says. “I actually ended up doing ‘Californication.’ Even though it’s a lot grittier, dirtier than your big your big-screen rom-com, it has a sentimental heart and it had romantic comedy heart. I always wondered if I could exist in that more mainstream rom-com world. I always liked it very much.”

The best rom-coms have a particular theme: kismet. And that’s all thanks to the late Ephron, who comes up naturally in our conversation several times. Ephron’s scripts for “Silkwood,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally …” all earned Oscar nominations, the latter winning a BAFTA.

Both Ephron and Ryan have the genre in their DNA, the actress says.

“She had delight in storytelling, and she had true delight on a movie set. She got the biggest kick out of everything. She’s truly enchanted. She had a contagious delight,” she says, smiling ear to ear remembering Ephron. “Kismet — this idea of destiny was one of the great comforts of Nora’s movies. This idea that two people are destined for each other, their lives are just taking these shapes until this happens.”

Duchovny has a less romantic view: “I just think we’re storytelling animals. And fate is a story we tell ourselves. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist — it actually does exist, because we say it does.”

What Happens Later
Director Meg Ryan on set
Credit: Bleecker Street
What Happens Later Director Meg Ryan on set Credit: Bleecker Street

For Ryan, who says she could watch “Bringing Up Baby” or “The Philadelphia Story” over and over again, a love for rom-coms comes simply from a love for love.

“I don’t know anyone who’s an expert at that. Do you? I don’t know anyone who feels like they did it right or they can always get it right. I think it’s a mystery,” she says. “I asked this cab driver once in New York City, ‘What do you overhear people talk about the most in the back seat of your cab?’ He goes, ‘Love and money.’”

So maybe more rom-coms are in the pipeline for Ryan. But she’s also open to other stories, especially as a director. She looks at “What Happens Later” as a reaction to her work on “Ithaca,” her adaptation of William Saroyan’s “The Human Comedy.” She thinks she could have done better with that film. For the next one, she wants just to direct.

But would she step in front of the camera again in a film she’s not directing?

“That’s a good question,” she says. “I don’t know.”

She discovers the answer, though, in what she says next. “I had so much fun on this movie. Some of those scenes, I wish we could have just done them all day. So, yeah,” she says, “I guess so!”

“What Happens Later” received an interim agreement from SAG-AFTRA allowing interviews during the strike.

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