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Amy Ryan on Playing Difficult Women: ‘I’ve Become Their Advocate’

She plays a fiercely independent woman in "Abundant Acreage Available," and it's not the first time. This is what drives her distinctive filmography.

“Abundant Acreage Available”

In “Abundant Acreage Available,” Amy Ryan plays a tough-minded woman who reunites with her brother (Terry Kinney) to bury their father on the farm where he raised them. As they argue about where to lay him to rest, another set of siblings from their father’s past show up to further complicate matters, laying claim to the land and injecting themselves into the center of this parochial setting.

Ryan’s character remains a fierce, defiant voice who pushes back against her brother’s religious convictions and the interlopers who question her solitary way of life. It’s a commanding performance that dominates this quiet, understated movie, and it makes you wonder why Ryan — an Oscar nominee for “Gone Baby Gone” — doesn’t land such impressive leading roles more often.

Ryan, however, doesn’t spend much time on that question. “I can’t say that I kick and scream when I’m on a Spielberg movie that I’m not the lead,” she said in a phone interview, referencing her bit part in 2015’s “Bridge of Spies,” one of the many studio projects in which she’s surfaced on the sidelines. “I totally understand why Tom Hanks got that part. That’s OK by me. Honestly, I’d rather have two scenes in an incredibly well-written film than a lead in a poorly written film.”

Ryan is a shape-shifter who juggles many modes, but she often gravitates toward less-than-glamorous roles even when she’s in the spotlight. Last year, she landed raves for her turn in Broadway’s “Love, Love, Love,” where she played one half of a narcissistic British couple over the course of a marriage that lasts decades. In “Gone Baby Gone,” she was a vulgar, drug-addicted mother, shortly before she surfaced on NBC’s “The Office” as the klutzy romantic interest of Steve Carell’s bumbling manager.

“I’m certainly not afraid of parts that might not be likable, or might be hard to look at,” she said. “That doesn’t scare me. Maybe that’s why I’ve become their advocate.”

“Abundant Acreage Available” intrigued her because it didn’t heap pity on her character simply because she was a single 40-something woman. “I just liked her strength and was curious about being in this world with this woman who’s so strong, capable of taking care of anything,” she said. “There’s no traumatic backstory for why she never married a man. She’s just been busy.” She was also keen on a part that pushed beyond her liberal bubble.

“It’s kind of radical to have a lead character who’s a Christian conservative,” she said, noting the film’s red-state backdrop. Ryan acknowledged that it wasn’t an easy sell — Gravitas Ventures is releasing the movie in a handful of theaters in New York and Los Angeles, but it’s largely a VOD play. “Maybe people who love independent film will see this, maybe they won’t,” she said, “but to step into this world of these other characters who we don’t usually get to see, and they’re shown without judgement, they’re just trying to get through life as we all are, that’s what’s so wonderful about the film.”

The movie was directed by “Junebug” screenwriter Angus Maclachlan on a tight 18-day shoot in rural North Carolina. It wasn’t a big paycheck for the actress, but she finds those gigs elsewhere. Last year, she showed up in “Monster Trucks” and the Dwayne Johnson vehicle “Central Intelligence,” where she played a cartoonishly stern CIA agent. “The big-budget films pay for the independent films,” Ryan said. “I’ve been lucky to find a happy balance.”

“Central Intelligence”

On “Central Intelligence,” she added, “I was just shocked they cast me. You know, usually, these CIA characters are 25 and smoking hot. I’m in my 40s!” When she brought that up with director Rawson Marshall Thurber, “he said, ‘I need someone who can handle all the long dialogue,’” she recalled. “That was flattering, but with bigger-budget films, the characters are more stereotyped. They’re liked placeholders. You are the wife, the mother, the mean boss. I don’t even know if the formula has time for nuance.”

She recently united with Carell under much different circumstances from their “Office” romance, as an estranged couple in “Beautiful Boy” whose marriage collapses when their offspring suffers from a drug problem. The movie, the English-language debut of “Broken Circle Breakdown” director Felix van Groeningen, finds the actors on the phone for much of the movie — but one key scene had them face to face, and it presented a fresh challenge. “We had to work against our natural chemistry, because these are people who aren’t quite in love anymore,” she said. “We had to be terse with each other, which is not something we’re used to doing together.”

But Ryan has relished the opportunity to diversify her parts over the years, developing that agenda in tandem with Jason Gutman at the Gersh Agency. “We’re very much on the same page,” she said. “He’ll read something someone wants me to do and say, ‘I can send this to you, but I know it’s not for you,’ and he’s always been right. We don’t just do money projects because they’re money projects. There has to be some other reason. I can’t repeat myself.”

She echoed a desire for more strong female characters beyond the studio archetypes. “I used to say to a friend, ‘Why don’t you write a movie with a male lead, and when you’re done, go back and change the lead to a woman?’” she said. “Just stop thinking about it and just let it be the female part. Certainly, there have been great strides for female stories or stories that have females in the lead. But so much more needs to be done, and that viewpoint needs to broaden greatly, so that women aren’t just the sounding board for men. It’s not that simple in real life.”

“Abundant Acreage Available” is now playing in New York and available on VOD platforms.

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