"Your worst nightmare is to lose your child": Amy Ryan on her new Netflix film "Lost Girls"

The Netflix star appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss true crime, playing "the wife," and why "The Office" holds up

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 13, 2020 4:00PM (EDT)

Amy Ryan in "Lost Girls" (Netflix)
Amy Ryan in "Lost Girls" (Netflix)

Amy Ryan is such a captivating scene stealer, you might be surprised to realize she almost never has top billing. But after a career spent in supporting roles in  "Gone Baby Gone," "Birdman,"  and "The Office," the Tony, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominee is now the central figure in the new Netflix drama "Lost Girls." Based on the bestseller of the same name and directed by documentarian Liz Garbus, the film revolves around the predator known as the Long Island Serial Killer, and the families whose quest for justice continues.

Ryan joined us recently for a "Salon Talks" conversation about the real woman behind the headlines, and why she sees herself as an "advocate" for her complicated characters. Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Amy Ryan here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You are a New Yorker, and this is a story that was very, very much in the news 10 years ago. What was your familiarity with the case going in? Is that what drew you to the story?

I remember it being in the headlines. My daughter was born around that time. It's a harrowing story anyway, but also then being a new mother, your worst nightmare is to lose your child. That was always stuck in the back of my head. When I got the script, I wasn't sure what it was just based on the title, but when I started reading, it was just gripping from the beginning.

Talk a little bit about your character, Mari Gilbert, who she is and who she then becomes. It's a very interesting choice  to tell the story about these crimes by way of the mother of one of the missing girls and possible victims.

Mari's eldest daughter, Shannan Gilbert, went missing one night. Mari set out to look for her and figured out through her phone records, a lot of the calls were in Long Island. She set out to the Suffolk County police department to find some answers, and it was pretty much flatly ignored and dismissed because her daughter was a sex worker. There's a lot of prejudice towards the financially lower class structure. Then on top that, for the women who do sex work, [it's] like, "Why would we want to spend our time and energy looking for someone like that?"

That just lit the fire inside her. She made it her mission to not only make them do their job, but to bring the dignity and humanity back to the women who were also found as a result, the other missing women.

Which would not necessarily ever have happened were it not for Mari.

No. She kept insisting, insisting, insisting that they keep the search going. She also insisted that humanity was a part of it, and to refer to these women as sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends. Every time they were on the news, it was "prostitute, sex worker, hooker," so we can be removed from them, we can be dismissive of them and not really care. Mari made them care, and I feel like that's where the film also goes. That's why the film successfully, I think, brings the humanity back. It's about the victims and the victims' families, and not just a whodunit following a police investigation.

There is one particular scene in the film where that is articulated. It sees women sitting around a table discussing the way that these victims have been talked about, the way that they are referred to or the way that they are not spoken of. And the way then that the Long Island Serial Killer is referred to and the way that he's at the center of this story.

Mari talks about how, every time it's on the news, it's about him. He could possibly be this or he could possibly be that. She said, let's change the narrative. Let's talk about the girls.

And it's really part of a change that we are still seeing now in the way that these kinds of stories are then handled, because it is different now.

The other side is also, it's salacious and it's maybe titillating to talk about the subhuman people who would be such horrible predators. Not that there's a good predator, but I think we can turn the light on the victims and help them heal and rid shame, that they didn't ask for it. It's not because of what they wore or what their job was or or something they said, that they are not the ones to blame.

This is not your first rodeo in terms of true crime. You did a movie about the West Memphis Three. Your big breakthrough role was a mystery thriller. Is there something about that particular kind of storytelling that keeps drawing you in?

It's the parts, but with this one in particular in "Lost Girls" because it's not fiction. I have this idea that we storytellers, we filmmakers, we actors involved with this have a higher calling here that if we do our job right, we might drum up enough interest that people watching this film become obsessed with the case. Maybe because this is still an unsolved mystery that we've helped make a lot of noise about it, justice could come to the families. On top of that, it's a really well-told story, so that also was quite enticing to be a part of.

You've done other films based on true events, but this one is unique because of the subject matter and because of the character that you're playing in particular. I'm wondering how you as an actress approach that with the respect that you clearly gave to her, but also creating something that is your own.  

There's a lot of footage of Mari from when the case was in the news. She was kind of the spokesperson for the group of families. I started with that. I always give myself permission playing a real person. I'm not going to fool anyone that that is the person, but I can try to get some energy or some rhythm of them. For Mari it felt like this is a woman who doesn't stop; she doesn't sit down. Even before she gets news that her daughter's gone missing, she's working two to three jobs, she has one daughter who's getting in trouble in school and she's constantly juggling 10 balls in the air. I thought, this is a woman who doesn't rest.

She must be exhausted, and yet I remember in staging the scenes, I don't think I ever really sit down. I'm constantly pacing, so that was a discussion with [director] Liz [Garbus] of how do we just keep this woman forward-moving. Also in the script, a lot of it's based on Robert Kolker's book that Michael Werwie adapted to our screenplay.

Mari is not considered this perfect mother by any means. It's very complex, it's very human. She feels she made missteps along the way in raising her children, and then finding what family means today and being the mother to the daughters who are present.

I read an interview in IndieWire and where you said that you're not afraid to play difficult people. You're not afraid to play maybe even unlikable people. You said, because you feel like you can be an advocate for them. I don't think I've ever heard anyone define their mission as an actor in quite that way, Amy.  

I think it's just the puzzle-making game of breaking down a script. The fun part for an actor is, it's not my job to like this character. It's certainly not my job to judge them. Once I start judging them, it's a doomed project. It'll be very self-conscious. But I can figure out a pattern of behavior and put the pieces together of why they are the way they are.

Even in the case of "Gone Baby Gone," people would say to me, "I really I hated you." I was like, okay. That's probably an inappropriate response, but I had compassion for that woman. I thought, we hate her for the way she treats her young child. But I would go back in my own brain, that she was that neglected child. She was raised in this world. Now, that's a work of fiction. I was able to like play around with that, but I always try to find something, some part of them that I can have compassion for.

It's a unique skillset to be able to do that, and have compassion for the character without trying to make the audience like you, the actor.

I think what keeps me away from that is that, to be honest, I'd be so embarrassed. I would be embarrassed if I'm cheating, like maybe on my physical appearance like, "Oh, can you just comb my hair a little? This character has been up all night and she's worried sick, but can't you just curl the hair?" I have seen other actors along the way playing put-upon women or in really dire circumstances, and they look good. I'm like, really? I am more comfortable with truth. I would cringe if something was not quite right. I'd rather check my ego at the door and go from there.

But Hollywood is not always a place that is super amenable to that kind of nuance, Amy, Have you ever along the way had a situation where you felt pushed to to make it a little broader or to make her a little meaner?

To be honest, no. I feel like I've been so blessed. Sure, maybe there were some I didn't really see eye to eye with and didn't think too much about the project. When the project was over, it wasn't something that stayed in my heart. But for the most part I worked with extraordinary men and women who gave me permission. I always trace it back to the first director who gave me full freedom and just said, "You're an actor, you'll figure it out." It was Sidney Lumet. To have someone of that stature hand me so much trust in my ability, I felt like, I'm supposed to be here like I do have a set of skills I can help tell this story with. It's not just about the cinematographer skills or it's not just about the writer skills, you need me too.

Some days it's not as confident; we're only human. Working on "Lost Girls," Liz Garbus is the seventh female director I've worked with in a long time, and I wish that number were higher. There was a lot of collaboration and a lot of freedom and a lot of nurturing because that's what we do as women. The encouragement is different, but I felt like I was always encouraged.

That moment in the film when you are all sitting around talking about women's stories and who gets to tell them made me think of it on a meta level.Who's telling women's stories and what happens when women are telling them themselves? Are you seen that change now in Hollywood in that type of work?

A little bit. I'm not quite sure if it's done because someone's checking a box to hire more females or if the focus is that if people are genuinely interested in that perspective. I'm all for whatever method gets us there at the moment, and then I'm hoping it'll steamroll from there on that it will become the norm. That we're not just the sounding board in films. I've done that a few times. I stood next to amazing men to be like, "And then what happened, honey?"

I was absolutely shocked when I started looking over your career and realized how few films you have done that you have top billing. You've got a lot of nominations for supporting and you've done incredible supporting work. But only one other big lead.

"Abundant Acreage Available," yeah.

You've said that you would rather be the small part in a great movie than the lead in one that isn't.

A hundred percent. I've read scripts that have come my way that had been leads, but it wasn't on the page. Yes, you are in every scene, but the story wasn't good or the writing wasn't good, the dialogue was clunky, I would much rather play two scenes in "Birdman" than be the star of my own circus. That's a good example of where and when I'm really happy to show up and play an ex-wife.

But it's got to be a different experience then when you're on the call sheet every single day.

It's very different. I felt like my brain was fired up more. Sometimes when you're just in two scenes you feel a little bit like the transfer student at school, hoping someone will invite you to lunch that day. They've been going at it for the first 20 days filming, and a rhythm is established. Your job then is to come in and fit in seamlessly. Sometimes that can be nerve-wracking. You don't really know anybody yet. But when you're in from day one, you're part of the production and you're part of that like group is really trying to move this boulder up the hill.

Speaking of coming into something that's established, you were on a television show that is streaming constantly and is in syndication 24/7. "The Office" is more popular now than it was a decade ago. It is so resonant and so current and I'm sure you must get stopped all the time mostly for that. What is it about this beautiful, flawed, weird bunch of people that feels so important to us, even more now than it did a decade ago?

I'm going to take stabs, because I don't really know.

One, I think is the culture of how we consume television. Ten years ago you had to wait for Thursday or set your DVR to collect all your shows. But now that in the binge watching wave, we approach shows, just devouring it more. I have friends who have, who have teenagers and they've mentioned how they watch it almost as like a soother. They're in a bad mood, they put the show on and it lifts them. I also think there's a part of it here you have this group of people, oddballs mostly, a dysfunctional family. I think we're almost like subjects in the zoo of what was life like when you went to an office in a job that you might have stayed at for 30 years. That doesn't really exist anymore.

Then on top of it, I think writing really holds up. Sure, there's a lot of inappropriate jokes and interoffice dating, which isn't necessarily smiled upon these days, but the writing I think is what, it's still really funny.

"Lost Girls" is currently available to stream on Netflix.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams