|November 30, 1969|
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Born in Queens, New York, Ryan attended the High School of the Performing Arts and Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center. Though she was accepted at New York University, she instead took the role of Daisy in a national tour of Neil Simon's "Biloxi Blues" in the late 1980s. From that point on, Ryan supported herself as a working actor. In 1993, Ryan made her Broadway stage debut as Tessa Goode in the year-long run of "The Sisters Rosensweig." She then continued her theatre career playing Natalya Ivanovna in the production of "The Three Sisters," which had a less than successful tour of two months in 1997. But it was her next stage production of "Uncle Vanya" that won her critical acclaim. Her performance as Sofya Alexandrovna made her a bonafide Broadway star, resulting in her first Tony Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Her other Broadway credits included "The Woman" and "A Streetcar Named Desire," for which she also received a second Tony Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress as well as an Outer Critic's Circle Award. Much to the dismay of fans and critics alike - the latter of whom deemed her work "consistently superb, impressive in its variety, memorable for its intelligence and emotional depth" - that same year after starring in "The 24 Hour Plays 2006," Ryan took her last bow on the Great White Way to finally pursue a film career.
Ryan made her big screen debut in 1999 as Judy in the drama "Roberta" and followed that in 2000 with a small role in the Oscar-nominated film "You Can Count on Me," starring Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo and Matthew Broderick. Steady television work, however, paid the bills and fattened her resume. She appeared on a variety of episodic TV, including one-off episodes of "Quantum Leap" (NBC, 1989-1993) in 1991; "Home Improvement" (ABC, 1991-99) in 1992; "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009) in 1995; "Chicago Hope" (Fox, 1994-2000) in 1998; "Homicide: Life on the Street" (NBC, 1993-99) in 1999; and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ) in 2000. After years of racking up less than memorable parts, Ryan landed a recurring role on A & E's crime drama, "100 Centre Street" (2001-02) from creator Sidney Lumet, in which her character lasted a considerable seven episodes. Fluctuating back and forth from relatively minute roles on TV, Ryan's film work included even more fleeting parts, including those in "Keane" (2004), as the impoverished single mother of a young girl who unwittingly entrusts her daughter to a schizophrenic; "War of the Worlds" (2005), as Tom Cruise's neighbor; and "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" (2005), as Albert Brooks' wife. However, it was as no-nonsense lawman Chris Cooper's star-struck wife in "Capote" (2005) that finally kick-started her onscreen audience recognition.
Thanks to all the gut-wrenching dramatic roles she took on, Ryan earned the nickname "Cryin' Ryan" from her friends. This skill ended up serving her well for the recurring role for which she first became known, Baltimore Police Officer "Beadie" Russell, a good cop in over her head on the hit HBO series "The Wire" (2002- ). But it was as a vulgar, defiant woman that Ryan surprisingly made her biggest impact to date. In 2007, Ryan finally won a movie role she could really sink her teeth into. In "Gone Baby Gone" (2007), she lit up the screen with her intense performance as Helene McCready, a dismissive, low-life mother in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood whose four-year-old girl is kidnapped. Some even called the less-than-motherly character "the most unsympathetic mother ever put to screen." In the film, co-written by Affleck and based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, although the tight-knit South Boston community binds together to help her, Helene is definitely not the film's heroine. She is a grossly negligent mother who happens to also be a drug addict and a possible accomplice in the kidnapping. Literally unrecognizable as Helene, Ryan's role was less than glamorous in her cropped tanks, cheap gold jewelry and skintight jeans, but the transformation allowed her to work alongside such acting legends as Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman. It was the kind of eye-catching, multi-layered, breakout performance that many thought would earn Ryan greater attention and better roles, with Variety glowing, "Ryan makes an almost certainly unfit mother, whose drinking problem is dwarfed only by her cocaine habit, seem real as well as negligent." The Hollywood Reporter called Ryan's performance "outstanding."
Affleck, who had auditioned dozens of actresses for the role of hellish Helene without finding a perfect match, hailed Ryan's performance as "genius." The first-time director was so worried about finding the right actress to play Helene - the most difficult role to cast - that he was ready to bypass professional thespians entirely and cast strictly a Boston native. But when Ryan read the scene once during her audition, her performance blew him away; even more so, her dead-on South Boston accent. Himself a Beantown native, Affleck was convinced she was from the East Coast city and hired her on the spot. Yet Affleck was not the only one she fooled. On her first day of shooting, Ryan got into costume and walked around the neighborhood to soak up its colorful environment before shooting her first scene. The only problem was that she blended into the working-class neighborhood so seamlessly that when she tried to come back through police barricades, she was stopped from going back on set. But that was no accident. Having taken a cue from her stage roots, the ultra-methodical Ryan had spent a week rehearsing with the local woman who played her best friend to nail the South Boston accent and the look. All the hard worked paid obvious dividends. Ryan was nominated for both a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.
Fresh off the high of "Gone Baby Gone, it was a busy fall 2007 for Ryan in other ways. She was reunited with Sidney Lumet for the crime-thriller "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," playing Ethan Hawke's ex-wife. She even had a bit part hoisting babies onto her hip as Steve Carell's benign sister-in-law in Peter Hedges' romantic comedy "Dan in Real Life." In 2007, Ryan reunited onscreen with Carell by joining the cast of "The Office" (NBC, 2005- ) during the season four finale, in which she was introduced as Holly Flax, the replacement human resources representative for the outgoing Toby Flenderson (Paul Lieberstein). Though initially disliked by office manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell), by season five, Flax becomes a friend and finally a romantic partner to Michael, only to transfer back to Dunder Mifflin's Nashua office. After co-starring opposite Michael Shannon in the limited release mystery, "The Missing Person" (2009), she portrayed a Wall Street Journal correspondent investigating the U.S. government's claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the war thriller, "Green Zone" (2010).