Queen of romantic comedies, Meg Ryan snapped up over a dozen starring roles in the 80s and 90s with her trademark charm.
But as she strove to change up her image at the turn of the century, she found her way to far more provocative roles, plus a directorial debut. Here are 20 facts you may not know about Ryan.
20. She was only the sixth choice for the lead in Sleepless in Seattle
Kim Basinger thought the film’s premise was too silly. Jodie Foster respectfully declined the lead role.
It was only after Julia Roberts, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jennifer Jason Leigh also rejected the part of journalist Annie Reed in Sleepless in Seattle that Ryan finally took the spot.
Sleepless In Seattle, in which she starred alongside Tom Hanks, became one of Ryan’s most acclaimed performances.
She earned an Academy Award nomination for the role, with critic Roger Ebert describing her as “one of the most likable actresses around.”
Ebert felt that she brought a “certain ineffable Doris Day innocence” to the role.
Meanwhile, her performance won her an American Comedy Award for Funniest Actress in a Leading Role.
19. She turned down The Silence of The Lambs
Ryan had the opportunity to play Clarice Starling in The Silence of The Lambs, a blockbuster widely considered one of the greatest films of all time.
But Ryan turned down the part – she thought it was far too gory and violent, especially compared to her typical rom-com sweetheart characters.
Instead, Jodie Foster took the lead role, for which she won Best Actress at the Academy Awards.
But Ryan doesn’t mourn the parts she turned down – in fact, at the Sun Valley Film Festival in 2019, she said she has never lamented the loss of any part.
“I turned down all kinds of movies that were perfect without me,” she reflected. “Sometimes, my son needed me at the time. Or I had other offers. So, no regrets. I never regretted turning down anything.”
Instead of The Silence of the Lambs, she starred in The Doors in 1991. The biographical film sees Ryan star as Pamela Courson, girlfriend of The Doors frontman Jim Morrison, played by Val Kilmer.
18. There’s an asteroid named after her
In April 1989, scientist Eric Elst discovered a new asteroid while working at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.
He later named it the 8353 Megryan in the actress’ honour, at the height of her late-80s fame.
In NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Small-Body Database, Elst wrote a citation for his chosen name.
“Margaret Mary Emily Anne Hyra (Meg Ryan, b. 1961) majored in journalism and later became an actress. She showed her talent in ‘You’ve Got Mail’ (1999),” he wrote.
Later, Ryan’s Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail co-star Tom Hanks similarly had an asteroid named after him.
Like the 8353 Megryan, the 12818 Tomhanks is a main belt asteroid located between Mars and Jupiter.
17. She went to AA meetings to prepare to play an alcoholic in When a Man Loves a Woman
While preparing to play Alice Green, an alcoholic school councillor in When A Man Loves A Woman, Ryan joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings in Los Angeles.
She wanted to hear from attendees about their real-life battles with addiction, to breathe life into her character.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, she described the meetings as “an amazing experience.”
“It was weird because I was supposed to be there to research a movie,” she said, “and instead I’m listening and sympathizing and thinking I’ve underestimated almost everyone I’ve ever met. There’s a moment when you look at a person and say ‘You’re kidding me; you went through that?’”
“I was impressed by how little personal judgment there is at AA meetings and how kind of liberating talking about yourself honestly is,” she recalled.
Despite her fame, Ryan opted not attend the meetings incognito. “I don’t think those people there really cared who I was because it’s about speaking up and not about who’s listening,” she said.
16. The “I’ll have what she’s having” scene was her idea
In the original script for When Harry Met Sally…, Sally and Harry speak candidly about climax in an NYC deli.
While reading through the script, Ryan pointed out that her character was very “behavioural” and would probably act one out.
The director agreed, and the comedy moment went down in history, as well as creating Ryan’s most memorable scene.
Katz Deli’s owners were thrilled with its spot in the film, and they hung a sign commemorating the scene directly over the table where Harry and Sally lunched.
Ryan, however, has never returned to the restaurant since filming – and apparently found the scene embarrassing to film at first.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, director Rob Reiner recalled: “She was nervous. In front of extras and the crew and everything, and you’re having to pretend to have an orgasm in front of everybody! She did it half-hearted the first few times. I kept saying, “No, you’ve got to really go after it. You’ve got to do it full-out.””
15. She trained to box for Against the Ropes
In Against The Ropes, Ryan stars as Jackie Kallen – the real-life boxing manager who was famous as one of the first women in her profession.
Ryan spent plenty of time training in the ring, as she wanted to fully understand all the terminology her character used.
She spent three weeks learning how to box for the sports drama. She also watched countless old matches with the real Kallen by her side.
“She passed Boxing 101 with flying colors,” Kallen said in an interview with IGN.
“I think that she saw a kind of beauty in the sport, in the physicality of it, in the faces, you know,” Kallen elaborated. “The expressions and the anger in the eyes. She was able to capture a lot through her camera.”
A fair few critics disliked the film, complaining that it was too similar to other movies in the genre like Rocky.
14. She turned down the lead role in Ghost
Another Academy Award-winning film that didn’t make the cut for Ryan was 1990’s Ghost.
She was offered the role of lovestruck potter Molly Jensen but turned it down.
Michelle Pffeifer, Madonna and Molly Ringwald were also considered for the part, which was eventually won by Demi Moore.
Instead, Ryan took the romantic lead in Joe Versus the Volcano, co-starring once again with her friend Tom Hanks.
In this unorthodox romantic comedy, Ryan plays three different characters that the hero Joe meets along his journey.
She performed the parts with three different accents, too: a Valley Girl accent, a New York one and her own.
13. She and scream queen Daphne Zuniga lived together before they became famous
Born one year apart, Daphne Zuniga and Ryan became close friends while both were struggling to find work in Los Angeles.
They shared an apartment in the city before winning fame in The Sure Thing and When Harry Met Sally… respectively.
Zuniga studied Theatre Arts at the University of California, where she made her film debut in the slasher The Dorm That Dripped Blood.
After graduating, she moved in with Meg Ryan, who likewise was seeking to make her name in Hollywood.
Zuniga has worked widely with high school students in counselling, drug awareness and environmental issues over the years.
She and Ryan both attended the 2012 fundraiser for Equality Now, a human rights organization for women and girls.
12. She was not a fan of You’ve Got Mail
You’ve Got Mail, the 1998 rom-com starring Tom Hanks, did nothing to shake Ryan’s status as the charming girl-next-door – and she started to resent it.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, she said she was longing for roles that challenged her more.
“I have to say that You’ve Got Mail was not any kind of stretch for me. I just can’t have that experience again,” she said. “I’m just not interested in it.”
Breaking with her conventional roles, she went on to star in the thrillers Proof of Life and In the Cut.
In particular, In the Cut met with backlash for its more sexualized characters, leading to Ryan’s infamous interview with Michael Parkinson.
The ITV presenter criticized Ryan for choosing such a drastically different type of character, and Ryan later said Parkinson came across as a “nut” and a “disapproving dad.”
11. She rejects “sex symbol” status because she feels Hollywood is dangerous for women
Long before the #MeToo movement, Ryan was alert to the casting couch harassment that was rife in Hollywood.
She says she deliberately played down her sexuality in auditions, looking to move away from the “sex symbol’ label.
“I never led with that,” Ryan recalled in an interview with the NY Times Magazine. “I felt it was dangerous because of the environment.”
“It’s good [women] are being alerted now. I never had a man in a position of power play sexual politics.”
“It got weird a couple of times but I figured out a way out of the room,” she said.
She also says people expect her to be less intelligent than she is. “I’ve come across more infantilization than sexism,” she said at the Bentonville Film Festival. “It’s more likely for an actress to be considered dumb. It’s much more convenient.”
10. As a teenager, she starred in Barbie commercials
While she was still at school, Ryan featured in a national advertising campaign for Barbie dolls.
She also registered with the Screen Actors Guild, a national labour union, while she was a teenager.
Meg is not alone in her early work: she joined stars like Danny Dyer, Olivia Coleman and Matt LeBlanc in launching her career with TV adverts.
In 1982, Ryan made one of her first performances in a TV commercial for Burger King, playing an employee.
She advertises Burger King’s “Aren’t You Hungry For A Whopper?” game, describing million-dollar prizes.
Over the years, Ryan has filmed various adverts in Japan and Spain, for products like beauty creams, coffee and cars.
9. She only has two minutes of screen-time with Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle
Ryan and Hanks have starred as love interests or couples in four films: Ithaca, Joe Versus the Volcano, You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle.
But Sleepless in Seattle, a story of relationships forming through radio and letters, brought the pair together for only about two minutes of screen time.
With the pair starring as Sam Baldwin and Annie Reed, the film was a “feather-light romantic comedy” according to critic Vincent Canby.
On the successes of her teamwork with Hanks, Ryan said in an interview, “He’s just so easy. He listens, he roots for other people.”
“He doesn’t like there to be drama, I don’t think, on the set, and I’m the same – we’re really just there to have fun,” she noted.
A major stage musical adaptation of Sleepless in Seattle opened in London in September 2020.
8. Pop duo Savage Garden wrote a song about their Meg Ryan obsession
“You’re a legend, you’re a glamor queen. God, I’m running out of words but you know what I mean…” sang Savage Garden in 1997.
All Around Me by the Australian pop duo was inspired by Meg Ryan, who at the time was starring in Addicted to Love.
In an interview for Medium, lyricist Darren Hayes admitted that the song was about his co-star Daniel’s crush on the actress.
“In our little home studio there’s about 14 or 15 pictures of Meg,” he said, “some of them wall-mounted. One of them from me as a gift to Daniel.”
More specifically, the song was inspired by the actress’ dancing scene in When a Man Loves a Woman.
“She dances in a certain way and she says the words ‘stick-on tattoo’,” Darren recalled. “And the way she says those words is the personality of this song. We wrote a song for Meg Ryan to dance to, and it’s all about being obsessed with Meg Ryan.”
7. A famous haircut is named after her
Sporting her choppy blonde locks, Meg Ryan built a relationship with celebrity hairdresser Sally Hershberger.
A famous haircut by Sally Hershberger was named “Meg” in honor of Ryan, since she was the first one to have it.
This stylist created Ryan’s trademark cropped look especially for the star and named it “the Meg” in her honour.
In the movies French Kiss, Courage Under Fire and City of Angels, Hershberger was hard at work preparing Ryan’s hair behind the scenes.
“It’s funny having famous hair,” Ryan wrote for InStyle Magazine. “I still see it on people in New York. Occasionally, it suits the person sporting it but mainly not, because it was the 90s after all, and its time has passed.”
She also noted that Hershberger often struggled to recreate the look for other customers.
“Apparently, there were years and years when people would come to [Hershberger] with crumpled magazine pages and expect to leave her salon with the same cut as mine,” Ryan wrote. “She obliged as much as she could, but in some impossible cases—namely, for super-straight or very curly hair—she would have to deny the request. You can’t please everybody.”
6. She voiced a villain on Captain Planet and the Planeteers
Captain Planet and the Planeteers was a cartoon ahead of its time, and Ryan relished the opportunity to join its voice cast.
This ‘edutainment’ programme focused on environmental issues through the antics of a crimefighting superhero team.
Unusually, Ryan portrays an antagonist: Dr Blight, whose unethical human experiments left her with a scarred visage.
This mad scientist villain also sports a haircut not unlike Ryan’s own trademark locks.
Ryan was the first actress to voice this character, from 1990 to 1991. She was followed in the role by Mary Kay Bergman, star of South Park.
The show employed a star-studded cast for its villains, including Jeff Goldblum as Verminous Skumm.
5. Her first ever film audition was for Endless Love
Endless Love, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, was a teen romance with a 15-year-old female lead.
This film was Ryan’s very first movie audition, and she lost the part to rising star Brooke Shields.
Despite its controversial R rating and negative critical response, the film performed well at the box office thanks to the 16-year-old Shields’ star appeal.
Ryan, on the other hand, would have been 20 at the time of filming Endless Love.
Instead, Ryan found her breakthrough in 1982 in the CBS soap opera As the World Turns.
Ryan’s film debut arrived the year before, as she played Debby Blake in Rich and Famous.
4. She’s the voice of Anastasia in the animated classic
In the 1997 animated film Anastasia, Ryan provides the voice of the heroine, co-starring with John Cusack and Kelsey Grammer.
The character Anastasia is a re-imagining of the real-life Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia.
Though the real duchess was killed in the Russian Revolution, this film imagines her escaping and embarking on adventures. It proved a hit, grossing $139 million worldwide.
To convince Ryan to take the role, directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman took a scene from Sleepless In Seattle and transformed it into an animation. Ryan was enchanted by it, and accepted the part.
Created by Fox Animation Studios, the star-studded voice cast of Anastasia was a bold challenge to Fox’s rival Disney – which five years earlier had started the celebrity voice actor trend with Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin.
Since the Walt Disney Company acquired 20th Century Fox in 2019, including the rights to Anastasia, some fans have crowned Meg Ryan’s character as an unofficial Disney Princess.
3. Her brother is Andrew Hyra, folk musician of Billy Pilgrim fame
Meg Ryan, who took her grandmother’s maiden surname when she started acting, was born Meg Hyra – child of actress Susan Jordan and English teacher Harry Hyra.
Her brother, Andrew Hyra, is a musician known for creating the folk rock duo Billy Pilgrim.
Together with Kristian Bush, Hyra released albums including Billy Pilgrim, Blossom and In the Time Machine.
Hyra also released the solo album Lost Songs, and later joined the band Smokin’ Novas.
Meanwhile Bush went on to form Sugarland, the Grammy Award-winning country music duo from Atlanta, Georgia.
Ryan and Hyra were raised along with sisters Dana and Annie in Fairfield County, Connecticut – and Ryan eventually studied Journalism at the University of Connecticut.
2. She switched to directing in 2015
Ryan’s directorial debut was the period drama Ithaca, set in peaceful California during the horrors of the Second World War.
Ryan also stars as Kate Macauley, a struggling mother – while Tom Hanks plays her husband, and Ryan’s real-life son Jack Quaid plays her eldest son, sent away to fight in the war.
But the hero of the story is Homer Macauley, played by Alex Neustaedter. This character, Kate’s youngest son, is a determined telegraph messenger bearing words from loved ones fighting overseas.
Based on William Saroyan’s novel The Human Comedy, the movie was filmed in Petersburg, Virginia on a modest budget.
In an interview with Slant Magazine, Ryan described Ithaca as “a simple story about complicated things. I was really moved by the boy as a protagonist and his wonderful desire to want to keep pain from the people he loves. There’s a lot of wisdom and humour in Saroyan.”
Ryan’s then-boyfriend, the musician John Mellencamp, composed and recorded the film’s soundtrack.
1. She lends her voice to comedy audiobooks
One of the best-loved names in film comedy, Ryan has also tried her hand at recording audiobooks.
She is the narrator of Cut and Run, a bizarre tale of two organ harvesters, and she features along with Rachel Bloom and D’Arcy Carden, famed for the shows Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Good Place respectively.
“It took me a while to catch on when we were in the recording studio because I was doing with my face and my body what my voice should have been doing,” she said in an interview with Vanity Fair.
She particularly likes the ease of recording compared to filmmaking. “I felt such a freedom to express,” she explained. “It’s only going to cost a recording studio, and so they can have such flights of fancy.”
She narrated Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood for a children’s audiobook with Rabbit Ears Entertainment in 2012.
Ryan also recorded an audiobook of Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, which was the source material for her directorial debut Ithaca.