After eight long years since her last movie, Ithaca, which was her directorial debut, Meg Ryan recently spoke to PEOPLE about finally coming back into the fold with a new romcom called What Happens Later, which she wrote, directed and stars in.
Having starred in classics like When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, and Sleepless in Seattle, it’s common knowledge that Meg Ryan was the queen of romcoms – at least until she took a step back from the spotlight. But now, at 61, she says she’s ready for her comeback.
Meg tells PEOPLE that as she became more well-known for her classic and much-loved films, her desire to step away from the spotlight grew.
“I took a giant break because I felt like there's just so many other parts of my experience as a human being I wanted to develop,” she said. “It's nice to think of it as a job and not a lifestyle. And that is a great way of navigating it for me."
It’s a beautiful sentiment and certainly a great way to look at acting – as a job and not a lifestyle. But it includes a glaring omission: whether her highly-publicized affair with Russell Crowe had anything to do with her wanting to step away from the spotlight.
Back in 2000 when Meg was married to Dennis Quaid, she and Russell starred in Proof of Life together, the plot for which would become a case of art imitating life. Or was life imitating art? In any event, the tabloids went berserk when photos emerged of the two getting cozy on set.
It didn’t take long for her nine-year marriage to Dennis to end. He filed for divorce, then she filed back, seeking joint custody of their son, Jack, who was 8 at the time. But what moved even faster than those divorce papers were the tabloids, bringing her long-standing reputation as “America’s Sweetheart” and “the girl next door” to a screeching halt.
She would go on to face extreme ageism and sexism from tabloids, many of which likened her and Russell’s affair to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s 1963 Cleopatra affair and scandal, and Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen’s “home wrecking”, according to an Entertainment Weekly article published back in 2000.
Meg and Russell were under contract to publicize the film and were forced to make mostly separate appearances in the wake of their affair, which, let’s be honest, also worked in the film’s favour, helping to generate a lot of interest in the movie.
“I had no interest in this film until I heard about all of this,” Dr. Drew told Entertainment Weekly back in 2000. “People will want to see if they can pick up on her falling in love with him on screen.”
Affairs generating public interest in any given thing has also been the case for much more modern affairs, such as Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney's situationship while filming Anyone But You in Australia. And there’s another recent affair that also featured a perceived “sweetheart”, Rachel Leviss, that generated a lot of interest in reality TV. I can’t tell you the amount of people I’ve spoken to who have only started watching Vanderpump Rules because of the sheer magnitude of Scandoval. Despite all the years that have passed between Meg and Russell’s affair and Rachel and Tom’s, one thing remains true – and it’s that the backlash the woman faces is always worse than whatever heat the man gets.
This was also true in the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton affair. It’s fresh in my mind because I just recently listened to an episode of American Scandal which does a great job of capturing how it all went down, and how, in recent years, Monica has found her voice, shared her story and is now a women’s advocate who delivered a masterful Ted Talk about shame.
Back in 2003, Meg sat down with The Guardian and spoke about a sexy, offbeat film she worked on called In The Cut. And in that interview, she reflected on some of what she had learned in the three or so years since the affair.
“There's this archetype that's been assigned to me, nothing I've constructed,” she said. “But if you betray the archetype then you suffer the consequences. I was really able to distinguish between that and me. And what it's given me is this completely great freedom. I really don't care. People can write whatever they want, say whatever they want and I don't care."
The Guardian article doesn’t let her off so easy, though, pointing to all the ways that she did, in fact, play a part in constructing that image. Shortly before their divorce, she touted the benefits of marriage to Vanity Fair during a sit-down in 1999. There were tons of other magazine interviews that feature her celebrating the virtues of marriage. And when news of her divorce broke, it also came with the revelation that her marriage had been dead for years at that point.
I guess the biggest revelation in Meg’s case is that she built up both a career and a persona that then typecast her based on the idea of a person that she wasn’t in real life. Call me crazy but isn’t that…acting? I think that happens all the time. It’s just another example that speaks to the parasocial relationships we develop with celebrities. Jada Pinkett Smith wasn’t as honest as we thought. A lot of sh-t happened with Britney that we really had no idea about. Ariana Grande isn’t a "girl’s girl". And Meg Ryan isn’t America’s Sweetheart.
Though I’ve always been a proponent of doing what works for you, I don’t want to endorse affairs or infidelity. But I do want to stress the learnings that can come from women who, at some point, were public enemy number one, people like Monica Lewinsky, Rachel Leviss and Meg Ryan, who shared this piece of wisdom with The Guardian back in 2003:
“This thing happened and I was all over the tabloids and I walked through the lobby and the place stopped. People stopped talking and stared at me. And then I got to the elevator and instead of falling apart and going, "Ooh," I just started laughing. This thing that people are so afraid of all the time - public censure or disapproval - has no power if you know yourself.”
Meg’s latest film sees her star alongside David Duchovny. It’s about two ex-lovers that broke each other’s hearts and are snowed in together at an airport overnight. She says the biggest question in the movie is whether they’ll end up together in the end. It’s the perfect movie plot for this time of year and personally, I’m rooting for the success of it. Because nothing thrills me more than the idea of a 61-year-old woman who was once scorned by Hollywood making a seamless re-entry into the industry and taking back her romcom crown.