Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
(The series premiered August 31st on Hulu. New episodes drop every Tuesday.)
It should be said from the get-go that the reteaming of Steve Martin and Martin Short in this streaming series is an excellent development for humanity that won’t disappoint comedy fans.
But this piece isn’t about them. It’s about Amy Ryan, who plays Jan, a neighbor of Charles Haden-Savage (Martin).
The two first meet in the building elevator where Charles is parading around with two other neighbor/true-crime podcast fans, Oliver (Short) and Mabel (Selena Gomez), trying to solve a murder that’s happened in their building. Incidentally, they’re also producing a podcast rather comically about the whole ordeal. Sparks fly immediately for Charles and Jan on this first elevator ride. Charles, a classical music fan, inquires about the instrument she’s carrying to which Jan replies that she’s first chair bassoonist with the City Symphony. The encounter is innocent enough, but since Ryan is so good at showing vulnerability, the two seem mutually intrigued.
Worth noting, as it’s been a while since Charles has broken his lonely-guy routine after a disastrous ending in a previous relationship involving Porky Pig. That’s when the two share a second elevator ride — with Jan wearing a shirt that says, “The only thing sexier than a bassoon… is me with a bassoon.” When Jan exits, Charles asks, “Hope to hear you playing tonight like always?” Jan looks back and offers a flirty reply: “You’ll hear me bassooner or later.”
There’s something about watching Ryan act that is so easy, natural, and almost reminiscent of so many people you know. She’s real, comfortable in her own skin, and can deliver a punchline. Many likely fell in love with during her stint as Holly Flax, the dorky HR rep on The Office, who quickly becomes the most perfect person on the planet for office boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell) as the two get into an office relationship on her first day.
Speaking of relationships, Jan and Charles eventually find themselves at dinner in Only Murders in the Building, but Charlie is a bit reluctant to share his dating history after Jan spills her guts.
Jan speaks across a tense table for two:
Jan: You know, the sharing of stories is kind of transactional. When someone gives you a story, you owe them one of equal or greater value in return.
Charles: Oh, so it’s my turn to tell you my red flags? I’m not keeping any big secret or anything like that. Not everyone has a ton of baggage. Not that you have any more baggage than anyone else. You have the exact right amount of baggage.
It’s a wildly uncomfortable scene that is as funny as it is cringeworthy.
For fans addicted to true-crime podcasts, the mystery of Only Murders in the Building will likely keep your attention. But that’s not why I came to this one. For me, it’s all about watching talented actors act — and in this one, bearing witness to the ever-youthful Short playing off a masterfully uptight Martin along with a perfectly pitched performance by Ryan is what it’s all about.
Looking forward to another helping next Tuesday.
The 53-year-old Ryan hails from Queens, New York, where she attended the New York’s High School of Performing Arts. Her professional career on the stage started almost immediately out of high school, when she joined a touring production of Biloxi Blues around the age of 17.
But it wasn’t until she starred as a replacement in the production of The Sisters Rosensweig back in 1993 that things started to really happen — such as co-star roles on TV series like The Naked Truth (1994-1995) with Téa Leoni and A & E’s 100 Centre Street (2001-2002).
After she starred in a couple of noteworthy theater productions, her career began to receive some critical acclaim — and a boost. Ryan starred in shows like Uncle Vanya (2000) and as Stella Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (2005), two performances that won her Tony nominations for “Best Performance as a Featured Actress.”
Soon after, Ryan started working steadily in TV and film, even earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work in the Ben Affleck film Gone Baby Gone (2007). In it, Ryan played a destroyed mom of a missing girl who disappears from a Boston suburb. According to IMDB, Affleck thought her accent was so good, he asked what part of Boston she was from.
There were lots of other impressive roles in TV and film along the way. Other than the aforementioned role on The Office, there was HBO’s The Wire, in which she played a Port Authority officer, and films like Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015) and Oscar-winner Birdman (2014). In the latter, she starred alongside Michael Keaton, with whom she just reteamed for the new Netflix film, Worth, about the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
The film is a tough — but important — watch as Worth demonstrates how lost lives were valued after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In a moving performance, Ryan stars as a law office admin who doubles as the conscience for real-life lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who was charged with setting up the fund for surviving families, which let’s just say, didn’t go so well at first.
In terms of what’s next, Ryan recently completed filming a project from Ari Aster called Disappointment Blvd., where she co-stars alongside Joaquin Phoenix. In a recent interview with The Playlist, Ryan was rather cryptic about the film other than to say, “It’s magical. It’s weird. It’s funny. And it’s scary. And it’s dark. And I can’t tell you anything else about it.”
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.