Meg Ryan, Survivor

The star who passed up Pretty Woman, Ghost, and The Silence of the Lambs to make The Doors, Joe Versus the Volcano and Prelude to a Kiss is back in business in a big way, with two new eagerly anticipated films, Sleepless in Seattle and Flesh and Bone. And a good thing, too, for here she reveals, "I'd be insane if I wasn't an actress."

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In one of her two new films, Flesh and Bone, Meg Ryan makes her entrance by popping out of a wedding cake. Naturally she's wearing something heavenly and looks like an angel--but then the angel totters, spills over the rim of the cake, and barfs on the groom. Perfect. A winged creature with a yen for Jack Daniel's. Meg Ryan likes this kind of role, because it's writ large with paradox, and so is she. Spend two hours with her, and afterwards you'll still be wondering whether to label her urban or rural, rooted or footloose, self-possessed or vulnerable, modest or piquant. In fact, she's all of these, and the ratios are constantly changing. One thing is clear: she's a hardy Hollywood survivor who has bounced back from a few questionable career moves that followed the hit that made her a name, When Harry Met Sally....

When I meet her at a gleaming, high-tech coffee emporium in Santa Monica, she's wearing small, round sunglasses, a full-length black coat which affords no evidence of the lithe dancer's body underneath, and big, bad cowboy boots that look like they add several pounds to her weight. If she's trying to be incognito, she's succeeding, because none of the yuppies swilling their morning brews look at her twice. It's not this, but the fact that the place is so crowded there's no place to sit and talk that causes us to get into her Jeep, and cruise east on Montana.

"This is a great street for shopping," says Ryan, who goes on to confide that her New Year's resolution was to think more about what she wears. Why? "I used to beat myself up because I wasn't a good celebrity. Other people, like Madonna, Demi Moore and Roseanne Barr are great celebrities. They know what to wear to a premiere and how to present themselves. They're aware of the absurdity of celebrity and they play with it. I can't do that, but I admire it. I am going to concentrate, though, on not being my usual raggedy-assed self. I got advice from my sister-in-law, who's a great shopper. She said, 'Stick with black and you can't go wrong.'"

When I mention that no one in the coffee shop seemed to recognize her, she gives me a wry look which clearly suggests it was only a matter of time. "Usually, wherever I go, strangers wave and yell, 'Hi, Meg!'" she says with a laugh. "Once, in Oregon, a cop stopped me for speeding, but then he recognized me, tore up the ticket, and started chatting like he'd known me for years.

"And older women stop me in the supermarkets all the time, to tell me the most intimate details of their lives. People, after seeing me on-screen, feel they know me and can talk to me."

"Do you mind that?" I ask.

"No. What I minded was when people only talked to Dennis," she says, as we stop for a red light. I remember that, in the early days of her relationship with Dennis Quaid, who is now her husband, he was the bigger star. "Being with Dennis, then, was hard," Ryan recalls. "People used to stick their hand right past my face to shake his hand, and boy, nobody likes feeling that invisible. People can be mean. You need to have a strong sense of your place in one another's lives."

"It can't be easy," I say, "when one of you is enjoying more luck, more fame, than the other."

"Well, we have a theory about fame and success," reveals Ryan. "It comes in waves. Look at Diane Keaton, for example. She was so famous as Annie Hall, then that crested. Then she had a comeback in Baby Boom, then that crested. Now she's directing. How the world perceives you and who makes more money is all so silly, because no matter what, the waves come and go. In our case, both of us are used to it. It's easy to be in a marriage with someone who does what you do if you respect him a great deal, and Dennis is an amazing actor."

"So you don't think the problems attendant to fame will ever present problems for the two of you?" She shakes her head as she pulls the Jeep back into traffic. "Acting is what I do. It's not what I solely define myself as. It's not something to die for. I like my job, but I love my son."

She and Quaid's first child, Jack, was born in April, 1992.

"How were those first few months of motherhood?" I ask.

"I never thought I'd live through them," she says.

"Did Dennis get up with you in the middle of the night?"

"He'd always say to wake him," she says with a chortle, "but when the time came, I'd nudge him, and there'd be no response. His heart was in the right place, though."

"When you were sitting there with your infant son, surrounded by the quietness of the wee hours, what thoughts would go through your head?"

"I'd think about how, when I was younger, I used to wonder if I was living life the way I should be," Ryan says. "I used to worry that I was off on the wrong tangent, that the road I should be on was over there. But that kind of fear is diminishing now. I look at myself, at my life, my marriage, our child, and I say--with some disbelief--'You're doing okay.' Before, I used to take on lost causes, whether it was a tough script or a house that was impossible, and I tried to make them into something tenable. I'm realizing now that I don't have to make it that hard on myself--I can buy a house that already has a master bedroom, you know?"

"You and Dennis met on the set of Innerspace in 1987..."

"... and we started dating after the shoot."

"When did you get married?"

"In early 1991. We were staying at the Hotel Bel-Air, and we called down to the concierge and told him we wanted to get married. He sent up a reverend who happened to be at the hotel for a Rotary Club meeting."

"Not a helluva lot of fanfare," I say.

"No," she agrees. "None."

"Was your family upset they weren't invited?"

"That's the only way I could have done it," says Ryan with a shrug. All she'll say about her family is: "My parents were teachers, and they got divorced when I was in my teens." Time to try another topic.

"Do you and Dennis solicit one another's opinions on scripts?" I ask, while she looks for a place to park.

"If I'm sent a script that reeks of commercialism and everyone else in my life is saying, 'This movie is going to be huge,' but I don't like it, that's when I go to Dennis and say, 'Am I crazy to turn this down?' But when there's no project under consideration, I'd much rather discuss things like painting the baseboards in our house in Montana."

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