When I was in college in the ’80s, it was all about walking around like a rudimentary advertisement wearing designer labels. I didn’t like that at all. And I didn’t have a lot of money either. So I embraced grunge and thrift stores and big, heavy boots. I’ve always liked big, heavy boots. They made me feel grounded. It was also a way to dress like a New Yorker. And I’ve always been a New Yorker at heart.
That’s what I was still thinking in ’97, when I landed my first InStyle cover. Back then I was surprised to be on the cover of anything. I was just starting to learn how to find my angles. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is really good lighting!” All those stories you hear that make Elizabeth Taylor sound vain — guess what? I got it after that. [laughs]
Sally [Hershberger, who gave Ryan her famous shag haircut in the ’90s] did my hair for that first cover too. She used to say, “Piecey, not poufy.” She was irreverent and fun — but beyond anything, great at what she did. And she still does my hair today.
It’s interesting to look back 20 years at anything, right? Because you can bet there’s been irony in your life. It makes me think of something Bob Dylan said: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” I have a lot of tender feelings about the process of becoming and creating. There are times when the page turns and you’re all of a sudden no longer married, or you’re no longer this, or you become that, and then you stand in front of your closet and go, “Only one of these outfits works!” [laughs]
By the time I did my second InStyle cover, in 2003, the page had definitely turned for me. I was divorced [from Dennis Quaid]. All of my expectations about everything had been blown up. And that’s a good thing. People think they should be this by the time they’re 20 and this by the time they’re 30 and accomplished by the time they’re 40. I was in my early 40s at the time of the cover shoot. And I said in the interview that I thought assignment of age was arbitrary. I stand by that — especially now when it’s all about pivoting, re-creating, and having multiple careers.
My movie In the Cut also came out in 2003. What I loved about doing that film was that I got to be a female protagonist in a story that a woman directed [New Zealand screenwriter-director Jane Campion]. Jane is such a beautiful, wild white horse. I mean, talk about somebody who doesn’t give a shit about what people think. I remember her saying to me once, “Oh, you American women, you’re so busy trying to please!” because my character was a woman who never cared about how to please anyone. Ever. Playing someone like that made me feel free.
In the interview for my most recent InStyle cover, in 2008, I said I had an inability to accept myself as lovable. That was harsh. I think it stemmed from starting over after my marriage ended. Divorce is hard. I wasn’t easy on myself around then. I retreated. But that tough time was necessary. I became a better person after all of that. And I grew up a lot.
Now I think you can have more of a voice with social media. You have a direct relationship with your audience if you choose to, but that’s a double-edged sword. Like anything if it’s overindulged, then it’s a problem. But I appreciate hearing from — well, not everyone [laughs] — but hearing directly from people, because it allows for more of a complexity in the understanding of a person. It’s never black and white. No story is ever as simple as a headline.
Now I’m focused on producing. I’m also teeing myself up to direct, and I’m working on a fun e-commerce project with some of my friends. But most of all, what I’m ambitious for in the 12 hours a day that I’m awake is my kids’ happiness. I just am. I’m either figuring out how to provide for them, figuring out how to say it right, figuring out all those mom things. I want them to be happy. And today I’m happy too. Yes, I’m going to get married at some point. [Ryan got engaged to musician John Mellencamp last year]. But for now this engagement thing is a state of grace.
How I'd describe myself:
In 1997: I. Was. Surprised
Today: More wise and less sure
Photographed by Paul McLean on June 7 in New York City. Styling: Laurel Pantin. Hair: Sally Hershberger for Sally Hershberger Salons. Makeup: Christopher Ardoff for Art Department. Location: The Odeon, New York.