That status may change, however, when the new season of “The Office” premieres on NBC on Sept. 25. In the finale in May, Ryan joined the show as Holly, a human resources executive who catches the eye of awkward boss Michael, played by Steve Carell. Fortunately for the actress, it was more than just a flirtatious tease: She is set to appear in a six-episode arc, in which her greatest challenge might just be maintaining her composure among her castmates.
“You are guaranteed at least three hysterical fits of laughter between takes,” Ryan says. “It makes it easier to keep a straight face while filming, although it’s still extremely hard. You’re drumming up every dead puppy story you can imagine.”
Plumbing her dark side isn’t a problem for Ryan, a theater veteran and Queens, N.Y., native whom Ben Affleck chose to play a drug-addled single mom in his directing debut, “Gone Baby Gone.” Her gritty performance earned her best supporting actress nods from nearly every film critic’s guild in the country.
“It was a huge dramatic change, but I appreciated every single bit of it,” she recalls of the 2007 awards whirlwind. “On a creative level, it meant having access to more interesting parts with great actors and directors. There were also those ‘pinch me’ moments when you get to meet your heroes. I met Dustin Hoffman [at a theater workshop], and when he’s talking to you about your work, it’s an intense gift.”
So is her new sitcom gig, which has allowed the New York dweller to extend her summer stay in Los Angeles. “It’s been working out really well this way, coming with one suitcase, staying in a hotel. You get really well looked after, like a working vacation,” she says.
But Ryan is always happy to come home to New York’s West Village, which she jokingly nicknames Banker Village because of its gentrification. “‘Sex and the City’ ruined my neighborhood. There are a lot of Carrie Bradshaws walking around now,” she laughs.
The New York that Ryan appreciates is less about the stilettos than the floorboards — her first love, and success, was the city’s Great White Way. She earned Tony nominations for her roles as Stella in the 2005 revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Sonya in 2000’s “Uncle Vanya,” and calls theater “the closest I come to religion.” And when it comes to choosing roles, Ryan simply follows her gut.
“It’s whatever truly gets the blood flowing,” she says. “For ‘The Office,’ I have 4:45 a.m. calls and I’ve never been out of bed so fast in my whole life. If your body is excited to do something, that’s what you should be doing. Or if it really scares you, you should be doing it.”
One such intimidating moment was preparing to play a Wall Street Journal reporter in the upcoming political thriller “Green Zone,” costarring Matt Damon. “Talking about weapons of mass destruction was really over my head,” she admits. “There were some days on set when I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, but I just dove in.”
Her next big-screen release is December’s “The Changeling,” directed by Clint Eastwood and costarring Angelina Jolie as a single mom whose character she befriends in the movie. “Clint is a very gentle and generous man who makes it very easy,” she says. “He knows exactly what he wants, and he does one take, maybe two, if you are lucky. That’s where I am so glad that I did theater. Every night you come rehearsed.”
The same cannot be said for the rigors of the red carpet. Of all the roles she has played, it is the one that requires the most adjustment. “It’s like Cinderella,” she says. “All that gorgeous stuff is all over your home one day, and the next you are picking up a dirty T-shirt off the floor to wear.”