Meg Ryan Explains Why Her Directorial Debut Isn't a Rom-Com and What Makes Tom Hanks So 'Cool'

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The 54-year-old actress returns to the big screen with 'Ithaca,' a sun-drenched coming-of-age tale set during World War II.

Meg Ryan is as warm and welcoming as you'd expect Meg Ryan to be. When she calls from New York, where she's doing press for her new film, Ithaca, she immediately asks how you are. You congratulate her on her movie and hear her lilting voice say over the line, "Oh, thank you! Thank you. But, how are you doing today?" It seems she actually cares, so you tell her you're well. "All right, good," she replies with a reassured giggle.

The 54-year-old actress returns to the big screen -- her first time since 2009's Serious Moonlight -- with Ithaca, a sun-drenched coming-of-age tale set during World War II. The movie is based on a 1943 novel, The Human Comedy, and is something of a remake -- there is a adaptation from that same year starring Mickey Rooney -- though this iteration also marks Ryan's directorial debut. She discussed why this story spoke to her as a mom, reuniting with Tom Hanks, and becoming a Martin Scorsese of herself in a conversation with ET.

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Tell me a bit about how this project came together; what made you decide you wanted to direct in the first place and how did you decide this was the project you wanted to make your directorial debut?

Well, you toy around with the idea on sets, like, "What would I do?" That kind of ruminating. But this one, I felt like I could handle, because the story itself is simple, although it's about complicated ideas. In the same kind of way as To Kill a Mockingbird, it's basically a simple story, but it's about complex things. I love the book, and that character Homer, he really was moving to me, because he's a little protagonist! He wants this impossible thing, which is to keep pain away the people that he loves. I just found that so moving! And I love the world of it, that sort of analog world of 1942. That's probably one of the times in our country's history where, as a country, we've lost our innocence and our main character would be losing his innocence. I feel like all the metaphors of it I understood.

A lot of times you'll hear actresses say they started writing or directing because it was the only way they could get the roles they actually wanted to play, especially as it relates to conversations about aging in the industry. Was that at all the case for you?

No... This is just a story I think is beautiful, and I related to it as a mom. I remember reading the book in the run up to the Iraq war, actually, and I thought, there are times when life feels really dangerous and, as a mom, you get like, "Ah, man! I'm not going to be able to protect my kids from...everything!" That's a terrible moment, when that penny drops. It's quite a moment. This movie and this project, it's been in and out of my life for like, eight years, and it's always really resonated with me.

You've been in front of the camera, acting, for over two decades. What made you want to get behind it now?

I'm a photographer. I love visuals and the idea of weaving together all those different elements in a movie, it's a very cool art form in that it's a collaborative art form. When you're a director, you're intimate with all these different artists on a set. And that is a very interesting position to be in. You know, you whisper around with Sam Shepard about his process or [cinematographer] Andrew Dunn about the light and the frame. It's just cool! It's cool to tell a story. You're so responsible, man. Like, for better or worse -- and this isn't a perfect movie -- but the buck stops with you.

You're iconic for starring in romantic comedies. Did you ever consider directing a rom-com first? Or did you intentionally want to do something that people might find unexpected?

You know, it's such a miracle when a movie comes together and when it comes together, the financing and the availability of the actors. What you want -- like, "I want my first movie to be that!" -- probably is not part of the decision. [Laughs] It's like you have your hand in a lot of different things and you just see what happens, really.

But you're Meg Ryan...

I know! I don't know what that means though? [Laughs] Whatever that means!

Tom Hanks makes a cameo as your husband in Ithaca, which is the first time you two have reunited onscreen since You've Got Mail in 1998. What was it like acting together again?

I mean, I still can't believe that he did it. He's so cool. He just came down, he was hanging around for just a day. It's an enormous favor to do for somebody. I'm just so grateful that he was there.

That is exactly what I want to hear about Tom Hanks.

Yeah! Everybody has been asking me about him and I love that they ask me about him. Because it's so great to talk about a guy who puts a smile on everybody's face! I was in China and they were asking me about him and in Edinburgh and they were asking about him. It's quite an achievement, who he is to people. It's so lovely.

And you cast your son, Jack Quaid. What is it like being both his mother and his director? Did you feel like you needed to separate those roles or they worked together?

You know, since he was so little, he's made movies around the house and he'd have his friends over and one would come out of the bedroom dressed as this, the other one would come out of the family room dressed as that, and they'd go off and do these films. So, it felt natural. It felt like some kind of continuation of the experience I always had with him.

But he came to our set right after he shot the pilot for Vinyl. He came from Martin Scorsese's set to my dinky little set. I was like, "Jack, oh my God! You just came from this huge experience, and now you're coming to this..." And he was, "Mom, mom. It's the same." [Laughs] No one but your son is going to say that about the difference between those two movie sets!

ET recently spoke with Jack and he said something that I really liked. He said, "No one knows you better than your mom. So no one's going to be able to direct you better than your own mom."

[Laughs] Aww! He's just so cute. You know what's cool about being his mom right now? He's in his early twenties, and a couple years ago, I was on a plane and this stewardess said to me, "Oh! I had your son on a flight the other day, and he's just such a charming boy!" When, independently, strangers talk to me about somebody I know so well, it's so delightful! I can't tell you... It's great.

John Mellencamp did the score for the movie and wrote some original music. How was that working relationship? [Editor's note: Ithaca was filmed in 2014, when Ryan and Mellencamp were still dating. They split later that year, after three years together.]

He's great. I read him the script once and he gave us about half the music -- he got inspired that way. And then once the movie was done, he and the band, in, like, 36 hours or 48 hours, they came up with the rest of the music. All of them are incredible and John, in particular, has such an understanding of movies. I think the music is so delicate and so strong and so American. Perfect. It's just perfect.

As an actress, you've worked with so many legendary directors throughout your career. But is there something you do that you think is unique to you as a director?

No. Because I am hanging on by the skin on my teeth. [Laughs] So many things that different directors did over the course of my career -- different ways the set felt or different ways they would direct me, certain things that I like and certain things that I don't -- I tried to bring some of that experience around. But also, during this experience, I really got that every single actor works differently. Their job is to bring a certain type of mysterious magic to the set every day and I really was looking forward to them coming. Particularly the kids. They were so alive! God, we got lucky with them.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]