To look at her, you'd think she hadn't a care in the world. Meg Ryan lives up to her bubbly reputation, always ready with a wisecrack, and constantly flashing that famous smile across her jelly-baby features. Then again, fooling people is something she knows a lot about.
Ryan has always been clever at looking one way – all dippy and flung together – while the image has actually been carefully contrived and controlled. The difference is that this time, we know a little more about what lies beneath. To run through the litany of her troubles: there was the rather bitter divorce from womanising actor Dennis Quaid after a 12-year marriage, then the relationship, on the rebound, with Russell Crowe (during the making of their film Proof of Life) who shares with Quaid certain bad boy characteristics.
Crowe, not known for his fidelity, signalled his own exit card also when it was discovered that he was seeing a BBC researcher, said to have been a Ryan lookalike – and there hasn't been a man in her life since then, which is more than a year. Apart, that, is from her son Jack, nine, who divides his time between her and his father, Quaid. "Right now," she confides all Garbo-esque in a quiet corner of London's Dorchester Hotel, "I'm happy to be alone. I'm sure that there will come a time when I get fed up but at this moment I like it. Being single is fun – although it's actually sort of awful too. Mostly, though, it's fun. I engage with men in an entirely different way than I have ever done before. I feel as if I've been under a rock for a really long time. So the whole ritual of the dating game and what is appropriate and what is not is a rather grey area."
Ryan, simply dressed in a black DKNY suit and au naturel make-up, gives her outpourings an appropriate gravitas, except when her nose twitches almost of its own accord. Her woes have not prevented her from remaining in the work arena, most recently with the time-shift comedy Kate and Leopold in which Hugh Jackman's 19th-century gentleman falls through "a rip in the fabric of time" and charms Ryan's hard-nosed, modern career woman who has given up on men after a series of failed relationships with commitment phobes ("I blew my best years on you," sobs Ryan to one of them; his cruel reply is: "Those were your best?").
It could have seemed like art imitating life but Ryan says she was attracted to exploring the notions of civility and chivalry from a contemporary point of view. Although latterly Quaid was anything but chivalrous in his dealings with Ryan, the animosity is not as heightened as it once was. They met on the set of the 1987 comedy adventure Innerspace in which he played a hell-raising Navy test pilot and she was his love interest. They were married on St Valentine's Day in 1991 after she had helped Quaid win his battle with drugs and alcohol abuse.
"Believe me," she says, "there's still some acrimony. But it's not overwhelming. And I guess we're both so much concerned with our son, and preserving his innocence that our differences take a back seat. They say that 90 per cent of how kids adjust has to do with the relationship that the parents have with each other. So we're required to work on that relationship in order for the child to have some emotional health. "Jack knows a lot about the variations of feeling. It's really been hard, but there's been a lot of great stuff that's come along to balance things out."
Ryan's fans criticised her for dumping Quaid in favour of Crowe, leading her to opine, probably unwisely, "So this is what it feels like to be the scarlet woman." She remains on amicable terms with Crowe, of whom she says: "I think the world of him", as well as another former beau, Anthony Edwards, her co-star from Top Gun, whose heart she broke as Quaid moved in to the frame. Just where does her ability to cope and divide her time between competing demands, come from? She ascribes it to female resilience. "Women have this amazing ability to multi-task, and I think because we are capable of it, we tend to over-exploit ourselves."
She reflects philosophically on the turmoil of the past few years, suggesting that she feels more intact now as a woman than she did nine years ago when she gave birth to Jack. She is glad to have had a boy first, but now would to love to have a daughter. She looks pensive for a moment: "I think I would be a better mum to a girl now than I would have been back then."
With her personal life on a more stable footing she is finding more time to devote to "serious" work. "I'm taking on more movies, and I'm writing more. I'm also spending more time choosing what kind of films I want to do. I have the luxury of being able to devote more time to research."
She is currently producer and star of Against the Ropes, based on the true story of Jackie Kallen, a tough female boxing promoter. It marks rather a departure from the kind of romantic comedies that made her famous such as When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. She is learning to box as a way of easing herself into the milieu. "Jackie was one of the few women who have successfully managed a boxing champion. She has succeeded in a world where it is very rare to find a woman in a powerful position."
She admits she relishes the break from her run of dewy-eyed heroines. She may be promoting one today (her character in Kate and Leopold suffers a particularly gooey fate), but her mind is quite clearly elsewhere. She says that until now she's had a compulsion to run after roles in romantic comedies while passing on more challenging fare.
"I've probably gone as far as I can with that particular genre. I've only actually done seven pictures of that type, but I was locked into it. It starts to get irritating, you know. It's not been easy wearing the mantle of America's sweetheart for so long."
Now 40, she realises that she has to widen her career options, although she was rather miffed when a Hollywood trade magazine suggested she only had five good years left as an A-list performer.
"You become very aware of Hollywood's limits for you. Ageism is a real thing, but I feel it may be shifting a bit," she says. "But I have realised for some time that there is a limit to how long a girl can continue to play the cute and adorable card." Ryan's take on her own persona and appearance is fairly realistic. "I've got an all right face, and I got "cutest" in my high school year book, but I'm uncomfortable in any kind of glamour situation. It doesn't work for me." One of her heroines is Katharine Hepburn and she would love to spread into the sort of roles Hepburn took on as she grew older.
Ryan has an ambivalent attitude to her superstar status. "Everything about my career has been about me going towards fear," she says, frowning. "It's a mystery as to how I got to where I am. It still surprises me that I am an actress at all. It has never been in my nature." This may sound like well-rehearsed modesty, but you get the feeling that fame really does irk her right now. In addition to personal problems, Ryan has recently also had to cope with a stalker. John Hughes from Florida, against whom she has obtained a restraining order, broke into a house he thought belonged to her.
Besides men, the actress has had to contend with some fairly bitter jibes from her mother, Susan, a former teacher from Connecticut, who walked out on her husband, Harry Hyra and Ryan's three brothers and sisters. Ryan, who was 15 at the time, was enraged at her action and claims it was "the motivator for my career." She studied journalism at New York University before she just "fell" into acting in 1980 after auditioning for the role of Candice Bergen's daughter in Rich and Famous.
Her mother revealed intimate secrets about her daughter's marriage in a no holds barred autobiography published three years ago which, understandably, did not endear her to Ryan. In fact, she has been known to cut dead journalists who inquire too closely about her relationship, or lack of it, with her mother (Susan is not allowed access to her grandson).
The book is fascinating, in a trashy, depressing kind of way. "Meg walked away from her husband [Quaid] at the same age as I left mine – 38," writes her mother. "She and I are cut from the same cloth, and there are so many similarities. I had remained in a dead marriage for years before finally getting the courage to strike out on my own. She is doing the same.
"She has this sanitised image on screen. She goes through whole movies not having sex with 'safe' people like Billy Crystal. But she has made the decision that she doesn't want to live a lie any more, and I respect her for that." Mum has also described Ryan as "a cold-hearted and cruel manipulator who channels all her emotions into anger".
For years now, Ryan has been talking about doing a film on the life of Sylvia Plath. Crazy, huh? (Who would she want as Ted Hughes – a really testy Tom Hanks?) But think about it. Plath had a tortuous relationship with her mother and seriously mixed feelings about romance. Her anger, of course, was legendary...
Ryan has declared that she is not happy when her life seems to be going in "too linear a way. I like blowing up bridges". In other words, this period of stability may just be the lull before the storm.
'Kate and Leopold' is released in the UK on 5 AprilReuse content