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Being noticed — Up-and-comer Amy Ryan generates Oscar buzz for 'Gone Baby Gone'

The dramatic thriller "Gone Baby Gone" was directed by Ben Affleck, and the cast includes not only Affleck's hot-commodity brother, Casey, but also experienced veterans Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan.

And yet it's a relatively unknown 30-something actress in a supporting role — Amy Ryan — who's getting most of the attention. Especially when awards talk rolls around.

Ryan, who co-stars in "Gone Baby Gone" as Helene McCready, the drug-addicted mother of a missing young girl, describes the character as "a complicated, confusing and frustrating woman. I'm sure audiences won't know how to feel about Helene. I mean, she clearly loves her daughter. And yet, she does some pretty horrible things that indicate she's not the best mother in the world."

According to Ryan, that made playing the character a real challenge. "I had to find something to help humanize her, make her relatable," she said by phone from New York. "Not just for me, but for people who watch the movie."

In that regard, she had help from director Affleck, who also co-wrote the screenplay with novelist Dennis Lehane, whose book served as the source material. "They really helped me create a real character and refused to turn her into a one-note caricature, even though that would have been the easy way to go."

Also, she said Affleck is a "remarkable" filmmaker. "He uses parts of Boston as a character in this film. It has so much flavor and feels so real and gritty."

She had similar praise for the younger Affleck, who stars as private detective Patrick Kenzie. "Helene and Patrick have an odd sort of relationship. At first she's hostile to him and all his questions, but then she gets sort of flirty with him. It's fun."

Ryan's star is definitely on the rise. In 2005, she played Chris Cooper's star-struck wife in "Capone," and she has supporting roles in the upcoming films "Dan in Real Life" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." She's also preparing for a role in "The Changeling," a mystery that will star Angelina Jolie and be directed by Clint Eastwood. "I've gotten some extremely lucky breaks, getting to work for directors like Ben and Clint and Sidney Lumet" (her director for "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead").

Despite such self-effacement, she's getting noticed — but she's also no stranger to awards talk, having been nominated for a Tony for her performance as Stella Kowalski in a 2005 Broadway revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire." "You certainly have to be flattered by all the attention, but in the end it's just that — talk. You can't cash a check with an award, and you can't even eat an award, unless they're fake chocolate ones covered in gold foil."

Still, she says she is grateful for the good notices the film and her performance are getting. "It's just nice to be noticed. And when there are so many heavyweights in the cast, it's really nice."

She's also excited for the return of HBO's "The Wire," in which she plays a Baltimore patrol officer. The acclaimed crime drama begins its fifth and final season in January. "We're going out on a high note. It's rare in this business you can say something like that and really mean it."

Ironically, that program and "Gone Baby Gone" both feature Ryan and actor Michael K. Williams, although the two have never shared any screen time. "It's weird, and it's sort of frustrating, because he's so talented.

"To be completely honest, I didn't even know he was in the film until I finally saw the completed version. But he's been so supportive. I hope this gets him noticed, as well."