Ryan subsequently established herself, both nationally and internationally, as one of the most successful actresses in the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly in romantic comedy films such as Sleepless in Seattle (1993), French Kiss (1995), You've Got Mail (1998), and Kate & Leopold (2001). Her other films include The Doors (1991), When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), Courage Under Fire (1996), Addicted to Love (1997), City of Angels (1998), Proof of Life (2000), and The Women (2008). In 2015, she made her directorial debut with Ithaca, a film in which she also acted.
Ryan was born and raised in Fairfield, Connecticut, the daughter of Susan Jordan (née Duggan), a former actress and English teacher, and Harry Hyra, a math teacher. She is of German, Irish, and Slavic descent. She was raised Roman Catholic and attended St. Pius X Elementary School in Fairfield. She has two sisters, Dana and Annie, and a brother, musician Andrew Hyra, a member of the band Billy Pilgrim. Her parents divorced in 1976 when she was 15 years old.
Ryan graduated from Bethel High School in 1979. She went on to study journalism as an undergraduate, first at the University of Connecticut and then at New York University. During college, she acted in television commercials and the soap opera As the World Turns to earn extra money. Due to her success as an actress, she dropped out of college a semester before she would have graduated. When she joined the Screen Actors Guild, she used the surname "Ryan", her grandmother's maiden name.
After her film debut in George Cukor's Rich and Famous, Ryan played Betsy Stewart in the daytime drama As the World Turns, from 1982 to 1984, and her character was featured in a popular romantic story arc. Around that same time, she appeared in a Burger King commercial. Several television films and smaller film roles followed, including appearances in Charles in Charge, Armed and Dangerous, Amityville 3-D and Promised Land; for her role in the lattermost she received her first Independent Spirit Award nomination. In 1986, she played Carole Bradshaw, the wife of Naval Flight Officer Nick "Goose" Bradshaw (played by Anthony Edwards) in Top Gun. Ryan appeared in the film Innerspace (1987) with her future husband Dennis Quaid, and later in the remake of D.O.A. (1988) and in The Presidio (1988).
Her first leading role was the romantic comedy film When Harry Met Sally... (1989), which paired her with comedic leading man Billy Crystal and earned her a Golden Globe nomination. Her portrayal of Sally Albright includes an oft-recounted scene in which her character, lunching with Crystal in Katz's Delicatessen in Manhattan, theatrically demonstrates for him how easy it is for a woman to fake an orgasm.
Ryan next starred in The Doors, which was moderately successful, and Prelude to a Kiss, which flopped. The year 1993 saw the release of the hugely successful romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle, which paired Ryan for a second time with Tom Hanks. They had previously been paired as romantic leads in the film Joe Versus the Volcano—a commercial disappointment which later developed a cult following. Hanks and Ryan would be paired for a third time in the film You've Got Mail.
In 1994, Ryan took a role that differed from the romantic-comedy ingenue character for which she had become famous. In Luis Mandoki's When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), a romantic social drama film also starring Andy Garcia, she played an alcoholic high-school guidance counselor. The film and her performance were both well received by critics. One critic called the film "a first-class production, accentuated by fine performances and an unflinching script", and another praised Ryan for her "roller-coaster role." The film was a notable success in its domestic run, grossing $50 million in the United States alone, and garnered the actress her first Screen Actors Guild Award.
The same year, Ryan returned to type, starring alongside Tim Robbins in Fred Schepisi's romantic comedy I.Q. The film centers on a mechanic and a Princeton doctoral candidate who fall in love, with the aid of the graduate student's uncle, Albert Einstein (played by Walter Matthau).
Also in 1994, Ryan won Harvard's Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year award, and People Magazine dubbed her one of "the 50 most beautiful people in the world."
In 1995, critic Richard Corliss called her "the current soul of romantic comedy." That same year, she appeared opposite Kevin Kline in Lawrence Kasdan's French Kiss, a romantic comedy that catered to her "America's Sweetheart" image, and Ryan was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award. (This award is given to "outstanding women who, through their endurance and the excellence of their work, have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry.")
In 1997, Ryan voiced the lead role in the animated film Anastasia, which garnered good reviews and enjoyed box office success. She also appeared opposite Matthew Broderick in Addicted to Love playing a female lead at least superficially different than her usual direction, as one of a pair of jilted lovers bent on revenge.
In 1998, she starred in two films. City of Angels drew positive reviews and became a financial success, topping nearly $200 million worldwide. You've Got Mail once again paired Ryan with Hanks, earning her a third Golden Globe nomination and making over $250 million worldwide. She also appeared in 1998's Hurlyburly with Sean Penn.
Ryan's first film of the 2000s was Hanging Up, a Diane Keaton-directed family comedy-drama about a trio of sisters who bond over the approaching death of their curmudgeonly father. Also starring Keaton, Lisa Kudrow, and Walter Matthau, the film adaptation of Delia Ephron's 1995 novel received poor reviews from critics.
The same year, Ryan was cast in the action thriller Proof of Life with Russell Crowe, directed by Taylor Hackford. In the film, she portrayed the distraught wife of a kidnapped engineer, played by David Morse, while relying on a resourceful troubleshooter who makes a profession of dealing with international bandits. While the film became a lukewarm critical and commercial success, grossing $63 million worldwide, it garnered much reportage in the tabloid press in association with Ryan and Crowe's affair. Stephen Holden, film critic for The New York Times, did not think the film worked well and opined that the actors did not connect.
A year later, she once again returned to her romantic comedy roots with Kate & Leopold (2001), alongside Hugh Jackman. A film about a British Duke who travels through time from New York in 1876 to the present and falls in love with a successful market researcher in the modern New York, the James Mangold-directed film received a mixed-to-positive response, with Lael Loewenstein of Variety summing it as "a mostly charming and diverting tale." At a total gross of $70 million, it would be Ryan's highest-grossing film of the decade.
In 2003, Ryan broke away from her usual roles, starring alongside Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Jane Campion's erotic thriller film In the Cut. Co-producer Nicole Kidman had originally been cast in the lead, but the actress eventually dropped out after five years of development, leaving the role to Ryan, who appeared nude in a lengthy and rather graphic love scene for the first time in her career. Although her image-conflicting depiction earned Ryan and the film much media attention, the film failed with critics and grossed only $23 million in theaters.
She continued the strategy of acting against type with a leading role in Charles S. Dutton's directorial debut Against the Ropes (2004), a fictionalized sport drama about American boxing manager Jackie Kallen, the first woman to become a success in the sport. The film grossed less than $6 million in the U.S. and was panned by critics, in part because of its resemblance to other boxing films, such as the Rocky series.
Following a three-year hiatus, Ryan returned to film with Jon Kasdan's 2007 independent film In the Land of Women, a film she described as "kind of like The Graduate, but with cancer". Starring alongside Kristen Stewart and Olympia Dukakis, she played Sarah Hardwicke, a mother and wife facing breast cancer, who connects with her neighbor's much younger grandson, played by Adam Brody. Released to mixed reviews by critics, the film grossed $17.5 million worldwide, exceeding its budget of $10 million. Ryan received a positive response for her performance, with Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times noting it "the best work [she] has done in forever".
Ryan's first film release of 2008 was The Deal, a satirical comedy film based on Peter Lefcourt's 1991 novel of the same title about Hollywood. Directed by Steven Schachter and co-starring William H. Macy, the film was shot in Cape Town and other South African locations and celebrated its world premiere at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Garnering generally mixed to negative reviews, it failed to draw interest among film studios, resulting in a straight-to-DVD release in January 2009. In his review for Variety, Peter Debruge said, "The characters seem to be doing all the laughing, while the general public has nothing to cling to but the horndog flirtation between mismatched leads William H. Macy and Meg Ryan—hardly ideal ingredients for mainstream success." Ryan also starred in George Gallo's My Mom's New Boyfriend, shot in 2006 but released direct-to-DVD in 2008. Co-starring Colin Hanks, Selma Blair, and Antonio Banderas, the action comedy received overwhelmingly negative reviews, with David Nusair of Reel Film noting it "an unmitigated disaster virtually from its opening frames".
Ryan's last film of 2008 was The Women, a remake of the 1939 production. The all-female cast comprises Annette Bening, Debra Messing, and Jada Pinkett Smith. Written, produced and directed by Diane English, the film centers on a group of four female Manhattan socialites whose primary interest is idle gossip, with Ryan portraying a wealthy woman whose husband is cheating on her with a shop girl, played by Eva Mendes. Ryan was the first actress to join the long-delayed production, which struggled to find financing since the early 1990s, resulting in an independent production budgeted at $18 million. Upon its release, The Women received a disastrous response from critics, with Richard Schickel of Time calling it "one of the worst movies I've ever seen". The film was a financial success, however, becoming Ryan's most successful film since 2001's Kate & Leopold with a worldwide gross of $50 million.
In 2009, Ryan starred alongside Kristen Bell and Justin Long in the independent comedy film Serious Moonlight. In this film, directed by actress Cheryl Hines and based on a screenplay by late writer Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered a year prior to filming, Ryan portrayed a high-powered female attorney who learns that her husband, played by Timothy Hutton, is about to leave their troubled marriage, and decides to hold him captive by duct-taping him to a toilet. Picked up by Magnolia Pictures, the production received a limited release throughout North America only and grossed less than $150,000 worldwide. Critical reaction to the film was generally mixed-to-negative, although Ryan was praised for her "terrific" performance. Also in 2009, Ryan guest-starred on the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Ryan was attached to several productions in the early 2010s—including the ensemble drama Lives of The Saints opposite Kat Dennings, Kevin Zegers, and John Lithgow, and Long Time Gone, a film adaptation of the April Stevens novel Angel Angel,—all of which failed to materialize. In April 2011, it was announced that Ryan would make her feature film directing debut with a film titled Into the Beautiful, described as "a contemporary Big Chill with longtime friends reconnecting", but it also was never made.
In October 2012, Ryan was featured in the PBS documentary Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The series introduces women and girls living under difficult circumstances and fighting to challenge them. The same month, Ryan's audiobook recording of William Saroyan's The Human Comedy was released. In October 2013, it was reported that Ryan would be returning to television to produce and star in a new comedy for NBC revolving around a former hotshot New York editor, which it again failed to get greenlit.
Following another four-year hiatus, Ryan re-teamed with Lisa Kudrow on her improvisational comedy series Web Therapy, for which she filmed five episodes in 2013. The following year, she provided the future voice of Greta Gerwig's character in the pilot of How I Met Your Dad, a woman-centric variation of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. CBS later passed on the project.
Ryan's next feature film was the ABC Family film Fan Girl, an independent comedy about a 15-year-old girl, played by Kiernan Shipka, with a passion for filmmaking sets out to make a movie about her favorite band, All Time Low. It premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June 2015.
Also in 2015, Ryan made her directing debut with Ithaca, a drama film based on the 1943 novel The Human Comedy by William Saroyan. Filmed in Petersburg, Virginia, it starred Ryan and had its world premiere at the Middleburg Film Festival in October.
Ryan married actor Dennis Quaid on February 14, 1991. They are said to have fallen in love during the shooting of their second film together, D.O.A. They have one child together, Jack Quaid, born April 24, 1992. She and Quaid separated and their divorce became final on July 16, 2001. Meg Ryan later revealed Quaid had been unfaithful to her for a long time.
In January 2006, Ryan adopted a 14-month-old girl from China whom she named Daisy True. In 2010, Ryan began a relationship with American singer-songwriter John Mellencamp. In August 2014, it was reported that they had ended their relationship after three and a half years of dating. The couple got back together in October 2014, but broke up again in early 2015.
Ryan supports the Democratic Party, especially its environmental protection programs and initiatives. In 2003, she supported Wesley Clark's campaign for U.S. president. She supported John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election.