February 13, 2004 11:16 AM

She’s America’s sweetheart, but Meg Ryan, 42, still has a few punches to throw as she steps into the ring for Against the Ropes, due in theaters Feb. 20 and costarring Omar Epps. For a woman who earned her fanbase in romantic leads (Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, among others), her role as real-life boxing manager Jackie Kallen is a hard turn – no sign of Tom Hanks here – but then again, so was last year’s gritty In the Cut, her big-screen comeback after her 2001 divorce from Dennis Quaid. Ryan recently talked to reporters about breaking away from comedies and honing her own boxing skills.

Could you make it as a boxer?
I’ve thrown some good punches in my imagination. (Laughs.)

Did you know much about the sport before the movie?
I had seen When We Were Kings, and I loved that (Muhammad Ali) documentary. You start to understand the social movements that they represented, what each fight meant. The sports drama is, I think, something that’s lost on women like me.

Your fans are mostly women. Are you worried they’ll be turned off?
When you go to a boxing match, there is no shortage of women. … And an audience that’s watching a boxing match, they have the same kind of release that these boxers have. So, it’s a part of human nature, and when you give it its proper venue, maybe it won’t come out in things as unconscious as war.

Your character, Jackie, wears a lot of high heels. How’d you manage?
Well, that was fun. This was someone who liked to have someone pay attention to her when she walks into the room. At first, I was very awkward with the clothes and the shoes – (the producer) wanted to hire someone to teach me how to walk. (Laughs.) … But it’s really fun to work it, and there’s a couple of outfits that I kept. There’s some fringe and some spangles that are in my closet.

Jackie had people telling her she couldn’t make it as a boxing manager. Have you ever experienced something like that?
Oh, yeah. There are a lot of analogous things between the boxing world and Hollywood. They’re very, very happy to put you in a box and say, “This is meant for you and not this.” I never made a career out of being a sex symbol, but I can see that the door is opened wide for that and it can turn on you (just) as quickly.

After seeing how the sports world works, what do you do now to stay fit?
I do yoga, but for this movie, I tried to box for a while. It was a sad, sad thing. Just the squats alone, and what it takes to be a boxer is a thing that is 24-7 for years and years and years. Everything that you put in your mouth, everything that you pick up or put down – the discipline is so extraordinary.

But isn’t that what it’s like as a Hollywood actress?
It’s nowhere near what it’s like. There’s a kind of micro-management of your physical instrument and your mental acuity in boxing. I mean, I vaguely understand what it’s like to pick your punches.

This role seems similar to the one you played in the 1996 war drama Courage Under Fire, which broke away from the romantic leads you had come to be known for.
Yeah, absolutely. I learned on the last movie out (In the Cut) that there’s a very particular idea of me that people don’t want to give up, and you know what? That’s fine, I’m happy to do comedies, (but) I mean, I’m an actor, and I want to do all kinds of different things.

What about your personal life? Any updates there?
(Laughs.) Not for your ears.

You May Like