CULVER CITY, Calif. — Meg Ryan never intended to be America's Sweetheart.
Today, it's a crown so dusty and fraught with the residue of gender inequity that it might as well be retired in the Smithsonian. But back in Ryan's Sleepless in Seattle days, the happy-go-lucky title was baked into her narrative.
The reductive media glare prompted the actress to back out of the spotlight completely a decade ago, the actress told Gwyneth Paltrow at the Goop In Health Summit Saturday.
And she doesn't appear to have looked back.
"You know, I never wanted to be an actress," Ryan confessed. "The whole idea of being a famous person, the whole thing, I felt like a witness to. I didn't feel exactly in it. And I think that was a really good thing. Because I felt like a student of it in a way, that I was watching it (unfold) in an anthropological way."
Ryan closed Paltrow's third-ever Goop health conference with a talk that was marked by its frankness. "When you get labeled anything, like America's Sweetheart - I didn't even know what that meant," said Ryan, recalling how Nora Ephron (who wrote When Harry Met Sally and directed her in Sleepless in Seattle) resurrected the Old Hollywood term when describing her.
"It doesn't necessarily imply that you're smart or sexual or complicated or anything," said Ryan. "It's a label. And what can a label do but guess at you?"
Ryan worked to stretch outside of rom-coms in films like 1998's City of Angels and 2000's Proof of Life, but today she calls that period of her career "a really reactive time. Which is kind of why I stepped away about 10 years ago."
During their chat, Paltrow touched on on the Me Too movement, asking Ryan – now a director – if she experienced harassment early in her career. "I don't have a big, bad story," she said. "Success, which happened fairly early for me, is like an iron bubble around you. So I was really lucky."
Paltrow nodded; she came forward last fall with her own Harvey Weinstein story. "Once you have power, it doesn't really happen."
The two famous women also compared notes on single motherhood. Paltrow, who has two children with ex Chris Martin, became engaged to Brad Falchuk in January. Ryan has raised her daughter Daisy, 13, as a single parent.
"One thing that's nice is you don't get, like, overruled," grinned Ryan, who also has a son Jack, 26, with her ex Dennis Quaid. Jack is a rising actor, starring in The Boys, an upcoming Amazon superhero show produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.
Her son following in his parents' footsteps was out of her hands, said Ryan, recalling seeing Jack perform a high school Shakespearean play.
"Dennis and I were newly divorced, and we're sitting at opposite ends of the auditorium," she said. "Jack comes downstage and he does this soliloquy and I just lean forward like, Oh no. And (at the same time) I see Dennis is leaning forward like, 'Oh no - he’s good!' " Ryan laughed.