Amy Ryan has always been considered a character actress. The 51-year-old was pleased to play the lead in the Netflix drama Lost Girls, as a real-life mother, Mari Gilbert battling with law enforcement to find the murderer of her sex worker daughter Shannan. The film premiered in Sundance where Ryan also had a supporting role in another real-life drama, Worth, set in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
She is an actress with a big heart and a huge social consciousness. “I support a bunch of charities, I put my money and presence behind them.”
Both of her most recent characters she says are “complex, strong women.” She could relate to both, to Mari because she is a mother herself and with the “extraordinary” Camille Biros, who was part of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. (Michael Keaton plays attorney Kenneth Feinberg, the Fund’s leader.)
Ryan was in New York at the time of the terrorist attacks.
“I was living in the West Village and was stunned and shocked and trying to figure out ways to help. But there wasn’t much anybody could do. We were just waiting.”
What does she think the film might achieve?
“There’s an extraordinary thing in that it shows how during the event, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, blue state and red state, everybody came together to help the country. It wasn’t as divided as it is now. Maybe it will inspire them to go back to that.” (Of course, the coronavirus epidemic hadn’t taken off at the time we spoke, and one imagines she might have hoped for the same outcome in fighting the disease.)
As for Lost Girls the case remains unsolved.
“It is not solved unfortunately and I’m hoping this film hits a nerve with audiences and makes them ask questions and puts pressure on it. That would be the greatest success to come out of this film.”
Interestingly, police authorities believe there are multiple perpetrators of the Long Island murders, largely of sex workers who advertised on Craigslist. The film is based on Robert Kolker’s best-selling 2013 book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, which focused on all the murders committed around the gated Oak Beach community, while the film focuses on Shannan and Mari and events that occurred between 2010 and 2012. Liz Garbus, a documentarian known for What Happened, Miss Simone? and Bobby Fischer Against The World, makes her dramatic feature debut.
“The police said, ‘Well, Shannan’s a sex worker, she doesn’t want to be found,” Garbus explains. “But her mother raised her voice until people started listening. Still, the police wanted to dehumanise Shannan and there was not the investigation that should have been. I’m a mum and your job is to keep your children safe. But when society fails you and you’re alone, what do you do? Mari also suffered a tragic end, so the film honours the memory of a badass woman who would not take no for an answer.”
Shannan, as it happens, was bipolar and too much of a handful for Mari to fully raise. When the police discovered she had put her daughter in a foster home, they questioned her credentials as a mother. Mari was killed in grisly circumstances in 2016 by her younger daughter, Sarra, a schizophrenic who had gone off her meds and stabbed her mother over 200 times. She remains in prison. Mari’s other daughter Sherre continues the fight to find Shannan’s killer on her mother’s behalf. Kiwi actress Thomasin McKenzie plays Sherre in the film.
“I saw Thomasin in Leave No Trace, which was in Sundance a couple of years ago,” notes Garbus. “Sherre is tough, but quiet and reserved and at a certain point it’s all going to boil over and Thomasin just has that range. She can do so much just with a glance. She can change a scene. She’s an extraordinary actor.”
Interestingly, two of America’s best character actors play the villainous suspects. While police chief Jimmy Burke, who has already served a prison sentence for another offence, is not a character in the film for legal reasons, a fictitious, composite police character, detective Dean Bostick, is portrayed by Dean Winters. Reed Birney (House of Cards) delivers a fine creepy turn as the real-life Dr. Peter Hackett.
“Jimmy Burke at the time, was probably the most corrupt cop in the United States and the Suffolk Country Police Department was more corrupt than any police department in any major city,” Winters explains at the film’s post screening Q and A. “When I first got this job, I rode around with the local cops who were on the case and they gave me all the stories about Jimmy Burke. They all said, ‘We know who did this’. The theory is, it’s probably this guy over here [he points to Birney]. But they were covering their bases. They knew who it was but couldn’t say.”
“I tried to keep it ambiguous because it is ambiguous,” Birney admits. “But he comes off very badly. I think he’s guilty. I tried to have him be terrifying, but not necessarily that guy. He’s around; he’s still alive. I imagine when the film comes out, we might hear from him, writing letters to local congressmen. He’s in Florida.”
Garbus: “I spent time with Mari during the process of working with Michael Werwie
on the script and getting this project off the ground. This film is really told from her point of view,” she says, in terms of the doctor being the culprit. “Obviously, that was her firm belief, but it’s very complicated. There are a lot of questions about the police conspiracies. I don’t know the answers.”
Was Netfllx with the project from the beginning? “We pitched the film to Netflix, they came on board and as soon as they did, we got to make our movie,” Garbus responds.
Lost Girls has been a huge hit on the streaming site and is certainly a fascinating case.