11/03/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
She's perfected perky. She's trade-marked tousled. And she's turned her famous nose-crinkling smile into box office riches. All of which makes it shocking that Meg Ryan, as a teacher entangled in a murder mystery in the new thriller In the Cut, swaps her signature cutesiness for gritty realism—not to mention nudity and graphic love scenes that make her When Harry Met Sally
...orgasm seem downright G-rated. "I love how sexuality is explored in this movie," says Ryan, 41. "It's not just about nakedness. It's not just acrobatic." Filming the scenes with costar Mark Ruffalo "was nerve-racking," she adds, "but it ended up being hilarious."
Not so the bleak film itself, which has drawn mixed reviews. But its star is winning praise for her raw turn ("Ryan's performance is absolutely flawless," raved Richard Roeper), marking a big-screen comeback after a near two-year absence following her '01 divorce from actor Dennis Quaid and a whirlwind romance with Russell Crowe. She seems delighted to ditch the When Harry Met Kate & Leopold in Seattle torch she has carried for most of her 22-year career. "I have, in the past, played characters who perpetuate a romantic mythology," says Ryan. "The fun about [In the Cut] was the flip side of it, in that this character is a bit of a victim of those happily-ever-after expectations."
It took some convincing for the filmmakers to see Ryan in the part—so much so that she had to audition for it after the movie's original star, Nicole Kidman
, dropped out. "She's someone you wouldn't expect for this role," says In the Cut producer Laurie Parker. And yet, "in person, she is nothing like her [romantic comedy] characters. She is very soulful and clear, very direct." Adds Jackie Kallen, a boxing manager who spent a year prepping Ryan for another against-type role in the drama Against the Ropes, due out in 2004: "People look at her and think she's this easily hurt puppy kind of girl. And she's really not like that at all. She's really strong, really smart and very in charge of her own life."
Shooting the small-budget In the Cut last year in New York City, Ryan, who earned a fraction of her usual $15 million paycheck, "was very calm and at peace," says Parker—despite the demise of her 10-year marriage to Quaid, 49. "It was awful, but also great," Ryan told NBC's Dateline of her post-divorce recovery. "I think anyone who's been through that understands what it takes to dream a new dream, you know? It's fierce."
Today she and Quaid—who share custody of their 11-year-old son Jack—are on such good terms that Ryan occasionally turns up at Quaid's gigs with his rock band the Sharks. While she was filming In the Cut, "he would visit her on the set—they were quite friendly," says screenwriter Susanna Moore. And the pair share a mutual dedication to their son. "They both seem like they live for Jack," says Kallen. "Every one of Meg's conversations referred to Jack."
Along with motherhood, Ryan has made time for romance, telling Dateline, "I'm having some fun." Most recently she has been spotted with actor and artist William Keane, 32, who shares Ryan's passion for yoga. Like Ryan, Keane, formerly of Chicago Hope, is a single parent (he and his ex-girlfriend share custody of their 10-year-old daughter). "He does hang out with Meg, but they are very good friends and have been for many years," Keane's mom, Ethel, says of the low-key pairing. "At least that is what he tells me, but remember, this is what he's telling his mother now."
Mom may not be getting the full scoop, but Ryan herself has acknowledged her ambivalence about remarrying. "I like the idea of marriage...but I don't know if it's in the cards for me," she has said. Yet she is more certain about her desire to have more children: "Yeah, because I love being a mom. We'll see."
In the meantime Ryan continues to shuttle between Los Angeles and New York City, where she owns a SoHo loft. An amateur photographer, she often totes a camera when she goes out—which is rarely. "She's more of a dinner-with-her-friends-or-son type person," says Kallen. Yoga helps keep her petite frame as trim as ever. Says Kallen: "She's extremely fit."
Not to mention extremely relaxed. Since wrapping In the Cut more than a year ago, Ryan has taken it easy—and, with no upcoming projects, she plans to keep up the R&R. "It's a happy time," she says. "I feel utterly filled."
Alison Singh Gee and Kwala Mandel in Los Angeles and Jennifer Longley in New York City