Meg Ryan

02/13/2004 AT 11:16 AM EST

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.

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