Meg Ryan is having a moment. After years away from the spotlight, she’s back to doing what she loves best — making movies. On November 3, What Happens Later, her first film in eight years — which she cowrote, directed and stars in — hits theaters. Meg plays Willa, a woman who gets snowed in at an airport overnight with an ex-lover, played by David Duchovny, and the two find their decades-old attraction rekindling. “It has a relationship to movies from the ’40s, like Bringing Up Baby, in terms of the banter,” Meg says. “It’s also about old people, and it’s still romantic and sexy!”

The actress once known as the rom-com queen may be returning to the genre that made her famous, but she’s a different woman than when she starred in When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle and other warmhearted comedies. At 61, the divorced mother of two is now an empty nester. She broke off her engagement to rocker John Mellencamp, moved to Los Angeles, and has rediscovered her joy in making films. “She is at a stage in her life where she wants to tell stories that are meaningful to her and women of her age group,” a friend tells Closer. “She is excited to embrace this new time of her life.”

Back in the ’90s, “people were starting to get the idea that all I could do was romantic comedies,” Meg says. “It was starting to get irritating.” She took on dramatic roles in such films as Courage Under Fire, but following her 2001 divorce from Dennis Quaid, Hollywood took a backseat while she raised her son, Jack, 31, and daughter, Daisy, 19. “Most of all, what I’m ambitious for in the 12 hours a day that I’m awake is my kids’ happiness. I just am,” Meg says. “I want them to be happy.”

Meg Ryan poses in floral gown
VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past decade, Meg has also focused more on what makes her happy. In 2019, the actress finally called it quits on her 10-year, on-again-off-again relationship with John Mellencamp. “John is not the easiest man to be with and would probably admit that,” says the friend. “They had a very strong connection, but in the end, Meg wasn’t willing to compromise what made her happy just to make the relationship work.” And while she’s not dating anyone at the moment, “Meg is open to it,” says the pal. “She’s just enjoying herself.”

The star also feels good about making more films. While she directed 2015’s WWII coming-of-age movie, Ithaca, “it wasn’t until Daisy was set to graduate that Meg really threw herself back into work,” says the friend. What Happens Later was the right project at the right time. “The story started to revolve around this question of how we begin to forgive ourselves and one another,” says Meg, who worked on the script during the pandemic. “It got me thinking about what was happening in the world, how we were all kind of put under a glass.” And though their characters are opposites — Willa’s a “magical thinker” while Bill is pessimistic — the deeper question at the heart of the movie “sort of evolves the rom-com genre just a little bit,” she says.

Now, Meg is looking forward to making more movies. “I want to direct again,” she says. “I hadn’t done a role in a really long time, but it was fun with David. A lot of it was done in two shots. I’m proud of that!”