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Real-Life Naval Academy Professor Jack Ryan on Sharing a Name With the Tom Clancy Character

John Patrick Ryan, who goes by the name Jack, isn't just any Jack Ryan sharing a name with the Tom Clancy creation who returns to movie theaters this weekend with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. This Jack Ryan is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy — the same military facility where the fictional Jack Ryan teaches in the novel Patriot Games and its 1992 film adaptation starring Harrison Ford. When Vulture learned of the life-imitates-art situation going on down in Annapolis, we reached out to the real Ryan in the hopes that he'd want to discuss the bizarre coincidence. Luckily, after pointing out that, despite sharing surface similarities with Tom Clancy's creation, his days are filled with a lot less drama, Ryan agreed to talk about how sharing a name with a famous fictional character has affected his life.

How aware of Jack Ryan have you been during your time there?
I was a ’99 grad from the Academy, so when I entered in 1995, many of the books had come out. The [first three] movies had been out. I had kind of grown up with a familiarity with the story and the characters. It was something that was kind of cool. I always used it as sort of a catchy line, in the sense that people remember your name without having to do something first. People would notice that my name was John Patrick Ryan and say, "You don’t go by Jack, do you?” Yes. "Wow, and you go to the Naval Academy?” It was always sort of an interesting icebreaker, but that's about the extent of [the similarity]. I was an English major here at the academy, and I got a master's in English, and I'm now back teaching in the English department permanently until I retire in about another six years. I've not ever actually been to the CIA or worked with the CIA or anything like that, either. How crazy would that have been? So I've had no engagement with Tom Clancy.

Have you read the Jack Ryan books?
I have. I've read up to the one where he becomes president, whichever one that one was. The Hunt For Red October, The Sum of All Fears, Patriot Games … good stories. I personally am of the opinion the Tom Clancy novels are so long that they sometimes get a little boring — a description of a comms panel is 112 pages long but it's not a very interesting piece of equipment. And often, reality is more interesting than fiction. The reality of what the military is and just how diverse the different jobs are? Standing watches on a submarine are not like they are in The Hunt for Red October.

How old were you when became aware of the character?
High school, maybe middle school. I was a somewhat precocious reader growing up. I'm trying to think when The Hunt for Red October was actually published — was it the mid-eighties?

1984.
My father was a voracious reader, and I'm pretty sure he probably had it in either paperback or hardcover, and on a summer trip somewhere I probably picked up The Hunt for Red October. Or maybe I'd seen the movie first, and the fact that it was about Jack Ryan and my name was Jack Ryan made me think, "Oh, this is something kind of cool," and I started to look into him that way. So I would say early teens, maybe middle school.

Did the books have any influence on your decision to enter the Navy?
No. I can directly point to those experience that made me want to join the military and come to the Naval Academy specifically. The desire to be a Navy SEAL led me to pursuing the applications, the interviews, and the acceptance. And then when I got here, obviously some things changed. I had eyesight that couldn't be corrected to 20/20, so I ended up actually picking Explosives Ordinance Disposal instead of Navy SEALs. And the rest, as they say, is history.

You're actually a Jack Ryan Jr., and Clancy also wrote a series of novels about Jack Ryan Jr., the original character’s son. Do you feel more of a kinship with that character?
My father did not go the Naval Academy; he was not in the military at all, so there it quickly becomes a disconnect. It's an interesting interaction with people when it becomes apparent that they are aware of Jack Ryan novels, the context of the story, who this character was, and what kind of stuff he did. There's an immediate sense of recognition of either the Naval Academy or being in the military — though Jack Ryan was a Marine and I went into the Navy. It's not really about the specific details, though, but about a shared appreciation for literature or pop culture in our daily lives and in our daily interactions with people. Maybe that's where the icebreaker is, or maybe that's what makes it fun. When someone meets me, all of a sudden they get an impression that they know me, even though they don't. And even though they quickly realize, "Oh, you're not the character," that remnant sense of comfort and and understanding stays and is what allows for the development of a real relationship from a happier, safer, more resonant place. Does that make sense?

Yeah, absolutely.
As I talk through this with you, maybe that's sort of where the kind of cool part is: It's just literature again affecting people's lives and affecting my life personally. 

How often do your colleagues bring up the connection?
The social consciousness of the connection continues to be brought up, like it has at different points in my career, so it's interesting to have seen the progression. [For instance], when you're a freshman — when you're a plebe — you have to stand watch on the various floors of the dormitory, Bancroft Hall, and you have a name tag and this uniform. Mine said "J.P. Ryan." Very early on in the semester, you're still very nervous about any sort of engagement with upperclassmen because you may get yelled at, you may get ... not hazed, but let's just say you're hesitant to engage with upperclassmen voluntarily. So [one day when I was on watch] they engaged with me — and they had been out in town so they weren't drunk but definitely a little bit friendlier — and one noticed my nametag. "J.P. Ryan? Your name's not Jack Ryan, is it?" "Yessir, it is!" And it transitioned into a very lively discussion, with more upperclassmen coming out into the hallway and where everyone was kind of like, "That's crazy! Holy crap! We didn't know that." It was a fun engagement. But meanwhile, I'm in my head just praying that it ends as quickly as possible, because your whole goal as a freshman is just to blend in, not stand out, not be special, and here is what felt like five, ten minutes — I'm sure it was a minute at most. But it ended well. It was funny, humorous, and ended well. That's probably my earliest memory of being in the service. It's never been negative. It's always led to positive engagements.

The new movie has Jack Ryan right in the title. Are you ready for that introducing your name to the students at the academy?
Most of these kids were probably seven or eight when the Ben Affleck movie came out, so it's not in their consciousness yet. But [maybe with this new movie], they're writing an email back home to Mom: "I have Jack Ryan as a professor." It comes up in class, but usually it's not students. I have a colleague who's an activated reservist and he made a comment of it today, about Jack Ryan teaching at the Naval Academy. Some of the senior professors were here when they filmed Patriot Games and the history department, which is one floor above us, has a picture of Harrison Ford on their faculty board. And one of our senior professors went up there and stole it, because they said, "Well, we now have the real Jack Ryan teaching in our department." So it's kind of that generation that gets it. Again, it's something that's just sort of fun and more social as opposed to — it's never gotten me a job, that I know of. It's never gotten me more pay. I've never been admitted to some exclusive club or had Harrison Ford offer to let me use his jet or anything like that. So from the standpoint of measurable, tangible benefits, no. If you could work that, I would totally be on board.

Which actor who has played Jack Ryan would you want to play you: Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, or Chris Pine?
Hmm. Do I get fat Alec Baldwin? Skinny Alec Baldwin? Or now kind of 30 Rock Alec Baldwin?

We’ll say the skinny Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October.
I would say him. My reason being that that first casting of him would probably be the most accurate for me, just because he seems more academic and kind of cerebral, whereas Harrison Ford, he's kind of like a bull in a china shop. His characters are always sort of that more visceral and very ego-driven, as opposed to id-driven. Then Ben Affleck: I don't think that would fit at all. And Chris Pine is probably not a good fit, wouldn't be a good fit for my personality. So I would say that original casting of Alec Baldwin from The Hunt For Red October — though I don't look anything like any of the four, not that that ever matters.

As an English professor, it must be cool to have a daily reminder of how much people love stories in our culture.
It is. And actually, it's always interesting how conversations will go. I had not put those two together until we started talking about it. It is, it's very cool. Kind of a "well, duh" sort of moment. What makes stories fun and interesting is their effect on how we act, how we see each other, the perspectives that we gain. And I would be lying if I didn't say that when I walk out Gate Three of the Academy from time to time — which is the gate that Jack Ryan walks out of during Patriot Games and gets shot — that there's a sense of surreal-ness to it. I'm not going to call attention to or say, "Hey, look! Jack Ryan walking out Gate Three!" That might irritate the guards every day. But I would be lying if I said I didn't have an awareness and an appreciation for how quickly stories can become a part of us and have a multitude of effects. If anything, I would hope as an instructor and as a teacher, that I can imbue in my students from time to time that a story is supposed to stick with you. You're supposed to embrace it. It's supposed to become part of you, and that's what makes stories so powerful and worth studying and looking at.

It's definitely good that you wouldn't be all, "I'm Jack Ryan here, and I'm walking out of Gate Three!" But if once a year, somebody else did that, would that be cool or annoying?
In a social situation, where somebody would go, "Wait a second, that's really neat," it doesn't get old. Even if that happens once a week or once a month, because the context has nothing to do with the forced nature of trying to make that association for people. It has to do with them going through some sort of organic self-realization. That's a cool process to watch. What would get annoying is if that same person constantly kept saying, "Ho ho — you're that Jack Ryan teaching at the Naval Academy!" It'd be like, "Dude, you're one-sided. You're very singularly-leveled. Let's get some depth. There's more here."

Have you ever used the Jack Ryan card as a pick-up line in a bar?  
I would definitely say no. My wife and I have been married for coming on twelve years next year, so I don't think I've ever used it in a line to pick someone up, not to mention that would just be uber-cheesy. I think that would be exceptionally unsuccessful.  

I would think that maybe Alec Baldwin circa 1990 could pull it off.
Yeah, exactly. If I were somehow to put on that body mask.

Photo: null/©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection