The Sunday Times Culture Magazine: 14.10.12
“Winona has been animated at last…”
She changed the way cinema depicts women, then disappeared. Reunited with Tim Burton on a new cartoon, Winona tells Jonathan Dean what it’s like to be lost.
The slow crawl to Disneyland, on roads such as Magic Way, is lined with palm trees. At two in the afternoon on what the radio announces is the second day of autumn, they’re the only shelter other than Buzz Lightyear banners or the vast foyer of the Grand Californian Hotel. The latter is accomodation designed by fans of The Shining: floral chic, cobwebbed, brainwashed staff. Kids in swimming costumes run around in Mickey Mouse ears. I head staright for the lift.
Why is a thitrysomething man hanging out in Walt’s kingdom all by himself? The answer, oddly, is the icon of early-1990s cinema, the goth poster girl for the alternative nation, Winona Ryder, who is waiting in a suite on the hotel’s fourth floor. I’m also going to spend the half-hour with Martin Short, but I haven’t really told anyone that. He’s lovely telling me about a recent family reunion in London with his “fabulous” politician cousin, Clare, but you don’t fly 11 hours to meet Martin Short. He was hilarious in Father of the Bride, but, with the best will in the world, he has never changed the way people make films. Ryder, though, did.
Dressed in loose black trousers, a black jacket and a white T-shirt, with her hair tied back, she talks with a quiver in her voice, brown eyes darting, eager to please or, maybe, just nice. Short is in a casual suit, reclining on a sofa, staring at me like an ever-watchful chaperone. Yes, Ryder shoplifted back in 2001, but for anyone who wants to continue to laugh at that, there’s the internet. Besides Hollywood has worse. People still work with Roman Polanski. Ryder’s hero, Jodie Foster has a close relationship with Mel Gibson. This is an industry that rewards sinners who aren’t contrite. Ryder has constantly said she’s sorry.
So we don’t talk about it. Instead, we talk about Frankenweenie, the Tim Burton animation she and Short star in; and about Liverpool. They are a pair of Anglophiles, and the opening minutes are spent talking about the northwest, Prime Suspect and Cilla Black. Ryder went to Merseyside aged “18 or 19” for a benefit concert. “There was Big Audio Dynamite and the Pretenders, so many great bands,” she says smiling, sounding as if she’s being interviewed in 1993, “and, I was standing next to this guy who was a little tipsy. It turned out he was called Gerry, and he was Irish, and he was Gerry Conlon!” As well as being conversant with the Guildford Four, she is intrigued by a rumour that Cherie Booth may be related to John Wilkes Booth, but doesn’t believe it to be true.
She’s chatty, a bit rambling, in the way most interesting people are when mouths are trying to catch up with thoughts, but always coherent in the end. “Really?” she exclaims, surprised when I say I heard a chorus of “Wee-no-na! Wee-no-na!” from the kids at the hotel earlier that day. When the possibility has settled, she says she receives that affection a lot, as anyone, whose early career includes Lydia in Beetlejuice (1988) and Kim in Edward Scissorhands (1990) should expect. She was in two of the three Burton films – the other is Ed Wood – that people are most passionate about.
“It has been 25 years since Beetlejuice, but it feels like no time has gone by,” Ryder says. Perhaps not coincidentally, Frankenweenie is Burton’s freshest film for years, fleshing out a 1984 short about science-mad Victor, who uses electricity to bring his dead dog back to life. Ryder plays an outsider girl, Elsa, while the boy is essentially, Burton as a child. From Ryder to Short (who starred in Mars Attacks! And here plays three roles) to Martin Landau, the director has asked old favourites back. “He really did give me a career. I really did look like Lydia when I first met him, and that wasn’t the look of the 1980s!” Ryder laughs, clapping once. “If that movie hadn’t come along, I probably would not have pursued acting” “If he loves you, he loves you,” Short adds succinctly.
Ryder was born Winona Horowitz in Olmstead County, Minnesota, on Ocober 29, 1971. She was raised in San Francisco; her godfather was the LSD pioneer Dr Timothy Leary. Short was born Martin Short on March 26, 1950, in Ontario, Canada. They have made more than 70 films between them, but while the latter’s career has been consistently successful, Ryder’s was incandescent at the start, far dimmer later. He Noughties roles are forgettable, while only her cameo in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan has registered so far this decade. There are signs, though – with roles in the forthcoming The Iceman, with Michael Shannon and James Franco, and two other films with Franco, not to mention Frankenweenie – that Ryder, at 40, is finally coming back.
Cinema needs her. When talking about Beetlejuice, she says what an honour it was to “give a voice to a girl like Lydia”, and how “loners, outsider-type girls” really identify with her. Kristen Stewart is Ryder with the creases ironed out, and Ryder was cast alongside Natalie Portman in Black Swan for a reason. Then there is Heathers, the iconoclastic 1988 high-school comedy-thriller in which she and Christian Slater take murderous revenge on jocks and bullies. Ever since that film, which made a whole generation of men prefer brunettes to blondes, the high-school genre has gone backwards. The best of recent times – Clueless, Mean Girls – are fine, but sugar-coated compared with Heathers. They also pander to the popular. Even the nerds are hot.
“What’s really interesting to me is what’s happening right now with bullying,” Ryder says. The recent Harvey Weinstein project Bully sent ripples across America, but she asks: “Where was all the sensitivity when I was in school?” Short thinks the web has made bullying easier, and he has a point, but Ryder is in full flight now. She talks about a boy called Alex at high school, who was picked on by two popular girls, and how it still haunts her that she sat and did nothing. (In 1993, she put up $200,000 reward for the safe return of a missing 12-year-old, Polly Klaas.)
“To me, because I’m not online a lot, it just seems suddenly like bullying is a big issue, but it’s always been there, and Heathers was certainly about that,” she says. “I would be interested to see my character, Veronica come back and have her daughter contend with those of surviving Heathers. I was trying to start a rumour years ago, but nothing ever happened and I was kind of…” She laughs. The next word was probably going to be “desperate”, but who wouldn’t want a second Heathers? Slater, another star fans wanted to shine longer, could be in it, too.
Unlike him, Ryder has made choices – apart from the misogynist brain freeze that was last year’s Vince Vaughn vehicle, The Dilemma – that have protected her legacy. Maybe that’s because, since Girl, Interrupted, in 1999, they have not been seen much, but when you consider that her ex-boyfriend Johnny Depp has played Captain Jack Sparrow four times, there’s something to be said for saying no. In a Rolling Stone interview from 1991, she talks about her love for acting. She was boisterous back then, smart, still a teenager, but hugely famous, in a hugely famous relationship. She called John Hughes’s teen movies “patronising” and admitted that, at 19, she should soon try to tackle more adult roles.
Maybe the reason Ryder hasn’t been on screen much as anyone wants is that she just cares too much. So, although, it’s a cartoon, Frankenweenie is a good step back. It’s a pet project from a visionary director. “The experience itself is the reward,” Ryder says, bemoaning peers who think, if I do this, then maybe it can lead to this. “That strategy can be dangerous to pin your happiness on in such a maybe, maybe not business.” Yet Disney is an odd fit ʻor a film like her latest; darker than you’d expect. This is, as the signs say, “the happiest place on earth.”
“Is it?” Ryder whispers cheekily, considering that Disney reps have just entered the room. “I haven’t been here since I was five. I got lost, I was looking for my dad’s shoes, and I clung to some poor guy who had the same shoes as my dad. Luckily, he wasn’t a, y’know… But yeah, Disney, Disneyland, there’s so much it’s associated with. There are weird things I’ve heard about Walt Disney, too. He was, like, a real interesting guy…” Short points at my two recorders. “We don’t want to get into that,” he says. Adding that he went on the rides the night before and had a “riot”. He must be a great dad.
Our time ends. There hasn’t been enough of it to deal with how Ryder changed the attitude of an entire decade of film, but, as we leave, she says I can email for follow-up questions. The three of us have touched on the politics of Frankenweenie, “the suppression of individuality” and how Burton sneaks anticreationism into a mainstream film. She talks about her favourite teacher, Mr Frank, and tells Short she will text him a photo of them together. And with that, she’s off, tiny when she stands up, surrounded by a team of six. Short, left alone, shakes my hand. I didn’t know he was Clare’s cousin.
Outside in the 35C sun, everyone is walking very slowly. But they do that in Disneyland, even at night, staring at the restaurants and shops as if they’ve never seen buildings before. Perhaps the families are just savouring the fun before they go home the next morning. Or maybe it’s all too much to take in, a numbing overload of toys and magic. Ryder didn’t smile in her heyday. People thought it was because she was so cool; but maybe being famous so young is like going to Disneyland. All that vibrancy and attention and noise, then there’s tomorrow. What do you do tomorrow?