Biography

“ Before she became Winona Ryder – the first American actress since Natalie Wood to successfully maintain a career from adolescence to adulthood – she was Winona Laura Horowitz, and similar to Wood, the grand daughter of Russian immigrants who fled to American shores at Ellis Island. Her talent, according to her Buddhist mother had been foretold when she was only three days old and photographed in the same position as the Buddha, although Winona would tell you that her mom ‘probably positioned me like that.’

Winona Ryder: The Biography, by Nigel Goodall
”

Brief Information
  • Full Name: Winona Laura Horowitz
  • Birthdate: October 29, 1971
  • Birthplace: Winona, Minnesota
  • Father: Michael Horowitz (author and editor)
  • Mother: Cindy Horowitz (author)
  • Brother: Yuri
  • Half-brother: Jubal
  • Half-sister: Sunyata
In-depth Biography

1971-1985: Early Life

Winona was born at 11.00 a.m. CDT, October 29, 1971 in a barn in Olmsted County, Minnesota, and named after the nearby city of Winona. She was given her middle name, Laura, because of her parents’ friendship with Aldous Huxley’s wife, Laura Huxley. She is the third of four siblings (including one half-brother and one half-sister from her mother’s first marriage). Ryder’s parents, Michael and Cindy (née Palmer) Horowitz, were hippie intellectuals, and family friends included the likes of beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and counterculture guru Timothy Leary—who was Ryder’s godfather.
Ryder’s family lived briefly in Colombia with Chilean revolutionaries before returning to northern California in 1974. Later, she and her family relocated to Rainbow, a commune near Elk, California, where they lived with seven other families on a 300-acre (1.2 km²) plot of land. As the remote property had no electricity or television sets, Ryder took to reading. Her mother did, however, show her some films on a screen in the barn and consequently, she developed an interest in acting.
At the age of ten, Ryder and her family moved on again to Petaluma, California. During her first week at the local junior high school she was bullied by a group of thugs who mistook her for an effeminate, scrawny boy. As a result, she ended up being homeschooled that year. Nevertheless, around this time, she started attending the American Conservatory Theater in nearby San Francisco, where she started taking her first acting lessons. At 13, while performing on the Conservatory stage, Winona was spotted by talent scouts who wanted her to audition for a role in Desert Bloom (1986), starring legendary actor Jon Voight. She did not get the part, but her tape made its way to Triad Artists.

1985-1990 – Her debut

Thanks to the agency, David Seltzer, a writer and director, soon noticed her and cast her for his 1986 film Lucas in the role of a friend of the main character. When asked how she wanted her name to appear in the credits, she suggested “Ryder” as her surname as a Mitch Ryder album which belonged to her father was playing in the background.

As a young actress, Ryder had unusual success. Her waifish beauty and her ability to portray innocent but world-savvy characters landed her some plum teenage roles. Following the positive reception of Lucas, Ryder appeared in the Golden Globe- nominated drama Square Dance (1987) (called “a remarkable debut” by The Los Angeles Times), where her teenage character creates a bridge between two different worlds – a traditional farm in the middle of nowhere and a Big City. The film considered the question of how much of our behavior derives from our genetic background, how much is influenced by society (i.e., the nature vs. nurture debate), and what the ethical implications are.
Ryder’s breakthrough film is arguably Tim Burton’s 1988 film Beetlejuice, in which she played a goth teenager named Lydia, suffering from depression induced by the extreme consumer worldview her parents represent. Lydia’s family move to a haunted house populated by ghosts played by Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin and Michael Keaton and Lydia finds herself the only human with a strong empathy and sympathy toward the ghosts and their situation.
In 1989, Ryder starred in the cult movie Heathers. Her character is opposed to violence as a way to resolve conflicts and is ultimately forced to choose between the will of society and her own heart. She resolves the conflict by choosing neither and by playing the parties against one another, so she can be left alone to determine the course of her life. In the same year she performed in Great Balls of Fire, playing the thirteen-year-old bride of Jerry Lee Lewis.

Reteaming with Burton, in 1990 Ryder delivered a naturalistic portrait of a young woman at first repulsed then later drawn to the freakish but gentle “Edward Scissorhands” alongside her then-boyfriend Johnny Depp . Although the director did not depict her as thoroughly disaffected, he certainly took ample shots himself at the cookie-cutter conformity of suburban existence. It is the only movie, other than 2002’s Mr. Deeds and 2006’s Rotoscoped A Scanner Darkly, which features Ryder with her naturally blonde hair. She has dyed her hair black since childhood.
She withdrew from her role in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part III, after feeling exhausted from recent roles – she finished two somewhat related movies Mermaids (with Cher – with whom Ryder lived briefly during the film’s production, Christina Ricci, Bob Hoskins and Michael Schoeffling) and WELCOME HOME, ROXY CARMICAEL (with Jeff Daniels), both shot in 1990 and both stressing the challenge of coming to terms with oneself. Media reception of Mermaids was tepid, but Ryder was nominated for a Golden Globe and won a Best Supporting Actress Award from the National Board of Review for her role. As in the case of her performance in Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, she was singled out by critics as a bright talent.

In this meantime, she checked herself into a mental health facility to be treated for the depression and anxiety that she had been intermittently suffering from for years. However, within a week of her hospitalization, she decided that her treatment was not helping and opted to return to her home in San Francisco.

1991-1995: Winona gets serious

Winona was then on to the next chapter of her life, including more mature roles and period films. After her part in the independent film Night on Earth, which she played a taxi driver who dreams of becoming a mechanic, she got her chance to work with the director Francis Ford Copolla. Winona signed with Creative Artists Agency and got her hands on the script for the Coppola vehicle Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1992). Her pale, sylph-like beauty was perfect for the period piece, and Ryder provided the film’s emotional core without being overshadowed by the film’s phantasmagoric special effects, lavish production design and showier co-stars. Winona was all grown up and her career was on the fly, while Billie August’s The House of the Spirits (1993) (featuring an all-star cast including Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, and Jeremy Irons) flopped with critics and audiences alike.

Donning corsets once again, she appeared in The Age of Innocence (alongside Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis), a film based on a novel by Edith Wharton and helmed by director Martin Scorsese, whom Ryder considers the best director. She plays a young woman, captured in plots within plots within plots of the society where every sentence pronounced has at least three different meanings. Her surroundings reflect the interpersonal and societal conflicts raging within and around her via many scenic references and multi-layered utterances. Her role in this movie won her a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress as well as an Academy Award nomination.
Her next starring role was in How to Make an American Quilt (1995). In this film her character was forced to choose between the will of the “quilting bee” and her personal desires. This film was followed by Boys, (1996), a film in which self seems to be pitted against the whole world, with love her only true friend and guide. The movie also considered the credibility of different interpretations of reality, a theme she later explored in Lost Souls. She received yet another nomination in 1994 with Little Women, based on the classic novel of the same name. She dedicated Little Women to Polly Klass, a girl from her hometown who was kidnapped and killed.
In the same year she starred in the cult movie, Reality Bites. Her character had to choose between the voice of reason and her heart in the form of two possible lovers, one a generous, somewhat educated if overly earnest executive at an MTV-like network (played by Ben Stiller) and a free-spirited, caring, if somewhat cynical leader of an alternative band (played by Ethan Hawke). The character is simultaneously struggling with life in a world obsessed with materialism and dismissing those interested in more ethereal or philosophical concerns. She also appeared in the Simpsons episode Lisa’s Rival, as a more intelligent girl than Lisa named Allison Taylor.

1996-2000: Winona produces her first movie

In 1996, she starred in Al Pacino’s debut as a director, LOOKING FOR RICHARD, and also in The Crucible with Daniel Day-Lewis (1996), a movie about the Salem witch trials and the hysteria that prompted the deaths of many without trials. The movie was praised by critics but was not commercially successful.
Soon afterward, Ryder accepted a role as a humanoid robot in the 1997 film Alien: Resurrection, alongside the Alien series star Sigourney Weaver. Having grown up on the Alien franchise, she signed before having even read a script. Celebrity (1998), co-starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Famke Janssen and Charlize Theron, her next film, features a reference to a scene from her earlier film Night on Earth – about considering alternative routes in life.
In 1999, she performed in and served as executive producer for Girl, Interrupted, based on the autobiography of Susanna Kaysen. Ryder was deeply attached to the film, considering it her “child of the heart”; she played the Kaysen character, who had a borderline personality disorder and was calm and reserved in contrast to the supporting role enacted by Angelina Jolie of a sociopath full of sexual energy and prone to dramatic episodes. It was Jolie’s performance that captured the attention of the public and the Academy.

Although Winona has been in the Hollywood scene since the mid-’80s, she only made her first talk show appearance in December 1999 on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, to promote Girl, Interrupted.
She went on to portray the fragile, beautiful, young, talented and doomed love interest of Richard Gere’s character in the 2000 romance Autumn in New York. In the same year she played a sister (a nun) of a secret society loosely connected to Roman Catholic Church determined to prevent Armageddon – Lost Souls, which did not do well at the box office. The character struggles between the world (including the Church) laughing at the supernatural, her own beliefs based on personal experience and uncertainty between seemingly obvious empirical evidence and her doubts in her own sanity, and a questionable ability to reason or even perceive correctly.
Around this time, Winona was awarded a star on Hollywood’s famous Walk of Fame, sponsored by her Dracula costar, Sir Anthony Hopkins.

2001-2005: An hiatus time

On December 12, 2001, Ryder was arrested for shoplifting thousands of dollars’ worth of designer clothes and accessories at Saks Fifth Avenue department store in Beverly Hills, California. Los Angeles District Attorney Stephen Cooley set up a team of eight prosecutors and seized the opportunity to prosecute the actress aggressively. He filed four felony charges against her in what was described by The Guardian (UK) as a show-trial since the prosecution demanded the trial be televised. Ryder hired noted defense attorney Mark Geragos. Negotiations for a plea-bargain failed at the end of summer 2002. As noted by Joel Mowbray from the National Review, the prosecution was not ready to offer the actress what was given to 5000 other defendants in similar cases, an open door to a no-contest plea on misdemeanor charges.
During the trial, she was also accused of using drugs without valid prescriptions. According to a probation report that can be found on the The Smoking Gun website, she had filled up to 37 prescriptions written by 20 doctors, using six different aliases, in a three-year period. The defense produced the written prescriptions for the drugs that the police found in her purse, and the prosecution consequently dropped the charge. Ryder was convicted of grand theft and vandalism, but the jury acquitted her on the third felony charge, burglary. In December 2002, she was sentenced to three years’ probation, 480 hours of community service, $3,700 in fines, and $6,355 in restitution to Saks—and the judge ordered the actress to attend psychological and drug counselling.
The charges were eventually reviewed, and on June 18, 2004 the felonies were reduced to misdemeanors.
After a two-year hiatus, she returned to the big screen in the Adam Sandler comedy Mr. Deeds, where she played a cynical reporter for an unscrupulous television program, and the fantasy S1m0ne, in which she portrayed a glamorous star who is replaced by a computer simulated actress due to the clandestine machinations of a director (played by Al Pacino).
Then, she produced and narrated the child sex slave trade documentary The Day My God Died (2003) before returning to fiction in a small part in Asia Argento’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2004).

From 2006 on: She’s back!

In 2006, after a long dry spell, Ryder appeared in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, a futuristic movie based on Philip K. Dick’s critically acclaimed novel. Ryder portrayed Donna Hawthorne also starring are Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr and Woody Harrelson. Live action scenes were transformed with rotoscope software and the film was entirely animated.

Ryder will be busy in 2007 with three films due to come out. She will first star in the comedy The Darwin Awards, due for release February 2007, with Joseph Fiennes about a forensic detective (Fiennes) and an insurance claims investigator (Ryder) trekking to investigate a potential Darwin Award winner.

Second, Ryder is reuniting with Daniel Waters, who wrote Heathers, for the surreal dark comedy Sex and Death 101 (2007). The quirky comedy follows the sexual odysseys of successful businessman Roderick Blank (Simon Baker) who receives a mysterious e-mail on the eve of his wedding, listing all of his past and future sex partners. Convinced that his marriage would deter a mind-blowing future path of bachelorhood, Roderick sets out to find all the listed women and fulfill his destiny of one-night stands. Things take a fatal turn courtesy of Ryder’s paramour/femme fatale Death Nell, a woman who enjoys near-fatal trysts with her love partners along with the intent on punishing all men she finds guilty of sex crimes against women. Filming wrapped July 6, 2006, and is set for release in early mid-Spring 2007.

In July 2006, Entertainment Weekly reported that Ryder and writer/director Daniel Waters are also working on ideas for a Heathers sequel. “We will be doing a sequel to Heathers next”, Ryder said. “There’s Heathers in the real world! We have to keep going!” In a recent interview for Entertainment Weekly Ryder was quoted as saying

“ I don’t know how much of the movie is official; it’s a ways away. But it takes place in Washington and Christian Slater agreed to come back and make an Obi-Wan-type appearance. It’s very funny. ”

Waters is writing the sequel, and may also direct.

Ryder will soon appear in David Wain’s new comedy The Ten, along with Jessica Alba, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Famke Janssen, Oliver Platt, and Adam Brody. The film centers around 10 stories, each inspired by one of the Ten Commandments. Filming wrapped on September 7, 2006. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival 2007 on January 19, and was picked up by ThinkFilm. Release date is set for August 3rd 2007.

According to Production Weekly Winona will play the female lead opposite Wes Bentley and Ray Romano in Geoffrey Haley’s offbeat romantic dramadey “The Last Word” Haley will direct his own script about a reclusive writer played by Bentley, who makes his living composing other people’s suicide notes. His life gets turned upside down after he embarks on a tumultuous romance with Ryder, the sister of a recently deceased client. Filming is set commence later this month in Los Angeles.

Ryder has been romantically linked to actor Johnny Depp, to whom she was engaged for three years. Depp tattooed “Winona Forever” on his arm (since then it has been partially removed so that it now reads, “Wino Forever”). After her heavily publicized breakup with Depp, she dated David Pirner, the lead singer for the rock group Soul Asylum, from 1993 to 1996. She began dating actor Matt Damon in 1998 after the two met at a New Year’s Eve party. Ryder and Damon broke up in the spring of 2000.

Winona’s future is anybody’s guess. One thing is clear: Winona would probably prefer to stay out of the headlines. “I feel there’s a tendency towards over-exposure,” she said. “I know there are some actors that I don’t want to see for a while, and I don’t want to become one of them myself.”