Face — November 1989
— by Steven Daly
Winona Ryder is 17 and has Hollywood at her feet. American critics agreed that her performance as Jerry Lee Lewis’s child bride was the best thing about Great Balls Of Fire, while Heathers has already become a cult film. British audiences get their chance to judge this month, but Winona has more important things than stardom on her mind: after finishing her next film, she will be giving it all up for university …
The diastrous performance of Great Balls of Fire at the US box office did nothing to tarnish the reputation of the film’s female lead. While male lead Dennis Quaid and director Jim McBride divided up the blame, consensus had it that 17-year-old Winona Ryder as Jerry Lee Lewis’s child bride, Myra, was the one redeeming feature. After only half a dozen films in three years, this actress is rated as one of the incendiary talents of her generation. Hollywood is all hers, but she’ll take a raincheck “You can’t hold a conversation here that doesn’t have something to do with the film industry,” she says, explaining her need to escape. “Every sentence that comes out of everybody’s mouth is relevant to the movies – after a while you just want to talk about something else.”
Right on cue, some left-coast luminary at the next table launches into an overheated spiel about his currenr project. I raise an eyebrow and without missing a beat Winona waves the international hand signal for ‘wanker’ in the man’s direction before continuing. “My best friend Heather lives with me out here – we’ve been friends since junior high school – and when we start buying into stuff, believing what people tell us, then we know it’s time to get out of town. We’ll drive into the desert, or just drive ten hours and get in touch with ourselves, y’know. We’ve taken some great road trips …”
She’s got the look to match the Beat philosophy: an all-black ensemble of jeans, T-shirt, leather, monkey boots and velvet baseball cap, plus the kind of pallor you really have to work at. Not an everyday sight among the poolside clientele at the Sunset Marquis. To account for this sensibility look no further than Ryder’s parents, who raised her around such family friends as Alien Ginsberg and Aldous Huxley not to mention her godfather Timothy Leary (he of “turn on, tune in, drop out” dippy hippy fame). “He’s great,” she says. “He’s like watching a movie or something – you go home after a couple of hours thinking, ‘That was a good one!'”
Winona’s parents, Michael and Cyndi Horowitz (Winona’s surname was changed for her first screen credit), run a counterculture bookshop and a video production company as well as managing the career they unintentionally started by enrolling their daughter in San Franciscos prestigious American Conservatory Theatre. Intended as a place where Winona could mix with brighter kids, it was at ACT that she was spotted by a talent scout who put her up for a part in Desert Bloom. Missing that chance delayed Ryder’s film debut only briefly: in Lucas in 1986, the frail 13-year-old declared herself a proposition, and in Squaredance, the following year, she overshadowed the established actors around her with a self-contained intensity that did not escape the critics’ notice.
With her portrayal of Lydia, the sensitive Goth at the heart of Beetlejuice, Ryder’s career moved up a gear before stalling briefly with 1969, a ‘Nam-era coming-of-age story which, despite an appealing cast (Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Downey Jnr co-starred) bombed badly.
Ryder’s enduring friendship with fellow rising star Downey has had a strong bearing on her approach to acting. “Robert is the only young actor I know who’s really helped me keep a sense of humour about everything,” she says. “He reminds me to laugh at what I do, to remember that it’s all a mirage. The most important advice I ever got was to trust your instincts and have a good time no matter what – not after a day’s shooting but with everything you do. I’m going to stop doing this when I stop having fun, when it starts getting real serious.”
Released in the US before Great Balss of Fire (though both are opening here this month), it was Heathers that marked Ryder’s arrival in the Hollywood firmament. Set in the fascist state that young Americans call High School, the movie comes on like River’s Edge re-tooled by John Waters with additional dialogue from John Hughes; a hipper-than-money, blacker-than-black comedy. To borrow scriptwriter Daniel Waters baroque teen argot, it’s very.
Winona’s parents did not want her to do the picture and neither did her agent feel that such a promising client should roll the dice on the combination of first-time director Michael Lehmann and a less than wholesome script. But she had to have it. “I read Heathers and for the first time ever I thought, ‘I’ve got to play this.’ It wasn’t a question of wanting to or thinking I should, it was a case of nobody understands this like I do. Of course I wasn’t so obnoxious as to go in and say that, but at the initial meeting we all knew we were on the same wavelength.”
Ryder’s character, Veronica Sawyer, is a novice in the clique at Westerburgh High, dominated by three Benetton-clad bitches all named Heather. Socially Veronica has arrived, only to find her new peer group of “Swatchdogs and Diet Cokeheads” repulsive in the extreme; instead, she gravitates towards charismatic motorcycle boy Jason Dean (Christian Slater), a similarly disaffected outsider who gives ear to her plaintive plea, “Why can’t my school be a nice place?” Her wish is Jason’s command, and he starts his clean-up campaign by offing the head Heather in a staged suicide, the first of a series of enjoyable murders.
With a growing body count, the school becomes a social phenomenon worthy of media overkill, even spawning a hit record by a group called Big Fun (“What Is This Thing Called Karma?”). The attendant hoopla has a perverse galvanising effect on the local community and brings them, if you will, closer together in grief, allowing Lehmann to cast a hilariously jaundiced eye on the proceedings.
Veronica’s initial horror subsides and she boards Jason’s homicidal helter-skelter, seduced by his insidious power. There is, however, a hint that things might have gone a little too far when he announced his plan for a “Woodstock for the Nineties” in which the entire student body will be blown up.
This is clearly no straight brat pack movie like John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club; these are harsher times and in Heathers, everyone loses at the hands of Daniei Waters’ declared anti-Hughes stance. Teachers are authoritarian stiffs or addled liberals, parents are slack-jawed dotards, the media trend-sucking pond life. Do the kids fare better! Hardly. Their subculture is just society in miniature, the grown-up world de-regulated and viewed through a distorting lens.
Slater’s (deliberately) Jack Nicholson Jnr character is diverting, but it is Winona’s movie: vacillating between good and evil, her performance carries an authority that actresses ten years her senior still lack. “Deeper-than-method conviction,” said the Village Voice, one of a series of A Star Is Born reviews vindicating Ryder’s decision to do the picture. In the US, the film already has that coveted cult following: there have apparently been scenes of the Rocky Horror Picture Show sort at some art houses, with ripe dialogue like “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” and “I love my dead gay son!” being bawled screenwards.
Heathers was not only a sawy career move for Ryder but, she says, a formative experience. “I was 16 when I made it, going through this whole thing where I (solemn voice) Wanted To Be Taken Seriously. I was sick of being treated like a kid. Then working with these people I was suddenly being treated as an equal and they wanted to hear my input.
“Also, Tim Burton aside, my other directors had all been father figures, and all I’d have to do to get what I wanted was bat my eyes.” She demonstrates – point taken. “But with Michael I couldn’t do that, he knew what was up and if i started to get lazy, he’d whack me into shape pretty quickly.”
The role of Veronica has left Winona with something of a hangover. I’m still trying to get over my obsession with her. We’re very similar, only she’s quicker, she’d say things that I’d think of half an hour later. So now when I’m faced with any sort of decision I think, ‘What would Veronica do!’ And it’s kind of screwing me up because the answers are usually to do with killing somebody!”
Some took offence at Heathers’ blithe nihilism, bur Ryder argues that accusations of cynical exploitation were misplaced. “Of course it was exaggerated, but it did ring true, there are sadistic cliques that thrive on humiliating other people. Kids are weird, they’re wacked, but it’s not their fault, it’s society. They think the ultimate thing you can be is a movie star or a rock star, which is just total bullshit.
‘Here you have role models like Guns N’ Roses, who, y’know, waggle around using words like ‘nigger’ then try to defend themselves by saying (affects dumb whine) ‘Slash is half black’ or whatever. But a 13-year-old boy in Petaluma, California, is not gonna understand, he’s gonna think Axl Rose does it so it’s cool.
“Some little girl will come up to me and go, ‘Omigod! Winona Ryder!’ but I’m no better than the fucking soda parlour, you know what I’m saying! Most movie stars, especially the young ones, are just FUCKED UP and they’re what these kids are trying to copy, and it just bums me out. Art is to be interpreted and I just wish people could enjoy art, music or acting and know where to draw the line – I just wish people had a little more sense than they do, that’s all . . .”
She stops short, shaking her head at the black mood she’s created, then looks up, shrugs and grins, “But have a good time! That’s what you gotta do!”
During the filming of Great Balls Of Fire, Ryder, impressed by his rocker demeanour, asked fellow cast member John Doe (of LA new wavers X) for guitar lessons. He obliged, and she set about composing her first song, about baseball hero Steve Sax leaving her beloved LA Dodgers for arch-rivals the New York Yankees. The number was entitled “Fuck Steve Sax”. “It was a love song – it was! – about how someone betrays someone. My next song was about actors who have bands that are bad, really bogus. I love to play, but I’m the worst musician ever. I’d never inflict my music on anyone.” So we can assume that Winona won’t pursue a record contract, like her co-star Dennis Quaid. “I’m never gonna be like Dennis Quaid – no!!” she exclaims, bursting into hyscerial laughter.
Instead, she has pursued her musical ambitions by appearing in the video for US cult artist Mojo Nixon’s song “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child”. The role of Debbie was, she says, a teen dream.
Attention has recently been drawn to Ryder’s writing endeavours, including a screenplay collaboration with Michael Beetlejuice McDowell, but she says that too much has been said already. “People get a little carried away, it’s just something I dabble in. I do write a lot, mostly short stories and ideas that could be developed later, but right now I’m concentrating on acting; there’s no longterm strategy, whatever happens happens.”
She dismisses the idea of acquiring film rights to any of her favourite books and declares that all great literature is sacred and should never be touched, going one further with her own personal bible, The Catcber In The Rye. “If they ever make a movie of it – literally, seriously – I would bomb the set.” Those big eyes fix me with a better-believe-it glare. “I would rent a plane or a helicopter and drop bombs on the set, destroy it. In my lifetime I’ll see that it’s just not done.”
At a time when many entertainers, some of voting age, will wax profound about a keen interest in Eastern religions or wring their hands in deep concern at the approaching millenium, Ryder’s willingness to pursue such quixotic tangents is as endearing as her self-deprecating sense of humour. Much is expected of Winona Ryder and meeting her leaves you with the impression that she’s more than capable of fulfilling the early promise – if she feels like it.
“I could probably have the perfect career if I sat down and talked to people and made decisions,” she says. “I could have a road mapped our for me and things could be very simple. But who wants that! It would mean not doing things I really wanted to do. I’ve made mistakes and I’ll make mistakes again, letting my enthusiasm get the better of me, but I just have to trust my instincts, y’know!”
Right now she’s following her usual pattern of preparation in the month before a new picture: immersing herself in the material world of her character and losing sleep. This time, the film is Mermaids, in which she’s replaced Emily Lloyd as the devoutly Catholic daughter of a promiscuous Mom (Cher).
With this and the recently completed Welcome Home, Raxy Carmichael (directed by Jim Airplane! Abrahams) under her belt, Ryder’s focus will shift from reading scripts to examining college prospectuses as she decides on a setting in which to complete her education. Five years at Yale didn’t hurt Jodie Foster’s prospects and it is Foster rather than any of Ryder s immediate contemporaries who offers a parallel: another smart Salinger fanatic with little time for Hollywood’s world view.
But this doesn’t mean Ryder is planning for a postgrad Oscar, as her closing remarks remind me. “The most important thing to remember is if you need the time, you ve got to take it. Because if you say, ‘I can’t right now, I’ve got all this to do,’ then, ‘aI1 this to do’ is gonna bum you out.”
Exiting the hotel, I turn onto Sunset Bouleuard and who should be directly across the street, astride his Harley among a group of female admirers, but Billy Idol. Before I can pinch myself, he guns his hog and streaks off towards Beverly Hills.
Then I remember something Winona said and realize she was right – it is all a mirage.