On and Off Screen, Winona Ryder Comes of Age

New York Times — 9 December 1990

— by Aljean Harmetz

Winona Ryder sits cross-legged and barefoot on a sagging green couch in an empty living room. Ms. Ryder, who likes to say that she has come of age on screen about 900 times, is, equally painfully, coming of age in “Mermaids,” “Edward Scissorhands” and real life.

Six weeks past her 19th birthday, she has recently acquired a number of Hollywood necessities: Starring roles in two new Christmas movies, an engagement ring from a television star who has tattooed “Winona Forever” on his right arm, her own house in the canyons north of Beverly Hills — and the knowledge that youth and a kind heart will not keep you out of the supermarket tabloids.

She moved into the house less than a week ago with the couch and a mattress and is living off borrowed dishes. Drinking coffee from a borrowed cup, grinding cigarette butts into a borrowed ashtray, she recites the lessons she has learned during the last year.

“To get off a plane after you’ve worked all day and flown six hours and to have 50 photographers trip you and call you a whore to get a response is repulsive. Now that I’ve had my first experience with the tabloids, if I’m in a limousine I’m afraid to talk to the person I’m with because of the driver. Even in a restaurant people eavesdrop on you.”

In five years, Ms. Ryder has made nine movies: “Lucas,” “Square Dance,” “Beetlejuice,” “1969,” “Heathers,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael,” “Mermaids” and “Edward Scissorhands.” In “Edward Scissorhands,” which opened in New York and Los Angeles last Friday, she plays Kim, a golden-haired high school cheerleader who falls in love with a maimed mechanical man. In “Mermaids,” which will be released in theaters across the country this Friday, she plays Cher’s unmothered daughter Charlotte, a 15-year-old Jewish girl who wants to control the internal and external chaos of her life by becoming a nun.

At the age of 16, with her wickedly sypathetic performance as a teenager who murders her arrogant high school friends in the anarchic black comedy “Heathers,” Ms. Ryder became a cult heroine to sardonic students in prep schools, college students everywhere and most film critics under the age of 40.

But the articles in the supermarket tabloids — which have triggered the wariness that marks a real-life coming of age for a movie star — were caused by the movie she didn’t make. Last December, three days after finishing “Mermaids,” Ms. Ryder flew to Rome to play Al Pacino’s daughter in “Godfather III.” She never got any farther than her hotel room.

Was it nervous exhaustion, a nervous breakdown or a temper tantrum by her boyfriend, Johnny Depp, the star of the Fox Television series “21 Jump Street,” that caused her to back out of the Coppola film? Did Mr. Depp threaten to leave her unless she returned to California with him?

“The truth is so simple,” she says, “I was sick. The doctor said, ‘You’re too sick to work. Go home.'”

Ms. Ryder scratches at bright red toenails with fingernails she has bitten to the quick. “Why would Johnny say he’d leave me unless he was a total ass? If he did say that, I’d have told him to muck off.”

Her square-cut black hair and black eyes make her pale face seem even more pale. The effect is like Disney’s Snow White brought to life. She has the delicacy and coloring of a porcelain doll or of one of those waiflike creatures with whom Charlie Chaplin fell in love in silent films.

Prone to sinus and brinchial infections, Ms. Ryder had been sick for the last several weeks on “Mermaids,” a fact confirmed by people on the movie’s crew who had to shoot around her. The infections exacerbated an insomnia that has plagued her since she was a child when she read algebra books to put herself to sleep.

Ms. Ryder’s roles in “Mermaids” and “Edward Scissorhands” are almost diametrically opposed. It was easy for her to portray the angry, anxious Charlotte, who distances herself from her promiscuous, careless mother. “I loved the fact that she was completely inconsistent,” says Ms. Ryder. “I’m completely inconsistent. Every day I’m in a different mood. Being 15 years old in the movie was a little hard. It’s hard to erase knowledge about life. You have to give yourself a lobotomy. But I tend to work from the inside out. If I’m there in my head, what happens with my body just happens. I have no control.”

When Richard Benjamin, the director of “Mermaids,” was uncertain about a scene, Ms. Ryder would look at him and say, “I know. More teen stuff.” Says Mr. Benjamin, “She has no bad habits to break. And her soul is right on the surface.”

Wearing a blond wig and playing a cheerleader in a candy-colored suburb was much harder. “Winona protrays the darker impulses of being a teenager, dark-haired, dark-roled,” says Tim Burton, the director of “Edward Scissorhands.” Ms. Ryder was 15 when Mr. Burton gave her the role of a melancholy teenager who had more in common with ghosts than her parents in”Beetlejuice.” “She had just gotten her learner’s permit,” Mr. Burton remembers.

For a person whose godfather is the counterculture guru Timothy Leary and whose parents wrote a book alleging that Louisa May Alcott wrote “Little Women” while stoned on opium, playing someone who consorts with ghosts was no problem. “But Winona told me she never had a more difficult time than playing a normal, suburban teenager in “Edward Scissorhands,'” says Mr. Burton. “Putting on Kim’s clothes, she felt she was playing somebody from another planet. It was like putting on a dress of nails.”

Says Ms. Ryder: “Kim was like the girls in eigth grade who called me a weirdo and threw Cheetos at me. I had a crew cut, and I liked the Sex Pistols.”

Was she really beaten up by boys in seventh grade and pelted by snacks in eighth? In separating self-dramatization from history, it doesn’t help that she tells one writer she only eats health food, shares a hot fudge sundae with a second, defends biting her nails to a third by saying it’s preferable to smoking and chain smokes cigarettes with a fourth.

Johnny Depp, who plays the boy who has scissors in place of hands in Mr. Burton’s fable, is, for the moment, living in Ms. Ryder’s unfurnished house. Several months ago, Mr. Depp and Ms. Ryder moved to New York, seeking a measure of anonymity.

“It didn’t work out,” Ms. Ryder says. “I couldn’t deal with the fact that if I got hungry at night I couldn’t go anywhere because of the crime factor. Why live that way by choice? And I was too far away from my parents.”

Plans to marry are vague. From Cher on down, friends have warned Ms. Ryder that 27-year-old Mr. Depp is too old and too encumbered with ex-girlfriends. But the relationship feels right, Ms. Ryder says, so she shakes the warnings from her head.

“You can never force her,” says Mr. Benjamin of her work. The statement seems equally true of her life.

“She’ll do movies that people around her say she shouldn’t do,” says Mr. Burton.

That is an understatement. “My agents were literally on their knees telling me my career was over if I made ‘Heathers'” Ms. Ryder says.

More recently, “My agents tried to ‘strategize’ my career by telling me I would have to do a big movie before they would let me do a small one and then I’d have to do several more big movies,” she says.

“It’s so simple,” she says, cradling the script of “Heathers,” which she calls her bible. “You do what makes you proud. But people can’t deal with simplicity here. They need things to be complicated.”

What she intends to do now is work with offbeat film maker Jim Jarmusch (“Stranger Than Paradise”) in a movie scheduled to start filming next month.

“I’m insanely thrilled,” Ms. Ryder says. “I play a cabdriver. Gena Rowlands is my passenger. She was my inspiration to be an actress. When I was 10, my mom introduced me to John Cassavetes movies. She ran this theater in an old barn. You didn’t really have to pay, but it was nice if you donated something. Lying on mattresses on the floor, I was too young to understand the movies, but I felt like I was there, like he invited me into his world, and it was wonderful to be invited. I thought, ‘I want to make people feel this way'”

Her parents, Michael and Cynthia Horowitz, are a leitmotif in her conversation. Ms. Ryder flew back from “Godfather III” to spend three months at home in Petaluma, 38 miles north of San Francisco, the first two weeks curled up in bed drinking chicken soup.

“They’re great people to hang around,” Ms. Ryder says. “They’re both incredibly smart and intellectual and they could have become very wealthy but they struggled to pay the bills and stuck to what they want. That has to do with how I make my decisions. If they taught me anything, it’s to trust myself and go with what my gut tells me. When I ask people for advice, that’s when I get confused.

Mr. Horowitz runs a rare book mail-order catalogue from his house. Mrs. Horowitz makes educational videos. When “Nonie” Horowitz, the third of four children, was 10, the family moved from San Francisco to a semi-commune on 300 acres in Mendocino. “we had no electricity, no television,” say Ms. Ryder. “We read by kerosene lamps, and we had to use our imagination.”

A year later, they moved again, to Petaluma.

“Petaluma was kind of a hick town,” says Ms. Ryder. “I got beat up in seventh grade by some boys. That was kind of great in a way. I was so into movies it seemed dramatic. I felt like a gangster.” Eager to meet people “who were more like me,” Ms. Ryder started acting classes at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. The producers of the low-budget film “Desert Bloom” asked the theater to send over all its young girls to read for a major part as Jon Voight’s stepdaughter. Ms. Ryder was videotaped but lost the role to Annabeth Gish. A year later, the videotape surfaced at 20th Centurt Fox and won her a role in “Lucas.” The press kit for “Lucas” describes her as “fragile, with a certain poetic mystery.”

Five years later, Winona Ryder has a chance to be the first actress since Natalie Wood to move effortlessly from adolescent to adult star. (Jodie Foster manage a similar transition by dropping out for four years at Yale.)

“Actresses my age usually have labels.” Ms. Ryder says. “I don’t because I didn’t do the Molly Ringwald kind of parts. Audiences don’t remember me as a prom queen. I never got put in any category except, maybe, ‘She always plays the weird, dark roles’

“What disappoints me,” she adds, “is that so many young actors seem to be trying to be hot. They seem to have a desparation to be famous. I wonder why. The taste of fame I’ve had is fun for a minute, but it gets very boring. I hate sounding like I’m jaded at 19 years old. But I think the fun part is the actual work. There’s not a feeling in the world like manipulating yourself into feeling something and knowing you were honest for that one momnet.”