Ryder on the storm

Movieline — November 1990

Ah, youth. Only one year ago Winona Ryder was spoofing stars. Since then she’s snagged Johnny Depp, jilted Francis Coppola, and stolen a movie from Cher. And she’s barely old enough to vote.

Winona Ryder won’t wait. That’s what her representative says when she calls to move our meeting up by an hour and a half. The young actress and her fiancé Johnny Depp are in town for only a couple of weeks, to complete Edward Scissorhands, and scheduling is becoming tighter by the second. “Rather having dinner at La Cucina on Melrose,” her rep tells me, “Winona now wants to meet you for tea this afternoon, at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny Drive.” I request a 15-minute grace period, but there’s no way. I’m told it would be impossible for Winona to wait around the hotel lobby. Particularly by herself.

I acquiesce, hop in the car, and hustle over to Beverly Hills. A half hour after the re-scheduled time of our meeting, Ryder’s nowhere in sight. As the minutes tick by, I decide to cool my heels outside.

I find myself thinking about what difference 12 short months can make in the life and times of a young Tinseltown player. Just a year ago, Winona was playfully parodying the hot young star bit, sending out messages that she didn’t take any of this Hollywood stuff too seriously. It was already evident then, after her scene stealing performances in the delightful Beetlejuice and the dreadful Great Balls of Fire, and her inspired, droll, star-making turn int the dark satire Heathers, that she was virtually in a class by herself among young female performers. No one else has anything quite like her combination of winsome longing, brainy charm, and crackerjack comic timing. Even in her quircky early roles in Lucas and Square Dance, it was apparent that she had something. She lent her characters the rambunctious, oddball quality that marks girls who are destined to turn into something slightly more interesting than the Homecoming Queen. But back then in her tomboyish pre-teens, it wasn’t obvious that she’d bloom into so confident a performer, and a real beauty to boot. As she became the industry’s teen darling, the press couldn’t get enough of her, and everywhere one looked, there she was: taking one reporter on tour of L.A.’s haunted houses, doing an Interview interview with her godfather Timothy leary, becoming engaged to be marry TV’s bad boy Depp.

Now 19, Winona Ryder’s almost taken the town – but the campaign has been far from smooth. The ascent to star parts in the upcoming Mermaids, Edward Scissorhands, and Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael has been clouded by her sudden exit from the Italien set of the Godfather, Part III. The key role of Al Pacino and Diane Keaton’s daughter in Francis Ford Coppola’s hotly anticipated sequel seemed certain to mark Ryder’s arrival as an adult star. But claiming exhaustion, she walked away from it all, and ever since that particular career move, she’s been at the epicenter of a storm of talk – some of it behind closed doors, some of it openly in the press – much of it very different in tone from the enthusiasm that greeted her everywhere she went, just one short year ago.

So, I’m thinking these somber thoughts about the fleeting nature of youth and fame when, finally, a stretch limousine pulls into the hotel’s circular drive. All sealed up in smoked glass, it comes to a stop. The back door opens. And out tumbles a tiny China doll of a girl. Make that an unbreakable China doll. As Winona Ryder comes toward me, she looks absolutely sure of herself. And beautiful as she is in person, her exterior lacks even a trace of Movie Star- which is saying a lot in this neighborhood. Wearing pegged black jeans, a navy blue windbreaker, and a chambray shirt, she could be a rich kid freshman from nearby UCLA. And when she matter-of-factly approaches me, extends her hand, smiles, and says, “Hi, I’m Winona,” I no longer care how long I’ve been kept waiting.

We enter the cool marble lobby of the hotel, and the actress looks around as if she’s inspecting the place for the first time. She asks me where the restaurant is. “I thought you’ve been here before,” I say. “I was told you wanted to have tea here.” She shakes her head no and admits, with a laugh, that she has never before set foot in the place.

“Actually, I wanted to do the interview at Barney’s Barnery,” she says, referring to a West Hollywood greasy spoon favored by young celebrities and rock stars, “so that we could play pool while we talk.”

Sitting down in the nearly empty restaurant, Ryder orders tea, and acknowledges that “all of these interviews, and photo sessions, and stuff” can be “a drag.” In fact, she recently moved, with Johnny Depp, from Hollywood to Manhattan to escape the publicity machine. “Every move I made here was being documented,” she says, leaning closer for emphasis. My eyes fall momentarily to the graet big rock of a diamond resting in the setting of her engagement ring. “If I drove down the street in my car, people stared. If I went out to eat, it was written about the next day. Everyone knew where I aws going, everyone knew where I had been. It was like, everyone knew my schedule. Everyone I met here was in the industry. They were all scamming each other. And even if they were nice and genuine, I’d think that maybe it was because they wanted to use me for something. Maybe they wanted me to be in their movie, or they thought I could get them into a restaurant. It wasn’t real life to me. It was, like, living in a magazine or something.”

Ask Ryder a question, and she goes off like a cannon. Spicing her speech with lots of “you knows” and “likes”, she bounds from one topic to the next, seeming far more like an endearing, earnest teenager who says whatever pops into her head than a seasoned, worldly movie star with a famous boyfriend, a clutch of handlers, and several big movies waiting in the wings.

She loves to talk about Heathers surreal black comedy about homicide and suicide in a high-school-from-hell that wasn’t a hit but turned her into one of the hippest young actors in the business. “Heathers is the most amazing piece of literature ever. It’s one of those things that you take out and read every year. Dan Waters told me that he listened to the Replacements and the Cocteau Twins while he wrote Heathers. You can tell that when you read the script. It becomes really obvious.” She pauses – I can’t guess what she is thinking – then adds, “I wonder if Paul Westerberg ever saw Heathers. God, the Replacements are so great.” She goes on to tell me that she tried to get the title of the Heathers theme song, “Que Sera, Sera,” tattooed on her body. “I’ve got proofed in the tattoo parlor,” she says with a wicked grin. “the guy wouldn’t do it because I was too young.”

I bring up all the changes she’s been through since the days of Heathers (hardly more than a year ago), and Ryder admits, “Between falling in love and making movies, things have been very hectic. The last year’s been, like, a nightmare.”

At the very least, it’s been a strange year. In the spring of 1989, she was spoofing the whole Hollywood fame game. At an early screening of Heathers, she and co-star Christian Slater told the audience that they had just gotton married. “In Vegas,” Winona added, holding tight to Slater’s hand. A few days later, she gleefully told a Rolling Stone reporter about how she and Slater wanted to parody the cliched Hollywood celebrity couple: to stage fights in restaurants, act reclusive but leak information anyway, harass photographers.

But Hollywood has a way of co-opting everyone – even satirical young hipsters. And so not very long after Ryder’s exuberant put-on, she fell for real for TVs heartthrob Johnny Depp. And suddenly People magazine named Johnny and Winona the King and Queen of Young Hollywood – and the two of them were participating in a National Association of Theater Owners – sponsored salute to the Young Stars of Tomorrow. “In Vegas,” Ryder says, hip to the irony of her situation. “It was the whole Hollywood thing,” she adds, curling her upper lip distastefully. “We flew to Vegas in a private plane and Johnny got to shake Wayne Newton’s hand. He was so excited, he couldn’t stop talking about it.”

Ryder’s celebrity status has now reached the level she was originally parodying: “Johnny and I flew into L.A. from Tampa where we’d been working all day, and we were really tired,” she says, recounting her arrival a few days before. “we got off the plane, and about 50 paparazzi people jumped out and started taking our pictures. We couldn’t, like, see where we were going because the bulbs were popping. One guy stuck out his foot and tried to trip me! They were yelling at us, trying to get an ‘interesting’ picture. Finally, Johnny got so mad that he turned around and flipped them off. Now you’ll see his picture in a magazine and he’s going to look like some asshole. Like a guy who enjoys flipping off photographers.”

A lot of what Ryder is putting up with is the scene around Depp, who sent up his own teen idol status in John Water’s film Cry-Baby. The press can’t seem to resist writing about his habit of getting engaged to such starlets-of-the-hour as Jennifer Grey and Sheryl Fenn. (This has led to a rash of bumper stickers all over Manhattan reading, “Honk if you’ve never been engaged to Johnny Depp.”) Depp has been moved to demonstrate the permanence of his affection for Ryder by having “Winona Forever” tattooed on his deltoid. Ryder tells me, “I was thrilled when he got the tattoo. Wouldn’t any woman be?”

While Ryder refuses to discuss Depp’s – or her own – earlier romances, she’s very convincing when she says she’s tired of having paparazzi cameras trained on the couple’s every move. Still, according to her pal Daniel Waters, she’s enjoying the celebrity trip more than she likes to let on. “There’s a part of her that likes it even though she denies it,” he explains. “Winona’s got a real star quality, and right now she’s got a Natalie Wood obsession.”

It’s no surprise that Ryder would be interested in the late actress who also entered show biz as a child, rocketed through teen stardom, and then managed to make the precarious leap to lasting adult fame. (Wood’s Depp was Warren Beatty, and she never married him.) But she doesn’t appear to patterning her career after Wood’s. Wood co-starred opposite Beatty in the mainstream love story Splendor in the Grass, from which she emerged a grown-up star. Ryder’s chosen to don a blonde wig and cheerleader get-up opposite a Depp buried under tons of bizzare makeup, replete with shears for fingers, in Tim (Beetlejuice, Batman) Burton’s surreal Peter Pan-esque fantasy, Edward Scissorhands.

“Working with Johnny turned out to be really great,” she says. “Of course I was scared and nervous about it. I mean, if there’s one person that I want to impress with my acting, it’s him. So there was a lot of insecurity during the first couple of days, but it turned out to be really motivating situation, you know?” Her eyes get wide and seem to twinkle mischievously for a second as she adds, “I think we have pretty good chemistry. We’ll see.”

With or without Johnny, Edward Scissorhands, a weird hip ’90s movie, fits easily into the Ryder oeuvre. And apart from that, Tim Burton is her dream director. “Tim talks my language, you know?” she says. “Did you ever meet somebody who you can just talk to? That’s how I feel about Tim Burton. We have the same sensibilty; we think the same things are funny.”

Long before Tim Burton decided to cast Depp in the title role, he knew that he wanted to work with Ryder again, having directed her in Beetlejuice. The two of them met in London and discussed Scissorhands prior to the script’s completion. “Winona’s always done these dark roles, and I wanted to see her in a cheerleader outfit,” he says drolly, cracking himself up. “Winona is, basically, a great actress. The role in Edward Scissorhands is tricky because she plays a suburban youth who doesn’t have very much of an edge. Winona brings a weight and believability that isn’t inherent in the role. But she does it very naturally. You don’t see Winona working at it. Her process remains invisible. And acting that way requires a great deal of confidence.”

Burton’s assessment of Ryder is borne out in the upcoming Mermaids. Her performance as Cher’s oldest daughter in this film proves, once again, that she’s without peer at capturing the confusion of teenaged girls poised on the brink. Charlotte – a Jewish girl who longs to be a nun, a virgin who can’t wait to start seducing men – is Ryder’s most complex character to date, and she runs through these startling changes so deftly that there’s already talk around town that if the film proves popular with the Terms of Endearment audience it’s aimed at, Ryder could get an Oscar nomination for it.

Long before Ryder saw the script for Mermaids, she read the book by Patty Dann and still remembers its appeal. “It touches different ways,” she says. “some people think it’s about mother/daughter relationships. Other people think it’s about what happens when you don’t have a father. I think it’s about being teenager and jumping from one obsession to the next and not being able to figure out who you really are and what you really think…You’re so…God, I’m looking for a word. What’s the word when you jump around? God, I don’t know. It’s, like, on the tip of my brain. It’s driving me crazy. But anyway, you know what I’m saying.”

Mermaids had more than it’s share of troubles getting off the ground, about which Ryder is mum. Cher reportedly went through countless rewrites and three directors (Lasse Hallstrom, Frank Oz, and finalist Richard Benjamin), and Ryder herself was brought in to replace Emily Lloyd. Ryder brushes these matters aside with a wave of her hand, but she does want talk about working with Cher. “Cher and I were instantly compatible,” she says. “We just struck up, like an instant friendship. We connected real well and I think it comes through in the film. She’s very wise, but also very girlish; she taught me how to relax. During the last half of the movie we worked every single day – and since I narrate the film, I had to do a lot of voice-overs, which are difficult to get just right – so it was important for me to relax and keep from, you know, freaking out. Cher calmed me down, and she really comforted me, later, over the whole Godfather thing.”

Ah yes, the whole Godfather thing. When Ryder brings up the topic of Godfather III, her teen spontaneity instantly evaporates. Suddenly she’s speaking with the deliberateness and cogency of a well-rehearsed defendant in a murder trial.

It’s little wonder. The whispered scuttlebutt around town suggests that the official reason that Ryder skipped out on her chance to play Don Corleone’s granddaughter – she was too “exhausted” after filming Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael and Mermaids- is not the real story, or the whole story. Ryder rolls her eyes and adopts a look of disgust to dismiss my question about whether she’s heard all the rumors about the supposed real reasons. Clearly, yes, she’s heard them all: stories that she was pregnant, that she had a nervous breakdown, that drugs were involved, that Johnny was having an affair and making her crazy, that Johnny talked her out of doing Godfather III so that she could appear in Edward Scissorhands. Ryder acknowledges that the two films’ ever-changing shooting schedules would, in the end, have made it impossible for her to act in both pictures, but claims that the real explanation for her not making Godfather III is just too simple for most people to accept. “They knew I was really tired before I even arrived in Rome,” she says simply. “I got there two days after wrapping Mermaids. I went from the airport to the costumer, then I checked into the hotel and fell asleep. I was so tired that I couldn’t get out of my bed the next day. Their doctor examined me, and said ‘You are suffering from over-exhaustion.'”

Ryder and Depp fled from Rome for the domestic tranquillity of her Northern California hometown, Petaluma, where Coppola had shot Peggy Sue Got Married back in the days when Ryder was still local lass Noni Horowitz. There, while she rested up at her parents’ house, all hell broke lose back in Italy. According to a lengthy report in Vanity Fair, Coppola’s stars balked when the filmmaker elected to recast his own daughter, acting neophyte Sofia Coppola, in Winona’s role, instead of selecting from such willing replacements as Laura San Giacomo. The set was thrown into chaos, and more than one name player reportedly threatened to quit the movie. Ryder recalls that while she lay in bed halfway ’round the world, sipping hot soup to recuperate, she did indeed overhear talk of lawsuits and career strategies.

“I know that everybody was really upset,” she says. “Paramount was really angry. I felt bad – I still feel bad. I hate that I had to fuck people over. But they knew I was coming there in bad shape. Everybody kept telling me that I had to do the movie; they kept saying, ‘C’mon, you can do it.’ I couldn’t tell what to do. I was so bogged down, and so overworked.” Winona takes a sip from her tea, and pauses. “I learned a big lesson,” she adds quietly, evenly, making it clear that she considers this topic now closed. “I won’t make movies back to back. I won’t get so worn out that I can’t function. I’m going to slow down a lot.”

The project would seem to have been exactly the role Ryder needs right now. It offered not only an adult audience, but an adult part that included love scenes with Andy Garcia, which might have let Ryder begin to explore her sexuality on-screen, something her other parts to date have not touched on.

Ryder herself seems to know this is the kind of part her career would most benefit from. “I’m at that stage where most actresses really screw up,” she acknowledges. “What I have to my advantage is that I haven’t made, like, John Hughes movies. I’m a young actress, but people don’t immediately associate me with high school, or a bitch, or a good girl. Now I need to find a role that’s in the middle ground – not a kid, and not a lawyer.”

Ryder seems likely to find that role despite the Godfather fiasco. “She’s only a teenager,” one casting director told me. “Leaving Godfather III could only have spelled disaster for her career if it had been the beginning of a pattern, but no one’s heard of any problems on her next film. That’s very important. No producer will worry; she’s finished another film. With a talent like hers, she’ll get work.”

Ryder is only a teenager. And for whole minutes talking with her, I think I’m just talking to a very pretty version of the teen next door. But then I remember what Heathers writer Daniel Waters told me about her – “She threatened to kill herself or us if she didn’t get the part” – and I realize that despite the flashes of girl-next-door enthusiasm, Ryder is an intensely gifted actress with her own very willful ideas about her career. She’s anything but the girl-next-door.

And this should come as no surprise, because her upbringing was anything but ordinary, though she takes pains to point out that it was not quite as out-of-ordinary as it’s been described. “My father’s a wizard,” she says about the man who’s been characterized as a ’60s bohemian holdover.

“My parents are intellectuals. My father’s a rare book dealer, my mother’s a video artist. They’re more like beatniks than hippies. It bothers me to have tags slapped on them. I didn’t grow up in pot fields. We didn’t live on a commune, but on a piece of land where other people had their own houses. It was just, like, a neighborhood, except it was out in the country. It’s not what people make it out to be. You have to realize that I was not raised by the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.” Still, Ryder’s parents’ good standing among the counter-cultural literati meant that Ryder grew up knowing Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary long before she was old enough to realize their places in history.

“My first date with Johnny was at Timothy’s house,” Ryder says. “Timothy’s brilliant. I can talk to him forever. You listen to him speak and it’s like watching a movie. Like turning on TV, or something.”

I ask Ryder how much of her childhood she feels she’s had to sacrifice to become an actress. “My friend Helene, one of my real good friends from home, just had a prom,” Ryder says softly. “I’ve never had a prom. I’ve never even been asked to a dance. Here I am almost getting sued, and she’s picking out a dress for the prom. It was like…God, I want that so bad. Then I realized that maybe I’ve missed out on proms and Valentine dances and keggers, but I have movies as my memories. I like what I’ve done, you know? I wish I could have had it both ways, but I couldn’t, and I don’t regret the choices I’ve made.”

Outside the window of the Four Season restaurant, the sky is beginning to darken. The waiter drops our check off on the table, and Ryder begins to get fidgety. As we stand up to go, she looks really annoyed. “That limo driver is so retarded,” she says. “He never told me how to contact him when I’m ready to leave.”

Shrugging, she puts her windbreaker on, and we head out to the circular driveway. The vehicle is nowhere in sight, so Winona asks one of the parking attendants if he’s seen her car and driver. “Was he a short guy with blonde hair?” the uniformed man asks. She shakes her head no. He suggests she go look around in the rear lot, but she doesn’t believe the car will be there. She refuses my offer of a ride back to her hotel.

“All my stuff is in the car,” she says distractedly. And then without another word, without a goodbye, she turns and heads down the circular drive towards Doheny, hangs a right, and disappears.