Like All Cool Chicks Of Our Time

Esquire — November 1992

— by Michael Hirschorn

LIKE ALL COOL CHICKS OF OUR TIME, WINONA RYDER GOT HER FIRST WHIFF OF REBELLION FROM J.D. SALINGER. SHE WAS EIGHT WHEN SHE FIRST read The Catcher in the Rye — Dad’s a writer and bookdealer and an avowed nonconformist, so young Nonie got stuffed up with books early — too young, she thinks, to really bond in a teenage-girl kind of way with Holden Caulfield’s hyperpituitary postwar rebellions. “And then I read it again when I was about twelve and that was it — it became the Bible for me.” She gets up to fetch a soda. She’s near transparently skinny. “But nice skinny,” as Holden would say of his kid sister, Phoebe, “rollerskate skinny.” Winona grabs her Chap Stick and sits back down.

Catcher “is a very comforting thing that I can go to, especially when I’m traveling,” she says. When I’m away from home, I like to read….” She trails off for a moment. “I don’t want to sound too weird about it.”

We’re sitting in the kind of surroundings that would make Holden rail on about fakery — in Catcher he claims to hate movies, so when Winona was a mere teenager, she thought for a while she had to as well. Holden-like, Winona hates the word genius, “a word, by the way, that I don’t toss around, and I know a lot of actors do. And I want to specify that — it’s an over-used word, and it should only be used for people who really are that.”

Not long ago, Ryder wrote Salinger a fan letter. “I mean, what do you say to him, really?” she asks rhetorically. A lot, probably. “I kind of said, um, that I, uh –” she fumbles a bit with her hair — “just how much it meant to me, and thanked him for it.” She never mailed the letter. The actress, clad in jeans, cowboy boots, and a clingy Agnes B.-type jersey, is enveloped by a big beige couch amid the shiny tapioca-hued splendor of a New York hotel suite. She’s spending a couple of weeks here, listening to her music tapes, buying an East Coast pad, working the phone to finalize big power negotiations for the-role-of-a-life-time-that-she-really-wants-to-tell-me-about-but-she’s-afraid-to-jinx-it-you-understand. In a few days, Johnny Depp with whom she’s said to have reconciled after some rumored dalliances on her part will whisk her up to the Montreal Film Festival for a Tim Burton tribute. Burton’s something of a mentor, having directed her in Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, with Depp.

She doesn’t go out much these days, she says; gets “very paranoid.” Not that anyone would notice her in the musty crush of late-summer New York. Startlingly small, petite to the edge of fragility, she would seem bait more for those who pick on the waifish than for the gardenvariety celebrity stalker. One comes upon Winona’s beauty as if upon a stunning miniature in a curio shop. She’s supposed to be the sweet teen star next door. But close up, as the camera sees her, she has an astonishing beauty. With brilliant, enveloping brown eyes that set off a pert nose and luminescent skin, Ryder’s face is no mere confection crafted through hundreds of dollars of makeup but a classically comely mug, all the subtle tug of softness and definition of a young Natalie Wood.

And now, apparently, she knows it, too. For the first time, says Cher, who became Winona’s de facto older sister after starring with her in Mermaids, “she’s into posing for sexy pictures and having people think of her as a really beautiful babe.”

Winona is preternaturally articulate for a twenty-one-year-old, free of most of the, like, you know, verbal crutches that give teen-speak its comic syncopations. She has not gone and does not intend to go to college, though more than one pimply faced freshman would kill to see her in a black turtleneck sipping cappuccino and expounding rapturously on the subverted marriage plot in Jane Austen (whom she also loves, by the way, and who is in fact a genius). “Winona has this bristling intelligence,” says Anthony Hopkins, who costars with Ryder in the forthcoming Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “She was constantly asking me, ‘Have you read this and have you read that?’ I hadn’t even heard of some of the books.”

As we’re wallowing in the fetid aftermath of the Republican convention, I’m eager to quiz young Ryder on her political views which turn out not too surprisingly to be an extension of those held by her way-progressive parents (Ryder’s an Amnesty International volunteer). “I haven’t been following the Republican convention,” she says, “just because it kind of makes me sick.” She’s not too eager to talk State of the Nation, it turns out, but just as I’m about to move on to other subjects, she launches into a funny rant about the vagaries of life along the glitzpower corridor.

“I got an invitation before I came to New York to go to a thing for Clinton,” she says. “I was invited by a very big movie star to their house, and I thought, Why would I want to go to this movie star whom I’ve never met’s house, and why would they want me there?. That’s what confuses me: They invite a lot of people who I think couldn’t find their ass with both hands. I think it’s great for my generation to grow up politically active and do what they can for what they really believe in but it has to be for something they know about, because so many times I hear actors talking about politics and I can tell that if someone asked them a question they probably wouldn’t be able to answer it.”

Politics aside, her friends caution against the idea that Winona is some type of postpubescent supersophisticate. “She’s still kind of a baby,” says Cher. “She’s naive and really adorable.and as an actress she has a lot more experience than she does as a person.” By way of example, Michelle Pfeiffer recalls how she convinced Ryder and Cher to uke a sculpting class. When the class arranged for a male model to pose nude, “I can’t tell you how many shades of red Winona turned,” Pfeiffer says with a wicked chuckle. “As soon as the model walks out in his robe and takes it off, Winona turns scarlet and starts giggling uncontrollably for twenty minutes. She had to move around to the back of the class.”

For all the giggles, Ryder is a surprisingly savvy curator of her own reputation during what is after all a still-very-brief career it’s been a mere six years since her debut in 1986’s Lucas. (In fact, she only changed her name from Horowitz to Ryder just before Lucas was released.) While other actresses her age have given their souls to cheesy productions that rob them of their good names and much of their clothing, Ryder has made a very few bad movie choices and a very many good ones. She starred in Heathers, which remains the definitive black comedy of Reagan-youth lust and greed. Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters, by the way, gets the much-coveted genius billing. (“Oops! And there I go using that word again.”) She played a riotous Wednesday Addams turn in Beetlejuice and turned in a fine performance in artmeister Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. She recently finished The Age of Innocence, directed by Martin Scorsese. The movie, which was not finished on schedule, won’t be released until next year.

And in what will surely represent her cinematic coming-out party, her final ascendance to a kind of psychic R-rating in the public’s mind, she appears as Mina in Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish and very bloody and very sexy Dracula, out this month. Along with her appearance in the Scorsese film — and that incredibly-exciting-I-can’t-tell-you-about-it project — Ryder is set to become the most prominent and powerful movie actress of her generation. She is about to become a star in the old-fashioned sense, a classic combination of glamour, talent, and ambition.

Much will be made of the Coppola-Ryder rapprochement, especially following the gossip storm after physical exhaustion left her unable to perform a key role in Coppola’s The Godfather, Part III. At the time, there were trashy rumors involving pregnancy, drug use, and Depp-related weirdness. Coppola, on short notice, gave the role to his daughter, and, well, one can imagine what might have been.

Coppola says that six months after The Godfather III problems, he set up a brief meeting with Ryder to assure her that he bore her no grudge and that, for all the gossip, “I took her problem at face value. My feeling was that I didn’t want a young person to feel I was mad at her I wanted to make sure she didn’t feel that I disliked her. She was very concerned that she had let me down.” Ironically, it was at this meeting that Ryder proposed the idea of Dracula. “She said, ‘Oh, I have this script I love,'” he recalls.

The movie, which also stars Keanu Reeves and Gary Oldman, as Dracula, is said to be intense stuff — maybe too intense. A preview audience in San Diego, which saw a very rough cut of the film, was repulsed by the blood and guts and found the movie too confusing to boot. “I did use the horror and the metaphor of blood which I see as a symbol of life’s passion,” admits Coppola. “But it’s very much interwoven with themes of love.” Now that the plasma factor has been reduced to palatable levels in re-editing, Coppola promises that audiences will “primarily say this is a love story.”

The movie, in any case, promises to be Ur-Gothic. In a key scene, Ryder’s character, Mina, succumbs to the pagan pleasures of vampirism by sucking the blood from an open vein in Dracula’s chest. Fabulously campy, very adult, and a long way from the joys of PG-rated fell-good thespianism in Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael.

Ryder was aware of the dangers inherent in entering the very adult maw of Coppola’s ego. “Things got chaotic at times, and things got very intense,” she says of the filming of Dracula, much of which took place in northern California. “Francis has a way of setting a mood — he plays games with you, plays tricks on you that work that I appreciate.” Like what?

“There was a scene where I had to feel incredible guilt because I’ve been caught doing something that I shouldn’t be doing,” she says, curling into her cushions and folding her arms under her breasts. “And I have to have this breakdown… of feeling very guilty, and I just remember kind of being on the bed and — I wasn’t in the mood to do the scene, I just wasn’t. And I thought, Well, I’ll just kind of try and see what happens. And it just wasn’t working and he wouldn’t cut. He just kept making me get up and get back on the bed and get back in bed. And then he started, and then all of a sudden I heard Keanu’s voice and his [Coppola’s] voice calling me names, like, ‘Whore, how could you do this? How could you do this.’

“I just really started feeling it and kind of started to cry all of a sudden. In fact, I was kind of weeping, and he wouldn’t cut; he just made me do it again and again until I was really out of my mind. Finally, the last time, I did it, which must have been about fifteen times without a cut. I just had enough, enough, because I couldn’t take it anymore.”

WINONA HOROWITZ is happy being Winona Ryder, and why not? A child of less-than-flush-rich bohemian parents she spent much of her youth in Petaluma, California, among left-wing intellectuals (famously, Timothy Leary is her godfather) — she can now bop around the globe, ingesting culture and finding new movie stars and directors and writers and cinematographers to work with. She now wants to direct (of course) and produce (attention Joel Silver). “She always puts her foot right,” says Jay Cocks, who wrote the screenplay adaptation of The Age of Innocence. Even if she’s wearing Doc Martens.”

“Radio Free Winona,” as Cocks calls her, is getting contemplative now, tucking into the requisite what-it-means-to-be-me part of our conversation. “I’ll just be sitting there, watching them set up,” she says, her eyes yawing open to provide visual emphasis, “and I’ll be thinking, My God, this is like watching a movie in itself!” For once she looks wonderstruck as she moons off into space somewhere between the minibar and the toobillowy chiffony curtains.

To twenty-one-year-old Winona Ryder, it is a genius world after all.