Little Miss Perfect

Empire — March 1995

— by Jeff Dawson

She’s ludicrously beautiful, far too talented, and still only 23 years old. Jeff Dawson is granted an audience with the winsome, wondrous, and “waif-like” Winona Ryder… “Younger Women are really underestimated by Hollywood,” protests Winona Ryder. “I think they are really sick of seeing films about happy hookers. I know a lot of younger girls, and they say, ‘Why do they make girls look so stupid in movies?’ That’s what they say. ‘Why are girls just girlfriends? Why aren’t they smart? Do they think we’re stupid?’ And I’m sitting around thinking, ‘Well, er, yes.’ I think Little Women is actually something that could make them be inspired.”

Petite, delicately pale and — as fashion types are wont to put it — “waif-like”, Winona Ryder is certainly not someone Hollywood is underestimating. She’s never peeled her kit off on camera; she’s never played a character whose personal demons (as they say in California) don’t require a spot of wrestling; and she’s never entered into that John Hughes-ish world of rich brat high school designer angst. Yet, still only 23, not only does she have the power to greenlight a project — as she did with her latest, Little Women, her name placed well above the titled — but she can command $4 million for her trouble.

The most powerful actress of her generation? She’d certainly go 12 rounds with Julia Roberts…

Little Women is as refined as they come. Gillian Armstrong’s wonderful interpretation of Louisa M. Alcott’s required literary text, it is one of the finest classic adaptations in many a year. Unlike the agonising, sterile order of Martin Scorsese’s period drame, The Age of Innoncence, which Ryder also graced, it has soul. The corsets may be stuffed with whalebone, but behind each one beats a heart of gold.

“I read it when I was 12 and it really made a strong impression on me,” begins Ryder, taking a slurp of coffee to jump-start our breakfast meeting at Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons Hotel. “It was one of the only books around that explored women’s adolescence. In a lot of those books, either you were a girl or you were a woman — you were never in between.”

So, as Cilla Black once asked Alfie, what’s it all about? The answer, given that even those who did Little Women for English Lit. probably forgot all about it in a post-exam cider session, is the story of the March siblings, Jo, Beth, Amy and Meg, principally Jo (Ryder), who must choose between a life of cushy domestic bliss with childhood sweetheart Laurie (Christian Bale) or strike out for the big city, become a writer and shack up with older Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne). It’s a happy sisterly affair, presided over by non-judgmental mom Marmee (Susan Sarandon). In short, it’s a tale that translates perfectly into the modern era. As valid now as in 1933 when George Cukor made a previous notable version — Katherine Hepburn’s far more feisty Jo a reflection of those times as much as Ryder’s troubled soul is of 1995.

It’s also the fourth straight period piece (if you discount last year’s Reality Bites which, in its own way, will become a period piece a few years hence) in which Ryder has got trussed up — Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Age of Innoncence, and The House of the Spirits (“Just a coincidence,” she says). Maybe it’s a sad indictment of our own times that young actors, our own age, choose to take part in rose-tinted visions of a petticoated past?

“It’s actually weird, because I feel like such a romantic,” chirps Ryder who, dresses in black cardie, T-shirt and trousers, certainly doesn’t look like a big league player. Come to think of it, she doesn’t even look her age. “I really do romanticise the 19th Century. I mean, I go, ‘Ooooh, they made their own bread, they ride in those carraiges.’ Though I’m sure medicinally and scientifically it was a drag. But back then there was more emphasis on the importance of relationships between a family. You didn’t move out when you were 16. You communicated with people on a much more real level.”

Born Winona Horowitz (named after her birthplace, Winona, Minnesota), Ryder grew up on a sort of upmarket ranch commune in Northern California — plenty of wild horses, but no television. She’s the goddaughter of LSD guru Timothy Leary. Her parents, artistic sorts themselves, were big pals of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and once edited a book called Shaman Woman Mainline Lady, an anthology of writings on the drug experience in literature, which included, interestingly, a piece by — hey! — Louisa M. Alcott.

When “Noni” — as Ryder’s chums call her — was ten, they moved to Petaluma, near San Francisco, where she was enrolled in acting class at the prestigious American Conservatory Theatre. At 13 she had a video audition for the film Desert Bloom. She didn’t get the part, losing to Annabeth Gish, but was spotted by director David Seltzer, who cast her in Lucas as a tomboy with a crush on the local hero. When phoned to ask how she’d like her name to appear on the credits, she whimsically adopted the moniker Ryder, her father, apparently, having a Mitch Ryder (who?) album playing in the background.

Next came Square Dance (a crush on, er, Rob Lowe) and then, in 1988, her breakthrough with Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice in which she starred as Lydia, the goth daughter of Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones. Her status was on hold through the rather tragic 1969 (which she did because she was bored, apparently) and Great Balls Of Fire, as the 13-year-old cousin/wife of Dennis Quaid’s Jerry Lee Lewis, a film notable largely for the fact that it was the first to grace the cover of a then-fledgling movie magazine called Empire.

And then, just as decent scripts were beginning to come her way, she opted against safe teen roles — causing her agent to pull her hair out — by choosing the part of Veronica in Michael Lehmann’s mordant black comedy Heathers. Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael was a dud, but Mermaids (the nauseating Shoop Shoop Song notwithstanding) proved a success. Replacing Britain’s own Emily Lloyd — who was deemed to be too genetically dissimliar to her onscreen mum Cher — Ryder stole the show. Moving into a significantly bigger ballpark, she then copped the coveted role of Mary Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III…

Then the mill was positively beset by trouble. Having caught some kind of flu after filming Roxy and Mermaids back to back, Ryder flew straight to Coppola’s Rome set in January 1990 against the advice of her doctor. Unable to get out of bed due to a respiratory infection, she pulled out of the role, despite the fact that everything was ready to roll, citing her reluctance to let others down with a substandard performance. Sceptics pointed to boyfriend trouble — specifically, her rocky relationship with serial engager Johnny Depp (previous victims Sherilyn Fenn and Jennifer Grey) who’d unwisely got “Winona Forever” plastered all over his bicep, because, apparently, unlike an engagement ring, “You can’t lose a tattoo down a drain”.

Technically, pulling out of such a major number should have been the death knell for her career, but the “smouldering looks” and “panther-like” grace of Sofia Coppola were enough to convince casting agents everywhere that Ryder was, actually, rather good.

“I think she did a wonderful job,” insists Ryder against an overwhelming tide of public opinion. “I really like her a lot.”

Switching agencies to the all-powerful CAA, Ryder was deluged with scripts, including Edward Scissorhands and Night On Earth. she did both, the first with Burton again, opposite her Johnny, with whom she’d been going out since she was 17; and the second for Jim Jarmusch in the L.A. segmnet of his carry on cabbie saga. Another script caught her attention, however, that of Jim Hart’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Though she was originally down to do it as a TV movie with British director Michael Apted, she swallowed her pride and went back to Coppola, who she hadn’t spoken to for six months. Contrary to popular belief, she didn’t set the film up.

“Everyone’s saying that, like, I found the script and I gave it to him and he decided to do it and therefore I put it all together,” she says. “All I did was find the script. Actually, the movie didn’t turn out to be anything like the script I read; there were no effects, it was like this whole intellectual journal. I gave it to him and met with him and he said he’d do it. But I didn’t have anything to do with anything else, you know. I wasn’t behind the scenes.”

It was here that she first came across Coppola’s “Tough Love” directing technique, in which, if an actor is supposed to be upset, he/she is goaded into emotion by Coppola hurling insults at them. Thus, for the scene towards the end of the film where Anthony Hopkins and the others burst into the bedroom to catch Ryder’s Mina with Gary Oldman’s cheeky count, it was to the raucous refrain of “whore” and “slut”.

“It was completely ridiculous and didn’t work at all,” she explains, angered by the memory. “And, yeah, it was very upsetting. But it was the wrong kind of emotion for what he wanted. He’s very, er, experimental, I guess, and I certainly didn’t appreciate it. Not to disrespect him. I think he’s done some amazing work, but his methods didn’t work on me. I just get pissed off when somebody screams at me. I don’t cry, I just glare.”

How very different from the slumber party atmosphere generated by Gillian Armstrong and her largely female crew for Little Women.

“It’s an unspoken understanding, you know,” she coos. “When you’re with a woman, it’s different than if you’re with a man. You know, sometimes with male directors, and I’m not talking about anyone specific, they are really afraid they are going to offend you. They are really afraid to talk about sexuality and sensuality. They’re just scared. You know, ‘I’m not coming on to you, but can you do this.’ It’s just a little more tense when it comes to more sensitive issues.”

Nonetheless, it is Martin Scorsese, for whom she turned in an Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning performance as May Welland in The Age of Innocence, who still comes out on top.

“He’s just the greatest,” she gushes. “He’s just the best director in the world. With me, at least, it seems he’s telepathic almost.”

Now, as Empire has pointed out on a previous occasion, for someone so darned attractive, it’s a strange thing indeed that Winona’s onscreen love life is usually such a sorry mess. After The Age of Innocence, in which Daniel Day-Lewis preferred the delights of snogging Michelle Pfeiffer’s foot, and Reality Bites, where she was torn between Etahn Hawke’s slacker and Ben stiller’s clean-cut exec, came the lamentable The House Of The Spirits in which, among other tings, she had sex by a river and was then tortured. Winona, seemingly, never gets her man.

“Well, according to you I don’t,” she giggles…

Rest assured then that for Winona’s little woman Jo March, everything works out hunky-dory in the end, though not without the breaking of a heart along the way.

“Hahahaha, I still haven’t forgiven myself for the whole Laurie thing,” she sqeals. “When we were doing that scene where it really doesn’t work out between us, I remember saying, ‘Christian, can’t you just do something obnoxious, so that people won’t hate me so much for not choosing you?'”

Weren’t the male actors, though — arty-farty types though they may be — just a little bit isolated by the Little Women sisterhood?

“No, they were totally in on it,” she explains, prodding on of Peak Frean’s finest (or whatever the American equivalent is) around the edge of her saucer. “I thought we were gonna have problems because I’ve worked on movies, like on The House Of The Spirits where Jeremy Irons was, like, always looking for some guy to hang out with. But Christian was just like one of us, he was a girlfriend, as male as he is.”

Gabriel Byrne, though, soon had them all gooey.

“He came for a really short time and did all his stuff at once,” she explains. “It’s the only time I’ve seen a crew line up to be kissed when he wrapped, because he was such a dreamboat. And eric Stoltz was great. He’s really such a girl’s guy. I don’t think they fely uncomfortable. I think I can speak for them all on that.”

There is, however, a sad footnote to Little Women, the film being dedicated to Judy Scott-Fox, Gillian Armstrong’s agent, who died from cancer, and to Polly Klaos [sic], the 12-year-old girl from Winona’s hometown of Petaluma, who was abducted and evetually found murdered after a nationwide search in 1993. Ryder became involved — manning phones, doing a videotape and even offering a $200,000 reward for Poly’s safe return. Little Women, too, had been Polly’s favourite book.

“That is something people keep asking me about,” says Ryder. “Talking to me like it’s an actor getting politically involved in something. I don’t think that was the case. To me it isn’t an issue at all. She lived two blocks away from me. She was missing for two months. It was a 24-hour-a-day search everywhere and I’ve never been involved in anything like that. I felt pleased that I could help, that I had money to help and that I had the power to keep it in the press, because the press were refusing to write about it unless I did interviews, which was kind of sick.”

On a lighter note, however, Little Women is an undisputed critical triumph, with Ryder in line for another possible Oscar nomination. Next up is Boys, with Lucas Haas, a modern day version of Snow White, about a girl who gets knocked unconscious during a horse riding accident and wakes up in a boy’s school, followed by How To Make An American Quilt with fellow little women Samantha Mathis and Claire Danes. She’s even put her Johnny Depp woes behind her, getting all cosy with her new bloke, David Pirner from Soul Asylum, whom she met at an MTV Unplugged gig.

How times have changed since her first brush with the world of pop — dressed up in a blonde frightwig for Mojo Nixon’s 1989 song Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child, wrestling with a tiffany lookalike in a big tub of jelly.

“That,”concludes the millionaire award-winning actress, suddenly coming over all sheepish, “was a long time ago…”