Nice ‘n’ nasty

Toronto Sun, December 1996

Nice ‘n’ nasty

By Bruce Kirkland

NEW YORK — Just barely turned 25, still delicate, vulnerable and girlish enough to play teenagers, Winona Ryder is nevertheless a gritty Hollywood veteran.

The paradox is simply explained: Ryder has spent half of her life making movies. Many of them excellent movies. She already has two Oscar nominations: as best supporting actress for The Age Of Innocence and as best actress for Little Women. She is considered a possible candidate for another such honor for her performance in The Crucible, the Arthur Miller adaptation of his classic Salem witch trials stage play. The film is due in Toronto theatres Dec. 20.

Ryder plays the central female character, Abigail Williams, a youngster whose jealous rage leads to accusations of witchcraft which, in turn, ferment paranoia and blood-lusting hysteria in 17th-century Massachusetts.

Despite a few false steps, such as this year’s embarrassing flick Boys, Ryder is considered one of America’s finest twenty-something actors. Which makes her memories of her very first day on her very first movie all the more poignant.

“I was just 13,” she remembers of stepping in front of the cameras on the set of the teen drama Lucas. “I was totally lost and I didn’t know what was going on. I remember on the first scene I ever shot I froze and couldn’t remember my lines — literally six of seven times in a row. And it was the first day I got my period. It was a bad day. So I didn’t have any aspirations that day. I pretty much thought I was going to be fired!”

She wasn’t, somewhat surprisingly. Writer-director David Seltzer stuck with her, coaxed her through the crisis and blended her into his young ensemble (including Corey Haim and Charlie Sheen) to produce a superior teen angst film.

A dozen years later, Ryder doesn’t freeze up anymore. But, with her inclination to take on more and more challenging work, it isn’t getting any easier. Asked about Abigail in The Crucible, Ryder murmurs that the task was “harder than any other movie, I’ll say that! It was pretty rough. “It was a situation where, if you let go of it, even during breaks or at the end of the day, it was too exhausting to get wound up again. So we were all kind of staying pretty wound up, in a trance-like thing. It was hard. It was very hard — in a great way — and it was a challenge, I should say.”

As bewitched and bothered as she was playing Abigail, however, Ryder is even more bothered that viewers have been thrashing the character for Abigail’s… well, character!

Although Miller fictionalizes in both the 1953 play (which was a socio-political metaphor about the terrors of the Joseph McCarthy anti-Communist hysteria in the U.S.) and in his new screenplay, the role is based on the real-life Abigail Williams. Her actions, a fallout from her ill-fated sexual trysts with married farmer John Proctor, did lead to the Salem witch trials of 1692 during which 19 people were executed and a community befouled for generations to come. After a weekend of interviews to promote The Crucible, the good-natured Ryder finally grouses, with a grin: “I’ve been called a bitch about 100 times!”

Not as Winona. For all her talent and breathtaking, succulent, translucent-skinned beauty, few Hollywood stars are as gracious and lacking in pomposity as Ryder. But Abigail is, in 20th-century slang, a real witch. And a bitch.

“I understand how some people can see her like that,” Ryder muses quietly. “But I couldn’t just play her as a bitch, as an evil person. I had to come at it from an understanding point of view and I actually wasn’t that hard. If you look at the situations, it’s a young girl having an affair with an older married man.” When it turned bad, so did Abigail, in reaction, says Ryder.

“In real life she was 12 and he was 65, so it was much sicker.” In the movie, she figures she plays Abigail as a 16 or 17 year old, while Daniel Day-Lewis, as farmer John Proctor, weighs in as late 30s or early 40s, although age is never specified. “So, when he says, ‘Go away!’ she is obviously devastated and hurt and confused,” Ryder continues about her character. “It was at a time when she couldn’t say: ‘Oh, I accept how he feels.’ You can’t be rational (in the circumstances, in that era).”

“So, in the beginning, I understood where she was coming from. What happens after that is just so out of control and devastating but that’s the fear and paranoia and hysteria of the town and the judges. Fear, I think, is the real villain in the movie. The ‘devil’ is what we label things we fear and don’t know about.”

“The challenge of that (as an actress) is that she is very manipulative and very calculated, at times. Then, at other times, she is completely convinced that she is a saint, that she is there to cleanse the village and that she is God’s finger. To go back and forth between those two (extremes) was very difficult for me.”

Not that she ever contemplated, even for an instant, passing up the opportunity to take the role. Asked about the attraction, Ryder smiled and started listing names:

“Arthur Miller! Nicholas Hytner (the director whose credits include The Madness Of King George)! Daniel Day-Lewis (her co-star in Martin Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence)! They were all attached so, if it had been the Yellow Pages, I would have signed right up!” Playing Abigail — bitch, monster, whatever — was also a remarkable departure for Ryder, whose roles usually shade towards heroic, spunky, sweet or some such emotion. And Ryder was satisfied with that: “I was pretty happy!”

The Crucible gave her a new self-assessment. “You read something like that and you go: ‘What have I been doing?’ I had never done anything even slightly similar and I was petrified whether I could do it or not. I’m attracted to what I’m scared of, usually.”