Winona On A Role

Vogue, December 1996

Winona On A Role

By John Powers

Winona Ryder tells John Powers she’s tired of being America’s favorite ingenue. In her chilling performance in this month’s The Crucible, there’s nothing sweet about her. Photographed by Steven Meisel.

“This car makes me nervous,” says Winona Ryder, pulling into heavy traffic. We’re heading to lunch in a black Mercedes that, befitting a young woman famously raised on a commune, she seems slightly embarrassed about owning. Although she’s had it only a few weeks, the passenger side is already dented.

Ryder likes to talk. “I’m a rambler,” she admits wryly, and as we cruise toward Wilshire Boulevard, her conversation leapfrogs from topic to topic. How she “worships” Gwyneth Paltrow. How Al Pacino wooed her for Looking for Richard (she does a hilarious Godfather rasp). How she hopes to make a sequel to Heathers — “because there are still Heathers everywhere.”

Chatting away, she drives like she’s auditioning for the remake of Annie Hall. Turning left, she cuts off a driver who begins leaning on his horn. “That’s so-o unfair,” Ryder moans. “I didn’t do anything wrong. Unsettled by his furious honking, she promptly runs a red light. Moments later her cellular phone rings, and she can’t figure out where it is – in a panic, she starts swatting at the dashboard as if she’s trying to kill a bee. When we finally reach the safe haven of valet parking, only slightly frazzled by the trip, she gives me a dazzling grin: “We made it.”

Ever since 1989’s Heathers, Ryder has had a curious pull on moviegoers: She’s glamorous enough to be an ideal, yet ordinary enough to seem within reach. As the brainy ingenue with a streak of rebellion, the 25-year-old actress has also become a nineties touchstone. There’s a Bay Area punk-pop band called the Wynona Riders. In Primary Colors, a James Carvilielike politico calls his sexy young campaign workers “Winonas.” Her fans have created more than eight different Winona Web sites on the Internet, one devoted to answering frequently asked questions about her family, her films, and the possibility of downloading dirty pictures. (She winces. “I don’t do nudity ever.”)

Noni, as friends call her, is one of Hollywood’s most literate young stars, and Quentin Tarantino aside, the one most in love with the movies. “I see everything,” she says – and means it. She’s a flurry of enthusiasms. In the course of a brief conversation, she’ll do a ten-minute riff on Bastard Out of Carolina, discuss Judy Davis’s “amazing” performance in a ‘dreadful’ movie she saw on cable at 4:00 A.M., and rave up Bandit Queen, an Indian film about a downtrodden village girl who becomes a leader of the dispossessed. Given the least prompting, she’ll quote whole scenes from Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance, which she and her family watch over and over.

Today, she’s ecstatic about her new film, The Crucible, an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play about mass hysteria (and McCarthyism) set during the Salem witch trials of 1692. Ryder stars as Abigail Williams, a young Puritan woman who’s spurned by her married lover (Daniel Day-Lewis) and begins accusing innocent people of sorcery. For the first time, Ryder plays the bad guy. And she does it with such demonic, hollow-eyed fierceness that many in Hollywood are already taking an Oscar nomination for granted. The Crucible could do for Ryder what Fatal Attraction did for Glenn Close: get her out of the nice-girl ghetto.

Ryder is eager for such a litberation, both on-screen and off-.

“When I was younger,” she says, “every time I’d open my mouth on the set, people would go, ‘Isn’t that cute? Winona has her littie ideas. Isn’t that cute?’ Well, I’m not the youngest person on the set anymore.”

The Crucible is only one step in Ryder’s ambitious plan to be a grown-up on film. In Alien: Resurrection, she’ll try something even more audacious — playing an action hero. With her hair cropped short for the film, she still looks more like the eternal waif than the toughest chick in outer space.

Ryder’s not daunted. Slim as filigree, she’s gone on a high-powered exercise regimen to prepare for slaughtering space monsters alongside Sigourney Weaver, who is reprising the character of Ripley. “I’m training six hours a day, six days a week,” Ryder says, “because I don’t want to be the only one gasping on the starship. It’s exhausting, but it also helps me to vent – especially the martial-arts stuff. My instructor says I’m a natural.” She gives a proud smile. “It’s all very technical, you know. Block, jab, jab, hook, jab, jab, block – pow! I love it. “When they first mentioned doing the movie, I almost jumped out of my seat,” she says. “You see, my whole family is obsessed with Alien. My brother Jubal runs a comicbook store, and one wall is covered with Alien paraphernalia. I must have been about nine when I saw the original because we were still living on the commune. And I wanted to be Ripley. She was the first woman action hero, and she’s still one of the greatest women’s roles. I had to do it.”

Although not yet completely comfortable with starring in a special-effects extravaganza – “I don’t think of it as an action movie,” she says hopefuly – Ryder is thrilled to have landed the role. Having spent years playing sedentary young women who don’t know their own hearts, she’s relishing the chance to cut loose.

She fixes me with those dark eyes. “Playing cute and confused doesn’t interest me anymore,” she says. “I wanted to be an actress ever since I was a girl.” If this sounds strange, it’s because she became an actress when she was a girl. At thirteen, she went straight from a San Francisco acting class to a role in the Hollywood film Lucas. Within five years – the time it took to make Beetlejuice, Heathers, and Edward Scissorhands – she’d become the leading actress of her generation. While such peers as Julia Roberts have been steamrollered by their stardom, Ryder has used her clout to work with the best filmmakers.

Ryder possesses a natural winsomeness, a virtue that can easily turn wan in films (like Reality Bites) that rely on it too much. She’s best when her characters have a few sharp edges. Her most memorable roles, in Heathers and The Age of Innocence, are sneakily jagged, showcasing her ability to perform on more than one level. Heathers’s Veronica must juggle two distinct kinds of madness – a Darwinian high school hierarchy that glorifies cheerleaders and a boyfriend who attacks it with gleeful murder. Similarly, May Welland in The Age of Innocence must wear the placid veneer of the well-bred social butterfly while revealing, in the quietly lethal climax with her husband, a territorial sense worthy of a barracuda.

In The Crucible Ryder reaches a new level of emotional rawness. As the hysterical Abigail Williams, bent on avenging her wronged innocence, she bristles with the fury of one goaded by the demons of eroticism and madness. (“People keep saying Abigail’s a bitch,” grumbles Ryder, irked that anyone would view the character so shallowly. “But she’s also a victim. I feel for her.”) It’s her most adult performance – and her most sexual.

Some of that role’s sexual charge carries over into her description of acting with Daniel Day-Lewis.

“I’m simply besotted with him,” she says, eyes glittering, her voice ardent. “He’s so good he forces you to give the best performance. You want to please him. It’s almost like a supernatural experience: Your mind cannot leave a scene when you’re with him. It’s like he has you by the throat, and you give everything to him because he deserves it.”

Of course, succeeding as a movie star has as much to do with good instincts as it does with acting.

“Winona’s having such a good career,” says The Crucible’s director, Nicholas Hytner, “because she never worries about her career. She does what interests her rather than what looks like just another step on the Hollywood chessboard.”

“When I was offered Heathers,” she remembers, “my agent at the time got on her knees, literally, and said, ‘Please don’t do this movie. I promise you if you do this movie you will never work again.’

“I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m gonna do it, and I don’t care if it ever comes out.’ And I never looked back.” She gives a tiny glint of self-satisfaction, then adds, “I was fifteen-and-a-half at the time.”

But being a teenage movie star is not without its costs. Ryder pulled out of The Godfather, Part III at the last minute, blaming a “respiratory infection” that many thought a pretext for self-indulgence or nervous collapse. A few years later, during her long breakup from Johnny Depp (and his WINONA FOREVER tattoo), she suffered through what she calls “a very dark time.” She smoked heavily, bit her nails to the nub. She suffered grievous bouts of insomnia, followed by a reliance on the sleeping pills prescribed to battle it.

When Ryder is in a good mood, it’s easy to forget her abiding sense of melancholy. Her obsessions run to the grim. She devours movies about child abuse and has optioned books like Susanna Kaysen’s madhouse memoir, Girl Interrupted.

At her suggestion, we meet one morning at L.A.’s Museum of Tolerance, which is filled with genocide exhibitions and interactive warnings against bigotry.

“I lost a lot of relatives in the Holocaust,” she says simply, and her eyelids do that little dance they do whenever she’s dealing with an unsettling subject. “What scares me the most about it is the separation. Even more than the deaths, it’s families being separated.”

Ryder feels peculiarly at home in places like this, but today a tour group begins demanding autographs. She politely signs and signs – who could turn down anyone in a museum devoted to tolerance? – but eventually the fans’ rude insistence forces us to flee.

“Was I mean?” she asks in the elevator. “I was trying to be nice, but I feel like I was so-o mean.”

There’s no reassuring her.

“I’m insecure about everything,” she says, laughing even about worrying too much. “I get this way when I’m not working. I have too much time to think about myself.”

Such self-absorption is hardly surprising: Her entire adult life has been spent answering (and dodging) questions about her personal life – about her long relationships with Johnny Depp (“First love is amazing and devastating” is her single, oblique comment) and Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum. Although they recently split, she calls Pirner “the best person I’ve ever met.”

“Being with Johnny Depp broke me in. We couldn’t go a week without reading something that either wasn’t true or was only half true, or was taken out of context. I wouldn’t want to go through that again. Looking back, I can see that it did affect our relationship. I was at an age when I was really insecure.” She sips her Evian. “But in retrospect, I’m grateful for the experience. By the time I was 21, nothing could faze me.”

Maybe not, but a few days later, when talk of a romance with the The X-Files’s David Duchovny spread from the tabloids to TV Guide, Ryder quickly issued a public denial.

“Somehow the rumor got started,” she tells me over the phone, “and it was like a hurricane hit. I just wanted to nip it in the bud. We went out a few times, but that’s all there is. I’m not involved with anyone. Period.”

“Noni’s a very nice person,” says a young actress who knows her. “But it has to have been hard for her because she’s never had a normal life. Like when somebody suggests something ordinary, like ‘Let’s have a barbecue,’ she gets kind of excited because for her that’s something really exotic. If it wasn’t for having a cool family, she’d probably have gone crazy by now.”

Because Ryder’s parents, Michael and Cindy Horowitz, were deeply involved in the counterculture, much has been written of her “hippie” upbringing. But these days, the Horowitz kids appear to lead strikingly conservative lives – “Round people have square babies,” Ryder jokes. She talks constantly about her parents and siblings (sister Sunyata, brothers Jubal and Yuri). They are her refuge, her balm. She bought a house in San Francisco partly because her lower Manhattan apartment was too far from Petaluma, where her parents live.

Ryder says she’d like a family of her own someday, but at the moment she’s too busy making movies and enjoying the perks of stardom – which include scoring the best seats when her favorite rocker, Paul Westerberg, plays the Troubadour, and hanging out with Gwyneth, Mira, and Ashley at last fall’s big New York City bash for Giorgio Armani.

Although she likes to play down her obvious interest in fashion, Ryder is widely admired in Hollywood for her old-style sense of glamour; people still hail the triumphant audacity of the vintage fringed dress she wore to the 1994 Academy Awards.

“Normally, I dress like this,” she says, gesturing down at the black cutoffs and sleeveless T-Shirt that display the merest hint of the new musculature produced by all those hours in the gym. “But when I go out, I like real simple, beautiful clothes – almost boyish.” These days she’s particularly fond of Prada, Anna Molinari, and Jil Sanden.

The next afternoon, we’re sitting in Ryder’s Beverly Hills house, a small Spanish number whose downstairs is dominated by a big-screen TV and a poster of Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. It’s 45 minutes until her next six-hour stint at the gym, and she’s talking about identity. When she was younger, she would often be ambushed by pain and depression because, she says, “I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t acting.” But entering her second decade as a screen actress, Ryder has a much stronger idea of herself. She feels she took another step forward earlier this year in dealing with the death of her godfather Timothy Leary.

“I was with Tim when he died,” she says, her voice growing soft. “He was smiling, and after he died, they couldn’t push his smile down. You know, I saw him a lot in the last few weeks of his life, and got to hold his body, which was an amazing experience and not as morbid as I anticipated. Watching him made me not so afraid of death.

“I spoke at the funeral. I quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald on ‘epic grandeur,’ which I knew Tim would like. Afterward, people kept saying to me, ‘We’ve never heard you talk outside of a movie before.’ And they were right. I was using my own words for once. I was talking as myself, as me. And I liked it,” she says. “I liked it.”