Winona remembers when she was an outcast

Calgary Sun, December 1996

Winona remembers when she was an outcast

NEW YORK — Winona Ryder had a devil of a time getting into character for her latest role in The Crucible.

In this powerful story of the 17th century witch trials in Salem, Mass., Ryder plays Abigail Williams, the teenage servant girl who unleashed a witch-hunting frenzy in an isolated religious community.

Abigail had a brief, secret affair with a married farmer named John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), only to be shunned when the older man confessed the sin to his wife (Joan Allen).

Abigail’s revenge was to accuse dozens of the town’s leading citizens of being witches. Her accusations resulted in the most notorious witch trial in U.S. history, ending with the execution of 17 innocent people.

“The temptation in a role like Abigail is to go for pure evil, but I couldn’t just play her as a bitch. I had a great deal of sympathy for her,” admits Ryder.

“Abigail was an outsider. She was an independent, highly sexual girl in a repressive, patriarchal religious community. She was different and that difference made her an outcast.”

Flashback to 1982. Ryder is 11 years old and her family moves from San Francisco to the sleepy suburban community of Petaluma, Calif.

“It was my dream come true but it would soon become a nightmare,” recalls Ryder.

“I grew up in San Francisco around drag queens, openly gay couples and feminists. I never differentiated. They were all just wonderful people. “My parents were hippies, so we eventually moved into a commune where free love and nudity were an everyday occurrence.”

The preteen Ryder read the books in her parents’ library and longed for the traditional family life of her favourite fictional characters.

“In Petaluma, I finally had my own room in a real house and I was going to a real school. I was in heaven.”

Ryder’s dreams were shattered her first week at school.

“My hair was really short. I wore these androgynous clothes and I was tiny and frail. Girls threw food at me and one day three boys started calling me a faggot. I told them I was a girl but they wouldn’t believe me, so they beat me up. I had to have stitches in my head and I had a broken rib.”

When her parents filed a complaint with the school, the principal suggested Ryder leave because she was deemed a bad influence.

“My parents taught me at home after that and one of the plays we read together was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. “I remember thinking even then that I was Abigail. We had both been made scapegoats.”

In retrospect, Ryder feels lucky.

“I have so many girlfriends who were date raped, beaten by their boyfriends or coerced into sex by producers, directors and other actors. “Though my early romances made headlines, I was never abused in a relationship,” says Ryder, referring to her live-in relationships with actor Johnny Depp and rocker David Pirner.

This year, Ryder has been dating X-Files star David Duchovny.

Ryder says her performance in The Crucible is “the most sexual of my career. I’ve never been asked to delve this deeply into a character’s sexuality before.”

She also feels her scenes with Day-Lewis are “supremely erotic even though I didn’t have to take off my clothes, get sprayed with glycerine and roll around naked with someone. “It’s all in their glances, the tension between them and the muscles in their bodies whenever they get close. It’s also trickier to play than those clichéd Hollywood sex scenes.”