On Her Own Terms

The Hollywood Reporter, March 5 1997

The Hollywood Reporter Salute To Winona Ryder: 1997 ShoWest Female Star of the Year

On Her Own Terms

The versatile young actress picks movies by following her instincts.

By Zorianna Kit

If the eyes are indeed the window to the soul, Winona Ryder’s expressive brown eyes tell all. From her early teen roles in such films as “Beetlejuice” (1988), “Heathers” (1989) and “Mermaids” (1990) to her more complex, Oscar-nominated performances in “The Age of Innocence” (1993) and “Little Women” (1994), Ryder embodies with ease every role she takes on.

“I don’t know of any actress of her generation who has that kind of versatility,” declares Tom Rothman, president, worldwide productions, Twentieth Century Fox.

Director Richard Benjamin, who guided Ryder through her role in “Mermaids,” agrees: “It never looks likes she’s acting. It looks like someone is living, breathing and being.”

Thus far, the 25-year-old actress’s performances have won both awards and critical praise, and Ryder, who’s entering her second decade of movie stardom, shows no sign of stopping. “Her playing field is getting bigger and bigger,” says actor Daniel Day-Lewis, her costar in “The Age of Innocence” and “The Crucible.” “I can’t imagine anything that she couldn’t take on now.” Currently shooting the sci-fi adventure “Alien: Resurrection” for Fox, Ryder is going one step further by helping to produce her next three projects with Carol Bodie, of 3 Arts Entertainment, her manager and former agent. Currently in the works are Fox’s “The Trials of Maria Barbella,” directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (“Cinema Paradiso”); Columbia’s “Girl Interrupted,” directed and produced by James Mangold (“Copland”) and Doug Wick, respectively; and “Roustabout,” which is being developed at Fox 2000.

“She’s really authentic, and audiences respond to that,” says Laura Ziskin, Fox 2000 president. “I think her authenticity allows her to give us insight into ifie human condition and that’s what we like to watch.”

Ryder’s journey to Hollywood began with an unconventional childhood. Named for her birthplace, Winona, Minn., she grew up in a commune-like atmosphere in Petaluma, Calif., on 300 acres of land shared with several other families. Exposed to books at a young age by her counterculture author parents, Cindy and Michael Horowitz (Ryder is a stage name), young Noni encountered the novels of George Orwell, Edith Wharton, Gore Vidal and F. Scott Fitzgerald. If she wasn’t drifting away on literary adventures, she was making up skits with the other children in the area. When her mother converted an old barn into a movie house, Ryder saw all the movie classics. At 11, her parents enrolled her in San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (from which she’s receiving an honorary degree this spring), where she was spotted by a talent agent who subsequently negotiated her 1986 motion-picture debut in “Lucas.”

“She was very sympathetic and sincere playing a child who thought she would never be beautiful,” recalls David Seltzer, the director of “Lucas.” “It was very poignant because she was clearly about to blossom into a beautiful young woman herself.”

After playing an unsettled teen in “Square Dance” (1987), director Tim Burton gave her the role of the hilariously depressed Lydia in “Beetlejuice” (1988), which grossed $73.3 million. The public – and the industry took notice of the girl with the big brown eyes.

Shortly thereafter, director Michael Lehmann cast her as the popular high school girl who goes on a killing spree with Christian Slater in “Heathers” (1989). Labeled controversial for its satire on teen suicide, some critics praised the movie, while others found it morally remiss.

“There were people who got on their knees and begged me not to do “Heathers,” Ryder has said. “They told me it was going to ruin my career.” But she wouldn’t listen. “All this strategy has nothing to do with creativity or art or acting or any of those things,” she continued. “It has to do with money and power and boxoffice and positioning.” Calling it one of the best scripts she’d ever read, Ryder was determined to do “Heathers.”

Denise Di Novi, who produced the picture – as well as Ryder’s “Edward Scissorhands” and “Little Women” – was impressed by the then 15-year-old. “She’s not swayed by popular opinion, pressure or manipulation, and I think that’s why she’s so successful,” Di Novi says. “She really has a backbone and makes decisions based on the right criteria. She doesn’t do things because she thinks it’s good for her career or she’ll make more money.”

According to Jorge Saralegui, senior vp of production at Fox, Ryder was instrumental in helping find a director for “Alien: Resurrection”: “When [original director] Danny Boyle dropped out, Winona could have easily gone onto another project because she’s one of those people who always has something lined up. But she took on the role of producer (producer Bill Badalato was not yet on board) and, every day for two weeks, parked herself in my office, determined to help find a director.”

Their objective was to find a “highly talented relative unknown,” since the history of the “Alien” franchise was that past directors Ridley Scott, James Cameron and David Fincher were brought to the forefront after directing the series. “We wanted to find the ‘next great director,'” says Saralegui.

In making a decision, Ryder screened movies – observing directors’ styles – and suggested names to Saralegui until both agreed on French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet after seeing his past work in “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children.”

Ryder’s talent for producing comes as no surprise to director Gillian Armstrong, whom Winona aggressively pursued and eventually convinced to direct “Little Women” (1994) after seeing the director’s “My Brilliant Career.”

“Winona has fabulous taste in judging other actors as well,” says Armstrong. Ryder spotted both Claire Danes from a bootleg copy of the “My So-Called Life” pilot and Christian Bale from the little seen “Swing Kids.” “She told me to have a look at their work,” Armstrong says, “and they both turned out to be extraordinary in ‘Little Women.'”

The director was pleased as well with Ryder’s performance. “I think playing Jo was easy for her because it’s quite close to who she is,” says Armstrong. “Winona is an intelligent, sensitive girl with big dreams and a strong heart. She was warm and generous to all the girls in the movie, and that was fantastic because it set a tone. They really did become like sisters.”

Adds actress Danes, who appeared with Ryder in both “Little Women” and “How to Make an American Quilt” (1995), “She’s not guarded when she works; there’s no veil there. So people feel close to the characters she plays.”

Only once has Ryder’s career seemed to falter when, in 1990, an upper respiratory infection forced her to drop out of playing Al Pacino’s daughter in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part III,” but she quickly bounced back when she teamed once again with Burton on the successful “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), playing what she calls the “so-not-me blonde suburban cheerleader.”

“The part wasn’t Shakespeare or Joan of Arc, but a definite stretch for someone who instinctively moves closer to the dark than the light,” Burton has said. “Winona felt very uncomfortable in her clothes… but still exhibited a real power and total believability. That’s what I counted on. Just like in “Beetlejuice,” I needed someone to ground the movie so it wouldn’t spring off into the stratosphere.”

Ryder’s foray into period dramas and more adult roles begin with Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992), a project she initiated when she handed Coppola the script. It went on to earn $82.5 million – Ryder’s highest-grossing movie to date.

After appearing in “The House of the Spirits” (1993), Bille August’s adaptation of the mystical Isabelle Allende novel – and her third consecutive period drama – Ryder chose Ben Stiller’s “Reality Bites” (1994) as her next project, a Generation-X romance that has become a cult classic among the twentysomething crowd.

Twentieth Century Fox president Rothman calls Ryder’s portrayal of the scorned and revenge-seeking Abigail Williams in her most recent film, Fox’s “The Crucible,” “a virtuoso performance” and quotes “Crucible” playwright Arthur Miller as saying that in 40 years of having seen the play, hers was the best Abigail he ever saw.

At presstime, “The Crucible” has earned a modest $7.3 million at the boxoffice, but Di Novi maintains numbers don’t reflect the actress’s appeal. “She has a real authenticity as an actor, and that’s why audiences love her and why she’s good in every movie, no matter how good the movie is,” she says. “There’s something very genuine that comes through, a certain humanity.”

Q&A

Winona Ryder

The period-piece princess shares her passion for books, complex roles and human relationships.

From a rare break on the heavy-duty set of Twentieth Century Fox’s “Alien Resurrection,” ShoWest’s Female Star of the Year recently chatted with Zorianna Kit for The Hollywood Reporter.

The Hollywood Reporter: Congratulations on your ShoWest Female Star of the Year Award. What does this mean to you?

Winona Ryder: This one in particular is really wonderful because it’s from the National Association of Theatre Owners, and I’m one of those people who goes to movies all the time. It’s my hobby. When I was a kid, I used to want to live in a movie theater.

THR: Were you surprised?

Ryder: I was. I thought these awards went to the most successful boxoffice people. I haven’t been in very many successful movies. “The Crucible” really didn’t do very well, so the fact that they are giving it to me this year means a lot. I feel honored because I’ve made choices in my work that a lot of people have thought were really risky. So they’re honoring me for the movies I’ve made and the movies I’ve made have been my choices.

THR: Your agent at the time was actually against you doing “Heathers,” but you wouldn’t listen.

Ryder: I think that’s when people realized that I was gonna do what I wanted to do. I’ve always been that way. When I first started out, I was 12 and my agency was sending me scripts and I remember reading them going, “This is terrible. I don’t want to do this.” And they were like, “You can’t say that, you haven’t done anything yet.” I said, “But I don’t like this, and I’m not gonna audition for it.”

THR: Let’s talk about your many period dramas.

Ryder: I’m attracted to human relationships, and they seem to be explored more in period pieces. They take place in a time where people really talked to each other. There was no other way to communicate. Just face-to-face dialogue. That excites me. “The Age of Innocence” was a monumental turning point for me. It was… working with the greatest director and group of people and feeling like a grown-up.

THR: “Alien: Resurrection” is on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Ryder: Oh, but I’ve been a huge fan of the “Alien” movies, especially Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley. I had a poster of her on my wall all through school. The first “Alien” movie had a huge impact on me when I was a little girl. It was the first time I saw a female action hero. I was really excited that they would think of me for this [movie] because no one ever thinks of me like that. And I was dying to work with Sigourney Weaver. I feel really lucky.

THR: Do you care about boxoffice success?

Ryder: Sure. If “The Crucible” had been a huge hit, it would have meant the world to me. I think it’s an important movie. It says a hell of a lot more about the First Amendment than “Larry Flynt” does, I’ll say that. I think it says a lot about politics in society, and it really bummed me out that the movie didn’t do better.

THR: You’ve also done smaller movies like “Reality Bites,” but you’ve said that although you are attracted to such projects, you feel that you ruin them.

Ryder: “Reality Bites” and “Boys” are the examples. I think that if those movies had had an unknown actress [in the lead], they would have stuck more to the script, but because they got a known actress, they tried to capitalize on that and make them big movies and, in the case of “Boys,” completely destroyed it.

THR: How?

Ryder: “Boys” was this tiny script that I liked and got attached to do. I also like [director] Stacy Cochran, so I verbally agreed to do it. Then I got this new draft in the mail that was completely different. I tried to pull out of it, but they said they’d sue.

THR: What did you learn from that experience?

Ryder: That next time I get a script for a tiny movie, I’ll have to have a serious contract drawn up saying nothing can be changed without my approval. Except the thing is, I don’t want to have that kind of power when it’s somebody else’s movie. I don’t want to start taking control away from the director.

THR: Is that why you’re getting in on the producing end of things now? You’ve optioned material for yourself: “Girl Interrupted” at Columbia, “The Trials of Maria Barbella” at Twentieth Century Fox and “Roustabout” at Fox 2000.

Ryder: When I was meeting with [“Barbella” director] Giuseppe Tornatore, I told him, “The only reason I have something to do with the production side is to ensure that you’re making your movie. It’s to protect you from people who would want to change it.” I want the director to make the movie he wants to make.

THR: This is certainly a different side of the business for you.

Ryder: It’s exciting to be involved in matching up great writers with great ideas and great directors. Of course, I’m not doing the dirty work, but it’s nice to feel like your input means something.

THR: The three projects you’ve optioned all happen to be books, as have been many of your other past projects.

Ryder: My parents were both writers and turned me on to books when I was younger. The characters were my friends when I didn’t have friends. Books were what I turned to when I was lonely or depressed. It was a way to get into another world – very much related to acting. I don’t know what I’d do without books.

THR: Is there anything in particular you really want to do now?

Ryder: I’m Russian-Romanian. My original last name is Tomchin. Horowitz (Ryder’s birth name) was something my dad’s family picked up when they immigrated to Ellis Island because they were traveling with this other family. Most of my family on his side were killed in the camps, but because of my family history, I’ve always wanted to do something about Russia or World War II.

THR: People who know you tell me you’re very funny and would love to see you in a romantic comedy.

Ryder: Try reading the romantic-comedy scripts that are out there. They’re so horrible, it’s embarrassing. The thing is, I would kill to do one.

THR: In building your career, are there any movies you regret doing?

Ryder: No. I think I’ve made some bad movies, but I’ve learned huge lessons on them, and I’ve made some really good friends.

THR: Ultimately, what do you want to be remembered for?

Ryder: I’d like to be remembered for contributing good female characters. I think we have a lot of problems between the sexes in the industry, and I’d like to show what we can do – show the possibilities. I think it’s really important to give people more choices.