Actress on call

Starlog, February 1998

Actress on Call

By Ian Spelling

As heroic Annalee Call, Winona Ryder experiences the terrors of ALIEN Resurrection.

Winona Ryder was, is and will forever be a science-fiction nut. “I loved Invaders from Mars. I saw that when I was a little kid. When the boy sees the knobs on his parents’ necks, that turned me on to SF,” recalls the actress. “Then, I really got into Ray Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451. I was also kind of raised on Twilight Zones. Star Wars was more of a boys’ thing.”

Then, there was ALIEN.

“I saw the first ALIEN when I was eight or nine,” enthuses the actress. “I actually sat through it twice. My brothers and I hid in the wings while they cleaned the theater between showings. It remains one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s a completely revolutionary movie because it was the first SF movie ever made where the woman survives and the woman is the hero. That was a really big deal. Ripley [Sigourney Weaver] was really the last person you expected to survive. You think it’s going to be Tom Skerritt or one of the other guys. When Skerritt dies, you think, ‘OK, everybody’s going to die.’ It just did not enter your mind that the woman would actually survive.

“Then, Ripley goes back to get the cat and blows up the Alien. That was incredibly exciting for me as a girl who wanted to be an actress and who wanted to be an actress in an SF movie. Ripley didn’t die. Ripley did not get saved by a guy and get sent back to Earth. I saw ALIEN about 15 times. I was obsessed that a woman had kicked ass in a movie. It really had a huge impact on me, so much so that I still had the poster in my room at home until I was 17 — and it’s still actually there. I moved out at 17. When I go home to my parents’ house, it’s still in my room.

AVID ANDROID

Now, of course, Ryder’s name figures prominently on the poster for ALIEN Resurrection, in which she co-stars with her hero, Weaver. As an avid fan, Ryder looks back at the merits of the first three ALIEN features. “The first one was great because you didn’t see the Alien a lot,” she says. “But you felt it. It was lurking all the time. It also has this incredible actress and these other wonderful performances. It wasn’t just a bunch of actors screaming and running around. It had really great characters that you cared about. I consider the first film to be SF and ALIENS to be an action movie. The second one was more shooting at things, seeing the Aliens. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t as fun and creepy.

“I wasn’t a fan of the third one. I just did not get it. People say, ‘Oh, that’s because Ripley died.’ I was really upset about that. It took me a long time to get over it. With all the action in the second one, you at least saw that Ripley had a soft side. And then, in the third one, it was set in this weird prison and it had all this religious stuff that I didn’t understand. Then, Ripley had sex with that gross guy. It just didn’t seem like Ripley to me. I hate saying that about ALIEN3 because I love Sigourney and I know that she’s very close to all three films. But it’s my personal opinion that ALIEN3 didn’t work.”

One day not long ago, Ryder’s phone rang. Executives at 20th Century Fox, the studio for whom she had just finished The Crucible, the studio that owned the rights to the ALIEN franchise, wanted Ryder to visit with them. They didn’t inform her of why. “When I went in, they said, ‘Would you ever consider doing SF?’ I said, ‘I love SF, but it’s usually so bad and cheesy. The only way I would do it is if it were something along the lines of ALIEN, but that’s over because Ripley’s dead and nobody can replace her,’ Ryder remembers. “And they said, ‘Actually, we’re bringing her back.’ I thought, ‘OK.’ They said, ‘There’s a part for you in it.’ It was the first time in my life I agreed to do a film without ever reading a script. I didn’t really care if I died in the first scene. I just wanted to be able to tell my brothers I was in an ALIEN movie. That’s all I wanted. When I read the script [by Joss Whedon], I thought it was really good. The way Ripley was brought back was pretty interesting and relevant to what is going on today with cloning. It was kind of interesting to know we were making this futuristic SF movie, but weren’t too far off from [reality].”

Another key to securing the talents of Ryder, a two-time Oscar nominee whose credits include Edward Scissorhands, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Beetlejuice, The Age of Innocence, Reality Bites, Little Women and How to Make an American Quilt, was that the studio went with French wunderkind Jean-Pierre Jeunet as Resurrection’s director after Danny Boyle excused himself from the project. Ryder thought the auteur behind Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children would be perfect for breathing new life into the ALIEN franchise. “The tradition with the ALIEN movies is to hire interesting, visionary directors,” she notes. “I was confident that they wouldn’t hire some hack action director. When Jean-Pierre came along, it was just completely ideal. He is alien. He is completely the weirdest, most incredible, brilliant man. He really is a genius.

“It’s like he’s from another world. His ideas, his visions are stuff that I’ll never understand, but that I completely admire. I really loved working with him. Jean-Pierre will never do anything like it has been done before. He’s so completely original and uncompromising. The studio was incredible, because they gave Jean-Pierre — this guy from France who has never made an English-language movie — a lot of freedom to make his film. I can’t tell you how surprised I was. He created a different world, a new ship, a new everything. Even when we’re running down a corridor, which has been done a million times, he makes it interesting. He shoots it so it’s unique. He’s just very original.”

On the set, Ryder and Weaver got on fine, but Ryder didn’t take the oppontunity to gush to Weaver about what a fan she was, or to blather on about Weaver’s influence on her. “I didn’t bother Sigourney with questions,” Ryder says. “I was much too shy.” Instead, she focused on her character, the mechanic Annalee Call, who turns out to be a sensitive android who’s very protective of Earth and extremely anti-Alien. Ryder, a self-described “98-pound weakling,” honed her skills to come across as believable. After all, Resurrection was no period piece, and it demanded a far different kind of performance than she had been used to delivering.

“Dialogue makes more sense to me in contemporary pieces or period pieces,” she stresses. “I wanted to see if I could make the technobabble in an ALIEN film, the stuff that doesn’t make sense at all, sound real and normal coming out of my mouth. I don’t know if it worked. I personally love the movie, but I’m not crazy about myself in it. I kind of stick out as someone who doesn’t really belong there. My role is secondary — it’s Ripley’s movie. I think the thing Call and Ripley have in common is that they both want to be human. I didn’t see their relationship as mother-daughter at all, but they do grow to really care about each other. So, I would say it’s kind of a sister relationship. The core of the story is Ripley’s relationship with the Alien — I’m there as the sidekick, running around and chasing after her. But I did think there were a lot of interesting parts about Call. I knew it would be different and a challenge and I didn’t want to die without trying everything as an actress.”

ABLE ANDROID

The Resurrection experience proved at least as tough as Ryder expected, particularly the physical aspects of it. Other Resurrection actors and filmmakers have commented on the gruelling underwater chase sequence, in which a sleek swimming Alien hunts down Ryder, Weaver, Ron Perlman, Leland Orser and the rest of the cast. The bravura sequence was filmed in a giant tank, with upside down sets and cold, murky water. Rehearsals were conducted with masks and oxygen tanks, but such luxuries were just off camera — which at times seemed light years away — after Jeunet called “Action!”

“It was bad,” Ryder remembers. “It was especially bad for me, because I was probably the most afraid and the whiniest of the bunch. When I was 12, I technically died drowning. It sounds very dramatic. I was at Dylan Beach in Northern California and I got caught in the undertow. I was in for a long time and when they pulled me out, I didn’t have a pulse. Then, I coughed up water and I came back to life. I would cut school to go to the beach, so it was a big deal. I was with my stoned friends, who were like, ‘Ooooh!’ and freaking out. I had never gone back underwater. I would go into water, but never put my head under. I told the studio that. I said I had this terrible experience and was really scared. They said, ‘Oh, well, we’ll get a stunt double. It’s no problem.’ I said, ‘Well, OK.’ I cut my hair off and they couldn’t use a Stunt double because you can see my face the whole time. So, I was pissed and I was scared. Then, I started training and went two feet underwater. After a few weeks, it got better.”

Better, yes, but not easier. Picture it: Itsy bitsy Ryder deep under water, with weighted boots, her costume ballooning, surrounded by actors struggling with their own fears and problems, attempting to act. The Little Mermaid the star of Mermaids was not. “It was really terrifying,” she continues. “The worst day was when we were down in the pool set, 30 feet deep, and we were completely drowning. You would look up and see a ceiling, but it wasn’t like you could just swim up and have room up top. You had to find an opening to swim to. You had to find the light and swim up. Leland would push me up. I would get up to the top and we would grab this bar. I’m like ‘Huh-huh’ [heavy breathing], and this grip says, ‘You know, you might not want to hold that, because you could get electrocuted.’ We were like, ‘OK, do we drown or do we get electrocuted?’ Those were our choices. It was scary and the water was gross.”

In the end, though, Ryder feels it was all worth it. “I think ALIEN Resurrection is great, I really do,” she enthuses. “Watching myself is always hard, but I think it’s an arthouse SF movie. It has a very European feel, but it has great action and suspense. I love it.”

And now it’s on to other things. Next on the agenda for Ryder is Girl Interrupted, a small film about a young college student (Ryder) who survives a “meek” suicide attempt and is placed in an asylum for four years as a result. The actress also worked for two weeks on Woody Allen’s next, as-yet-untitled film, in which she shares most of her scenes with Kenneth Branagh.

As the conversation wraps up, Ryder ponders just how far she has come and what’s still out there waiting to be achieved. “I think I’m in a great position. That’s due to the fact that I started out very young and I’ve never been in any big blockbusters that were because of me,” she says. “The successful movies I’ve done were successful because of other people and other reasons. If Dracula was successful, it wasn’t because I was in it, but because it was Dracula. If Beetlejuice was successful, it wasn’t because I was in it, but because of Tim Burton. I think that has been a big plus for me.

“I was always the girl from Beetlejuice or Heathers or Mermaids. I was never really an overnight success, which can be really bad for actors. When that happens, an actor has to follow up that movie with something equally big. When people approach me on the street, it’s a very familiar thing. It’s like they know me. It not like, Oh, my God!’ It’s like, ‘Oh, hey.’ I don’t feel so threatened. I use Julia Roberts as an example, which I shouldn’t, but I do only because it really happened to her in a huge way. She was kind of unknown and then she did Pretty Woman. That was real hard on her. It was a huge movie and she was considered the luckiest girl in Hollywood. But from that point on, she was a movie star more than an actress, even though she is an actress. She’s good, but it’s always about her box office. Is she over? Is she back? I would hate to be talked about like that.

“What my route has given me is a chance for people to consider me an actress more than a movie star. Although people have called me a movie star, and that’s great — it certainly lets me earn more money — it has been so gradual for me. I feel that, ideally, I would like to stay right where I am,” Winona Ryder says. “I get offered the movies I want to get offered most of the time. I don’t get bothered that much. I’ve never had to use a bodyguard. I’ve never had the problems that many people have. Many actors you see are huge. They’re huge movie stars and then they go away. But actors work forever, and that’s what I want to be.”