TimeOut New York, November-December 1999
By Adam Rapoport, Photographs by Brigitte Lacombe
Winona Ryder revisits her dark places and brings the mad, mad, mad world of Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted to the big screen.
SOMETIMES A GIRL just needs to find the right guy. And Lord knows, Winona Ryder had been looking. For four years, the woman who always seems to snare America’s favorite man had been coming up empty. A lunch here, a conference call there, a meeting in between, and no one – not one single person – really got what she was after.
Then she met James Mangold. Well, actually, she kind of hunted him down. The point is, history shows that during her 13-year career, the 28-year-old pixie of an actress has usually gotten what she’s wanted, whether it’s Matt Damon (yes, she’s still seeing him) or scoring a part in a Martin Scorsese film. And when she saw Mangold’s first movie, Heavy (and then saw it again, and again…), Ryder knew that she’d finally found the guy who could untangle Girl, Interrupted, a film she’d been aching to produce and star in since she first read the book in 1993.
When you see Girl, it becomes obvious why Ryder was so hell-bent on getting this picture made. In her first leading role since starring in the The Crucible in 1996 (since then, she’s had supporting roles in Alien: Resurrection and Celebrity), Ryder plays a part that is tailored to all of her strengths as an actress – no corsets, no fake British accent, just cut-to-the-core Ryder. She is vulnerable, wounded, introspective and wryly funny. In other words, she is the actress you fell in love with in the first place, so many years ago.
Dressed in a gray sweater vest, a baggy white oxford and simple black pants, Ryder sits in a big squishy chair in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel. With her short hair tucked behind her ears and wearing just a speck of lipgloss, she looks more like a cute little boy than the Vogue cover girl she’s become. She also looks totally worn out. In town to film Autumn in New York, which she’s starring in opposite Richard Gere, Ryder has been working a whacked-out schedule, on set one night at midnight, a day later at 6am. The result is a starlet with all the snap of an overcocoked string bean.
Yet, Ryder’s determined to gush about Mangold and promote Girl, Interrupted, even if it means she goes napless. “I kept thinking, If I could just meet the right person, because I had no clue how to make a movie from this book,” says Ryder, who signed on as executive producer soon after it was published six years ago. “It doesn’t have plot points or a beginning, middle or end.”
What it does have is incredibly rich characters and a story that touched a nerve with young women. Written by Susanna Kaysen and set in the late ’60s, the memoir depicts the cloudy years in Kaysen’s life between ages 17 and 19 that she spent in a Boston-area mental hospital.
Much of what drew Ryder to the book was that when she was 19, she checked herself into a hospital – or “a place” as she calls it – to confront severe anxiety attacks. “I wish I could’ve seen this film when I was a teenager,” Ryder says now. “I’m not saying I’m problem-free. But it would’ve been very comforting at the time. That sounds so naive, but when you’re that age, you don’t know that other people are going through what you’re going through.”
Ryder met with Mangold two yers ago at the St. Regis, and she essentially handed the film over to him. “She was frustrated; she was ready for someone to be really aggressive and not precious with it,” says Mangold, who had just finished directing Cop Land.
Mangold rewrote the script, giving it a plot, but not so much of one that it would resemble a Mike Wallace investigation of the mental health system. Instead, the film has the feel of ’60s classics like Hud and Midnight Cowboy. It is quite funny and, like Heavy, has the ability to make you cry without being mushy.
“I wanted to make a movie about women,” says Mangold. “But I didn’t want a chick flick, with girls sitting around chitchatting about men, with pop music playing and soft light.”
Ryder finished shooting Girl six months ago, yet the film still courses through her like a bad crush. When I ask her how Autumn in New York is going, she lets out a sigh, gives an exaggerated roll of the eyes and lifts her right hand to her forehead. “Um.. Autumn in New York… I have no idea. It’s the first movie that I did after Girl, and it’s a big movie, and I’ve been reminded of that ev-er-y sin-gle day,” says Ryder, who tends to season her California accent with lots of italics. “Big budget. Acting opposite Richard Gere… I’ve never felt more like an actress for hire. I’m not trying to dis the movie; I’m just explaining the difference from Girl, Interrupted.”
By all accounts, the filming of Girl was an emotional, bonding and, at times, gossipy experience for Ryder, Mangold and the rest of the ensemble cast, which includes Angelina Jolie, Vanessa Redgrave and Whoopi Goldberg.
Filming took place over a 12 week period last winter in a state mental hospital outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The entire cast holed up in an apartment building near the set. And while Jolie and other actresses would escape to New York for the weekend, Ryder never left. “I couldn’t go to New York and party,” says Ryder. “Are you kidding? I was in a certain place, and I had to stay for the duration.”
If it sounds like she’s taking a shot at Jolie, Ryder’s quick to point out she’s not. Jolie plays Lisa, a badass who’s the vinegar to Susanna’s oil. By shoot’s end, rumors circulated that the actors were clashing offscreen as well as on.
“If she was a guy and we didn’t hang out, that would be, like, normal, no problem,” says Ryder. “But because she’s a girl and we’re not best buddies ang giggling, there’s an issue. There’s absolutely no problem between us. I really like her. And Im really in awe of ther talents. She’s raw, and so beautiful.”
Nevertheless, during the shoot at the hospital, Ryder’s anxiety attacks started to recur, and she had trouble sleeping. When she wasn’t working, she was hanging out with 16-year-old Elisabeth Moss, who plays one of the other girls in the adolescent ward, who together make up a kind of psychiatric Bad News Bears.
“We went and saw really bad movies at the mall,” Ryder says of her time with Moss.
“Such as…?” I prod.
“Oh, no, that’d be too mean. But remember when all those teen movies were coming out?”
“Like She’s All That?”
“Yes! [Big laughs] And Cruel Intensions.”
Not surprisingly, watching movies is what Ryder often does when she’s kicking about her modest Spanish-style house in Beverly Hills, where she lives with her friend Brett (her 23-year-old brother Yuri was another roommate until he recently got his own place five minutes away). She likes to cook dinner for friends and then sit down for a few films in front of what she describes as her “relly big television.” “Not to name-drop,” says Ryder, “but it belongs to my first boyfriend Johnny [Depp]. He never took it after the breakup. I always felt guilty about that. I was always like, “I should get a new one, but they’re so expensive.”
Straddling thrift and extravagance is something Ryder’s adept at. On one wrist she wears Buddhist prayer beads, and on the other a slim, diamond-encrusted silver watch. She freely talks about growing up “super poor” in the Bay Area with her alternative, intellectual-minded parents. Yet in addition to her house in L.A., she also owns a Manhattan apartment and a place in San Francisco, in which her folks now live.
It’s there that Ryder is planning to spend the holidays when Autumn in New York wraps. After that, it’s back to work. Lost Souls, an exorcism flick costarring Ben Chaplin, is due out January 14. She’s also planning to produce and star in Roustabout, about the death of the traveling circus, directed by Smoke Signals’s Chris Eyre. Finally, she hopes to make a sequel to Heathers with the film’s original writer, Daniel Waters – but not with Christian Slater. “I wanted the JD character to come back as this Obie Wan kind of thing, kind of fade in and out, and give me advice,” Ryder says. “But then Christian wouldn’t do it, so I was like, ‘Ah, fuck you [Laughs].'”
Right now, though, it’s all Girl all the time for Ryder. And while making the film took her back to a difficult time in her life, Ryder feels she’s emerged from both episodes a stronger person. “I don’t want to be known as the depressed girl,” she says. “I made a conscious choice to live. I chose life over just being miserable.”
Girl, Interrupted opens December 21.