The Winona Nobody Knows

Vogue, October 1999

The Winona Nobody Knows

Winona Ryder finds her richest role to date as the tortured, troubled heroine of Girl, Interrupted – a character, reports Jonathan Van Meter, that she understands all too well. Photographed by Steven Meisel.

When I arrive at Winona Ryder’s house in Beverly Hills, she has been awake for only ten minutes. I’m guessing that all the makeup – racoon eyes, pale foundation, pink lipstick – is from the night before. It’s noon on a Monday in August, a beautiful Los Angeles day. She’s wearing a red-and-white Who T-shirt (THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT) with no bra, the outline of her ample breasts clearly visible, and a turquoise A-line skirt cut off several inches below the knee. Her short, unwashed hair, flecked with blonde tips, is pushed up with a black hair band. On her right wrist are a rubber band and a beaded-leather bracelet. Her elegant diamond-and-gold earrings look like they belong to a much dressier outfit. In a word – a word she probably hates – adorable. More Winona clichés: She is tiny, doll-like, luminescent; those brown and huge eyes, impossibly far apart. Have I mentioned she’s adorable?

Clutching a cup of tea, Winona heads outside to sit at a table under a big white umbrella on her red brick patio next to an inviting oval shaped pool. “I live at this table,” she says, and it shows. There are piles of yellowing newspapers, and old candle with cigarette butts in it, a sketchbook, Time magazine, The Paris Review, a copy of Richard Ford’s Wildlife, and the book she’s currently reading, An Underachiever’s Diary, by Benjamin Anastas. Over the next two days, I, too, will live at this table while Winona variously sips from a can of Coke and a little bottle of water, smokes my cigarettes, and chatters away about everything but Matt Damon, who is off limits.

Modest by Hollywood standards, Winona’s house is of the typical two-story Spanish variety; she bought it least year for $2.5 million (“a steal”) from Rene Russo’s sister, who is also the ex-wife of Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist. There’s a lot of rock-‘n’-roll history in these walls – a selling point, and a fact that thrills her. “Neil Young’s Harvest was written here,” she says as only a person who lives and breathes music could. “That was one of my favourite albums.” Winona recently launched Roustabout Records, an independent label that her older brother, Jubal, and his best friends are running. She lives with her roommate of six years – Brett Brooks, a tall, handsome black man who’s a menswear buyer at Fred Segal – and her little brother, Uri, a 23-year-old actor/writer. “It’s my first real house,” she says. “I have a pool. I have gardeners. It’s an adult house. I definitely couldn’t live here alone.”

She stops suddenly; her eyes widen. “You want to go on a tour now?” she says as if suggesting that we open our Christmas presents a day early. And we’re off on an exhaustive walk through all ten room, complete with meticulous narration of each and every tchotchke – the provenance of every piece of art revealed, the story behind dozens of framed snapshots told. She uses the phrase “my prized possession” three times, referring to a W. Eugene Smith photograph of a little black boy climbing up a street sign, circa 1950; a snapshot of herself with her hero Tom Waits, taken at a concert a month ago; and a Sullivan’s Travels poster featuring Veronica Lake.

Scattered about the house are memorabilia and artifacts from nearly every movie she’s been in – proof, perhaps, that the unreal, out-of-time life she leads with an ever-changing cast of characters has actually happened. There, behind the bar, is a foot-high bronze statue from Alien: Resurrection; just off the kitchen, on a shelf, a framed page of her narration from Heathers, signed by the director and editor. Next to it, a Polaroid of herself, Glenn Close, and Meryl Streep from The House of the Spirits. Upstairs in her messy bedroom (a mountain of beauty products, right next to the bed; many, many pairs of shoes) we find a snapshot that her mother took of Winona and Daniel Day-Lewis in full period costume on the set of The Age of Innocence. And, of course, there’s the requisite photo of Winona and Marty (Scorsese to you). “My show-off thing”, she says. Most endearingly, she has framed Arthur Miller’s bank-deposit slip on which he wrote his home phone number during the filming of The Crucible. Under his number, he had written, “Call!” This gives her no end of joy.

There are other, more personal effects in her bedroom worth mentioning: A two-inch-by-two-inch framed picture of a three-day-old Winona. “My mom’s a Buddhist and I’m in this position that the Buddha is in, and she’s, like, ‘Noni, I know that you’re special because of this….’ I’m like, ‘Mom, you probably positioned me like that.’ But this is what’s really cool.” She takes the picture out of the frame and turns it over. “My dad was on the lam with Timothy Leary during this time and the showed this picture to him while they were in Switzerland skiing, and that was when he asked him to be my godfather, and Tim wrote, ‘Love to the beautiful, newest Buddha girl from…’ – I think he meant to write ‘Godfather’. They were probably really high.”

Also: A tiny hinged silver Tiffany frame that snaps open and shut like a locket. It was given to her by one of her dearest friends, the interior designer Kevin Haley, a one-time actor whom she’s known since she was a baby. On one other side of the frame is a picture of teenage Winona slumped on a couch, dressed in black, wearing movie-star sunglasses, giving the camera the finger. On the other side is the page from Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield sees FUCK YOU written on the wall. “I was in Paris promoting Mermaids,” she says, “and I was a total insomniac and going nuts and having the worst time of my life, and Kevin took this picture and gave me this. I just treasure it. I take it with me wherever I go. It’s a very adolescent me, but it reminds me of that time so much, and that book was like my bible.”

There’s one framed picture that’s lying facedown on a shelf. She turns it over and panickly giggles issue forth. “That’s…that’s…Matt!” It’s a picture of Damon, the boyfriend. “Trying not to talk about it,” she singsongs, putting the picture back, facedown. The final stop on our tour is a room that she says is – with air quotes – “the ‘office’ I never go into; this is the embarrassing room.” The source of her embarrassment is two framed Academy Award-nominations certificates – one for Best Supporting Actress in The Age of Innocence and one for Best Actress in Little Women – hanging on the wall. “Totally mortifying. Don’t look in that direction. Brett talked me into putting those up.” Embarrassment, you will come to see – usually about issues to do with fame – is a recurring motif in Winona Ryder’s life.

Some facts about Winona: She has never been on a late-night talk show (except for Charlie Rose). She has never been to a fashion show. She does not sign autographs (except for children) because she thinks it’s just weird. She has taken a vow not to repeat negative gossip, though this remains a struggle (I caught her once telling me that she heard Britney Spears has breast implants). She has never heard a Britney Spears song. She does her own hair and makeup for premieres and award shows. She swore she would never get a tattoo but broke down two years ago after dreaming about one every night for six months. The result is dime-size and elegant and exists on the top of her left forearm. It’s a combination of the Indonesian symbol for compassion and the Tibetan symbol for enlightenment. She turns 28 this month and has had only three serious boyfriends thus far: Johnny Depp for four years, Dave Pirner of the band Soul Asylum for four years, and now Matt Damon. She is a natural blonde but dyes her hair dark brown.

Is Winona all grown-up? Yes and no. She clings to a kind of spacey, lazy, California teen-girl cadence, still uses words like totally and awesome and like and lame. She smokes each cigarette as if she were thirteen and it were her very first one: awkwardly (in Woody Allen’s Celebrity, she was quite good as a sexual predator and, at long last, seemed like a grown woman – until she smoked a cigarette). A few times in conversation, as we were living on her patio that first day, I found myself wishing she would get to the point, answer my question, stop drifting away, be more articulate. Apparently she had read my mind, as the next day, out of nowhere, came “I’ve never been that good with interviews, and I know that I’ve probably been really inarticulate. I was reading this interview with Sharon Stone last night, and she’s just really great at it. And I was like, ‘Man, Jonathan’s gonna think I’m sooo lame.’ I wish I could talk like that. This is me, but I just wish I could be more… like… Sharon Stone!”

On the other hand, Winona is very obviously a woman in control of her career and, in some ways, always has been. “Right from the beginning she chose what appealed to her,” says Kevin Haley, who used to take Winona to her auditions before she could drive. “And she’s done that all along. She always had her own taste, and she sticks to it. ” At fourteen, she did Heathers against the advice of everyone around her, and she was right. The recent landslide of dark teen dramas are in many ways the progeny of Heathers. She seems to have a knack for choosing offbeat or dark or literary material that exists just this side of mainstream, like Beetlejuice, Mermaids, Edward Scissorhands, Reality Bites, Little Women – classics, really. Even her big mistakes – Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Alien: Resurrection – are interestingly camp (though she continues to be mortified by both films).

After the long and demanding shoot of Alien: Resurrection in 1997, Ryder, exhausted, decided to take some time off. Her career went into a slump, and a few months turned into almost two years. “The stuff I was being offered was like: The Rookie Cop!” she says, laughing. “And I was just, like, ‘I’m not The Rookie Cop. I can’t be The Rookie Cop.’ Or this whole craze of super violent independent movies that I thought were ridiculous. They were just excuses to show the most disgusting images and people shooting up, and I was just so repelled by them.” When she finally went back to work she made a film called Lost Souls, directed by Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer she had worked with on How to Make and American Quilt. “I wanted very much to work with Janusz, who’s a friend,” she says haltingly. I had heard through the buzz machine that she hates the film, won’t promote it. “I’ll just say that I haven’t seen it,” she says, batting her eyelashes.

This past winter, she began filming Girl, Interrupted, based on the best-selling memoir by Susanna Kaysen, the rights to which Columbia Pictures bought for the producer Douglas Wick. Ryder had been attached to star from the beginning, but after her display of canny instinct on Little Women – she single-handedly persuaded a reluctant Gillian Armstrong to direct and handpicked much of the young cast, including Claire Danes – Columbia made her an executive producer. “I don’t think I’m going to be some great producer,” she says. “My main reason for wanting to produce was to not let anyone fuck up the material – and there were a lot of people who wanted to make it something else.” After six years, several prospective directors and many drafts of the script, Girl, Interrupted opens at long last in December, with Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Whoopi Goldberg, and Vanessa Redgrave. “Her act as a producer was pulling it,” says James Mangold, the director and screenwriter, whose previous credits include Heavy and Cop Land.

Girl, Interrupted, published in 1993 to much critical acclaim, is an intense and surprising little book about eighteen-year-old Kaysen’s two years on the ward for teenage girls at McLean, a psychiatric hospital in New England, in the late sixties. Kaysen’s prose is spare, elegant, and, at times, darkly funny. Through her eyes we meet a bizarre cast of characters – the doctors, nurses, and other girls on the ward. The book raises more questions than it answers – about what it means to be “crazy”, who is and who isn’t – and yet it manages, through Kaysen’s clearheaded and egoless insights, to be deeply satisfying.

“I read that book when I was 21 and freaked,” says Ryder. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, my whole life I’ve tried to say that and I’ve never been able to.” Ryder’s connection to the material came through her own unravelling at an early age. She started making movies when she was only twelve. By seventeen, she was having “horrible” anxiety attacks. Over the next few years, things quietly got worse. “I was working constantly,” she says. “I didn’t take any time off. When I did, I was really stressed out. I went through my first break-up with a long-term boyfriend [Johnny Depp]. It was really difficult and weird and it was amplified because it was in the press. I really thought I was losing my mind. I became a terrible insomniac. I lived on airplanes and in hotels. I didn’t really have a home.”

One morning she woke up and felt “too sensitive to be living in the world” and checked herself into a psychiatric hospital. “I stayed only a week because no one was talking to me,” she says. “They basically were just trying to medicate me. I was like, ‘No, I need to address my life right now; it’s a mess.’ It was a very dramatic move, and my friends really made fun of me. But I needed help.” Ryder started seeing a therapist she met at the hospital, and eventually her life evened out. “Right as I was coming out of it,” she says, “I read the book. I realized that what happened to me is not unusual. I had the money and the time and a lot of people don’t. Part of what the book says is ‘Everyone’s crazy; they just pretend to be OK so they can get by.'”

Ryder loved Heavy, and when she met Mangold a couple of years ago, she knew she had finally found her director. “It was really obvious that he was the perfect person and he really got it,” she says. “Other writers and directors over the years were way too verbal and cerebral about the whole thing. You either get it or you don’t. It’s like a weird secret handshake.”

Despite some early hesitation, Mangold decided to take the project on because, he says, “directors are opportunists. We look for people and moments that are about to blossom. And what I couldn’t get past was that I had the feeling that Winona was someone who was really ready to reach someplace. There are tremendous parallels between Winona’s experience and Susanne Kaysen’s. I love when I find actors who are ready to address larger issues about themselves and their choices in the material. She operates very much from the gut. She’s very free that way. And she gets the architecture of film on a profound level.”

“I’m very proud of my performance,” says Ryder. “I just trusted Jim so much. This is the first time, aside from working with Martin Scorsese, that I really let everything go. I was incredibly raw. I delivered myself on a platter to him. There’s stuff that I did in this movie that I’ve never done before. I did a scene where I’m in bed with [a guy] and I’m naked, and I was the most comfortable. I did a couple of scenes in a bathtub, naked.” She pauses. “And it’s certainly not a beauty-shot movie for me.”

“She’s phenomenal in it,” says Mangold. “She reached farther than she’s reached in other pictures. But she also carries with her the strength we know and love. Some people have criticized her for playing young women too often, and here she plays a younger woman, but grows this girl up in a way we’ve never seen. After we passed some point of trust or friendship, she was very clear with me that she expected me to push her past was she thought was her bullshit. She gave me a note on the first day of production reminding me that she really expected that I would not be satisfied with just her big brown eyes. It was not only the actress speaking but also someone who’s been shepherding this movie for six years.”

Other Winona facts: She was born in Winona, Minnesota. She’s Jewish. Ryder is a stage name. Her real last name is Tomchin, but half the family goes by Horowitz because of a snafu at Ellis Island. Don’t ask. It’s complicated. She has an unnatural fear of being separated from her family, which she believes comes from having lost relatives in the death camps. She is obsessed with World War II. Ethel Horowitz, her 99-year-old Russian-immigrant grandmother, lives in Brooklyn and enjoys a friendship with Daniel Day-Lewis. The flapper pictures on these pages are at tribute to her. Dave Pirner, her ex, is her best friend. She still loves Johnny. She gets asked about her “falling out” with Gwyneth Paltrow every day. It’s not as dramatic as you think, but it’s complicated. Don’t ask. Most of her friends are gay. When she was twelve years old, she was beaten up and called “faggot” by a group of kids who thought she was a boy. When she got home from school with a bloody bandage on her head, she went into the bathroom, lit one of her father’s cigarettes, and did a Jimmy Cagney imitation in the mirror. She was discovered by a casting director at Salmagundi (“very Lana Turner”). She has a substantial collection of vintage Hollywood costumes, including Russ Tamblyn’s jacket from West Side Story, Leslie Caron’s dress from An American in Paris, Claudette Colbert’s gown from It Happened One Night, Olivia de Havilland’s blouse from Gone With the Wind, and Sandra Dee’s bikini from the Tammy movies. She has worn a much-altered Ava Gardner dress to three different Hollywood events, for which she has caught some grief from the press.

One evening, Winona, Brett, and I pile into Winona’s brand-new Mercedes and drive to the Beverley Center on La Cienega to see The Thomas Crown Affair. She’s wearing a dark-denim jacket over a blue hoodie, black chinos, black T-shirt, DKNY sandals. When we arrive in the parking lot, she pulls a funny little black hat over her head. As we escalate through the mall, she avoids making eye contact with shoppers. Earlier in the day, I asked her about fame, how she experiences it. “I am as famous as I ever will be,” she said. “I will never get more famous than I am. Everyone knows me, but it’s more mellow because I was never in a big overnight-success movie. I appreciate that. I’m not a big target. I’m rarely in the tabloids. It’s not a huge intrusion in my life. It is annoying to get followed and photographed when you’re not prepared, like in airports. More than anything, it’s just… embarrassing!”

Back at the mall, we find our seats in the theater and wait for the movie to start. When not working, Ryder goes to the movies every single day. Or she and Brett rent movies, open a bottle of champagne, and make a night of it. “I’m at the point where I’ve seen every movie in the video store,” she says, “and I’m not kidding. I can’t find a movie that I haven’t seen – except the really cheesy eighties teen movies.” The American Film Institute sent Ryder its 100 Greatest Movies collection on video as a gift. “I was so excited because I missed the special.” Pause for effect. “I’d seen every movie in it! That’s 100 movies, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When i was growing up, my mom kept me home from school to watch movies. Kept me home. Like, I would want to go school. I remember trying to explain to my teachers: ‘I saw Imitation of Life, and it’s this incredible story!’ And they were like, You missed school.”

In conversation, Winona refers to movies constantly. Clearly they were an unusually important and formative part of her childhood. Now that she’s an adult, movies are her job, her lifeblood. And if she has been criticized, as she says, “for playing one too many brown-eyed waif girls,” who can blame her? That’s what the movies – that’s what we – wanted her to be. But perhaps playing a teenager well past her teens slowed her progress in real life, because she has seemed, for so long, to exist in some strange lacuna between girl and woman. In a few weeks, she will fly to New York to begin work on Autumn in New York, directed by Joan Chen. Richard Gere plays a New York restaurateur/playboy who falls in love with Winona – the much younger woman – who has only a year to live. “It’s a love story with a lot of humor,” says Winona. “Very moving.”

One afternoon, we sit in her living room in front of a gigantic television watching dailies from Girl, Interrupted. As she runs through take after take of a spooky, emotional scene, her face filling up the entire screen, she says, “I learned a lot about my face on this movie. My eyes are kind of big, and I can express more than I want to. I do that in real life.” She turns to me, makes her eyes huge, and cracks up laughing. “See what I mean?”

Girl, Interrupted begins and ends with a cab ride. “When you look into Winona’s eyes in the beginning and end of this film,” says Mangold, “going to and from the hospital, there’s such a tremendous difference in this woman. Indescribable and lyrical and powerful in terms of the girl you’re seeing arriving, and the woman you’re seeing entering the world.” Ryder can no longer play the little girl with the big brown eyes. And if, as James Mangold says, she “grows this girl up” in the movie, perhaps Winona, too, has finally grown up.

In this story: Set design by Beckman/Exposure New York. Screen and vanity from Skyscraper/Deco Deluxe. Living-room setup from Maison Gerard.