Two Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Winona Ryder & Angelina Jolie walk on the wild side
by Premiere Magazine – October 1999

premiere-october1999In ‘Girl, Interrupted,’ Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie commit themselves to a different kind of chick flick – the true story of a young woman’s coming-of-age in a mental hospital.

She was suppose to be dead, this young actress hanging – wrists slashed, eyes open – in a bathroom in Pennsylvania. Though she’d been harnessed in that uncomfortable position for some time, she had a bigger problem: Winona Ryder, acting opposite her in this scene, was too convincing. Every time Ryder came into the bathroom and discovered, to her horror, her beloved friend hanging, the dead girl couldn’t help but cry.

No one had suspected that Girl, Interrupted, based on Susanna Kaysen’s best-selling memoir about the two crazy years she spent in a mental institution in the late 1960s, would shake the stability of at least one of its actresses. There had been speculation off the set that with the involvement of such high-powered talent as Ryder and Angelina Jolie and Venessa Redgrave and Whoopi Goldberg – along with up-and- comers Brittany Murphy, Elisabeth Moss, and Clea Duvall – the shoot might be more competitive than cohesive, more hormonal than whole. But not even the actresses themselves, who’d had informed ideas about what they were getting into, could have predicted what was to come: the unusual investment they were about to make, the extraordinary rewards they would receive for having made it.

It was the suicide scene – one of the more gruesome, profoundly sad moments in the film, completed on the third day of filming – that would set the tone for the 12-week shoot. Ryder, playing Kaysen, a teenager caught in the undertow of a severe depression, stepped into her part on that somber winter day and didn’t step out of it until springtime, after the film had wrapped. Similarly, Angelina Jolie, playing Lisa – a charismatic and heartless sociopath with whom Susanna becomes fascinated – also, for all intents and purposes, disappeared during the shoot. Both women seemed to make an implicit pact to forsake appearances, to pull up their anchors and dive head-first into their own dark shadows.

Studios did not want to touch Girl, Interrupted when it first came to their attention. The memoir is a journal, essentially, very black (and very funny), with no real plot and difficult female characters – anorexics and catatonics and botched suicides – who come and go the way sick people do. But Ryder’s connection to the book – which was given to her in galley form by her father, writer Michael Horowitz, in 1993, when she was 21 – had been immediate and personal.

Ryder had been having anxiety attacks for years. And one of the worst things about them was that she couldn’t explain what she was going through to the people closest to her – not to her brother, not to her sister, not to her friends, not even to her therapist. She found solace, then, in Kaysen’s clear-sighted, beautifully written book, the first she had read – since William Styron’s Darkness Visible – that spoke articulately about what it’s like to “feel like you’re going crazy,” she says. For Ryder, no book had ever been as on-target about the hole that girls in particular sometimes fall into at childhood’s end.

“I’ve never been a suicidal person, ” Ryder says. She is sitting in L.A. at a large table, under an even larger white umbrella. Behind her is the open back door of her shady two-story house; to her left, a sparkling swimming pool. “But there have definitely been times when I’ve thought, I’m too sensitive for this world right now; I just don’t belong here – it’s too fast and I don’t understand it. Those were times when I would hibernate. And it wasn’t healthy – I would get very lonely and feel very helpless,” Ryder is wearing a tight white T-shirt, and her short dark hair, veined with blond, is pulled off her face with a thin black headband. She is even lovelier in person than she is in movies – even more fragile-seeming, more present and still.

“I spent some time in a psychiatric ward when I was 19,” she continues, recalling the period in her adolescence when she was already a veteran of nine movies, including Mermaids and Heathers. “I really thought that I was losing my mind. I’ve always been an insomniac, and I was really, really overworked and overtired and not sleeping. I was convinced I was having a nervous breakdown, and I checked myself in.” There is a copy of The New Yorker’s fiction issue on the table in front of here, and clippings about the auction of the love letters that Salinger wrote to Joyce Maynard. There is the reissue of her parents’ book, Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady. “I don’t know how much playing other people for my whole adolescence had to do with what I was going through.”

It was a real hospital that Ryder checked herself into in 1990, not a high-class hotel for rich and weary actresses, and she found it scary. She left after a week, without having been helped.

“I debated whether to ever talk about it,” she says gently, her head tilted, her shoulder moving up to meet her ear, “but it is true, and I’m not really ashamed of it. I think everybody goes through these times in their lives – I think you’re very weird if you don’t.”

At 21, Ryder wanted more than anything to play Susanna Kaysen. But when she investigated optioning the book, she learned that producer Doug Wick (Working Girl) had bought the rights two weeks before, out of his discretionary fund at Columbia (the studio had not wanted to pay for it, Wick says, even though every young actress who’d been coming through the Columbia gate was bringing the book with them). So Ryder called Wick and told him she wanted to come on board. With Ryder attached to star (she is also one of the film’s executive producers), Columbia suddenly got interested: Wick was now in a position to look for a writer and a director.

That process, it turns out, took five years – three writers took stabs at a script, and several directors came in to discuss their ideas. But no one seemed able to work their way around the project’s inherent problems.

And then Ryder saw Heavy – an independent film about a quiet, obese cook who falls in love with a girl he could never have – and, floored, she got in touch with a young writer-director, James Mangold, who was then working on his second film, the not-so-independent Cop Land.

Mangold (whose wife, Scream producer Cathy Konrad, is also a producer on Girl, Interrupted) did not like the adaptations that Ryder had sent him, but he was moved by Ryder, who could talk endlessly about his beloved little gem of a first movie. And he felt a connection to the questions posed in Kaysen’s memoir. “The book is about a mystery,” he says. “About questions like, What happened to me? What’s crazy, and what’s not? Those questions are very inviting for any reader, male or female, because we all have moments when we wonder about ourselves.”

Having completed Cop Land, his “dark, male dirge,” Mangold was looking forward to direction a cast of women. He didn’t want to make a movie just about “a lot of attractive girls in smocks, bonding,” but instead “a movie about women that had some balls.” He also knew that the film needed to stand on its own, say something new, and avoid replicating One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Awakenings.

Then he read an essay by Salman Rushdie about The Wizard of Oz, and it dawned on him that the old MGM musical would be the perfect blueprint for Susanna Kaysen’s story: Young girl, trapped in a humdrum life and alienated from her parents, is hit by a twister and thrown into a parallel universe where everyone is childlike and literally missing some part of themselves. It is only the girl herself who seems to have nothing wrong with her, and yet she knows that that’s not quite the truth. Mangold wrote for a year, showing Ryder the pages as he went.

“He got it,” she says, referring to the book that she had so deeply connected with. “A lot of people didn’t. And he make a beautiful movie.”

“I’ve had enormous respect for directions I’ve worked with. Certainly people like Martin Scorsese – [that] was one of the best experiences of my life. But maybe being older” – she is now 27 – “and Jim really treating me as a partner in the movie, with just absolutely no condescension…” She looks shyly away, momentarily flustered. “He’s a great ally and friend.”

It was Ryder who suggested Angelina Jolie for the part of Lisa, having seen her all-out performance in the HBO movie Gia. Lisa is “a firecracker,” according to Konrad, “lobbed into the scenes with Winona”; Mangold says he had imagined a kind of “Jack Nicholson in drag” when he was writing the part. Although many famous young actresses in Hollywood wanted the edgy, explosive role – the “show-off part,” as Mangold puts it – no one who auditioned could bring Lisa to life. Until Jolie.

“Angie walked in one day,” Mangold says, “sat down, and was Lisa. I felt like the luckiest boy on earth.”
When the 24-year-old Jolie dug Kaysen’s book from her shelves afterward, she discovered that everything she’d previously underlined was about Lisa. She’ already identified with the girl.

“One of the passages in the book that introduces Lisa,” Jolie says, sitting in a closed cigar bar in L.A., with a giant bubble of red wine in her long, thin-boned hand, “is about her ‘wild eyes that had seen freedom.’ ” Jolie doesn’t smile, but you see her large, straight teeth flash and her eyes dart to the side, remembering. “And there’s this tattoo I got that’s a Tennessee Williams quote.” Jolie holds out her skinny arm and slides her gray sleeve up to her small bicep. In the crook is a black couplet in tiny block letters. She read it, upside down: “‘A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.’ That’s Lisa,” she says “and that’s what I loved.”

Jolie is normally not, she says, a social person on movie sets. Living the life of charismatic Lisa, though – a psychotic magnet, a not-quite- right ringleader – she found her trailer always full of people. She played loud music for them, and had a dartboard and balloon animals. She and some of the other young women on the production cut pictures of people having sex out of pornography magazines and stuck them all over the trailer walls. She invited “transpo” (the transportation guys) in, pointed to the scissors, and told them to “go for it.”

“Lisa is somebody who lives completely on impulse,” Jolie says. “She’s very angry at people for not being who they are – for living with masks on, in love with their own problems. She just wants to shake everybody. So the character allowed for a certain amount of freedom on my parts.” She smiles, knocks a cigarette out of a nearly empty pack, and lights it with a paper match. “you could tell certain people were offended by the pictures, but I didn’t mean to offend them.”

Jolie had come to the set of Girl, Interrupted – an actual, though mostly defunct, mental hospital in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – after shooting The Bone Collector, in which she plays a cop who spends a lot of time alone in sewers and stockyards, looking for dead bodies. She welcomed, with this new film, the sudden and unexpected infusion of new friends. But it didn’t turn out to be a simple as that.

“Some of the girls,” she says, “I didn’t get very close to. I don’t know how anybody felt about me. I think at some point they all thought that I wasn’t being nice to people.” There is a certain wariness that comes over Jolie when she talks about Girl, Interrupted. Whereas Ryder seems to view her experience on the film with some distance, Jolie seems a bit left behind – lost in the narrow world of Lisa. “One day, they thought that I was upset with Winona – that we had gotten into an argument. And we never did, we never had a problem. But there was this scene where she comments on all the girls – makes a little criticism about them – and I’m supposed to laugh about that. But in my opinion, my character doesn’t find that funny, because they’re my family. And sometimes that production people would translate that as, I’m being mean, or I’m not smiling at Winona or being funny with my fellow actors. I remember hearing that they thought there was tension on the set. And I remember thinking” – and here Jolie slips into character – “I’m a sociopath.”

Because of her role in The Bone Collector, Jolie turned, afterward, into her own private forensics specialists. (“You can’t help it,” she says. “You’re in a bathroom at some guy’s house, and you go, ‘Okay, I don’t want to pick it up, but I swear I see a red hair in that brush…’”). On the set of Girl, Interrupted, then, Jolie-Lisa found herself sitting back and watching the other actresses-inmates for clues.

“Analyzing to solve things in Bone Collector,” she says, “became, in Girl, Interrupted, me sitting in a room with people going…” – she sits back in her chair at the cigar bar, squints, and points, literally, at all the flaws of an imaginary girl in the middle of the empty room – “‘… You’re wearing that outfit because you have an identity problem, and you’re trying to be sunny, so you’re wearing all pink ’cause you’re depressed.’” Jolie laughs wickedly. “I got just really free, testing boundaries.”

Though she didn’t make friends with the other leads, Jolie would still say things to them in passing. To Brittany Murphy (Clueless), who played Daisy, a girl with a ’60s-style “flip” hairdo who lives on a strict diet of chicken and laxatives, Jolie once said, “Your hair flips up because it’s scared of your shoulders.” Murphy laughs, repeating the comment. Then she remembers that Jolie bought her a backpack for Valentine’s Day (she bought all the girls something), a giant Disney dog’s head, with ears that flipped up at the bottoms like Daisy’s hair.

“Lisa would rip on Daisy,” Murphy continues. “There was one night when I saw [Jolie off the set]. We were actually talking for a while. And then she said, ‘Wait a minute – what am I talkin’ to you for?!’” Murphy roars with laughter. “I said, ‘Can’t we take a break for a while?’” Jolie just laughed, Murphy says. The implicit answer was, No.

“As Jim and I began to get to know all [the actresses] personally,” Konrad says, “we would laugh, and say, ‘Yeah, everybody’s in character.’ But in a lot of ways, they are in characters – which is why the casting is so brilliant.”

Ryder doesn’t quite see it that way, although she didn’t ask Jolie what kind of experience she was having. “I think Angelina went through a lot on the movie,” she says. “But I don’t know, because I don’t know her that well. We weren’t exactly talking about it, because our characters have this strange relationship. But I know that Angie puts herself through a lot when she works. I would love someday to do a movie with her where we play really close friends, because I’d love to get to know her.”

Jolie agrees that she and Ryder never really got acquainted, and that neither actress was inclined to step far enough out of her character to be able to ask a question like, “how’s it going?” “In a lot of the scenes,” Jolie says, “we would be against each other, so we would kind of come into it from opposite sides of the room, and we’d leave at opposite ends of the room.”

There was something else about the characters that made it almost impossible for Ryder and Jolie to connect socially: Jolie had come to Girl, Interrupted expecting, as Lisa, to become very depressed; but she discovered, to her surprise, that what Lisa felt was nothing. Not a thing. Ryder, on the other hand, felt everything.

Murphy tells a story about how she was waylaid coming to the set on her first day – there had been an ice storm, and her plane was rerouted to Baltimore, where she stayed in a hotel instead of continuing to Harrisburg that night. And Ryder was waiting for her in the production office the next morning. “Popping out from winter-white fluff,” Murphy says, “were these bright, sparkly eyes, and the most welcoming, heartfelt hug. That was the first time I met her. She said she had lost sleep the night before, because she was worried about me being alone in Baltimore. And she meant it.”

Elisabeth Moss – who was 16 during filming, the youngest member of the ensemble – also felt watched over by Ryder, whom she calls her “little protector.” Moss plays Polly, and adolescent in so much pain that she had lit herself on fire to try to burn her feelings away. Ryder opened her life to Moss, the younger actress says, so that Moss would have somewhere to go to get distance during takes, someone to talk to when the others were working. Whereas Jolie would take off late on Friday nights with some of the other actresses, to New York City for a little R&R, Ryder would stay in Harrisburg with Moss.

“Since we were all cooped up in that hospital every day, all day,” Moss says, “everybody would scatter on Friday. You’d just kind of show up Monday morning, and nobody asked any questions. But me and Noni always got stuck staying in our little rooms, going to see bad movies at the Harrisburg mall.”

“I wanted to go to New York,” Ryder says. “It looked like so much fun. But I stayed. Oh, boy, did I stay.”

During production of Girl, Interrupted, Ryder began to lose sleep, and her anxiety attacks returned. Part of it was that the hospital, where 80 percent of the film was shot, felt like a prison, even though it looked more like a college campus. A third of the hospital was still running – there was a drug-rehab center and a section for homeless families- and over the three-month shoot, the actresses got to know some of the people there. It was impossible to step out of a scene and be rid of the setting. “Filming at this hospital with people who were suffering,” Ryder says, “was a humbling experience.”

And a disorienting one as well. Since the movie was shot out of sequence, but almost always in the same clinical setting, Ryder had to find a way to chart the continuity (or lack thereof) of Susanna’s roller- coaster inner life over the tow years covered in the story. She taped index cards all over her trailer, indicating where she was supposed to be emotionally that day – as opposed to a day or week before – and she watched dailies every night so that she could remember the scenes she had already shot, which she would have to connect with the next day.

“I had to stay in this heightened state,” she says, “because if I kind of let it all go at the end of the day, it would be too exhausting to work myself up the next day.”

Like many on the set, Ryder caught a flu bug during the shot, and she told cinematographer Jack Green (The Bridges of Madison County, Twister) that between the illness and her debilitating work, she sometimes felt “so frail,” Green remembers. He took extra care of Ryder, playing cop to the technicians, making sure that interruptions for lighting checks or hair touch-ups were kept to a minimum. Ryder grew so comfortable with Green, Looking forward to his hugs and daily “I love yous,” that when it came time to do a love scene with Jared Leto, who plays her boyfriend, she slipped naked under the covers – something she had never done before on a movie set – confident that the camera would not capture anything too revealing.

“I felt so trusting of everybody that I wasn’t paranoid,” Ryder explains. “I explored stuff that I’ve never explored onscreen before.”
It was the real-life Susanna Kysen, visiting the set for a couple of days that winter, who noticed that Ryder – no matter how sick or anxious or sleepy – was the one performer who was always on the set, always working. She saw that Ryder had taken on the burden – physically, emotionally, creatively – of her life story.

“I felt that her attachment was so… she had claimed it,” Kaysen says. “My claim on it was gone.” (She laughs when she recalls how Ryder, showing her dailies of scenes with the actors playing Kaysen’s parents, was very disappointed to learn that they didn’t look at all like Kaysen’s real mom and dad.) She spent one 16-hour day with Ryder, watching her being Kaysen with all the energy she could muster. “I thought, Boy, you know, she’s good. That air of fragility, which I think she cultivates, belies a very resilient character. I don’t mean pigheaded – I mean I just don’t worry about her.”

Jolie’s life had an interruption of its own a couple years ago. The daughter of actor Jon Voight and actress Marcheline Bertrand, she’d left home when she was 16 (moving across the street from her mother’s apartment); she’d gotten married at 20 (to the “second man I was with,” Jonny Lee Miler, with whom she starred in Hackers); and then, at 22 after refusing the role four times because she knew instinctively the toll it would take, she accepted the part of the self-destructive model Gia Carangi in the award-winning HBO biopic Gia. It was during that production that Jolie’s life fell apart: She moved into a hotel without her husband and lost touch with all her friends.

“It happened that I became exposed at the same time that I was playing a role about somebody being exposed,” she says. “I felt beaten down. I didn’t feel like a good person. I felt pretty bad.” Her memories of that time are, at best, bittersweet. “Jonny came the day I died,” she says, “and he was with me when I shaved my head.” (Gia had had AIDS at the end of her life, and he hair had fallen out in clumps.) “We went home, and I still had all these glue spots, and I got into a dress and high hells, and he took me to dinner on Sunset Boulevard. He just went arm-in-arm with me into the restaurant.”

After Gia had wrapped, Jolie gave up acting and moved to New York City, where she bought an apartment and registered at New York University’s film school. Miller moved to London, and the two, who never got together again, eventually divorced in August of 1999.

Jolie began to miss acting, though, and after a year she came back to Hollywood to play a wayward wife in Pushing Tin, and a lovelorn club kid in Playing by Heart. “I surfaced,” she says, “and was so much stronger. I’m not hard on myself anymore. I simply don’t ask much of anybody but just to be who they are.” Jolie smiles, and takes a sleepy sip of wine. That’s what she wants most – to be who she is. And what might that be? “Everything,” she says.

You’d think, talking to some of Girl, Interrupter’s younger players, that Ryder and Jolie had invented the craft of acting. The admiration is stunning. Murphy says that Ryder “changed the molecules” in the ten feet between them when they were doing a scene together – that it was not about acting, it was about “believing.” Moss says that with Jolie, you “were constantly watching, waiting for whatever she might throw at you. It was exciting.” Murphy agrees. “Angie is a very giving actress.” She says, adding that Jolie passed on some advice that her own mother had given here: “‘Be brave, be bold, be free.’”

Neither Moss nor Murphy stayed in character throughout that winter in Pennsylvania. Moss believes that if she hadn’t dropped Polly every night after shooting, she would have “ended up in a mental institution.” Murphy too says she would have “gone crazy.” But these are actresses who, unlike Ryder and Jolie, are still relatively unfamiliar with the dark recesses of their minds – with loss, sleepless nights, unfathomable anxieties, and paralyzing responsibilities. These things will undoubtedly come to them, but not yet. For now, they are reveling in having been part of an intensely female, intensely emotional, intensely personal movie. “I would have held the boom for this one,” Murphy says. “I haven’t experienced anything like that before, and I don’t know if I ever will again.”