By Lael Loewenstein
Even those of us who aren’t card-carrying members of Generation X can’t help but feel as if we’ve grown up with Winona Ryder. We’ve watched her battle high school bullies in “Heathers,” write her grad school thesis in “How to Make an American Quilt” and enter the working world in “Reality Bites.”
Winona RyderNow Ryder is poised to lead us into new territory. Her latest film, “Girl, Interrupted,” is based on Susanna Kaysen’s bold and candid memoir of her stay in a psychiatric ward.
The film marks the 28-year-old Ryder’s debut as executive producer, an active step in her ongoing agenda to make challenging films for young women.
“It’s really an insult, what’s out there for young women in America,” Ryder told us in a recent interview in Los Angeles. “We give them films like ‘Runaway Bride’ and say [patronizingly], ‘Here’s a nice romantic comedy; this will satiate you.’ But that doesn’t challenge you or raise issues or bring good conversations to the table.”
With the release of “Girl, Interrupted,” Ryder has been talking openly for the first time about her own history of depression. In 1991, Ryder took a break from shooting “The House of the Spirits” to check herself into a psychiatric clinic for sleep deprivation. At the time, she was feeling the strains of an exhausting work schedule, chronic insomnia and her public breakup with actor Johnny Depp.
After five days in the clinic, feeling no better, Ryder checked herself out.
“Being there didn’t help me at all,” Ryder recalls. “But what I did get out of it is the knowledge that those places don’t give you a pill that fixes you or a sheet of secret answers. You can’t pay enough money to have a place cure that feeling of being broken and confused and way too sensitive for this insane world.”
What helped eventually were the perspective and self-knowledge that came with time. Ryder also took solace in reading books like “Girl, Interrupted,” that made her realize she wasn’t alone.
Deeply connected to the material, Ryder began a six-year journey to turn “Girl” into a film. She signed on as executive producer, determined to protect the integrity of the material and to have a role in making key decisions.
Winona RyderRyder’s role as executive producer on “Girl, Interrupted” signals her ongoing commitment to reshaping the landscape of films for young women. Long frustrated with the movies available for teen audiences, Ryder has often chosen projects that are less mainstream — and ultimately, less commercial — than many of her peers in the industry.
“We need to offer [young women] something that they can relate to and something that shows they’re not alone in feeling confused or misplaced,” she says.
For Ryder, that ‘something’ comes in the form of a strong, complicated female lead like the role of Susanna in “Girl Interrupted.”
“Susanna was of the few characters I’ve read that was brutally honest without being self-indulgent,” she says. “And she was a rebel, which for a female was rare. Usually all the great rebels are boys — Holden Caulfield, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn.” Winona Ryder
Ryder faces a double-edged sword in her quest to make provocative films for young women. While she’s adamant about challenging girls’ minds, she is less enthusiastic about acting as a role model.
In 1996, Ryder came under attack when an advocacy group accused her of smoking too much in her films. She’s still stinging from the accusation.
“I will do whatever I have to do for a role on film, and I will do whatever I want to do in my life,” she says. “It’s nobody’s choice but my own, and I don’t believe I am influencing anybody but myself.”
Ryder is also ambivalent about using her celebrity status to promote various causes. The child of liberal parents, she has spoken out for Amnesty International and campaigned for the release of incarcerated American Indian activist Leonard Peltier.
“There’s a part of me that thinks we should keep our politics to ourselves,” she says. “But as a human being, I have a social responsibility to walk with my head up, to follow my heart and protect my freedom of speech and that of others.”
Compared to other young actors who’ve hit the fast lane and burned out, Ryder seems remarkably poised and grounded. She attributes that composure to her family and friends (“I really scored in that department”) and to living in San Francisco.
Though she has residences in L.A. and New York, she calls the Bay Area home. “Had I moved down to L.A. when I started acting, things would have been a lot different in my life,” she says. “San Francisco has been my salvation.”
Ryder says that as she faces her 30s, she has a new understanding of the pressures of her career and the expectations of the media. She also says she’s learned to be more forgiving of herself.
“I’ve learned that it’s OK to be flawed, that life can be messy, that some days you glide and some days you fall, but most important, that there are no secret answers out there,” she says. “When you finally accept that it’s OK not to have answers and it’s OK not to be perfect, you realize that feeling confused is a normal part of what it is to be a human being.”