COVERSTORY: Ascent of a woman

Tatler, February 2000

Winona Ryder is all grown up – she has a new house (with gardeners) and Arthuer Miller’s phone number and is even prepared to discuss her childhood traumas with Jonathan Van Meter.

Photographed by Brigitte Lacombe

When I arrive at Winona Ryder’s house in Beverly Hills, she has only been awake for 10 minutes, so I guess that the make-up (racoon eyes, pale foundation, pink lipstick) is from the night before. She’s wearing a red and white Who T-shirt with no bra and a turquiose A-line skirt, cut off several inches below the knee. Her short, unwashed hair, flecked with blonde tips, is pushed up with a black hairband: on her right wrist are a rubber band and a beaded-leather bracelet. Her elegant, diamond and gold earrings look as if they belong to a much dressier outfit. In a word – a word which she probably hates – she looks adorable. Some more Winona clichés: she is tiny, doll-like, luminescent, with impossibly far-apart huge brown eyes.

Clutching a cup of tea, Winona heads outside to sit at a table under a big white umbrella on her redbrick patio next to an oval pool. “I live at this table, ” she says. It shows: there are piles of yellowing newspapers, an old candle with cigarette butts stuck 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 sips from cans of Coke, smokes my cigarettes and chatters away about everything but Matt Damon, who is off-limits.

Winona’s house, modest by Hollywood standars, is of the typical, two-story Spanish variety. She bought it last year for £1,5 million (‘a steal’) from Rene Russo’s sister, the ex-wife of Bernie Taupin. Sir Elton John’s lyricist. There’s a lot of rock ‘n’ roll history in these walls, a selling point that thrills her. ‘Neil Young’s Harvest was written here,’ she says, as only a person who lives and breathes music would. ‘That’s one of my favourite albums.’ Winona recently launched Roustabout Records, an indepenedent label which her older brother Jubal runs. She lives with her room-mate of six years, Brett Brook – a handsome menswear buyer at Fred Segal – and her younger 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 and 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 a tour through all 10 rooms, complete with a meticulous narration of each and every tchotchke, the provenance of every piece of art revealed, the story behind each framed picture 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 a month ago at a concert; and a Sullivan’s Travels poster featuring Veronica Lake.

Scattered about the house are memorabilia and artefacts from nearly every movie she has been in – proof, perhaps, that the unreal, out-of-time life she leads, with its ever-changing cast of characters, has actually happened. There, just behind the bar, is a foot-high bronze statue from Alien Resurrection; just off the kitchen, on a shelf, is a framed page of her narration from Heathers, signed by the director and editor. Next to it is a Polaroid of herself, Glenn Close, and Meryl Streep taken during the shooting of The House of the Spirits. Upstars, in her messy bedroom (a mountain of beauty products next to her bed and many pairs of shoes), we find a photo 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 wrote: ‘Call!’ This gives her no end of joy.

There are other, more personal effects in her bedroom worth mentioning, such as a tiny 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…” and 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 he 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 both really high.’

There’s one framed picture that’s lying face down on a shelf. She turns it over and panicky giggles issue forth. ‘That’s… that’s… Matt.’ It’s a picture of Matt Damon, the boyfriend. ‘Trying not to talk about it,’ she singsongs, putting the picture back, face down. 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 sources of her embarrassment are two framed Academy Award-nomination certificates hanging on the wall, one for Best Supporting Actress in The Age of Innocence and one for Best Actress in Little Women. ‘Totally mortifying. Don’t look in that direction. Brett talked me into putting those up.’ Embarrassment – usually to do with issues about fame – is a recurring theme in Winona Ryder’s life.

Some facts about Winona: she does not sign autographs (except for children), because she thinks it’s weird. She has taken a vow not to repeat negative gossip, though this remains a struggle (I caught her once, telling me that she had heard Britney Spears has breast implants). She does her own hair and make-up for premieres and award shows. She swore she would never get a tatoo, but broke down two years ago after dreaming about one every night for six months. The result is dime-sized, elegant and sits on the top of her left forearm. It’s a combination of the Indonesian symbol for compassion and the Tibetan symbol for enlightenment. She is 28 and has had 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 spacy, lazy, California-teen-girl cadence, still uses words like ‘totally’ and ‘awesome’ and ‘like’ and ‘lame’. She smokes each cigarette as though she were 13 years old and it was 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 moked a cigarette). A few times in conversation, as we were sitting on her patio that first day, I found myself wishing she would get to the point, and answer my question, stop drifting away, be more articulate. Apparently she read my mind because 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 so 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 obviously a woman who is in control of her career and, in some ways, always has been. ‘Right from the beginning, she chose what appealed to her,’ says one of her dearest friends, the interior designer Kevin Haley, who has known Winona since she was a baby and used to take her to auditions before she could drive. ‘She has always had her own taste, and she sticks to it.’ At 14, she did Heathers against the advice of everyone around her, and she was right. The recent landslide of dark teen dramas is, 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.

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. ‘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 an American Quilt. ‘I wanted very much to work with Janusz, who’s a friend,’ she says.

Last winter, she began filming Girl, Interrupted, based on the bestselling memoir by Susanna Kaysen. Ryder had been attached to star from the beginning, but after her display of canny instinct on Little Women – which she single-handedly persuaded a reluctant Gillian Armstrong to direct, and handpicked much of the young cast, including Claire Danes – she was made an executive producer. ‘I don’t think I am 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 finally made it into production with Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Whoopi Goldberg and Vanessa Redgrave. ‘Her act as a producer was pulling together a great vehicle for herself because the world wasn’t doing 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 18-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: doctors, nurses, and the 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 clear-headed and egoless insights, to be deeply satisfying.

‘I read the book when I was 21 and I 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 12. By 17, 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 wass 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 aeroplanes and in hotels. I didn’t really have a home.’

One morning she woke up felling ‘too sensitive to be living in the world’ and checked herself into a psychiatric hospital. ‘I only stayed a week because no one was talking to me,’ she says. ‘They were just trying to medicate. 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 her life eventually evened out. ‘Right as I was coming out of it,’ she says, ‘I read the book. I realised that what had happned 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.’

Mangold explains: ‘We look for people and moments that are about to blossom, and I couldn’t get past the feeling that Winona was someone who was really ready to reach someplace. There are tremendous parallels between Winona’s experience and Susanna Kaysen’s. I love it when I find actors who are ready to address the 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 leve.’

‘I’m very proud of my performance,’ says Ryder. ‘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.’

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 the name 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. 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 12, 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 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’s (‘very Lana Turner’). She has a substantial collection of vintage Hollywood costumes, including Leslie Caron’s dress from An American in Paris, Claudette Colbert’s gown from It Happened One Night and Olivia de Havilland’s blouse from Gone with the Wind. She has worn a much-altered Ava Gardner dress to three different Hollywood events, for which she came in for some grief from the press.

When not working, Ryder goes to the movies every single day, or she and Brett rent a video, open a bottle of champagne and make a night of it. ‘I’m at the point where I have 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.’ 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 to school. I remember trying to explain to my teachers: “I saw Imitation of Life, and it’s this incredibly 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 life-blood. And if she has been criticised, 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 when she was well past her teens slowed her process in real life. She has seemed, for a long time, to exist in some strange lacuna between girlhood and womanhood.

One afternoon, we are sitting 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: ‘Ive 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 at the beginning and end of this film, going to and from the hospital, there’s such a tremendous difference in this woman,’ says Mangold. ‘Indescribable and lyrical and powerful in terms of the girl you see arriving at the hospital, and the woman you see entering the world.’ Ryder can no longer play the little girl with the big brown eyes. And if, as Mangold says, she ‘grows this girl up’ in the movie, perhaps Winona, herself, has finally grown up.