GIRL, INTERRUPTED: WINONA RYDER INTERVIEW
By Prairie Miller
Winona Ryder is an actress who insists on taking her movies personally. That’s the big reason she took on the job as executive producer and star of James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted. Based on the autobiographical bestseller about Susanna Kaysen’s two year incarceration as a teen in a mental hospital, Girl, Interrupted also had much to say to Ryder about her own brief mental breakdown and hospitalization at the age of nineteen. Ryder was open and candid in describing her private inner turmoil at the time. And on a lighter note, she had some surprising thoughts to share on her upcoming romantic lead opposite Richard Gere, including her own ambivalent feelings about his popular selection as the sexiest man alive.
PM: Who did your outfit today, can I ask? You have such a beautiful gray pleated skirt with that little black top.
WINONA RYDER: Oh it’s just bits and pieces. And it’s all old, all my own.
PM: It is? Are you still in a ’60’s kind of thing, with your hair still very short and gamin like?
WR: I don’t know!
PM: Is this the most important movie you’ve ever made in your life, in a way?
WR: In a way.
PM: Because it’s a dream realized?
WR: Wait a minute. You’re doing the interview for me!
PM: Oh, sorry.
WR: Um..Well, wait. What were we saying?
PM: Why was this movie so important for you to make?
WR: Well, I read the book Girl, Interrupted when I was twenty-one, and I sort of fell madly in love with it. I hadn’t read anything like that, something so brutally honest. And it’s also something that was cut with so much humor. I just found the characters so captivating, and so heartbreaking. And funny at the same time. So I just really fell in love with all the characters.
PM: Did you see yourself in your character?
WR: I did, in a way. I write a lot. I don’t have any aspirations to be a writer, but I write in my journal a lot, every night actually. I have always kept a journal. So I really related to that aspect of it. She’s someone who I kind of aspire to be like. I mean, her intelligence, and she’s so funny and perceptive. So I would like to say that I am like her, but I would never presume to be.
PM: Do you relate to her alienation and depression, things like that?
WR: It is something that I definitely went through, yeah.
PM: At what age?
WR: I’d say nineteen. I’d say anybody would back me up in saying nineteen is a rough year, for everyone.
PM: That’s true, but you seemed on top of the world as an actress back then.
WR: Yeah, but successful actors aren’t really allowed to complain. Which I understand. And I understand that when actors complain, it sounds a little nauseating. We’re very lucky, we’re sickeningly well paid and we have these very charmed lives. But along with that, there is a lot of kind of ugly stuff that goes with it, that the public doesn’t see.
PM: What kind of stuff?
WR: There’s a lot of like soul selling stuff that goes with it. And that’s the kind of stuff that, you know, breaks us down. And when you turn on the TV and see another actor going into rehab, or have a breakdown and end up in a car crash with a hooker, or whatever it is, there are reason behind those things. And there are demons that the public doesn’t see.
A lot of it is stuff that has to do with being an actor, and a lot of it isn’t. You know, a lot of it is just normal stuff that happens to kids who are in college cramming for exams, and whose parents are driving them crazy. Or they’re breaking up with their first loves, just going through normal post-exiting adolescent stuff. And I think we all go through that.
PM: You checked into a mental hospital for a week, and Susanna was there for two years.
WR: Yeah! She saw a psychiatrist for twenty minutes, and they lock her up for two years. It’s absurd, she didn’t need to be there. I mean, I do consider Susanna a rebel in a very internal way. But she did not need to be locked up.
PM: What was that week like for you?
WR: I didn’t get anything from that place, I really didn’t. I was so tired, I just wanted to sleep. They didn’t help me at all. I was nineteen. What I learned was that, no matter how rich you are and how much you pay some hospital or doctor, they can’t fix you. They can’t give you a pill or a secret answer to anything that’s going to make you all better. You have to figure it out for yourself.
PM: How did you finally work it all out?
WR: Suddenly everything became very real, and I realized it was okay to not have the answers. I just had to get through it on my own. And that life was confusing, the world was a weird place full of a lot of things that I’ll never understand, but that I’m not supposed to understand. I mean, who’s supposed to understand like war, disease and famine? And random violence, all that crazy stuff. Who’s supposed to understand it? We’d be weird if we did understand it, you know?
And so I finally realized, I’m not supposed to understand everything. Life is just…weird, and messy. And I just have to get through it, and do my best. Either choose to move on, or stay miserable. And I chose to move on.
PM: Was it scary being in one of those places?
WR: It was scary. It was, you know, a lot like the hospital wing in Girl, Interrupted. It was a very bare, sort of stark place where they take everything away from you. I was only there for five days, but it was something that I definitely could use for the movie, that feeling when you first walk into the place. You feel very alone and frightened. But I was a volunteer and I could leave at any time, so it was different.
PM: What kind of relationship have you developed with Susanna Kaysen?
WR: I’m choosing not to talk about that. I’m choosing to keep my time with her and my relationship with her private, because it’s very special.
PM: Do you still love the movie business as much as when you started out, or have your experiences changed your feelings at all?
WR: Yeah. I mean, it’s weird. I still feel like a kid in a way. I still get really excited when I get a job, and I still get really excited the first day of work. I’m still fascinated by the camera, and I love my job still. And I think when I stop loving my job is when I’ll stop doing it. But I know, it’s sort of up to the audiences when they stop liking me and stop going to see my movies. That’s when I’ll stop, because I won’t get hired!
PM: You’ve been away from movies for two years. What was the reason for that break?
WR: I was really, really concentrating on this project, and I really wanted to wait to do something that was really important to me. I didn’t want to work just for the sake of working. And it was important for me to have a life outside of just working. I live up in San Francisco, and it was important to me to spend time with my friends and my family. And I have a new niece. So it’s important to me that I have a life outside of this business.
PM: Are you thinking now of marriage and a family for yourself?
WR: No, not yet. I’m twenty-eight. But I’m not ready yet to get married and have kids.
PM: Whatever happened to your movie Lost Souls? It seems to have been on hold for a long time.
WR: I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know. I’m as in the dark as you. We shot it and I had a great time making it. We shot it, and then New Line, I don’t understand them and I don’t know what’s going on. They haven’t shown me the movie, and they just keep saying they’re still working on it. So…
PM: What about Heathers II, is it really happening?
WR: I hope so! It’s not called Heathers II, but I’ve been promised that it’s a sequel.
PM: How would you feel about getting an Oscar nod for Girl, Interrupted?
WR: I don’t know. That would be beyond my wildest dreams. I can’t even imagine that happening, I really can’t. I mean, to be totally honest there’s a big backlash that happens when actresses win those things. And so I hope that if I were ever lucky enough for that to happen, I would hope I would be an old lady! And that people would be just like so happy for me, because I was so old, you know?
But there are some movies that you do where you feel it’s like a real labor of love. Like Girl, Interrupted was a real labor of love, and I was really involved. It was a real collaboration, and I felt so much a part of things. With the movie Autumn In New York, it was already set up, it was a script I got, and Richard Gere was in it. It was much more a job, they hired me. I don’t mean that as an insult to the movie. I just meant there are jobs that you get where everything is already set up.
PM: Isn’t Autumn In New York another one of those older man, young girl movies?
WR: Yeah, but there are many insults and jokes about that in the movie.
PM: Like what?
WR: Hmm…I can’t spoil the movie! There’s just a lot of jokes about the fact that…he’s old enough to be my father!
PM: What do you think about that whole movie trend?
WR: Well, it’s really kind of gross, I think. Personally.
PM: Would you go out with a fifty year old guy?
WR: I don’t think so. He’d have to be some guy!
PM: But Richard Gere just got called the sexiest man alive.
WR: I know…I mean, I like him a lot, he’s great. But for instance, I don’t know…How old is Bruce Springsteen? He’s sexy! Totally.
PM: Do you have a favorite song where any time you hear it, you just have to turn up the radio?
WR: Oh yeah. Definitely. I’d say like…any Bruce Springsteen song!
PM: Did you ever have times where you doubted your talent as an actress?
WR: Oh sure. I always doubt it. I always wonder, you know, about myself.
PM: Now that you’ve taken time off and realized your dream project, do you feel it will be easier from now on for you?
WR: I’m pretty instinctual. I mean, I do what strikes a chord in me. If something I read moves me, then I do it. If it doesn’t, then I don’t it. It’s actually a surprisingly easy process for me.
PM: Do you feel some of the tough times you’ve been through have made you a better actress?
WR: Oh absolutely, absolutely. I think the more life experience I have, good and bad, the better actress I’ve become. I wouldn’t have traded any of my past experiences for anything. They’ve made me who I am. And as painful as times have been for me, it’s really important that I’ve gotten through them. And I’m really proud of myself that I’ve gotten through all of it.
And there’s a lot of stuff. Like I said, demons that the public doesn’t see. Darkness that the pubic doesn’t see. And that we don’t talk about, that I’ve gotten through. And I’m really happy that they’ve been there. Because they taught me a lot about who I am.