One Careful Winona

The Sunday Times – Culture, November 19 2000
(a.k.a. A Girl Interrupted – The troubled times of Winona Ryder)

By David Eimer

Her dramatic looks once ensured an audience no matter how bad the picture. Now she’s more choosy – so why is Winona Ryder playing opposite Richard Gere in a slushy romance, asks DAVID EIMER

A few years back there seemed no doubt that Winona Ryder would go on to establish herself as the actress of her generation. Having notched up two Oscar nominations by the time she was 24, as well as being anointed honorary queen of the slacker generation, she had a head start on everyone else. But with the failure of her last three films, to say nothing of the rise of Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, the golden girl of the early 1990s is in danger of looking like yesterday’s icon.

In truth, though, Ryder has never been huge in the multiplexes. “The thing people have to remember is that I was never in an overnight hit movie,” she says, almost apologetically. “I’ve only been in a few movies that made a lot of money, and that was because they were directed by Tim Burton and not because of me.”

But what she lacked in box-office success, she made up for with credibility: Julia Roberts got the blockbusters, Winona got the critical acclaim. Films such as 1989’s wicked and brilliant high-school parody Heathers helped position Ryder as a favourite with image-aware young audiences, if not with Hollywood financiers. Then there were all those period pieces: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Age of Innocence, Little Women, The Crucible, in which Ryder showed she could hold her own in a corset opposite the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Oldman.

Even when the films themselves had nothing going for them, like 1993’s dire adaptation of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Ryder’s extraordinary looks kept loyal fans watching. Lame scripts or not, canny directors simply closed in on her huge, expressive, brown eyes until they filled the frame. In an age of hyperactive leading ladies, Ryder is unique in that she would have been a huge star in the silent era.

In recent years, though, this appeal seems to have waned. It took Ryder seven years to get her boldest project to date into cinemas. Girl, Interrupted – the tale of a young woman’s experiences in a 1960s mental asylum – signalled her debut as a producer, and was a chance for her to stretch herself as an actress. But the film was only a modest commercial success, with most of the critical plaudits going not to Ryder but to her co-star, Angelina Jolie. Then came Lost Souls, a confused and derivative devil thriller, which finally crept into cinemas almost two years after it was made. And now we have Autumn in New York, a super-slushy romance in the tradition of Love Story, which finds Ryder looking distinctly uncomfortable as a terminally ill milliner who falls for the ever-implausible Richard Gere.

To her credit, Ryder hasn’t turned her back on this latest project. Despite the fact that the film wasn’t even screened for critics in America, and amid allegations that Gere tampered with the script to build up his part at the expense of her own, she’s still willing to play the publicity game and is refreshingly candid about the film’s ambitions and prospects. The closest she comes to criticising the movie is a bland admission that she hasn’t actually seen the finished edit. While that’s almost certainly code for “it makes me want to scream”, Ryder is defiant about her motivation for choosing it. “It was always a fantasy, growing up and going to the movies, that one day I would do a big, sweeping love story. Like, just a complete corny tear-jerker. It was just an opportunity for me. I never get offered these kinds of movies.”

Why not? “Well, I don’t know how people see me, but when I started making movies, I was the girl who was unattractive, ugly, actually described in the script as ‘unattractive'”.

Sitting in a Manhattan hotel room, the 29-year-old Ryder is anything but ugly. Unusually, her short hair is back to its natural light brown and is knotted into dainty little dreads. She’s dressed all in black, with heavy eyeliner accentuating her best-known feature. Tim Burton might have cast her as an oddball teenage witch in Beetlejuice, but it seems ridiculous for her to assert that she’s no beauty. Surely people are constantly telling her the opposite?

“I don’t hear that,” she insists. “Honestly, I was talking the other day to a friend of mine and we were both saying how neither of us hears compliments because people assume we hear them all the time. When a movie of mine comes out, none of my friends or the people around me say anything, because they assume that I’m so sick of hearing things.”

Ryder’s only concession to her striking appearance is that she’s “unique-looking”, but you don’t have to delve too deep to find the reason for her ambivalence towards her looks. “I basically went through adolescence and puberty onscreen, which is really rough. When I see young girls doing it my heart breaks for them. It’s a situation where if you’re on a set and you have a pimple, which is perfectly normal, they have to switch the lighting. You shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of pressure at that age.”

She’s also sensitive about her diminutive frame, afraid, perhaps, that people might mistake it for fragility. “It’s because of my size and this whole pixie thing that’s been labelled on me for my whole f***ing life,” she says in a rare loss of control. “In every article I’ve ever read – and my parents keep everything – it’s like, ‘waif, pixie, waif, pixie’. There are worse things to be called, but I feel a little stronger than people may perceive me.”

Her love life certainly suggests she’s no flake. She was famously involved with Johnny Depp, after meeting him on the set of Edward Scissorhands, before pairing up with Dave Pirner, the lead singer of the now obscure band Soul Asylum. More recently came the rumour that she was engaged to Matt Damon. It’s not that she’s only attracted to rock stars or actors, but simply that when she dates mere mortals, the press don’t report it. “I didn’t try to hide it or anything, but nobody wanted to hear about Ian the computer scientist.”

What they do want to hear about is her continuing relationship with the musician Beck, whom Ryder accompanied on part of his last European tour. Apart from the common denominator of fame, the pair are also both products of the 1960s counterculture elite. Winona’s father, Michael Horowitz, hung out with Allen Ginsberg and was an early acolyte of Timothy Leary, who was her godfather. Meanwhile her stage surname is taken from jazz musician Mitch Ryder, another favourite of her father’s.

Winona herself describes her parents as “a cross between intellectual beatnik writers and hippies. They weren’t burnt-out hippies, they were productive hippies. My dad still looks like a real beatnik”. Mostly raised in San Francisco, she spent part of her childhood on a commune in northern California, an experience that she didn’t wholly enjoy.

While eager not to hurt her parents’ feelings, or blame them in any way, it seems clear that Ryder is rather more conventional in her tastes. She likes a glass of wine, but isn’t really the sort to be found hugging trees in a haze of smoke. Instead, she collects first editions by authors such as Austen, Orwell and Salinger and moves between houses in LA, San Francisco and New York.

Where she has deviated from the traditional is in her recent career decisions. After 1997’s Alien Resurrection unsurprisingly failed to turn her into an action star, she took nearly two years off acting. “It was a conscious choice; I just didn’t read anything I liked,” she shrugs. “I have quite a bit of a life in San Francisco. I love being up there, I skateboard and see my buddies.” The offers kept coming. The only problem was that they weren’t very good ones. But she’s too established a name now to drift off into TV-land obscurity, despite her determination to keep mixing up her roles in pursuit of more challenging projects. “I’m not Lon Chaney,” she jokes at one point, “I can’t morph my face, but I would if I could. I’d like to play every type of character.”

While that’s satisfying for her, it has inevitably confounded those who like their leading ladies to stick to type. After 25 films, though, Ryder seems content with her current level of stardom. “I’m a familiar face but it’s not like, ‘Oh my God, there she is.’ I can walk down the street. Basically, I’m that girl who’s been around a while.”