Winona

Another Magazine – issue 10 2006

In a career that stretches back to her early teens, Winona Ryder has never jumped ship, never made the romantic comedy that would position her – as an agent might sell it – in the mainstream. The trajectory was in place at 18 after two indie hits Heathers and Beetlejuice. But if Heathers defined a Swatch generation of Diet Coke heads then Winona, with boyfriend Johnny Depp, was it’s anti-pinup. She was raised on old movies and books by parents firmly in the intellectual wing of counterculture. Ask Winona – named after the Minnesota town she was born in – to pick a favourite performance by an actor and she’ll give you five, from arthouse French to vintage Hollywood. Unpredictable, maybe, but Winona has always been true to the career she wants. She made Heathers against the advice of pretty much everyone, and went on to work with Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen to name just a few. She has produced – and in more than just name – a handful of films using her influence to bring scripts she believes in to the screen, including Girl, Interrupted (1999) and The Day My God Died (2003).

Things got cloudy for a while, and in December 2001 Winona was arrested for shoplifting and possession of drugs without a prescription. “The one good thing to come out of everything that happened is that I wasn’t happy where I was. I wasn’t happy being so famous and being written about all the time. Hollywood people associate movies solely with fame and I wasn’t having fun working in that way anymore. I am so much happier now.” Today, she is back doing what Winona does best, making films that she can throw herself behind.

For our tenth anniversary issue, Another Magazine invited cover star Winona Ryder to talk on ten subjects, about her influences and inspirations. They reveal a natural outrage at injustice, a sensitivity to issues of rebellion, and a worldview, which like Patti Smith’s, has been shaped by the characters who have passed through.

1. Literature
“I discovered Scoundrel Time by Lillian Hellman when I was about 16. It’s one of the most harrowing accounts of the blacklist days I’ve read. I used to be good friends with Roddy McDowell and he would have these dinner parties where I’d meet people that had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Leo Penn (Sean Penn’s father) was one of the first people I talked to. People forgot that actors were imprisoned, and families suffered. There were so many suicides, and it wasn’t lifted until 1972.

The Crucible is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read. Before I did the film I was in the play with Arthur Miller playing Judge Danforth, which was terrifying. He was a giant man. There was a scene where I had to confront him and spit at him. I think he was a great actor as well as a genius writer.

I’d put the script for Heathers in the category of literature. It said so much about society. There is always this assumption that when you’re young things don’t mean as much or aren’t as painful. But first love is the most devastating of all. Society will always look down on teenagers – parents and teachers don’t seem to give proper attention to kids when they are at their most painful age. Most of the great writers were outcasts, especially the beats. That’s why Lawrence Ferlinghetti is such a hero, because he was the first person to get them published.”

2. Lyrics
“I always loved the Patti Smith lyric, ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.’ I got sent home from school wearing a Patti Smith t-shirt with that line on. I was not raised religiously; my parents always told me to take a piece of whatever you like and make it your own. And I’ve always thought that to plant concepts of heaven and hell, sin and burning into a child’s head is wrong. The lyric is not a ‘fuck you’ message, it’s about being responsible for your own actions. Like James Baldwin said, ‘we pay for our sins because of the lives we lead.’ It also makes me think of John Lennon’s quote, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’

3. Death
“When I heard that John Lennon was shot, it was the first time someone I’d been a fan of someone who had died. Still to this day I can’t quite believe it. I was holding my godfather, Timothy Leary when he died. He was smiling and his eyes were locked into the distance. He wasn’t afraid. He considered it the ultimate journey. At the time I couldn’t accept it, but he gave me a gift, of not being afraid. When the coroners came they couldn’t get the smile down or close his eyes.”

4. Photography
“I own my favourite photograph, ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden’ by W Eugene Smith. It’s of his two children walking through a cove holding hands. It’s very moving. I also love Robert Frank. I have a series of his, of a couple in Coney Island, by a cigarette machine, and then on a bus. They look so comfortable together. I bought the pictures when I was in a relationship, with someone I felt comfortable with. When we split it was mutual, but I didn’t know why, so I tracked down the couple in the photograph and met them. They are still together.”

5. A performance
“There’s a French film called Ponette, which stars a little girl, Victoire Thivisol. In the film her mother dies and she is taken by her father to stay with her aunt and cousins. The film is about how adults tells children confusing things when their parents die. Like ‘pray and you’ll see her in your dreams’. They mean well and the girl tries everything they tell her. There’s a scene, shot in one take, where she goes into a chapel and prays for her mother to come back. It starts unemotionally and then she begins to cry, and because it’s one long take, it’s amazing to see how she really acts out one emotion. She won best actress at the Venice Film Festival.

I’m also a huge fan of William Holden, and the choices he made. He took the riskiest parts. Sunset Boulevard for instance, where he is a kind of male prostitute. He’s the anti-hero in The Bridge Over the River Kwai. There is a great scene in at the end of that movie, when Alec Guinness is pulling the cord and you see William Holden’s face. I watched it with Scorcese and Jay Cox, and we all agreed it’s one of the best moments in cinema, the close-up of William Holden saying ‘kill him’. The pleading in his eyes is mesmerising.

There are a couple of phrases that my friends and I use. When an actor in a supporting role steals a movie we say he ‘Cazaled it’ after John Cazale, who was in The Deerhunter and The Godfather. Or when an actress blushes on screen and it’s for real we call it ‘Binoched’, from Juliette Binoche in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where her cheeks go really red.”

6. A building
“The poetry room upstairs in City Lights (Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco bookstore) is a special place for me. The way the light comes in is very beautiful. I used to nap on the comfy chairs there when I was a kid, always knowing that Lawrence was nearby.”

7. A symbol
“I have a tattoo on my arm, that I got after dreaming the same symbol every night for six months. I finally got up one morning and got the tattoo. I was sure I was going to regret it at one point but I never have. It’s two Cs interlinking in opposite directions. After I got the tattoo I found out it meant compassion, which is great, because compassion is a virtue that was one of the most important instilled in me by my parents.”

8. A slogan
“My godfather Timothy Leary coined ‘question authority’, which is one of my favourite phrases. I think questioning our government is the biggest thing right now in the US.”

9. A person
“My mother was an activist and a great mother. She used to say that you’d do more good smiling to someone on the street than putting up a thousand flyers. It had its roots in Buddhism, to do everything with love, to cook with love, to have kindness for strangers. It means so much more to act in peace than to preach it. It goes back to compassion, which goes back to the tattoo I have on my arm. She was a volunteer hospice worker. My brothers and sister and I used to go with her and help. It made us a little less afraid I think, of death.”

10. A cause
“I don’t like the word cause. It sounds like a bandwagon. I’m on the board of human rights organizations. One is for the The West Memphis Three. We have to get these kids out because they are innocent. It’s about justice. We have finally got permission to do a DNA test, which should have been automatic in the first place but was denied. There were so many inconsistencies in the case against them dental impressions didn’t match the three boys in prison. But the trial happened so fast – the state wanted a result. Right now they are saying DNA has been tampered with and is not admissible as evidence. It’s a catch 22 situation. The case needs serious funding. It’s a gross miscarriage of justice, I hope to see them freed soon.”