The Real Winona Ryder

November 26th, 2000  |  Published in Online Interviews

by Ivor Davis

Pale, unbearably slim with very short dark hair, Winona Ryder slips into the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles looking like a junior model on a day off, in an ankle-length brown leather skirt and matching top.

At 28, Winona Ryder looks like a teenager — a fragile, waif-like teenager, very much like the 16-year-old mental patient who is at the heart of the film, “Girl, Interrupted,” described by some as an all-girls “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Doing a film based on the true story of Susanna Kaysen’s experiences while a patient at a New England mental hospital for two years in the late 1960s would seem far removed from Ryder’s experiences, but, as she revealed recently, that’s not the case. At age 19, a mixed-up Ryder put herself into such a place for five days.

In promoting “Girl, Interrupted,” the actress best known for “Bettlejuice,” “Mermaids,” “Little Women” and “Alien Resurrection” discusses some of these painful memories, revealing the real Ryder.

In her chat with JVibe.com, she also touched upon her Jewish roots. Ryder, born Winona Horowitz, is half Jewish on her father’s side. Another aspect to her Jewish background seldom mentioned is the fact that many of her relatives died in the Holocaust. This horrific event was something that affected her as she grew up, despite her unusual upbringing, which included living on a 300-acre commune in Northern California with her parents and seven other families.

JVibe: Before we talk about your new film, I’d heard many of your relatives died in the Holocaust.
WR: Yeah, my family is from Russia on my father’s side. My grandparents immigrated through Ellis Island and lived in Brooklyn. My grandmother still lives there–she’s 99.

JVibe: When did you learn about your family history?
WR: My dad told me about it when I was the right age to hear about something so tragic. They waited for the right time.

JVibe: How has that history affected you as an actress?
WR: I’d rather not get into that today. I think it’s affected me the same way it would affect anyone who had lost so many. It’s been a very big part of my life.

JVibe: Okay, about Girl, Interrupted, why do you say this is the most important movie you’ve ever made?
WR: I could have been that woman. I strongly identified with what she went through. I, too, have been a patient in a mental hospital and have suffered from depression, panic and anxiety attacks. I checked myself into a mental hospital once for a week.

JVibe: What happened to you to get you to that point?
WR: My heart would suddenly start thumping at 90 miles an hour and I’d be sweating. I was 19 at the time and felt totally alone. I felt I couldn’t tell anybody in the world how I felt. It’s a horrible feeling not to be able to describe that fear and terror. You’re on a plane and you want desperately to get off. So you turn to the stranger in the next seat and you want to say something but you don’t know what to say. It’s scary, real horrible and scary.

JVibe: What was it like being in a mental hospital?
WR: Scary. It was 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 definitely something that I could use for the movie. That feeling when you first walk into a place you feel very alone and frightened. But I was a volunteer patient so I could leave at any time so it was different.

JVibe: Did it help?
WR: I didn’t really get anything from that place. I really didn’t. I went there. I was so tired, I just wanted to sleep. They didn’t help me at all.

JVibe: Susanna Kaysen was in for two years.
WR: Yeah, she saw a psychiatrist for 20 minutes and they locked 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 didn’t need to be locked up.

JVibe: So did you learn anything from the experience?
WR: At l9, I learned that no matter how rich you are, no matter 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 better. You have to figure it out for yourself.

JVibe: So did you figure out what it was all about, why someone who should have been on top of the world was in such trouble?
WR: I grew up in front of everybody. I got my first pimples on film. I went through puberty on film and even had my first period, literally, on film. At the time, my boyfriend was an actor (Johnny Depp) and everything we did together was photographed and endlessly written about. My whole life was amplified for public consumption. And every time I complained, I was called a brat. So I learned I wasn’t supposed to complain about anything. That was the way I was programmed. The message was we were perfect people who led perfect lives.

JVibe: Why are you talking about it now, apart from the obvious – to help promote the film?
WR: I didn’t talk about it for a long time because I was scared I wouldn’t be able to control it. I’ve now made a conscious choice to talk about it.

JVibe: Do you think it will have negative repercussions on your career?
WR: As actors we have a rough time if we mention we’re going through a depression. We get slammed and called utter brats. We’re sickeningly wellpaid, we get these amazing bonuses and lead these very charmed lives. But along with it there’s the stuff the public doesn’t see. A lot of ugly stuff, and soul-selling stuff. When you turn on the TV and see, ‘Oh, another actor goes into rehab, or another actor has a breakdown or another ends up in a car crash with a hooker, or whatever there’s demons the public doesn’t see. I live a very privileged life. I’m very blessed. I have money and lots of material things. But I also have the same pressures that any their human being has, only amplified because of the work I’ve chosen to do and because our lives are a lot more public.

JVibe: Is talking about what happened to you part of the recovery process?
WR: I had to learn to talk to people about it. I read Susanna’s book. Over the years I heard from other women who were like me–and they were grateful to learn they were not alone. It’s not an isolated incident that happens to one girl—it’s something that’s sweeping the country. A loneliness we all go through.

JVibe: Is that why the book had such a profound effect on you?
WR: When I read the book when I was 21 I fell madly in love with it. I hadn’t read something so brutally honest without being self-indulgent before. That’s pretty rare in literature especially for a female character. But the characters were all so captivating, heartbreaking and funny.

JVibe: Was it easy to get the film made?
WR: It took me six years to do. Hollywood seems to want to make softer romantic movies for women like “Runaway Bride.” I’m not out to bad mouth those films but most of what is offered to young woman in film today is terrible. It’s really an insult. I couldn’t make this movie today because I’m 28 and I’m already taking shots from the press about playing a teenager again.

JVibe: So you’re obviously not turned off completely to show business.
WR: No. I still feel like a kid in a way. I get excited when I get a job and on my first day at work. But I live up in San Francisco—and it’s important to have a life outside of this business.

JVibe: Are you thinking of marriage and kids ever?

WR: Not yet. At 28, I’m not ready yet to get married and have kids.

JVibe: Let’s lighten up. Tell us about your boyfriend Matt Damon.
WR: We’ve really made it a long time–a lot of that has to do with keeping it low key. I’m very, very happy. It’s nice when you get to know yourself and your flaws and get to know someone (like Matt) and they embrace them too.

JVibe: So what are your flaws?
WR: I’m weird looking. My ears stick out and I sometimes look like an alien.

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