The Sunday Times Culture Magazine: 14.10.12
“Winona has been animated at last…”
She changed the way cinema depicts women, then disappeared. Reunited with Tim Burton on a new cartoon, Winona tells Jonathan Dean what itâ€™s like to be lost.
The slow crawl to Disneyland, on roads such as Magic Way, is lined with palm trees. At two in the afternoon on what the radio announces is the second day of autumn, theyâ€™re the only shelter other than Buzz Lightyear banners or the vast foyer of the Grand Californian Hotel. The latter is accomodation designed by fans of The Shining: floral chic, cobwebbed, brainwashed staff. Kids in swimming costumes run around in Mickey Mouse ears. I head staright for the lift.
Why is a thitrysomething man hanging out in Waltâ€™s kingdom all by himself? The answer, oddly, is the icon of early-1990s cinema, the goth poster girl for the alternative nation, Winona Ryder, who is waiting in a suite on the hotelâ€™s fourth floor. Iâ€™m also going to spend the half-hour with Martin Short, but I havenâ€™t really told anyone that. Heâ€™s lovely telling me about a recent family reunion in London with his â€œfabulousâ€ politician cousin, Clare, but you donâ€™t fly 11 hours to meet Martin Short. He was hilarious in Father of the Bride, but, with the best will in the world, he has never changed the way people make films. Ryder, though, did.
Dressed in loose black trousers, a black jacket and a white T-shirt, with her hair tied back, she talks with a quiver in her voice, brown eyes darting, eager to please or, maybe, just nice. Short is in a casual suit, reclining on a sofa, staring at me like an ever-watchful chaperone. Yes, Ryder shoplifted back in 2001, but for anyone who wants to continue to laugh at that, thereâ€™s the internet. Besides Hollywood has worse. People still work with Roman Polanski. Ryderâ€™s hero, Jodie Foster has a close relationship with Mel Gibson. This is an industry that rewards sinners who arenâ€™t contrite. Ryder has constantly said sheâ€™s sorry.
So we donâ€™t talk about it. Instead, we talk about Frankenweenie, the Tim Burton animation she and Short star in; and about Liverpool. They are a pair of Anglophiles, and the opening minutes are spent talking about the northwest, Prime Suspect and Cilla Black. Ryder went to Merseyside aged â€œ18 or 19â€ for a benefit concert. â€œThere was Big Audio Dynamite and the Pretenders, so many great bands,â€ she says smiling, sounding as if sheâ€™s being interviewed in 1993, â€œand, I was standing next to this guy who was a little tipsy. It turned out he was called Gerry, and he was Irish, and he was Gerry Conlon!â€ As well as being conversant with the Guildford Four, she is intrigued by a rumour that Cherie Booth may be related to John Wilkes Booth, but doesnâ€™t believe it to be true.
Sheâ€™s chatty, a bit rambling, in the way most interesting people are when mouths are trying to catch up with thoughts, but always coherent in the end. â€œReally?â€ she exclaims, surprised when I say I heard a chorus of â€œWee-no-na! Wee-no-na!â€ from the kids at the hotel earlier that day. When the possibility has settled, she says she receives that affection a lot, as anyone, whose early career includes Lydia in Beetlejuice (1988) and Kim in Edward Scissorhands (1990) should expect. She was in two of the three Burton films â€“ the other is Ed Wood â€“ that people are most passionate about.
â€œIt has been 25 years since Beetlejuice, but it feels like no time has gone by,â€ Ryder says. Perhaps not coincidentally, Frankenweenie is Burtonâ€™s freshest film for years, fleshing out a 1984 short about science-mad Victor, who uses electricity to bring his dead dog back to life. Ryder plays an outsider girl, Elsa, while the boy is essentially, Burton as a child. From Ryder to Short (who starred in Mars Attacks! And here plays three roles) to Martin Landau, the director has asked old favourites back. â€œHe really did give me a career. I really did look like Lydia when I first met him, and that wasnâ€™t the look of the 1980s!â€ Ryder laughs, clapping once. â€œIf that movie hadnâ€™t come along, I probably would not have pursued actingâ€ â€œIf he loves you, he loves you,â€ Short adds succinctly.
Ryder was born Winona Horowitz in Olmstead County, Minnesota, on Ocober 29, 1971. She was raised in San Francisco; her godfather was the LSD pioneer Dr Timothy Leary. Short was born Martin Short on March 26, 1950, in Ontario, Canada. They have made more than 70 films between them, but while the latterâ€™s career has been consistently successful, Ryderâ€™s was incandescent at the start, far dimmer later. He Noughties roles are forgettable, while only her cameo in Darren Aronofskyâ€™s Black Swan has registered so far this decade. There are signs, though â€“ with roles in the forthcoming The Iceman, with Michael Shannon and James Franco, and two other films with Franco, not to mention Frankenweenie â€“ that Ryder, at 40, is finally coming back.
Cinema needs her. When talking about Beetlejuice, she says what an honour it was to â€œgive a voice to a girl like Lydiaâ€, and how â€œloners, outsider-type girlsâ€ really identify with her. Kristen Stewart is Ryder with the creases ironed out, and Ryder was cast alongside Natalie Portman in Black Swan for a reason. Then there is Heathers, the iconoclastic 1988 high-school comedy-thriller in which she and Christian Slater take murderous revenge on jocks and bullies. Ever since that film, which made a whole generation of men prefer brunettes to blondes, the high-school genre has gone backwards. The best of recent times â€“ Clueless, Mean Girls â€“ are fine, but sugar-coated compared with Heathers. They also pander to the popular. Even the nerds are hot.
â€œWhatâ€™s really interesting to me is whatâ€™s happening right now with bullying,â€ Ryder says. The recent Harvey Weinstein project Bully sent ripples across America, but she asks: â€œWhere was all the sensitivity when I was in school?â€ Short thinks the web has made bullying easier, and he has a point, but Ryder is in full flight now. She talks about a boy called Alex at high school, who was picked on by two popular girls, and how it still haunts her that she sat and did nothing. (In 1993, she put up $200,000 reward for the safe return of a missing 12-year-old, Polly Klaas.)
â€œTo me, because Iâ€™m not online a lot, it just seems suddenly like bullying is a big issue, but itâ€™s always been there, and Heathers was certainly about that,â€ she says. â€œI would be interested to see my character, Veronica come back and have her daughter contend with those of surviving Heathers. I was trying to start a rumour years ago, but nothing ever happened and I was kind of…â€ She laughs. The next word was probably going to be â€œdesperateâ€, but who wouldnâ€™t want a second Heathers? Slater, another star fans wanted to shine longer, could be in it, too.
Unlike him, Ryder has made choices â€“ apart from the misogynist brain freeze that was last yearâ€™s Vince Vaughn vehicle, The Dilemma â€“ that have protected her legacy. Maybe thatâ€™s because, since Girl, Interrupted, in 1999, they have not been seen much, but when you consider that her ex-boyfriend Johnny Depp has played Captain Jack Sparrow four times, thereâ€™s something to be said for saying no. In a Rolling Stone interview from 1991, she talks about her love for acting. She was boisterous back then, smart, still a teenager, but hugely famous, in a hugely famous relationship. She called John Hughesâ€™s teen movies â€œpatronisingâ€ and admitted that, at 19, she should soon try to tackle more adult roles.
Maybe the reason Ryder hasnâ€™t been on screen much as anyone wants is that she just cares too much. So, although, itâ€™s a cartoon, Frankenweenie is a good step back. Itâ€™s a pet project from a visionary director. â€œThe experience itself is the reward,â€ Ryder says, bemoaning peers who think, if I do this, then maybe it can lead to this. â€œThat strategy can be dangerous to pin your happiness on in such a maybe, maybe not business.â€ Yet Disney is an odd fit Ê»or a film like her latest; darker than youâ€™d expect. This is, as the signs say, â€œthe happiest place on earth.â€
â€œIs it?â€ Ryder whispers cheekily, considering that Disney reps have just entered the room. â€œI havenâ€™t been here since I was five. I got lost, I was looking for my dadâ€™s shoes, and I clung to some poor guy who had the same shoes as my dad. Luckily, he wasnâ€™t a, yâ€™know… But yeah, Disney, Disneyland, thereâ€™s so much itâ€™s associated with. There are weird things Iâ€™ve heard about Walt Disney, too. He was, like, a real interesting guy…â€ Short points at my two recorders. â€œWe donâ€™t want to get into that,â€ he says. Adding that he went on the rides the night before and had a â€œriotâ€. He must be a great dad.
Our time ends. There hasnâ€™t been enough of it to deal with how Ryder changed the attitude of an entire decade of film, but, as we leave, she says I can email for follow-up questions. The three of us have touched on the politics of Frankenweenie, â€œthe suppression of individualityâ€ and how Burton sneaks anticreationism into a mainstream film. She talks about her favourite teacher, Mr Frank, and tells Short she will text him a photo of them together. And with that, sheâ€™s off, tiny when she stands up, surrounded by a team of six. Short, left alone, shakes my hand. I didnâ€™t know he was Clareâ€™s cousin.
Outside in the 35C sun, everyone is walking very slowly. But they do that in Disneyland, even at night, staring at the restaurants and shops as if theyâ€™ve never seen buildings before. Perhaps the families are just savouring the fun before they go home the next morning. Or maybe itâ€™s all too much to take in, a numbing overload of toys and magic. Ryder didnâ€™t smile in her heyday. People thought it was because she was so cool; but maybe being famous so young is like going to Disneyland. All that vibrancy and attention and noise, then thereâ€™s tomorrow. What do you do tomorrow?