Winona Ryder and I are sitting side by side in silence on a sofa in the bar of Chateau Marmont, holding our palms upturned and outstretched.
â€œYou see,â€ she says with a smile. â€œIt frees you up, doesnâ€™t it? Everything sort of comes to the surface.â€
The star of Heathers, Girl Interrupted and Black Swan â€“ an actress who has been reductively if accurately described as â€œthe poster girl for the 1990sâ€ â€“ has been telling me about â€œthis weird thing I do if I have to get emotional in a film. It always works.â€ She doesnâ€™t just want me to take her word for it; she wants me to try it. Which I do because this is Los Angeles and nobody would bat an eyelid if you were to assume the lotus pose in the middle of a bar and start chanting, â€œOm shanti, shanti.â€ But also, simply, because Ryder wants me do it.
Something about the actress draws you in from the outset, making you want to befriend and protect her â€“ both uncomfortable sensations for an interviewer. She talks in open-ended sentences, dipping in and out of whispers and veering off on tangents.
And at 42, in a battered cream leather jacket, vintage T-shirt and jeans, sheâ€™s still as fragile and translucent-skinned as she was at 18, as Cherâ€™s pious teenage daughter in Mermaids, with the underlying grit of Lelaina, her character in the Generation X time-capsule that was Reality Bites, and the quiet wisdom of May Welland in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.
Maybe she was too memorable in those early years, capturing the zeitgeist of that decade too well both professionally and personally, in her highly scrutinised relationships with Johnny Depp and Matt Damon. Or maybe that shoplifting incident in 2001, after which she was ordered to undergo psychological and drug counselling and then took time off from her career, has overshadowed the excellent work she has done since: her portrayal of the embittered, ageing ballerina in Black Swan and the cheating wife in The Dilemma. Either way, with a role as a mysterious financial PR in David Hareâ€™s new BBC political thriller, Turks & Caicos, alongside Christopher Walken, Bill Nighy and Helena Bonham Carter, Ryderâ€™s bemused by talk of a comeback.
â€œOnly because theyâ€™ve been saying it for so long,â€ she says with a laugh. â€œAnd Iâ€™m, like, where was I? Thereâ€™s a big part of me that just wants to do good work and not have that pressure. I donâ€™t have any interest in being a movie star. And although Iâ€™d love to say that everything Iâ€™ve done has been a passion project â€“ when of course Iâ€™ve done things just to work and Iâ€™ve done clonkers â€“ you get a letter from David Hare, and youâ€™re like, â€˜Oh my God.â€™â€ The second part of Hare’s Worricker Trilogy, Turks & Caicos follows Page Eight, which was shown in 2011. (All three parts will be shown on BBC2 from March 15th.)
Hare was astute enough to see that Ryderâ€™s range as an actress should not be limited by her preternaturally youthful looks, but itâ€™s easy to see how directors could still see that as a problem. In full make-up from Stellaâ€™s photo-shoot, Ryder somehow manages to look more like a teenager whoâ€™s ransacked her motherâ€™s cosmetics drawer than a 42-year-old actress with two Oscar nominations under her belt.
â€œIt was hard to find that transition to adult roles,â€ she concedes. â€œBut Iâ€™m actually really enjoying getting older because I went through a period of time where I was technically old enough for roles but always associated with younger ones. The whole of my thirties was spent that way. Now that Iâ€™m in my forties itâ€™s getting a little bit easier.â€
It amuses rather than offends her that â€œpeople will point to theseâ€ â€“ she smiles, indicating â€œthe elevensâ€, or lines between her brows â€“ â€œand say, â€˜You might want to do something about those.â€™ I donâ€™t want to knock anyone who does all that because it only bothers me when I see actresses I know, love and respect who have been talked into having something done.
“But whatâ€™s weird to me is that Iâ€™d rather just look my age. My favourite performances are by actresses like Bette Davis in All About Eve or Gena Rowlands in pretty much anything â€“ performances that have nothing to do with age. As a teenager I worked on Indian reservations and it was such an incredible culture: the elders are so respected.â€ She shrugs and reaches for her tea. â€œI think itâ€™s sad the way we treat older people here.â€
Ryderâ€™s unconventional childhood has been exhaustively documented and occasionally used to explain the more disturbing events in her life, but the actress â€“ christened Winona Laura Horowitz and named after the Minnesota city in which she was born â€“ speaks fondly of the four years she spent in a commune in Elk, Northern California, from the age of seven. â€œIt was pretty incredible. We were in 380 acres of redwoods and there was no electricity.â€
Ryder started acting at 12, once her parents â€“ bohemian intellectuals who were friends with the author Aldous Huxley, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg and LSD proselytiser Timothy Leary â€“ moved to the nearby city of Petaluma. Any resentment she does harbour towards them is for setting too good an example of what marriage could be, she says.
â€œItâ€™s crazy because they are still so in love after 43 years together â€“ and I mean giddily in love. That set the bar so high for me. I think it may be why I never got married.â€
She came close twice: once in the early 1990s, when, having got together with Depp on Edward Scissorhands, she became one half of the Brangelina of grunge, and later in 1998 when she and Damon became engaged, only to split up in 2000. For the past two years she has reportedly been dating a fashion designer, Scott Mackinlay Hahn, and, although she wonâ€™t discuss this today, she is open about her desire to have children, pulling out her phone and showing me a video of her new goddaughter.
â€œLook,â€ she says with a doting smile, â€œshe even yawns. I mean talk about baby feverâ€¦â€ Then she pauses. â€œThis is a little personal but Iâ€™m 42 andâ€¦ Well, I was talking to my dad last year and saying, â€˜What if I canâ€™t have a kid?â€™ and he said, â€˜There are other ways to have children in your life.â€™ Thatâ€™s true â€“ and I get these amazing doses with my brotherâ€™s kids. But Iâ€™ve got to stop listening to other people. Itâ€™s crazy the stuff women will tell you.â€
For a moment we lament the scaremongering all childless women over 30 seem to be subjected to, and I urge her not to take it too seriously. But Ryder seems happy, healthy and settled â€“ away from the madness of Hollywood, in San Francisco.
It was to San Francisco that she escaped when she took what we both diplomatically refer to throughout the interview â€“ Ryder drawing inverted commas in the air â€“ as her â€œhiatusâ€. Her parents had lived there for years (they subsequently moved to Canada after George W Bush was re-elected) and she wanted â€œto take a break, be home for a while and explore some other interests that I would have explored if I hadnâ€™t become an actressâ€. Sheâ€™s fascinated by constitutional law and sat in on a handful of lectures at Berkeley College.
She also went to see the environmental activist and life coach Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived in a 1,500-year-old Californian redwood for 738 days to prevent it from being cut down. â€œI climbed 180ft up to where she was but I only lasted six days up there â€“ she lasted nearly two years.â€ But really, it was being in San Francisco that helped. There, she says, â€œpeople will be like, â€˜Hey, whatâ€™s up?â€™ in the street, because Iâ€™m a home-town girl.â€ It gave her the grounding she needed.
â€œFame can be incredibly isolating,â€ Ryder says quietly. â€œDangerously so. And Iâ€™ve definitely gone through that. There was a time when I would go for a hike and I wouldnâ€™t even know that I was being photographed.â€
Did any part of her enjoy it when it happened? Being the hottest actress out there, stepping out with the hottest men? She frowns. â€œIt was actually pretty weird and traumatic. I was so young that I didnâ€™t really understand what was going on. I always just really wanted to be a good actress.â€
In that respect, whatever the vehicle, Ryder has never compromised. Sheâ€™s still the girl who was so determined to play the corruptible Veronica in the 1988 hit Heathers that she â€œliterally pleadedâ€ with the casting directors to be given a second chance. â€œMy agent told me it would ruin my career and the first time I went in to audition they told me I wasnâ€™t pretty enough so I got a makeover at the Beverly Center [shopping mall] and went straight back â€“ because I just wanted to say the words, even if they hated me.â€
These days, she waits for that â€œI have to do itâ€ moment, turning down a fair number of dark, damaged roles, particularly anything involving children. After the abduction and murder of Polly Klaas â€“ a 12-year-old from Petaluma for whom Ryder helped search, offering a $200,000 reward for her safe return â€“ the actressâ€™s sensitivity to the subject has been heightened. She is a member of the child-safety foundation set up in the wake of the crime, and at one point â€œvery naivelyâ€ asked a criminal psychiatrist what Hollywood could do to help.
â€œHe said, â€˜You know that the movies you guys make are like porn to these people?â€™ And itâ€™s true that I get sent these scripts and theyâ€™re so dark,â€ she says. â€œI just got sent this one about paedophilia and it had a great cast but I read it and â€“ maybe because of Polly â€“ just thought, â€˜I donâ€™t want to be a part of that.â€™â€
In this sense of responsibility â€“ and in so many other ways â€“ Ryder is atypical of her industry. She wonâ€™t tweet (â€œapparently studios look to see how many followers you have but even the term â€˜followersâ€™ is faintly creepy to meâ€), and hates the idea of a stylist telling her what to wear. â€œIâ€™ve worn vintage dresses to the Oscars that I bought for $19 and at Sean Pennâ€™s Haiti benefit the other night I wore a dress once owned by Audrey Hepburn that Iâ€™d worn to a friendâ€™s premiÃ¨re years ago â€“ which apparently is some sort of no-no.â€
She also prefers to spend her time unearthing Philip Roths and John Updikes at her favourite San Francisco bookshop, City Lights, than waste time reading populist fiction such as Fifty Shades of Grey.
â€œDo you know that I thought that book was about Wall Street because thereâ€™s a guy in a tie on the cover?â€ she says, giggling. â€œActually, I met the woman who wrote it right here at Chateau Marmont. I was at this party upstairs talking to this woman and I said, â€˜Oh, so is your book about financial trading?â€™â€ EL James was probably won over by this unabashed outlier. Where Ryderâ€™s concerned, itâ€™s hard not to be.