Now in her 40s, Winona Ryder is finally getting what she wants. “I feel like only recently I’ve hit a point where I’m actually old enough to play my age, which is a tremendous relief,” says Ryder when we sat down at the Crosby Street Hotel last Tuesday. An icon of 90s culture, Ryder became the decade’s go-to “waifish ingenue” with films like Reality Bites, Heathers, and Girl, Interrupted but has moved beyond that in her career, and is now getting to take on the more mature roles she’s always wanted to play. With her latest film, Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, Ryder portrays Sasha Milgram, the wife of controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose obedience experiments shocked the 1960s. Starring opposite a compelling Peter Saarsgard, Ryder delivers a delicate yet captivating performance as the woman who was not only his partner, but his emotional anchor. Breaking down the barriers between memory and reality, Almereyda brings his imaginative and intelligent touch to the story of Milgram’s work, crafting a character portrait in the way only he can.
With Experimenter out in theaters this Friday, we sat down with Ryder to chat more about working with Almereyda, the female characters she admires, and re-teaming with Tim Burton for Beetlejuice.
I’m such a fan of Michael’s films. It’s the way he chooses to approach universally known material and make it totally his own that’s so interesting—whether it’s Stanley Milgram or Hamlet.
Me too! He’s actually someone I’ve known since I was 16.
How did you meet him then?
I met him at the Independent Spirit Awards the year Down by Law was there.
Yeah. We have a really, really close mutual friend who’s a photographer and then when he was doing the documentary on the Sam Shepard play [This So-Called Disaster: Sam Shepard Directs the Late Henry Moss] I was living up in San Francisco. He’s someone who, to me, is so uncompromising and thoughtful. Actors want to work with him because he’s not just going to do anything, he’d rather go teach. There’s a lot of trust there.
So how did you two reconnect for this film?
He called me a couple years before it was made when they were still trying to raise the money. I just immediately said yes. Peter was attached and he’s honestly one of my favorite actors and someone I’ve known forever and really wanted to work with. The opportunity to work with both of them was sort of a no-brainer. Then reading the script, it was such an unusual, untraditional imaginative take on a biopic. I’ve done biopics and you have to cram decades into a movie. It can work sometimes and other times it doesn’t, and this was just so interesting. The things that he chose to focus on, in terms of the experiments and the scenes of our marriage, were unusual. She wasn’t the nagging wife, she was a big part of his life and their marriage was very strong. She was very supportive and involved, his rock. It was really great because I got to spend some time with Sasha.
When you’re portraying a real person, and someone who’s still alive, does that make the role more difficult? Do you feel like you have to justice to that person?
Yes, most of the time. Certainly with things like Girl, Interrupted and the things where the people are still with us. But for example, with The Iceman, I deliberately didn’t and she didn’t want anything to do with it either. I didn’t quite believe she was totally oblivious and I felt that my character was just in denial, so it wouldn’t have helped me. But there is always an extra element of wanting to please that person and I actually just did it with Show Me a Hero too. But when you meet Sasha—I feel like this is a weird word to use because there’s no pun intended—she’s such a spark. She’s so intelligent and she had such an amazing life before they met. She had traveled, she was very worldly. They were very, very much in love. She worked with him and she was supportive, but not in that way we always see. She also stood up to him.
It was also interesting to see how the work he did effected the world he came to. You mentioned the typical wife we so often see in films—do you read a lot of those one-note characters in the scripts you’re offered?
There was a time, because I had a lot success when I was in my teens and 20s and then I went through this period where I looked too young but I actually wasn’t too young, that people still associated me with these younger, waifish ingenue characters even though I could have been a lawyer or something else. I feel like only recently I’ve hit a point where I’m actually old enough to play my age, which is a tremendous relief. I know there’s so much put on youth these days, but I had a weird experience because when I started acting all of my heros were like Ruth Gordon and Gena Rowlands and I always got along with older people. My mom was a hospice worker and I used to go with her, before I was an actress, and I remember saying, “Oh my gosh each one of them there could be a movie about their life.” But there is something very liberating about getting past that weird 30s thing. I’m turning 44 this month and I just feel like I’m finally being offered, or able to play, parts my age.
That’s actually incredibly refreshing to hear considering how scared people usually are of getting older and not being cast once they’ve reached a certain age.
Well, I understand that too. Did you see Searching for Debra Winger? It’s a documentary that Rosanna Arquette made where she just talked to actresses about this very thing, about getting put out to pasture after 40. It happens and some don’t make it. But to me, my favorite characters were like Margo Channing, which Bette Davis played when she was like 43, 44. I’ve always found older roles more interesting than the ingenue parts. Also when you start as young as I did you’re always the kid and you want to be older.
You also get to play more complex characters who’ve lived richer lives, which you can draw on from your own experience.
In a way I feel like it was a blessing in disguise in my 30s because I took a lot of time off and I explored a lot of other interests that have nothing to do with acting and Hollywood. What do they say when you’re young, “Would you rather be interested or interesting?”I was always like, “Interested, is that even a question?” I am a very interested person. I was in San Francisco recently with my parents and some friends and they were talking about me as a kid and saying that I would just consume everything. I remember the first time I heard about Milgram I was in the car with my dad listening to the Peter Gabriel’s So album and we were listening to the song that goes, “We do what we’re told…,” which is called “Milgram 47.” I asked him and he told me about it.
As actors we’re very, very amateur psychologists, we work with trying to understand people, so the obedience experiments themselves were so fascinating to me. I’m somewhat of a history buff, but especially WII. My grandfather died in the Battle of Guadalcanal and my dad lost a lot of family in the camps, so I’ve always been fascinated with that and how could people stand by and all that. I read Banality of Evil and a lot of stuff of Eichmann. Banality of Evil is an opinion and it’s controversial, but I think Milgrim was effected by following orders and WWII. So I just found the whole thing very fascinating. I was happy to get the chance to work with Michael, he’s an artist, and I find him to be so elegant in his choices. He’s so thoughtful as a person but also in the choices he makes. There’s something that happens when you’re on a set where nowadays if you have a question you kind of have to call it out and have everybody hear you, but Michael will come over and take that time even though we’re under the gun. You trust that if you’re going to try something that may not work, he’s not going to use it. To have that trust is really amazing.
Now that you’re doing more TV work with Show Me a Hero, do you find that’s where all the good roles are right now?
It’s so weird the way the business has changed. For movies, it’s either small movies like this that are labors of love that you have to wait years to get the money and you’re paid nothing, which is fine, or movies like The Avengers. They don’t make middle budget movies anymore, so TV has become sort of that middle. It’s new to me. I did this mini-series, which was different because it was like six hours but there was an end to it, and I’m doing this thing for Netflix now where we’re doing a season. But I’m curious to see how different it is than making a film.
Speaking of your past, are you definitely going to be reuniting with Tim Burton for Beetlejuice?
I hope so! I feel like every time I open my mouth about that I regret it, only because I don’t know. Tim kind of confirmed it in an on camera interview and I repeated that and then that’s all anyone was talking about. It would be very exciting and it sounds like it’s going to happen, but I just don’t know!