LOS ANGELES — In an early episode of the new Netflix supernatural drama “Stranger Things,” a single mother played by Winona Ryder sits in a cubby hole communicating with her youngest son through a tangled ball of blinking Christmas lights. He has vanished under mysterious circumstances. To better understand how to sell such a strange, emotional moment, Ms. Ryder looked no further than her own mother, Cynthia Palmer.
“I don’t have kids, so my mom helped me a lot on this,” Ms. Ryder, 44, said while sitting on a big leather couch at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel here, dressed in black jeans and a faded Leonard Cohen T-shirt she bought at a concert in 1988. “I’d call her sometimes and say: ‘Mom, what would you do if every indication is that your child is dead, but you believe that lights are telling you that he isn’t?’ And she’d say: ‘Honey, I’d totally believe that. It’s primal.’”
The pint-size Ms. Ryder storms through “Stranger Things” (available for streaming on July 15), generating what Matt and Ross Duffer, the twins who created the series, described as an essential “Winona-ness,” an air of fragility and feisty determination. “She has a very intense energy about her, Winona does, a wiry unpredictability, a sort of anxiousness that we thought we’d really lean into,” Matt Duffer said about what inspired the brothers to incorporate some of Ms. Ryder’s traits.
Back in the late ’80s and through much of the ’90s, Ms. Ryder, whose godfather was the LSD enthusiast Timothy Leary, was a sort of emblem of cool: dating Johnny Depp and the Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner and inspiring an ’80s punk band to call itself the Wynona Riders. According to the Duffers, 32, online reaction to the trailer for “Stranger Things,” which is set in the ’80s, revealed a deep nostalgia for Ms. Ryder. “It’s the Winona Forever fans, there’s just a lot of them,” Matt Duffer said. “She’s such an icon. She certainly hasn’t been forgotten.” He rattled off some of Ms. Ryder’s greatest hits, including two of Tim Burton’s films, “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands.” “We grew up on her movies. We were hoping that if we wanted so desperately to see her onscreen that other people would feel that, too.”
As youthful as Ms. Ryder looks, this isn’t the first mother she has played. (In J.J. Abrams’s 2009 “Star Trek” reboot, for example, she had a cameo as Spock’s mom.) But what “Stranger Things” did offer was a leading role with nuance and dimension. “I get sent a lot of scripts where you’re just the mom,” Ms. Ryder said, demonstrating the ancillarity of the roles by putting her hands on her hips, tilting her head and announcing sternly, “C’mon, kids!” “And you think, could I do something with this? Is there a way to make this interesting? But in the end you think, no.”
In her heyday, it would have been difficult to imagine Ms. Ryder, a two-time Oscar nominee, having to weigh such flimsy options. Though she made her feature film debut at 15, in “Lucas,” it was her first truly starring role in the 1989 dark comedy “Heathers,” as a popular girl who decides to radically upend the high school pecking order, that kicked off her long winning streak.
Over the next decade, she seemed to be everywhere, from indie gems like Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth” to Woody Allen’s “Celebrity” to Martin Scorsese’s 19th-century period drama “The Age of Innocence.” Then in 2001, Ms. Ryder was arrested in a shoplifting case and later convicted of taking an estimated $5,500 worth of designer goods from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was also in possession of eight pharmaceutical drugs including Demerol, Vicodin and Percodan. She was sentenced to three years’ probation, drug counseling and 480 hours of community service. Though she continued to work, Ms. Ryder disappeared from the spotlight. As humiliating as it must have been back then — the store’s surveillance footage is a well-watched clip on YouTube — there’s a feeling now that Ms. Ryder has discovered a silver lining.
“I think for me, personally, it was good for my soul and stuff to be M.I.A.,” she said. “In the big picture, I see it as something that opened the door for me to get away. All I’d ever done was act.”
Ms. Ryder retreated to San Francisco, where she was raised and owns a house, to be near her parents and a vast community of friends. She has been in a long-term relationship with Scott Mackinlay Hahn, a founder of the fashion label Loomstate. In conversation, she’s something of a meanderer, often switching topics midthought or not finishing her sentences. But in reflecting on the aftershocks of the scandal, Ms. Ryder stayed on course.
“Look,” she said, “I think I’ll forever be associated with that. Definitely.” But, she added, “In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t exactly the crime of the century.”
She also pointed out that her career doldrums coincided with her entering her 30s, a sell-by date for many actresses in Hollywood. “I went from weirdo teenager to pixie waif to them not knowing what the hell to do with me,” Ms. Ryder said, adding that it wasn’t until 2010, when Darren Aronofsky cast her as a washed-up prima ballerina in “Black Swan,” that things clicked back into place. “I felt like for the first time in a long time people really responded to me,” she explained. “That was a very liberating thing, because I was playing my age. In my mind, and I think in a lot of people’s minds, that really helped. I sort of graduated.”
Last year, however, when she was cast as the tough-talking Yonkers council member Vincenza Restiano, in the politically charged TV mini-series, “Show Me a Hero,” creator David Simon repeatedly cautioned her to leave entrenched mannerisms at home. “He said it, like, three times: ‘Don’t show us the Winona eyes,’” said Ms. Ryder. “After I wrapped, he said something to me to the effect of ‘We really showed them.’ And it actually hadn’t occurred to me that he’d actually had to fight for me, that HBO was hesitant, that I just wasn’t the obvious choice for the role.”
If there is a consensus among her friends and colleagues, though, it’s that the slow pace of Ms. Ryder’s return might also have something to do with her attitude toward show business. “She’s not like some actors who crave and need the spotlight — Winona’s life is full and broad,” said Shawn Levy, who produced “Stranger Things.”
As Daniel Waters, a longtime friend who wrote the screenplay for “Heathers,” said: “She’s not going to put up a periscope and go looking for work — she just waits until it washes up on the beach. I think of her as the last connection to old Hollywood. She has all that glamour that’s lost today, that’s been pummeled by Instagram and TMZ. She inspires a kind of cultist love that I don’t see other ingénues inspiring. Audrey Hepburn used to send her clothes. ”
Ms. Ryder has also rediscovered parts of fame she may not have missed. Recently, a reporter for Time magazine asked her to comment on allegations that Mr. Depp abused his wife, Amber Heard. (In a court filing, Mr. Depp’s lawyer said Ms. Heard was “attempting to secure a premature financial resolution by alleging abuse.”)
“The whole thing is so weird,” Ms. Ryder said. “I was 17 — that’s almost a quarter century ago. But I gave an honest answer.” Her response — that Mr. Depp was “never abusive” to her — was taken by some as coming to his defense. “Maybe it was naïve of me to not realize it was going to feed the monster. But I’m not going to backpedal on it. You can’t win. If I’d said, ‘No comment,’ it would have been, ‘Ryder is silent,’” she boomed in a deep, suspicious voice. “‘What’s she hiding?’”
These days, though, with her new series, talk of a “Beetlejuice” sequel and her appearance in the spring as the new face of Marc Jacobs’s cosmetic line, there’s a sense that she’s back on track, if the careers of classic Hollywood stars are any indication.
“I love watching old movies, and I read a lot of autobiographies,” Ms. Ryder said. “Apparently Bette Davis and a lot of actresses had a hard time in their 30s, too.”