The Guardian has published an article with some insights of Winona’s career and, as the article stated, why Hollywood wouldn’t let her grown up.
Words by Soraya Roberts
Winona Ryder first became a mother on film when she was 36. In 2007, she was hired by Star Trek reboot director JJ Abrams to play Spock’s mum. It was a cameo and only a handful of lines – basically amounting to her being a proud mother – before she fell off a cliff. Abrams had chosen Ryder as an homage to Richard Donner’s Superman, in which the supporting roles were also filled with known faces. “I thought it would be great to have an actress who people would recognise,” Abrams said at the time. And they did, only this was an actress they recognised for her adolescence, not her adulthood.
Now aged 45, icon of youth or not, Ryder is an undeniable adult and adulthood for women means motherhood. She has played a mother three more times on screen and each time it has been a variation on an age-old Hollywood theme.
Before this era of her working life the last major starring role of Ryder’s film career was Girl, Interrupted in 1999, when she was 28 playing 18. “I went from weirdo teenager to pixie waif to them not knowing what the hell to do with me,” she told the New York Times last year. Part of it was her advancing age – Hollywood had locked her in as an ingenue, but she was no longer young enough to play one – though it was also the public’s perception of her that had changed.
In 2001, the year she turned 30, Ryder had her infamous shoplifting arrest and, in one move – caught on CCTV – she lost her innocence. After that she had small roles here and there, mainly playing the love interest or the older oddball. Her starlet alter ego was officially extinguished before she turned 40, when she played “The Dying Swan”, the corpse-like leading dancer opposite Natalie Portman’s flushing prima ballerina in Black Swan. “I felt like for the first time in a long time people really responded to me,” Ryder said. “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.”
But graduating implies some kind of rise in status and, in this case, the only difference from the previous decade was that she was now being offered the adult roles that every other older woman was offered. “I know there’s a lot of conversations right now about ageism, and I know a lot of actresses who have a tough time, and I’ve gotten offered those mom parts,” Ryder told Time in 2016. She took some of them. In The Iceman (2012) she was the unknowing wife of hitman Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) who alternately gives birth and is subservient to her abusive husband. It was barely a character.
Still it was not until Stranger Things, in which she plays Joyce Byers, that Ryder started being asked by the press how she could act like a mother without kids of her own. She remains defined by her son but, in his absence, we see the familiar Ryder-as-outsider who is missing something and searching so desperately for it – an “it” we can momentarily forget is a child. Even when her son’s dead body appears, she blindly persists, communicating with him through Christmas lights and Ouija graffiti.
“My mom,” says her older son, “she’s tough.” Aside from being something of a return to form for the actor, the role is progressive in its empowerment of a mother who embodies a trio of underrepresented demographics: single, poor, mentally ill. “She’s not a perfect person. She’s very flawed and she’s struggling, even before everything happens,” Ryder told Collider. “I liked that she wasn’t this perfect mom.” Ryder drew inspiration for Joyce’s plotline from her own mother. She asked her: “Mom, if every bit of logic is telling you your kid is gone, would you still [refuse to believe it]?” Ryder recently told Marie Claire. “Absolutely,” her mother replied. “What if they show you a body? She said, ‘If you don’t see it happen, you don’t believe it.’”
It was casting director Carmen Cuba who pushed for Ryder to be in Stranger Things. “There were many reasons I thought of her. I have always loved her as an actress,” Cuba says. “She has a magic and unpredictability in her performances that I felt matched the tone of what we were going for in the story. I also thought there was some connective tissue to a story with kids and Winona’s own iconic childhood performances that would intrigue an audience in a special way.”
The new season offers us a peek into Joyce’s life beyond her children, however, when she starts dating Bob, an old classmate from high school (played by fellow 80s star Sean Astin, of The Goonies fame). “She’s trying to mask a lot,” Ryder told Entertainment Weekly. “I think she’s made this choice with Bob because she wants a good father figure in her sons’ lives.” Although, if we’re lucky, she’ll also get some action to round out her life.
Go to The Guardian to read the full article, including some bits from Kathleen Karlyn, author of Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism on Screen.