In the Spotlight – Winona Ryder

Edwin Miller

October 1988

Not long after you meet Winona Ryder, she shares a confidence. “see these two front teeth?” she asks, touching the overlapping teeth with a forefinger. “I used to hate it!” she says with feeling. “Then I saw June Allyson in an old movie on TV. We have the same tooth problem, and she looked so beautiful! If it wasn’t for her, I probably would have had it fixed. A couple of years ago I was at a film festival in Utah with my movie Square Dance, and I saw Allyson in a restaurant. That made the trip! I nearly passed out from excitement. I went over and groveled for a couple minutes and told her – I could hardly get the words out- ‘You’ve made my tooth very happy.’ She was truly flattered.”

Ryder’s talent hasn’t been hidden under a bushel. Since she debuted in Lucas two years ago, both moviegoers and insiders have spotted her in such films as Square Dance (showing on TV under the title Home is where the heart is) and this year’s Beetlejuice (with 1969 and Heathers soon to come).

Away from the camera on a visit to New York, the sixteen-year-old actress is wearing a white T-shirt, brown trousers, white tennis shoes, and a blue work shirt under a black jacket. Everything seems a little too big. She uses no makeup. “I have to wear enough of that stuff onscreen,” she says.

Ryder got her first name from her birthplace. Winona, Minnesota. “My mom was just visiting relatives, expecting to go back to New York to have me, but I just came! So I was named after both the town and this legendary Indian goddess who jumped off cliff.” She’s called Noni for short. “I’ve even been called rye bread,” she says. “And you can make so many nicknames out of Winona that it’s pathetic.” She’d love to see her birthplace. “That’s my next move!” she says. “My mother grew up in St. Paul – I was there a couple of months ago, and I got to see F. Scott Fitzgerald’s apartment. That was the biggest thrill, to stand there and stare at it, because I’d just read his novel This Side of Paradise. Nothing could top that!” she declares. “It took me by storm.”

An enthusiastic reader – often onto three books simultaneously – she takes after her dad, a writer. “He deals in rare books by mail order,” she says, “so our house is like this big library.” She usually checks to see if a book will grab her by peeking at the last line. That, she admits, is “really weird.”

Ryder’s not her real name. “My dad thought of it,” she explaines. “I was going to use Huxley because my dad wrote an Aldous Huxley biography and he’s one of my favorite writers. Then we were having breakfast, and out of nowhere he said, ‘Winona Ryder, we’ll just settle right there!’ He’s so proud of it that he uses Ryder himself sometimes, like with the screenplay he’s working on. He says, ‘I want to let people know I’m related to you!’ Otherwise his name is Horowitz.” Her mother uses Palmer professionally. “She’s a writer, and she produces videos. We just did one on Aids that I was in. It’s around fifteen minutes long, questions and answers. Like What about kissing -is it safe if you wear braces?

Answer: It’s not a hundred percent safe because you get this little cuts in your mouth.”

Along with an older sister and brother and younger brother, she grew up in San Francisco. “That’s a great city.” She remarks. “I’m really proud of it because the people are really nice, friendly, fast moving.”

Recalling her early years, she says, “I was a really great liar as a kid. When I was little, I was addicted chewable vitamin C – that was my favorite thing in the whole world, and I would climb up to the top shelf where they kept it because they knew I would steal it. Once I was climbing up and a big San Francisco earthquake happened – I thought it was God punishing me for stealing vitamin C! I even stopped lying.”

At seven, Ryder decided on her future after seeing Greer Garson in 1942’s Random Harvest on TV. “I wanted to be like her,” she explains.

“Nothing could compare with Garson’s face, her expressions. To me, she’s still the most beautiful woman in the world. All those old movies affected me; they gave me a tingling feeling when I watched them. I wanted to be part of them, even the ones with tragic endings.”

She bagan to try out for school plays, then became a professional at thirteen, after casting director noticed her studying at San Francisco’s Actors Conservatory Theater (ACT). Signed by an agent, she first turned up as love-struck teenager in Lucas, which she made in Chicago with Charlie Sheen, Corey Halm, and Kerri Green. “It was a great first experience,” she says. “It reminded me of high school, with all the kids gossiping, kind of immature.” Then she went to Texas to play an unsettled teen in Square Dance, with Jane Alexander as her mother, Jason Robards as her grandfather, and Rob Lowe in a featured role. That’s when she of age as an actress.

“Making Lucas, I was distracted by the kids and the camera,” she says. “In Square Dance I was in every scene. I’d get restless and anxious. When I’d finally figure out how to play a scene in my head. I wouldn’t understand why we had to wait instead of doing it right then. I worried about losing my concentration. I’d get irritated waiting for the camera and lights to be set up.” But both the movie’s older stars gave her confidence and support. “Jane Alexander taught me to be patient, how to hold on to my feelings and then let it all go when it did happen. Jason Robards taught me how to be natural in front of the camera. If I hadn’t worked with people like Jane and Jason, I probably would have blown a lot of roles.”

Daniel Petrie, who directed Square Dance, describes her as “a great kid. Very talented, very intelligent. She’s got an actor’s intelligence – a kind of wisdom about human relationships that serves her in very good stead when she’s dealing with the psychology of the character she’s playing and the psychology of the characters against whom she’s playing.”

“A lot of actors are wonderful,” Ryder observes, “a lot are pretentious, a lot are jaded; no two are the same.” A favorite is Christian Slater from Heathers. “He’s one of the most brilliant actors I’ve ever worked with,” she says. “We really have great on- and offscreen chemistry.”

Ryder isn’t one to be narcissitic. “I’m aware of things I do and how I act toward people,” she says. “I always try to be courteous and polite – when I do something inconsiderate; I apologize.”

Turning seventeen this month, Ryder feels that every movie she does is pivotal to her career. “I’m not settled and solid, but I would never do anything just for the money or because I was anxious to work,” she says.

“I’m very proud of myself because I’ve done a good job and been professional, been prepared every day on the set.”

Due to her irregular schedule, Ryder completed her last two years of high school in independent study, working with a woman who, she says, has been a strong influence. “She’s my tutor and my great friend,” says the actress. “She keeps me in line educationally, socially, mentally, and physically. She understands me like nobody else does. I can’t do anything without her; I talk to her all the time.”

When does get to college, She’s hoping to attend Dublin’s Trinity College, in Ireland. She wears a silver Irish ring she bought in Chicago. She looks forward to going abroad. “I’m fascinated by the political situation in Northern Ireland,” she says. “I want to learn more about it – South Africa and the Middle East, too. I’m a member of Amnesty International, but someday I’d like to be an activist – now I just call myself a concerned citizen.” She’s on the fence about religion. “I love it because it’s really beautiful but hate it because it’s torn places apart, caused war and death.”

Since graduating, she’s been thinking of moving to New York. “This is where my father’s originally from,” she explains. “My grandparents live here. I’m leaving home, and it’s real sad, but what am I going to do? My folks know I’m independent, I’m responsible, and they trust me. I’ve got to go everywhere and get on with my life!”

Script developed by Never Enough Design