Little Woman, Big Star

Jenny Allen

December 1994

Winona Ryder is the name above the title in Little Women. But she had to overcome a bizarre adolescence and the throes of depression to get there.

Baltimore, Nine A.M.: Dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved undershirt, Winona Ryder shuffles into the kitchen of her rented home. “I just had a terrible dream,” she says sleepily. All the directors she has ever worked with were in it, and all of them were angry at her. Steve Cochran, the writer-director of Boys, the “small, weird” film Winona is making, was in the dream too. “I was … throwing rice at her,” Winona says.

Her mother, Cindy, slight and pretty, in Baltimore to keep her company, has set out grapefruit and a slab of toast. Winona picks at the food, then collects the books she’s reading – a biography of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, and journalist Peggy Orenstein’s study of adolescent girls – and leaves for the set.
In the scene being shot today, her character, a feckless young woman, has been knocked unconscious in a fall from a horse; she wakes up in a boarding-school boys dorm room. Winona’s worried: Stacy wants her to play the scene alert and focused, and Winona feels her character would be cloudier, disoriented. “Where’s my horse?” she says over and over, her voice just above whisper, as the cameras roll. She’s playing a compromise – confused but concentrated. It’s tricky. “I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing out there,” she says after many takes.

She’s miserable, but not really. As she speaks,. she’s perched n the lap of David Pirner, the lead singer for the rock band Soul Asylum and her boyfriend of the past year and a half. He is wry and relaxed, smiles easily, smokes constantly (I’m no quitter,” he says). Everyone on the set likes Dave, but Winona likes him the most. He is, she says, “the only happy-go-lucky, jolly musician I know.” When she isn’t working, he stays up until three a.m. with her, watching old movies; when she is, he visits her on location, enduring the tedium with infinite patience. Today is their reunion after a five-day separation, and they can’t keep their hands off each other.

“I’m playing this girl who’s so lost, and I’ve never felt so found before,” she says, and means it. Things were different in 1993, when she was in Portugal, shooting The House of Spirits. She found herself at the bleak bottom of a two-year depression. “I ignored myself, my ‘needs,’ ” she says, self-conscious about the clichŽ. “I put my career in front of my life. I remember so many of my favorite actors saying ‘My work is my life.’ And it’s not.

New York City, Some weeks earlier: In an ornate stone building on the edge of Chinatown, a tiny, smiling person in denim overalls answers the door. A tempting but unspoken joke: Is you mother or father at home? But of course, this is Winona, and this is her two-bedroom apartment, handsomely decorated in a kind of low-key luxe: olive-green velvet drapes at the living room windows, soft mohair sofa and chairs, a gilded coffee table. There are lots of books around – photography collection, novels, a book of Preston Sturges screenplays. Upstairs in her bedroom are more books, videos, a photograph of Martin Scorcese, who directed her Oscar-nominated performance in The Age of Innocence – a performance that represents the first time she felt proud of her acting.

Winona settles into the sofa. At 23 she sits like a kid – shoulders drawn together, one foot resting on top of the other. Her skin is so pale you can see blue veins crossing her jawline. She’s skinny, 100 pounds or so, but not intentionally: she tried to gain weight for Age of Innocence but couldn’t.

The conversation is not exactly show-biz babble: the sinister influence of skinhead rock; the Holocaust Museum: extermination camps. Winona is soulful and sincere, but also light and funny. She jokes about Scorcese, an idol: If he had made Schindler’s List, he would have done Schindler after the war, as a drunk – she screws up her face, closes on eye – mooching off Jews whose lives he had saved.

Now the subject is her schedule. “I have lots of time,” she says, “because I just dropped out of this movie.” This movie is Boys. She had been crazy about the screenplay and eager to play a complicated, grown-up character. She was not, however, crazy about a recent script revision that added sex scenes. She will not do this version, she has told the producers. “There’s an obligation to commercialize something when you have a movie star in it,” she says later. It happened on Reality Bites, the Generation X comedy that she feels got slicked up into “a music video vehicle.” If she hadn’t been in it – if the film hadn’t had a Name – it might have stayed small, more real. “I don’t blame anyone except myself,” she says.

Winona knows she is a big star, a personality a studio can build a production around. She is one of very few such women, and the only one of her generation. This Christmas she stars as Jo in Little Women, and while the cast is an ensemble of fine actors – Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Gabriel Byrne as Professor Bhaer, Eric Stoltz as John Brooke – it is her name that appears above the title. “Certainly Little Women became a reality because of Winona’s participation,” says Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia/TriStar.

Winona can afford to be choosy now, but she has always been choosy. She turned down an offer to do Sydney Pollack’s remake of Sabrina: Audrey Hepburn so defined the role that she felt uneasy about re-creating it. The story worried her too – the fact that Sabrina is a “prize” shuttled between brothers. She has made a habit of refusing roles in films she finds sexist, silly, gratuitously violent. Most movies “blend,” she says. Hers don’t. Her films can be quirky or dark – Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Heathers, Bram Stoker’s Dracula but few are bland, and none fit a formula. She cannot be seduced, says Denise Di Novi, who has produced three of her movies. “Ninety percent get persuaded by people around them – ‘You have to do this part, work with this director.’ But you can have fifty people in a room telling Winona what to do, and if she doesn’t want to do it, forget it.” This goes for all tasks met win the line of movie-star duty: For a recent fashion magazine spread, she balked at modeling the clothing. “Corsets,” she says, disgusted, “push-up things, transparent things.”

Weeks later, near Baltimore: Boys is on. What happened was, Winona called Stacy. They patched things up, the script was restored. “The only reason it worked out is because of the conversation,” Winona says. “I’m really happy about that.”

She has spent most of the morning lying in a nearby field – her character has just been thrown from the horse – but now it’s time for lunch under a tent. Bundled in a bulky green parka against the October breeze, she sits at a long table with cast and crew. As usual, she loses interest in her food and opts for talking. There’s a lot of back-and-forth, but Winona gets the most stories in. Everyone who knows her remarks on what a good storyteller she is, though even her mother concedes that she is inclined to embellish here and there.

One story: She dreamed that director Richard Attenborough had died in a plane that crashed against a snowy mountain. It was so weird she called Attenborough’s office to tell him not to fly that day. Although he had already switched a schooled flight, the plane he had been booked on did crash … against a snowy mountain. Winona tells this gravely, like a ghost story.

A brief discussion follows, about death and reincarnation.

“I told my mother I wanted to kill myself so I could see what it was like after,” says Winona. Someone asks, “How old were you?”

“About six,” she says, sipping lemonade.

If Winona is apt to exaggerate – “I like to enhance,” she says, “I don’t ever lie.” – she is also given to a kind of artless self-exposure, as if she hasn’t yet learned, or resists knowing, that most adults keep certain things under wraps. She talks about an anxiety attack on a plane – “the stewardesses had to hold me.” A favorite adjective is “terrifying.” This quality is not calculated but it is cultivated. Michael McDowell, who cowrote Beetlejuice and lived for a time in an apartment above hers in L.A., says her innocence is “self-conscious” but genuine: “She understands how she comes off. She has made a choice to be innocent, and that’s not to suggest there’s anything false about it. She’s innocence through and through.”
She has an almost mystical reverence for children and teenagers, for their freshness and candor. On the Little Women set she played mother hen to the younger women in the cast, and several of her close friends are under the age of 12. At the moment, she is smitten with Spencer Vrooman, 12, who is in the cast of Boys and is lunching with her. She believes it is time for Spencer to learn a musical instrument. “Choose your weapon,” she says.

“Gee-tar!” says Spencer.

So after lunch Winona gives him a lesson. She shows him how to hold the instrument, how to wrap his fingers around the neck. She compliments him lavishly. “You totally have more of a knack than most people I know,” she says. “You were born to rock.” Spencer breams. Some days later, she buys him his own guitar.

She is acutely sensitive to the young and small, the weak, the preyed-upon and the unprotected. When Ian Hamilton wrote a prying biography of her literary hero, the reclusive J.D. Salinger, she wrote a smarmy, short, bogus biography of Hamilton and sent it to him, “just to show you,” she wrote, “what it feels like.” She herself is in possession of a Christmas card signed by Salinger, a troubling totem: He’s a private man. Shouldn’t she return this item that once belonged to him?

The sexual abuse of children is a recurring theme in her conversation – she talks about it, she reads about it, she wants to do a movie about it. Last year she reacted with extraordinary passion to the abduction of a child, Polly Klaas, in Petaluma, Calif., where she spent part of her own childhood. She offered a $200,000 reward for Polly’s safe return, manned phones, went on a search for her, befriended her sister, Annie. Vulnerability and fear are threaded through discussion of Winona’s growing-up. She talks about real-life kidnapping cases that took place when she was young – a baby snatched, a boy never found – and says she “would lie in bed and be scared.” Her mother remembers her, at age 12 or 13, asking of bars on her windows because a serial killer was on the loose and rumored to be in northern California.

Her family is large and loving and not average. Her parents, Michael and Cindy Horowitz, have edited a book of Aldous Huxley’s essays about mind-altering drugs and a collection of women’s writings on drug experiences. (Michael is a bookdealer specializing in the ’60s; Cindy is writing a screenplay about Louisa May Alcott, a longtime fascination.) Inevitably, Winona has been labeled: The Girl Who Grew Up In A Commune; Timothy Leary’s Goddaughter. Asked about Leary, she begins gamely – “He’s a great guy” – but runs out of steam. “None of that stuff interests me,” she says. (She says she is ‘terrified’ of drugs.) A pause. Well, here’s something to say. “Every time you think he’s senile, he’s not.”

About the commune, where she lived from ages seven to 11, she says, teasingly, “Everyone grew their own everything. If you know what I mean.” Also, less lightly: “For a kid to watch a bad drug trip is terrifying.” Finally: “I have some great memories and some terrible memories.” She didn’t like the lack of structure or the nudity. To this day she does not Do Nude and has said she can’t imagine it.

She loves her parents – by all accounts good, gentle, generous people – and talks about them a lot. Her father sends her comics and newspaper clips, cooks her pasta when she is home. Her mother “finds the good in everything, everyone.” But the daughter is different. Says Dave: “My parents leaned to the conservative side, and hers leaned to the liberal. We’re both overcompensating.”

Driving home after the day in the meadow: Winona is describing a director she has met several times. “He’s just uncouth – as Judy Holliday would say,” she concludes, raising her voice so that it is flutty, prim, the verbal equivalent of an extended pinkie. How many 23-year-olds use Judy Holliday as a point of reference? Among actors, William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck are her abiding heroes, beloved for making difficult characters sympathetic, but she has others: Greer Garson, Bette Davis, Maureen O’Hara, Ingrid Bergman, Angela Landsbury, Patricia Neal, Joanne Woodward, Ginger Rogers, Jessica Tandy, Anne Bancroft and, of course, Audrey Hepburn. “They didn’t all have the same tricks up their sleeve,” she says of the actresses. “Each of them had a different look in her eye.”

“She’s seen more movies than I have,” says Little Women director Gillian Armstrong. When the family lived in the commune, Cindy Horowitz ran an informal film society and took her kids to the screenings. When they left the commune, they got a TV set. Cindy, says Winona, “would sit us down and talk us through the old films.” Winona found something to love in all movies – particularly dark films from the ’40s, but even Tammy Tell Me True. She draped her bedroom windows in black so she could watch movies all the time. “I wanted to live in a the theater,” she says. “You know, take out the seats, put in a bathtub.”

She had more time to watch movies than other kids did. “I didn’t have a single friend,” she says. For a year, she didn’t even go to school. On the third day of seventh grade she was roughed up by tough kids – she had been taken for an effeminate boy – and was put on home study. Wasn’t this traumatic? “It was great,” she insists: If she hadn’t left school, she wouldn’t have started classes at the American Conservatory Theater, wouldn’t have got an agent … The bullies, she says, “gave me my career.”

The story is a bit tidy; maybe it has lost its pain the retelling. She tried going back to school, says her mother, but she remained “different.” The other girls conspired to unsettle her; whenever she looked up, they were staring at her. “Noni was so miserable and stubborn,” Cindy says. “She went down on her knees and said, ‘Mom, I’m not going back another day.’ ”

Winona did eventually go back to school, and make friend – girls who shared her taste in punk rock and punky clothes. By this time she was, in a way, already gone. She was Winona Ryder, no longer Horowitz, and already making movies.

She grew up on film sets. She got her first period while making Lucas and had her breasts strapped down for Square Dance. During the filming of Mermaids she kept her Walkman clamped to her head, listening over and over to “Sixteen Blue,” the Replacements’ lovely, sad song about teenage loneliness. “My character was such a teenager,” she says, and pauses. “I was such a teenager.”

She met Johnny Depp when she was 17, six months before they made Edward Scissorhands. The romance was intense and unstable – “embarrassingly dramatic.” By 19, during Age of Innocence, things were seriously wrong. She covered up: “I was acting like everything was O.K. – smiling. I was being watched all the time. ” Depp was only part of her “identity crisis.” Years of work, of “dealing with who people want you to be,” had taken a toll. A doctor diagnosed “anticipatory anxiety” and “anticipatory nostalgia,” whatever that is. (“I don’t think I have that,” says Winona.) He gave her polls for sleep. It got so she couldn’t fall asleep without them. “I got over it. I have Michelle Pfeiffer to thank for that. She told me to flush them down the toilet.” But that depression lasted. Her parents came to visit her in Portugal, but she didn’t see them much. The girl who doesn’t drink “tried to be an alcoholic for two weeks.” Alone in her hotel room, she would make screwdrivers from the minibar, smoke cigarettes, play Tom Waits’s doleful album Nighthawks at the Diner. One night she fell asleep with a lit cigarette. She woke up before anything caught fire, but that was it for her dalliance with drink. Having hit bottom, she started to climb up. “I haven’t been back,” she says, “and I wouldn’t ever want to return.”

A final day in Baltimore: Winona has sent Salinger his Christmas card. It was the right thing to do. Now, snuggling with Dave, she says she’s giving up her New York apartment. She wants to move to a smaller city – Seattle, maybe. She has a friend there, and it’s pretty, and she thinks it might be a nice place to raise children. Dave smiles, letting her talk.

Q: What kind of kid are you?

A: I wasn’t a nerd. I was just kind of a lonely kid who loved the movies. I had a lot of imagination – that kept me company.

Q: Why haven’t you done any television?

A: I knew when I was twelve that TV was a bad career move. I thought TV was lame.

Script developed by Never Enough Design