Allam Ma. A Madrilejos
In an exclusive, one-on-one interview with Winona Ryder, RUSH takes a thorough look at a Hollywood heavyweight trapped in a willowy, 96-pound body.
Eight years ago, people close to Winona Ryder predicted that she would have a difficult time handling fame. They say it’s because she has no sense of who she really is. Well, she proved them all wrong by becoming not just a Hollywood pretty face — today, Winona is perhaps Tinseltown’s most powerful 5-foot-4 actress as well. At 26, she has a say on what films to make and who she wants to direct them.
All this despite a very lightweight frame. But unlike other major Hollywood players, Winona swam against the tide to reach her current powerhouse billing. Her rise wasn’t so much a result of her deft portrayals of various angst-ridden women. What made her tick was her commitment to continuously do such films even against her agents’ will. “Noni (her nickname) was offered 9,000 light-comedy, feel-good, hits-of-the summer movies,” long-time pal and actor Robert Downey, Jr. told Rolling Stone magazine, “and she chose the one where she kills her friends.”
Of course, the particular movie he referred to was the cult classic Heathers, a black comedy about teenage suicide in America. Her agents, admitted Winona, begged her not to do it. “They say it wasn’t the wisest of career moves,” she recalls. Winona felt it was the wrong thing to say to someone who believes in instinct rather than in strategy. As Heathers producer Denise de Novi said in an interview with Elle, “She can play the unsympathetic or ambivalent part and audiences hang in there with her. From her first movie to her last, you look at her and you say, ‘There’s a movie star.'”
Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, who played mother to Winona in Little Women, concurred in the Guardian Weekend. “I’m glad to see Noni going for the roles she has. It’s taken my generation years to get to the point where she is starting out.” Speaking of Little Women, legend has it that the film had been peddled to several major studios for years, but no one dared produce it until Winona stepped into the scene and committed to do it for Columbia. Winona’s commitment paid off handsomely: Aside from surprisingly robust box-office returns for the film, her portrayal of the impetuous Jo March got her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, her second after being nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for her role as May Welland in Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence.
LITTLE WOMAN KICKS ALIEN BUTT
This November, Winona will be seen opposite Sigourney Weaver in another out-of-this-world role in the soon-to-be-released Alien Resurrection, the fourth installment of the $350 million-grossing Alien series that launched Sigourney’s career. Winona says she could never turn down her role as Annalee Call when 20th Century Fox offered it to her for the first time. “When they first mentioned doing the movie, I almost jumped out of my seat,” she gushes to RUSH in response to a questionnaire this writer sent to 20th Century Fox. “Lt. Ripley (Sigourney’s character) was an action hero for girls and she had a huge impact on me. I have never done anything like (this role) before, so I think it’s one good experience for me.”
And no other actress is perfect for it than Winona herself, a convinced Sigourney Weaver declares. “Winona’s such an amazing actress. She’s so true. She’s so strong. She plays someone who’s very passionate, very idealistic, the way Ripley used to kinda be.” Winona, a science fiction fan for years, first saw Alien in 1979 when she was nine years old. “I remember they did a poll when the first Alien came out, and it turned out that men were actually more terrified of the movie than women because of the idea of something being inside them and coming out,” Winona tells RUSH. “Women could handle that more because they carry children.” Then she adds (and you can almost imagine her cracking up and her wide eyes squinting in a radiant smile), “I mean, this whole chestbursting deal really freaked out my brothers.” Working with Sigourney, an actress she has long admired, was part of the thrill of accepting the role of Ripley’s android sidekick. But she humorously insists that her primary consideration was her siblings. Winona dedicates her performance here to her equally sci-fi fanatic brothers who, according to her, expect to “get a lot of cool, free Alien merchandise.”
Another factor that got her nod was the character’s personality. “What I really liked about Call is the fact that she isn’t ultra-violent. She uses her brains a lot to get out of difficult situations. Definitely, she’s not your typical shoot ’em up character at all. Somehow, human-to-human violence bothers me a lot more than human-to-monster violence. I can accept more easily blowing away an alien.”
And Winona did exactly just that. But not without a rigorous daily regimen of six-hour workouts prior to principal photography. “I had to do a lot of climbing and a lot of running. I had to be dragged out of murky pits. You really have to be in good shape to run from the Mother Alien. I was really surprised with myself. I was kinda proud.”
Part of Winona Ryder’s power is her ability to appreciate her past. Winona went through rough sailing growing up. A good number of her formative years were spent living in a commune with seven counterculture families. She knows what it means to live without money, without electricity, without running water, without heating (save for a stove).
“I enjoy remembering how a weekly pint of Haagen-Dazs ice cream would be a big family treat,” Winona reminisces. “I don’t regret having had a very simple life, (because) my parents gave us amazing amounts of love and support.”
When the family settled back into the mainstream, they established roots in Petaluma, California. At 11, Winona — then sporting cropped hair and a boy’s get-up (an homage to the gangster movies she was hooked on at the time) was beaten up by her seventh grade schoolmates who thought she was gay. With a bandaged head, Winona told her parents she wouldn’t go back to that school again (school authorities reportedly moved for her expulsion because they claimed she was a distraction), and then enrolled in San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. That’s where she was discovered. Two years later she starred in her motion picture debut Lucas.
Throughout her career, Winona has been wondering why people have to make a lot of fuss about being a celebrity. Winona still can’t understand this, especially when people look at her as if she were a spoiled star. “You should be able to be an actress and have a life of your own. You give your work to the public and that should be enough. You shouldn’t be chased by cameras… what a nightmare!” she tells RUSH. In a Rolling Stone profile, Winona pays tribute to her hard-knocks upbringing: “When people look at me like I’m this really rich, pampered, privileged person — I am. I am right now. But it wasn’t always like that.”
In past interviews, Winona has cited two things that made her comfortable with stardom: her portrayal of May Welland in Age of Innocence (“If Heathers was my best friend, Age of Innocence is the one I’d like to marry.”) and her involvement with the Polly Klaas Foundation, currently sitting in its board of directors. Like Winona, Polly Klaas was from Petaluma. In October 1993, the 12 year-old was abducted from her bedroom and found murdered two months later. Winona actively participated in the search for the ill-starred girl. Her efforts, according to Polly’s father Marc Klaas, were enough reason for newspapers to keep the story in their front pages. She even put up a $200,000 reward for anyone with information leading to Polly’s whereabouts. As Winona has said, “To me, it isn’t really a cause. It was like, ‘This is an outrage, and it’s outrageous that more people aren’t outraged.’ When something happens to a child, the world should stand still.”
Winona dedicated Little Women to Polly’s loving memory. And it was her first indication that she could use her celebrity to put often overlooked issues into sharp relief.
Winona Ryder has had her share of down moments: her depression; her failed relationships with Johnny Depp and Soul Asylum drummer, Dave Pirner; her bouts with insomnia.
Nevertheless, Winona has somehow found a way to summon the phoenix in her everytime she needs to. She has a lot to be thankful for in the first place. She has been blessed to have worked with some of the best actors, actresses and especially directors who have been generous with their praise and continue to think highly of her.
Martin Scorsese (Age of Innocence): “(She) became May Welland by incorporating all the delight, beauty and strength that (she) already (possesses). Winona has a very good sense of humor and her energy is boundless. It was like having rampant youth on the set. But when you said ‘ACTION!’, she froze into position. All that energy was put behind her eyes, and I found that really fascinating.”
Tim Burton (Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands): “Her eyes are a pair of the best in the business. She reminds me of actresses from the 1930s and 1940s. It’s inside too. She has an old soul. She’s very, very smart. Very, very intuitive and feels a lot.”
Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who directs her in the upcoming Alien Resurrection): “Winona is an actress who works directly from instinct. She comes to the set completely relaxed, but she’s a force of concentration. No rehearsals are required. This instinctual way of working is a rare quality usually found in children. The most interesting part of her performance is that although her character has lethal intentions, she didn’t play her as cold. She was the Anti-Terminator.”
After the Alien Resurrection promo blitz, Winona, as always, will fly to San Francisco to be with her family and her books until she gets new assignments. “Where I live, people never look at me like I’m a movie star. It’s like I have a regular job, which is just going off and making movies,” she says. “Where I live, I feel more at peace.”