The Reel Thing
March 6, 1994
Winona Ryder’s ascent from adolescence to idol essence
She has been a movie star for as many years as most people twice her age have been pursuing a career. But curled up in the corner of a sofa in a hotel suite at an exclusive ski resort above Park City, Utah, her 100-pound frame almost lost in denim overalls and a woolly sweater, Winona Ryder is so sweet and open it’s as if she had never been interviewed. Or never wounded, at least, by an industry designed first to amass gossip and then to interpret it in the most sinister possible light.
“I understand the fascination of it because I am fascinated sometimes,” she says. “I like gossip — if it’s kind. Like I love hearing that people are getting married. It used to hurt me when I was with Johnny (Depp, her former boyfriend), because they were always trying to put me with other people. I mean I work with actors and I know them, and sometimes I might have dinner with them, but that’s the end of it. And he does the same thing with actresses. I guess part of it is that they want to get a reaction, and they also want to start a scandal, an affair, or whatever. The truth is that I have had one boyfriend before my boyfriend now, and that was Johnny.
“On the other hand, I think I let myself be hurt by what they said about me, like I’m having an affair with so-and-so, I’m pregnant, I’m a drug addict — they’ve said everything under the sun — but it’s interesting because it no longer bothers me, mostly because I don’t deal with the kind of people I used to deal with. There was a part of me that wanted to know, and so there used to be people who would call me up and tell me what they’d heard, people I was working with, makeup artists or whatever. But I don’t want that anymore. I hear things about me sometimes and I think, ‘Oh really?’ and it does not even penetrate. Even when Johnny himself says something about me in the press, it’s like I look at him, the way you look at someone you used to know, and you say, ‘Oh, him,’ and it’s not this big dramatic thing. And, God, I’m very happy that I’m not with an actor.”
But, with what is apparently a characteristic sense of fairness, Ryder immediately qualifies that tribute to her current boyfriend, Dave Pirner of the Minneapolis rock band, Soul Asylum. “I hate generalizations,” she says. “And actually I know some of the most wonderful actors, who are kind and not involved in things that are gross, or the scene, or whatever. Yet it is nice that my boyfriend does this other thing I find totally fascinating and that there’s no competition at all.”
At 22, Ryder has already made “about 15 movies,” she says. Two are spring releases: In The House of the Spirits, based on the novel by Isabel Allende, she plays a Chilean patron’s daughter who falls in love with a revolutionary and is imprisoned and tortured after the 1973 military coup. In Reality Bites, she plays a young woman who has just graduated from college and who, with her friends, tries to reconcile her ideals with the demands of making a living.
Ryder won this year’s Golden Globe Award and has been nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role opposite Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Age oflnnocence. And she believes that the reason her career has survived the transition from adolescence — and more youthful parts in films like Heathers, Beetlejuice, Great Balls of Fire and Edward Scissorhands to adulthood is because of her singular real-life childhood, growing up the daughter of parents who are both idealistic and intellectual, in San Francisco, Mendocino and Petaluma.
“I’ve been really lucky,” she says. “I can count on one hand the actors who have survived going through adolescence onscreen. But growing up in the Bay Area, I avoided the traps kids fell into in Hollywood. I’ve made a lot of movies, but I would make them during the summer. I stayed in public school. I didn’t lead some kind of weird, sheltered movie-star life.”
Born in Minnesota, Ryder was named for Winona, the town of her birth some 50 miles outside Minneapolis, where she and her family always spend Christmas, visiting relatives. She changed her surname to Ryder after she made her first movie, “Lucas,” because “they were saying, ‘What do you want on the credits?’ and I was saying, ‘I don’t want Winona Horowitz.’ You go way back and it’s even a made-up name. My grandparents came from Russia and they were meeting a family at Ellis Island and had to say they belonged to them, the Horowitzes. But my father and I were just going through the alphabet and thinking of every name — at one point we were thinking Huxley, because they just love Aldous Huxley but it didn’t sound right — and when he said `Ryder’ it didn’t have any connection to anything, I just liked the way it went with my first name.”
She started acting when she was 13, the year she stayed home from school because she’d been “bullied by some kids on my third day” at a junior high school in Petaluma. They “pushed my head into the locker and I got stitches and was on home study for the rest of the year,” she says. “But I guess I have those kids to thank for my acting career, because I would do a week’s worth of school work in one day and have nothing else to do, so I started to go to ACT (the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco).” Which is where a talent scout discovered her, leading eventually to the role in Lucas a teen-age love story in which she played a shy, poetic adolescent who develops a crush on the title character.
Ryder says she considers herself unusually lucky in her parents, Michael and Cindy Horowitz, who are often summarized glibly, much to her resentment, as hippies who raised her in a commune. She describes them, more precisely, as well-educated intellectuals who have made it a point to live according to their ideals. Her father runs Flashback Books in Petaluma, which specializes in books about the 1960s counterculture and the Beat era. And her parents have edited two scholarly books — Moksha: Aldous Huxley’s Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience which was published in 1977 and has been translated into five languages, and Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady: Women’s Writings on the Drug Experience which was published in 1982. “It’s great,” says Ryder of the latter. “It’s about famous women writers like Louisa May Alcott and Edith Wharton who used opium or whatever while they were creating their masterpieces. It goes all the way up to Patti Smith.” She says that her mother makes educational videos and her father is currently editing a collection of the writings of Timothy Leary, who is also her godfather.
“What inspired me most is that while they are both very educated and very smart and could have been anything they wanted to be, they chose to do something where they made no money,” she says, laughing. “But they were so happy doing it, and we grew up with an abundance of love and inspiration and conversation. There were, of course, times when I really wished they had gone the other way and we could have had a house like all of my friends. But I had a pretty happy childhood.
“My mom and dad are very different, and very much in love. My mom is very sentimental and sensitive — she cries at Hallmark commercials — and I’ve never met a single person who doesn’t love her. She is completely nonjudgmental. My house was always the community house, the one where all my friends wanted to hang out.
“My dad is very intellectual and loving and he’s so proud of me it’s funny. He has a clipping service and scrapbooks and follows things I don’t even follow. He knows every magazine and newspaper that’s ever mentioned me.”
She says that the night she won the Golden Globe Award, her parents threw a party for her at the house she owns in Coldwater Canyon. “When I came home, my whole family was there, including Tim (Leary), who I’ve known my whole life. It was really cool because they’ve always been so anti-establishment and then I won this award that’s aired on TV and everything, and they were so excited about it.”
Ryder, whose family did not even own a television until she was 13, says that she “hates to admit it, but I am kind of fascinated by TV — and not in a good way. Last night we stared at it for hours, at nothing, and it’s like we were stoned or something. It’s the strangest thing.” But she says her involvement in the search for Polly Klaas — the 12-year-old Petaluma girl who was kidnapped from her bedroom last October — has given her new respect for the medium. “When we were looking for Polly, TV was this weird way to get to the whole country, and then I started being really grateful for it,” says Ryder, who had offered a $200,000 reward for the child’s safe return.
Ryder, who says she “still thinks about Polly all the time,” is on the board of the Polly Klaas Foundation and persuaded Universal Pictures to turn the Feb. 17 premiere of Reality Bites in Los Angeles into a benefit for the group, which now helps search for other missing children.
“I try to talk about it as much as I can,” she says. “I wore her button last night because I don’t want people to forget just because it’s over. I’ve gotten really close to her little sister, who’s 6 and who everyone says has Polly’s sense of humor. I really feel as if I know her in a way. It’s ironic, because about six months before it happened, I’d been talking to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, trying to figure out something I could do, mostly for runaways. And then this happened next door.
“It’s weird, but from the time I was really little, I knew what kidnapping was and it was always my worst fear. I remember so well when Kevin Collins was kidnapped, because he lived in our neighborhood in San Francisco and my sister babysat for him once. And you probably remember that little girl Tars Burke. And I remember Steven Stayner so well because we used to live in Mendocino. I’ve even had some weird run-ins myself… I remember once my sister and I were followed by some people. God knows how many attempted kidnappings there are.”
Like her parents, who “were in all those marches in the ’60s,” Ryder has been involved in progressive causes most of her life, contributing to construction of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and writing letters for Amnesty International. In The House ofthe Spirits, her role is an Amnesty case come to life. The torture scenes are almost unbearable to watch, even though, as Isabel Allende points out, “they are only a suggestion of what happens to people.” Cozy and safe in this Utah ski lodge, Ryder is suddenly very quiet, remembering the ordeal of performing them.
“It was very, very difficult,” she says hesitantly. “I hate saying it, but I just don’t know if I could do it again. It’s very violating, even though you’re acting, to be handled that way. Because you have to make yourself receptive, so it turns into — well, it’s not pretend anymore. To make it look real you have to open up, and there are a couple of things you can’t fake. When someone picks you up by the hair, when you’re being dragged through the street — you can’t fake that. To a certain degree you have to get hit. The hardest thing is being blindfolded and handcuffed and you don’t know where the hit is coming from and you don’t know when. Thank God for Vincent Gallo (who plays the vengeful half-brother who tortures her). He is a friend of mine, and we were just hugging after every take. Everyone was so wonderful and supportive and would have done anything, but I was covered with marks and bruises, my shoulder got kind of dislocated. Luckily, it was the last thing that we shot.”
Still, Ryder says, she was grateful for the opportunity to work on The House of the Spirits, which was filmed in Denmark and Portugal and directed by Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) with a cast that included Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Vanessa Redgrave, Jeremy Irons and Antonio Banderas.
“I couldn’t believe they chose me,” she says. “I was really flattered. It was a difficult situation because I replaced the director’s wife, who got pregnant and couldn’t do it. And I felt out of my league. It’s hard to forget that you’re working with Meryl Streep.”
Working on Reality Bites, which was filmed in Houston, was a study in contrasts, Ryder says. The cast, the director — even the writer — were all in their 20s. Subtitled A Comedy About Love in the 90s, It stars Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn and Ben Stiller, who is also the director. It was written by first-time screenwriter Helen Childress, who is 23. And the script is full of specific generational references, including MTV and The Gap, the commercialized artifacts of their parents’ youthful rebellion.
Reality Bites is being hyped as a “Generation X” movie, and Ryder says that after its screening here at the Sundance Film Festival she found herself talking to these older reporters, trying to defend both the movie and my generation.” But if the pop references are contemporary, the plot is a variation on the classic themes of romantic love and youth making its way in the world of adulthood.
I try to avoid labels,” says Ryder,”because if you label something ‘Generation X’ it sounds as if other generations aren’t going to identify, and I hope this movie is timeless. The dilemmas my character faces are the dilemmas lots of girls have faced, no matter what era they’ve lived in.”
Although Reality Bites was received enthusiastically at Sundance, Ryder says she has mixed feelings about it. “I just saw it last night for the first time,” she says, “and I guess I always knew it was a love story, but while I was doing it my focus was on my character’s work — that she has been laboring over this documentary for a long time and does not want to see it commercialized. But the script for Reality Bites was very different from how the movie turned out, and most of us were feeling as if what was happening to my character’s documentary was also happening to the movie. Still, Universal was a lot more liberal than I expected them to be. I don’t think studio heads quite get the joke about The Gap, for instance, but they let it in the movie.”
Though she is one of the most celebrated actresses of her generation, Ryder says she tries to avoid reminders of her notoriety. Her best friends are still the people she was close to in high school. Her dress — overalls, sweater, boots, no makeup — is designed not to attract attention, but to deflect it. And she has worked at learning to protect her privacy without resorting to a public persona, an artificial self.
“This friend of mine said something really wonderful after the Golden Globes,” she says. “He’s a singer in a band and was right behind me when we were walking in. You have to walk through zillions of news cameras and talk to each one of them. So I was talking to them and afterward he said, ‘I am so baffled by this whole evening. You do this thing where you are completely yourself but you’re not revealing your heart and your soul.’
“And then we talked for a couple of hours about interviews, about all of the times we’ve been screwed and the times it’s been great, and I was saying how hard it is. Because like everybody else, I’m totally insecure and I want the interviewer to like me and I want to be cool and say the right thing and I try to be honest about that. But there are also things I don’t want to talk about.”
She says that if she has found a balance, it is because she learned a long time ago from her parents the value of doing things because you believe in them, and not because they offer you any particular outside advantage.
“Whenever I’ve had choices to make, I’ve known how to make them,” she says. “I don’t know if that comes from the ’60s or if it comes from something else. But it’s a wonderful thing to know.”