Elle – November 1990
— by Christa Worthington
When Winona Ryder, child of sixties’ liberals, showed up for seventh grade in the Northern California town of Petaluma, less enlightened classmates roughed her up. “I think they thought I was a gay boy,” she says of the cropped hair and boy’s clothing she wore in the spirit of the old gangster movies that possessed her at the time. She walked home from the incident thrilled, however, to have a bandage around her head. To her Cagney-soaked senses, it was a gangster’s bade of courage. “I felt like I was in a movie,” she recalls.
Two years later, at age 13, she had her first screen role.
Ryder is a creature of rare self-invention. At 18, with nine iconoclastically select films behind her – including Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, and Michael Lehmann’s Heathers – she is the leading anti-heroine of her generation, an actress who even in her early teens could lift trendy black comedy above the potential glibness of the genre. She does this with performances of dazzling honesty: what one reviewer called “deeper-than-Method conviction.”
“Shocking. Almost scary,” says her friend and colleague Burton (Batman, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) of a talent that, for all it’s force, comes “very, very simply, without a lot of show.”
“She can’t lie. She can’t fake. She can’t do anything but what’s truly felt and real,” says Richard Benjamin, who cast her in Mermaids (just released) as the deeply devout daughter of a promiscuous single mom (Cher). Burton, who cast her as the spirit-attuned Lydia in Beetlejuice and, again, in his upcoming suburban fairy tale, Edward Scissorhands (with Dianne Wiest, Alan Arkin, and Johnny Depp, Ryder’s real-life paramour, in the title role), calls her presence the bit of reality that anchors “all the weird stuff” of his cartoonish landscapes. This time, renegade Ryder, the spiritual outlaw, goes mainstream as a generic blond teenager who falls in love with a man-creature with scissors for hands. (Depp’s misunderstood innocent is a whiz at trimming topiary but awkward in an embrace.) Burton cackles at the memory of Ryder disguised as a hard-core normal in a cheerleader’s skirt. “That is not what she is at all,” he explains, laughing again at the thought. “She is a lot darker than that. She has a lot going on.” Obviously so in her roles.
In Great Balls of Fire, the spirited, doomed innocence of her Myra, Jerry Lee Lewis’s child bride, kept an otherwise leaden film afloat. In Jim Abrahams’s new film, Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, she stars, with Jeff Daniels, as a small-town misfit obsessed by the homecoming of a local heroine, a part written for her by writer-producer Karen Leigh Hopkins.
“She can play the unsympathetic or ambivalent part and audiences hang in there with her,” explains Denise Di Novi, who produced Heathers and Edward Scissorhands. They did so most crucially with Heathers, the 1989 sleeper in which, as Veronica Sawyer, Ryder improved the quality of high school life by killing off the “most popular” despots of the student body, three of whom were named Heather. Then 16, she fought to make the film against all professional advice. “My agent was on her knees,” she remembers of the resistance to the script by Dan Waters, which, on sight, she deemed “literature” for its social acuity. It has since become a cult classic, and everyone associated with it (including its then unknown director, Lehmann, and co-star Christian Slater) a hot property.
“I tease her that she’s like a little witch. Her instincts are so good it’s almost creepy,” says Di Novi of her uncanny skills. “From her first film to her last, you look at her and say, ‘There’s a movie star.'”
Stardom resides most quixotically in her eyes – unfathomable pools of black that Burton calls “a pair of the best in the business. She reminds me of photographs of actresses from the thirties and forties. She could be from another century. It’s inside too. She has an old soul.”
Across the ritzy expanse of a Beverly Hills hotel, she appears like a creature visiting for a time from a purer planet – all black and white amid Kodacolor, an alabaster child-woman in a sea of sun-damage. Light-boned to the point of lift-off, she is anchored by a wholesome, high schooler’s voice, and a rock – a diamond solitaire – from her betrothed-to-be-betrothed, Depp. “We’re in no rush,” she smiles, languorously engaged to the star of teen cop series 21 Jump Street and, more recently, John Waters’s Cry-Baby. But her face goes radioactive when he enters the room.
A black-eyed Kentuckian turned teen idol, Depp has etched “Winona Forever” in a tattoo on his arm as an irascible token of commitment. (Eight years her senior, he has been engaged to girlfriends before.) He has the kind of telegenic testosterone that makes screaming teens ask for his sewage, as did one fanatic one the set of Cry-Baby. “I now know what it’s like to wake up with a television camera in your window,” says Ryder of their tabloid appeal.
In conversation, she is at once sweet and wise, and tackles evolved ideas with childlike clarity.
“Why do these rich, famous actors do these horrible movies that aren’t anything actingwise? Don’t you have enough money?” she demands of the ceiling. She cannot help making a beeline for the bogus. “It just seems that in America now there’s this sort of trendy thing heppening because there’s a resurgence of black comedy. Everything is trying to be so desperately dark and weird. It’s all, ‘Oh, and then they meet a drifter.'”
Ryder, coolly clad in black velvet trousers, expects content with her style. She is second-generation sixties, a child of Haight-Ashbury intellectuals who fed her books, old movies, and free will the way some other kids got Oreos. “They weren’t dropping acid at Dead concerts,” she points out, speaking of her countercultural role models, both writers. Her father, Michael Horowitz (Ryder is a stage name), was archivist to LSD guru Timothy Leary, who is Winona’s godfather. Utopian idealist Aldous Huxley, about whom her parents wrote a book, and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg were in the family fold. Her father now runs a video and mail-order business called Flashback out of their home, offering sixties books and paraphernalia. “It’s really kind of amazing because our house is like a sixties museum,” she says, as if psychedelia were another sibling (she has three, two brothers and a sister). They also spent an Edenic spell living communally on 300 acres of Mendocino farmland with seven other families. There, “Noni,” named for the town in Minnesota near which she was born, watched classic art films her mother would screen in a barn.
A Hollywood career was an accident, provoked by the redneck attack in seventh grade. Ryder says she owes her acting to it, as she was sent, for refuge, to study at San Francisco’s prestigious American Conservatory Theater. She embarked, at 11, on adapting her own material, and wrote a monologue from Franny & Zooey, the work of her literary hero, J.D. Salinger. (She writes constantly – short stories, and scripts, including one, written with Beetlejuice screenwriter Michael McDowell, that has been sold). With that, she first tapped the resident aliens within. “You just have feelings that surprise you,” she says of what happened behind the eyes. “I was feeling emotions that didn’t belong to me.” An agent picked her up on the basis of a video, which led to her first film, Lucas, and quickly to her second. At 15, she held the film Square Dance in her sway, against performances by Jason Robards and Jane Alexander.
“When I stop getting those feelings I’m going to stop acting. I’ve done a couple of things where I didn’t like the material and then you can’t feel any of those emotions I’m talking about. It’s what you imagine death to be like,” she says of an impasse she calls creative “lying and cheating.” “I won’t do it, even if it means I don’t work that much.”
Her purism, it would seem, is more a matter of constitution than ego. “There’s a lot of pressure on someone like that,” says Burton. “She is very very smart, very very intuitive, and feels a lot. On a professional level, she’s gonna be fine, “he says of the long run. “There’s a lot more on a personal level to deal with – all the bullshit. That’s the only pitfall – the only one.
Returning from shooting Edward Scissorhands in Tampa, Florida – the town makes Ryder roll her eyes in mock tedium: “We were staying in a golf resort,” she explains – a posse of paparazzi lay in wait for Hollywood’s cool couple at the airport. A chase ensued. “It was one of the most horrible things I’ve ever seen in my life,” recalls Burton. “I’m sort of a believer that if you’re in the public eye you’ve got to accept a certain amount of that. But I’ve never seen something so hostile. They tripped Winona.”
Her response, as with her “gangster” wound at school, is to turn injury into art. She announces chirpily, that she is writing a muck-raking biography of Ian Hamilton, the unauthorized biographer of her beloved Salinger, who despite pleas from the reclusive author persevered. “It makes your blood hot,” she says of his expose. Her retort, to be titled In Search of Ian Hamilton, will include crucial data such as “the girl who devirginized him.”
“I know it’s hypocritical of me to be doing exactly what I’m saying is horrible. I’m just doing it to vent my anger right now. You don’t know what it’s like until it happens to you; how ugly it is. It’s like this feeling that you’re standing naked and you want to put something on.”
She recalls a time in 1989, as if it were ages ago, when Heathers was her “life.” She and co-star Slater went on the road speaking at schools about the film, mocking Hollywood en route. “Heathers wasn’t a Hollywood experience,” she says with nostalgic hindsight. “It was everyone’s first movie [though not technically hers]. It was free, and collaborative. We thought we were going to do nothing but Heathers sequels for the rest of our lives, that we could stay out of all the Hollywood stuff. The irony is that we’re now actually living through the things we were mocking…the kinds of scandals.” Slater has had a run-in with the law, and Ryder has had what she calls “the Godfather.”
When she dropped out, with a thud, from Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather III, last December, Ryder made her first false career move in the business. “I finally wasn’t perfect,” she says of the incident that, she admits, was personally “devastating.” The role of Michael and Kay Corleone’s daughter, and the chance that it offered to play opposite Al Pacino and Diane Keaton, went to Coppola’s daughter, Sofia, and Ryder became grist for a “horrible rumor mill.” Stories of a nervous breakdown, an eating disorder, a drug addiction, and of her running off to be with Depp are still circulating. “Pregnancy was another one I heard quite a bit,” she says.
What happened, she says, is that she fell ill with a respiratory infection while shooting Mermaids, in the cold of Boston, through Christmas Eve. Two days later, she arrived in Rome in time to begin the new film but found that she couldn’t get out of bed. “I was lying there with a high fever and the doctor was saying ‘You can’t do it,’ and I was saying ‘Oh, yes I can.’ But the choice was made for me. My body just couldn’t do it.”
Her strength, finally, is the fortitude of fragility, an unfettered free will that confounds Hollywood careerism and is fundamentally joyful. Enthusiasm is her greatest resource, and it is widely cast: college, probably Bennington, in Vermont, is on hold for another year to avoid what she calls a clash of commitments. “I want to stick with it when I decide to do it,” she says, having gotten a 4.0 grade point average on her home-study high school degree. She is developing an “edgy” script about lost immigrant roots; hers are Romanian. She yearns for Europe and a stint at Trinity College, Dublin, because He went there – James Joyce – and would like to get British-based movie work. “It’s so much more intelligent. Not so formulaic,” she says. She adores the BBC, Monty Python, and the authentically black humor of Bruce Robinson, English writer-director of How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Withnail & I. “You go through the business looking at all the people who have the power who make these horrible, violent, sexist, terrible movies, and then to know that these other people are getting hot [Dan Waters and Tim Burton, in her estimation] is very comforting,” she says, her art a kind of Method politics.
With Burton, she is telepathically attuned, sharing the sort of communication her Beetlejuice character, Lydia, had with the resident ghosts of the film. “He just has to make a noice and I understand him.”
“His ambition is very humble, very internal,” she observes. “Most people, like the great big people, they have to compromise certain things to get it on the screen. He does his exact vision and doesn’t change a thing.” The bathetic character of Edward Scissorhands, the man who can’t touch anything without destroying it, is, she says, Burton’s metaphor for adolescent inadequacy. He describes it as being about the curse of appearance, a thing to which, he thinks, both Ryder and Depp can relate – through the burden of beauty.
Burton says that Depp “truly is this character because he’s not what the world perceives him to be – this male model heartthrob, a new James Dean. He is not that at all. He simply does not know what he looks like.”
They have, friends agree, more in common than their big black eyes. “They choose to make Heathers and Cry-Baby, not Pretty Woman and Top Gun,” says Di Novi. “They see behind the facades a lot more than most people in this business.”
Depp’s love of books and Jack Kerouac, “not in any social, sixties-is-cool-way, but in a genuine way,” has endeared him to Ryder’s father, the Beat expert, she reports. “He thinks, Marry him!” At her family home in Petaluma (“chicken capital of the world”), which she and Depp frequent when not in their New York loft – her parents coddle them. “They bring me and Johnny breakfast in bed. They’re so cool,” she coos. “They’ve been together forever and they still make out and stuff.”
“A lot of actors were afraid of the part of Edward because it was so vulnerable, and he doesn’t have a gun and doesn’t have a girl,” she says. “Johnny, like, went for it. That takes a lot for an actor, especially a male actor, to do,” she says, seemingly unaware that it has never been hard for her.