Select — July 1991
— by Lucy O’Brien
The crisp white tablecloths groan with untouched bowls of fruit, sumptuous bouquets and plates of costly biscuits, in case the occupent feels the slightest twinge of hunger. It’s the full Hollywood starlet number, par for the course for anyone with an immaculate complexion, nine major movies to their credit and a designer Manhatten loft which she shares with fiance and notorious movie-world bad boy Johnny Depp. But this is a Hollywood starlet with a difference. She’s only 19.
Winona Ryder is at ease alternately sipping cough syrup and lighting Camels. Despite a recurring respiratory infection that cost her a part in Godfather III, she sticks defiently to her vices. Uncannily, she resembles her public image – the post-punk bohemian who plays pool and has a passion for the Cocteau Twins, The Replacements and Tom Waits. Slight and elegant, yet quietly tough. You don’t get so far so fast without self-assurance to spare.
“I got beat up a few times in High School. Everyone thought I was a boy cos I had really short hair and dressed like a boy. A group of guys hit me in the stomach and banged my head into a locker so I go stitches. They were calling me a faggot and I was, like, But wait – I’m a girl! They didn’t believe me at first, but felt bad when they found out the truth later.
“I thought it was cool. I felt like a gangster. I got to wear a bandage on my head. I went home and looked at myself in the mirror, smoked a cigarette and thought, Yeah.
“I was having such a bad time I had to get out and do something, and I thought acting class would put me around more interesting people. That’s where I got discovered.”
The daughter of a Beatnik bookseller and video artist, Winona grew up in Petaluma, Northern California surrounded by ’60s intellectuals like Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary.
“I don’t think he’s got a fried brain,” she says of her godfather Leary. “We weren’t hippies living in a commune. We lived in the country but weren’t, like, dropping acid in the fields.”
Five years ago, an LA casting director dropped into her acting class and selected Winona to play a teenager in the coming-of-age movie Lucas. By ’88 she’d landed the part of Lydia – the deadpan daughter dressed in funereal black in Tim Burton’s comic hit Beetlejuice – who establishes an exclusive hotline to the ghosts haunting her family’s home. ÃŠ
“In Beetlejuice those were all my own clothes. I certainly looked and was considered weird, and I’ve always identified with the darker roles.”
For her next big film, the satirical Heathers, Winona starred with Christian Slater as the sweet-faced leader of a High School gang, with a cutting tongue. The film examined teen suicide, and Winona was later criticised for sending it up.
“Heathers was showing how horrible society can be when a tragedy happens. I had a friend who killed himself in High School and afterwards people were saying, Oh, he was so great. People treated him like shit when he was alive, they never gave him the time of day. Then I read the script for Heathers and it was perfect.
“When you see all those sappy made-for-TV movies about teen suicide when you kill yourself and everyone’s your best friend and at the funeral, it’s enough to make you jump in front of a bus. It’s a fantasy for teenagers to get all that attention and it’s dangerous. Heathers showed how screwed up that all was.”
Winona’s next challenge is making the transiton from teen actress to more mature roles. To avoid type casting and the brat pack tag, she has steered clear of slushy teen movies like The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink, choosing parts that strike an inner chord. This will probably be her career’s saving grace.
Winona’s acting style is subtle, understating characters rather than projecting herself madly. So much so that in Great Balls Of Fire, as the 13-year-old bride of rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, Winona was asked to ‘act up’.
“My style is more internal. I don’t like watching actresses who think, I’m real cos I have all these mannerisms. “In Great Balls Of Fire everybody was, like, way up here and I had to crank myself so at least I’d look like I was in the same movie as them! That was the biggest I’ve ever been. I still watch that and go, Ugh.”
Last year’s enviable role as Al Pacino and Diane Keaton’s daughter in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather III could have marked Winona’s move into more mature roles, but nervous exhaustion forced her to pull out of the picture.
Gossip as to why she’d quit was rife: she was pregnant; she had had a nervous breakdown; Johnny Depp had steered her away from Godfather III so that she could appear with him in Edward Scissorhands.
Also there was near mutiny on set when Coppola cast his daughter Sofia in Winona’s role. Sofia’s acting inabilities were painfully apparent and diminished the film’s credibility, while to Hollywood gossip-mongers Winona had made her first big career blunder.
“Of course it was a disappointment. Who wouldn’t want to be in Godfather III? People love to see you screw up.”
Still, Winona has another chance of working with Coppola this summer, playing the “love interest” in his faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
“It’s a period piece, set in England in the 1800s, so I’ll have to do an accent. I’m really nervous cos when Americans try to do English accents the English really don’t buy it!”
The disappointment that Winona felt about pulling out of Godfather III was partly offset by working with cult director Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train) on a film that is as yet untitled. Then there’s her latest movie Mermaids, starring alongside Cher in what must be the partnership of the season – Winona also dances, pretty hopelessly, in the video for Cher’s recent number one single, ‘The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss)’.
In this ’60s comedy drama, Cher plays a tarty mother, in and out of relationships. Winona plays her mixed-up 15-year-old daughter Charlotte who can’t decide whether to be a nun or a sex queen. In Mermaids, Winona takes a brave stab at making the implausible plausible.
“It was very exaggerated, but things are exaggerated at that age. I saw her as the epitome of inconsistent teen angst. You reach a point where you stop communicating because you can’t articulate what you’re feeling. You assume your parents can read your mind. You’re confused, they’re confused, it’s a party of confusion.”
With similar dark hair and eyes, Cher and Winona make a striking mother/daughter pair on screen. At first Winona was wary of working with America’s top female rock star but Cher soon proved to be a valuable ally.
Cher has a reputation for flying off the handle if things aren’t going her way. The first two directors of Mermaids, Lasse Hallstrom and Frank Oz, were asked to quit after they tried to bring out a more ‘artistic’ side to the film. Cue Cher’s immortal comment: “It’s a comedy, not fucking Chekhov.”
Keeping out of such politics, Winona got support and advice from the battle-scarred Cher.
“Making the film, I was 17 and just being introduced to the tabloids. Suddenly people are curious about things you wouldn’t even tell your friends. She’s been through that her whole life – she taught me what I should take seriously and what I should let go.”
At the time Winona was in the spotlight having just got engaged to Johnny Depp, the 26-year-old gunslinger who came to LA eight years ago, intent on becoming a rock musician but who became an actor instead. Depp soon made his name as a heart-throb via the TV series 21 Jump Street and in kitsch movies like John Waters’ Cry Baby, leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him. As he’d been engaged twice before to aspiring starlets, when his union with Winona was announced, car bumper stickers appeared in Manhattan saying, ‘Honk If You’ve Never Been Engaged To Johnny Depp’.
“People assume it bothers me that he’s been engaged before, but it really doesn’t. We have a connection on a deeper level. We have the same colouring but we’re from very different backgrounds, so we’re interested in each other the whole time.”
For Edward Scissorhands (which opens here in July) Winona was playing opposite Depp. It also reunited her with Beetlejuice director Tim Burton.
Scissorhands explores yet another side of the peer pressure of the American teenage nightmare. The film is a gothic ’90s fairytale in which Winona plays Kim a sunny, blonde suburban cheerleader who falls in love with Edward (Depp) – a freakish human creation devised by an eccentric inventor who died before completing the project. Edward is a normal(ish) human being with one highly original feature – instead of hands he has an arsenal of sharp pointy objects.
“Physically, my role in Scissorhands was everything I’d been anti throughout my whole life. But the reason she fell in love with Edward was because she felt different. She was trying to live this perfect, normal all-American teenager life, but she’s not like that inside.
“That’s what attracted me. That inside she’s really weird.”