Winona Ryder: Hiding High

Vogue — October 1993

— by David Handelman

Last spring Winona Ryder was “in really bad shape,” she says. “Miserable.” Some of her childhood friends had recently been killed in a freak accident; a guy she’d been madly in love with as a kid had just been diagnosed with AIDS; her relationship with Johnny Depp had been ending for about a year. Yet instead of confronting these crises, she was sequestered in Portugal, acting in her third consecutive, heavy-duty, all-star, grown-up drama — House of the Spirits, with Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, and Glenn Close, which followed Martin Scorsese’s , with Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, and Francis Ford Coppola’s mock-opera Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (And, during a few weeks off, she’d played Lady Anne in Al Pacino’s personal documentary about playing Richard III.)

It didn’t help matters that the character she was playing, Blanca Truebas, had her own Strum und Drang to wrestle with: being abused by her father, losing her mother, bearing a child out of wedlock, think her lover dead, and being tortured in prison. The actress began suffering from intense insomnia. “I was so worried about getting sleep that I couldn’t fall asleep,” say Ryder, who turns 22 this month. “I had this digital clock, and every time I barely opened my eyes, I saw these huge red numbers saying 3:30 AM — OK, I have two and a half hours before I have to get up.” She finally sought help from a sleep clnic, where she was told to get rid of the digital clock. “But the insomnia was really a symptom of something else, which was just an identity crisis,” she explains. “If you spend your most crucial adolescent years being watched by millions of people” — Ryder’s first screen role, as a soulful tomboy in Lucas, came when she was thirteen — “being told what’s good and what’s bad, you have no sense of who you are.”

Meanwhile the cast and crew who were watching Ryder’s performance in dailies kept telling her, “You’re so great! You must’ve really used all that stuff.”

This completely unnerved her. “I started thinking, ‘God, did I? Was it good that I was going through it?’ But I decided, I don’t care if someone says, ‘You’re going to win every award in the world for this performance, but you could have only done it because you were going through that stuff.’ I’d still go back and want to be really happy, and be bad in the movie! I know that sounds horrible, like I’m not committed to my work, or passionate about it, but I am.

“A lotof great actors, some of my favorites, say, ‘My work is my life.’ And for a long time I felt if I didn’t think that, I wasn’t a serious actress — if I didn’t suffer, then I wasn’t good. It’s this idea that’s really carved into young actors’ minds: ‘Use it. Be depressed, suffer, call upon horrible experiences,’ that only a licenses therapist, no acting coach, should be able to bring out. And in the last year, I came to the realization that I can be just as good an actress–in fact, I think a better actress–being a happy person.. Not having all that drama in my life. Doing fun things, acting my age for a change. Not acting like I’m 40 and divorced five times. You don’t have to be miserable to be a good actress.”

Previously she had often felt just like May Welland, the character she plays in The Age of Innocence. Reading the book and script, Ryder had been struck by the similarities between the social mores of 1870s New York and those of 1990s Hollywood. “You were so restricted in what was an appropriate thing to say. There was a lot of gossip, but not to someone’s face. You’d always smile even though you didn’t want to, or say everything was fine when it wasn’t. Just like May knows how to get by in that society, I know how to get by in the industry, what the protocol is. But it’s pretty lame, and that’s why I’ve been trying to separate it from my life when I’m not working.”

In April, after finishing Spirits, Ryder landed in her New York apartment and finished breaking up with Depp, who will probably have to undergo extensive tattoo removal. “He’s a special guy,”she says today. “I was just really young. I don’t know what his excuse is, but that’s mine!” Suddenly she was able to sleep again,

Then, on a whim, she attended a taping of MTV Unplugged featuring Soul Asylum, the Minneapolis rock band who’ve recently graduated from cult heroes to platinum sellers. “I’d been listening to them a lot in Europe,” she says. “Music was the one thing that helped me through that movie.” Afterward, she was introduced to lead singer Dave Pirner. “I was very surprised when I saw him. I that he had red hair. The pictures on the CDs are really small.”

Two weeks later, she invited him to her house in Los Angeles. “We had pizza. Domino’s. Mushroom. Our schedules didn’t really allow picnics at the beach. But it was still very romantic. We were talking so much, the pizza got cold. I wanted to fry it, and he said, ‘That’s impossible,’ because he thought after being in a band for seven years he knew every trick for heating up pizza. But I totally fried it! It was like a montage sequence.”

Although Ryder has endured the usual rumors, linked with virtually every costar, if not actor, in town, she says, “None of that was true. None of the costars except for [Heathers’s] Christian Slater, who I went out with for two weeks, and he broke my heart. Or I thought he did at the time. Dave is only like my second boyfriend.”

She and Pirner reconvened in New Orleans in June and had, she says, “the greatest time. I was completely removed from being Winona Ryder the Actress. I was just this girl in corduroy shorts and a really dirty T-shirt, with just a credit card. And people were so nice. I’d lived in this weird shell of paranoia for so long, and then it just cracked open. I was playing pool with gangs of I don’t know who. At first they’d be like, ‘Ooooh, you were in Beetlejuice,’ and five minutes later they’d be like, ‘Your turn.’ And I was doing these really nutty things, walking down the street at three in the morning doing Jell-O shots. For me, it was very reckless, because I never do anything like that.

“It entered my mind when I was telling someone about it, I could picture myself in a moment of total bliss saying, ‘Oh, let’s get married right now!’ I mean, I wouldn’t do it, and the institution of marraige is something I question for people my age. But I thought, God, if the press had seen me in New Orleans, they could’ve made it into anything. I don’t know what Julia Roberts did [in marrying Lyle Lovett after a two week courtship], but it could’ve been like that. She could’ve been so far away from Julia Roberts, the Actress–‘Hey, let’s get married!’ I think whatever you want to do in your life is just fine, as long as you want to do it, and you’re not doing it for effect or attention.”

That attitude applies to her career, as well. After Spirits, she fell in love with an autobiographical script by 23-year-old rookie screenwriter Helen Childress called Reality Bites, about a girl; who graduates as valedictorian from college but gets fired from her first job and then can’t find work even at Wendy’s. Her costars are Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo (of TV’s Larry Sanders Show), and Ben Stiller, who is also making his directorial debut. “A lot of people told me, ‘You just did a Scorsese movie! You can’t do this young, first-time director project,'” she says. “And I said, ‘I want to act my age for once. Why am I concerned with being older? I have plenty of time for that!’ Also, alot of people my age have come up to me and said, ‘Why don’t you do a movie about us?’ For some reason people think it’s less serious to do a movie with young people. I was really affected by Flirting–I saw it seven or eight times. I thought it was one of the few movies that did not treat yung people or young love in a patronizing way.”

Her only worry is that, after all the costumes, accents, and high drama, this contempory romantic comedy might tempt her to slip into lazy, adorable mannerisms that are the bane of her existence. “I don’t want to turn into Winona Ryder Being Cute. Everyone assumes that doing a movie like this is so easy, but it’s actually really hard…. If I had been trying to just be appealing from the start of my career, I would be over now. That’s never been my agenda.”

Next on that agenda is applying to college. (She finished high school with the help of private tutoring.) “I really want to study English literature, read a lot of classics, take some philosophy #####———-##### think it will help my work a lot. I read so many scripts, I want to take a break from that. I want to read books and talk about them. I don’t want to make a big deal of it. I just want to start by taking some classes. I’m trying to find out how I can do it in a way where I can miss classes and it’s not going to fuck me up.”

Now that she’s a seasoned veteran, initiating projects and working with top-notch directors, is her own age of innocence over? She ponders this and decides, “Yes, but I’m still innocent. I’m just not so naive. Maybe I’m getting innocent mixed up with corny. I feel I still have a lot to learn, but that doesn’t make me innocent, does it? Innocent can be–you’re innocent until proven guilty.”

Or pure. “I think I’m pretty pure. I don’t know. Every day is a struggle to be these things, but it’s worth it. It’s really easy to be depressed and be a bad person, and dishonest, and it’s hard to be good and honest and happy. It takes effort, it’s scarier, but it’s so much better.”

She calls back the next day from her dressing room. Pirner, she reports, is coming to visit. “He called me and said he’d gone into a truck stop in Oklahoma City to play pinball, and after he started he realized he was playing the Winona Ryder Dracula pinball machine. He said, “I couldn’t tell if it made my day or ruined my game.'”

But she had really called to clarify something. “It feels so un-innocent to say I haven’t lost my innocence. I just wanted to say what sounded best, or coolest, but I really didn’t know, so I took a poll!” She laughs. “I asked [longtime friends] Kevin, Helene, Charlene, Rick and Heather, really casually, ‘Do you think of me as being innocent?’ and unanimously, they said yes. I trust those guys. So I’d go with that.”