Cinemascape, May-June 1997
Winona Ryder is from outer space!
By Cindy Pearlman
How did the fetching star of teen flicks and costume dramas prepare for space combat? She took a stroll down memory lane.
Everyone has gathered around to hear Winona Ryder tell the story of her first encounter with those drooling, 7-foot-tall creatures that have been spotted throughout the area.
“The goo is kind of fun at first”, she says, referring to the acid the creatures spew. “But then it gets in your hair. At those moments you have to think, ‘What did I get myself into? This is really gross.'”
There must be some mistake. Winona Ryder, the saucer-eyed waif of Little Women, the sneering 98-pound adolescent of Beetlejuice, is packing heat and blasting aliens in next fall’s Alien Resurrection? Whose idea was this?
Ryder herself seems mystified. “It’s like they found the scrawniest actress in Hollywood and said, ‘And now you’re going to fight aliens!'”
Not that she’s complaining. Taking a break from the set of the fourth Alien film, Ryder is sitting at the Four Season Hotel in Los Angeles, sans goo and clearly more sleek and scrawny. After ordering lunch, she sits back and smiles.
At 25, with her hair chopped short and wearing a snug T-shirt and jeans, she actually looks ready to take on those otherworldly monsters. “Somehow, when they first approached me [about Alien Resurrection], I thought they wanted me to replace Ripley,” she says, her eyes popping open like umbrellas. “All I could think was, ‘No way. You can’t have me at the helm. Me? I’m 5 feet 4 inches tall. Hello.” Ryder was all of 10 years old when she saw Sigourney Weaver run from and ultimately defeat the original Alien. For a small girl who got picked on a lot, Weaver’s portrayal of Lt. Ripley was an epiphany of sorts. “That was the first time I ever saw a female hero,” Ryder says. “Ripley was an action hero for girls and she had a huge impact on me. So I started following the series. I loved watching Sigourney Weaver kick alien butt.”
So when she find out she was being wooed not to replace Ripley but to play the second lead – and an android, no less – to the 40-something Sigourney Weaver, she became excited about the project. “I have just loved her for years”, she says of Weaver. “She is one of the great female role models [in movies] because she can be so tough and so smart at the same time”.
She also provided Ryder with a new challenge. What with the 6-foot-tall Weaver’s imposing physical presence, Ryder realized she’d have to come prepared. “No amount of training could make me buff,” she shrugs happily. “But I have a pretty good metabolism, so I didn’t go on a special diet [for the role]. I’m running and swimming and scaling rocks in my free time. You need to be in good shape to run from the Mother Alien.”
Not that you’ll get to see the results of all that hard work.
“I got to set the first day,” she cries, “and found out that my costumes don’t show any skin at all!”
While most directors would look for any possible reason to get Winona Ryder into a skimpy outfit, Resurrection helmers Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro have decided to emphasize Ryder’s brains instead of her cleavage, a tack the actress is certainly willing to accept. Dismissing rumors that there has been trouble with the Joss Whedon script, Ryder says Resurrection might just prove to be the best in the series to date. “This [is] much more of a suspense movie than an action movie,” she says. “It’s not just a shoot-’em-up. It has the same lurking, you-never-know-what’s-around-the-next-corner quality of the first film.” Is that why one of the most-sought-after actresses in Hollywood has turned to science-fiction?
Ryder shakes her head. “First of all,” she says quietly, “I’m doing it for myself because I have never done anything like it before. I didn’t want to die without doing a movie like Alien. But I also had to do it for my brothers. They love science fiction. And now they think they’re going to get a lot of cool, free Alien merchandise.”
Beside, she’s been a sci-fi fan for ages – ever since caching a classic creature feature on the tube when she was a wee one.
“Oh, gosh, what was that great movie?” she asks the ceiling. “It’s a black-and-white one where the guy puts knobs on the back of his parents’ neck?” Invaders from Mars?
Ryder jumps in her chair. “Yes! I saw that movie when I was little. I still remember that scene where the guy realizes who his parents are… creepy! From that moment on, I really got into Ray Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451. Then of course, came Alien.
“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”, she says. “Women could handle that more because they carry children.” Then she cracks up. “I mean this whole chest-bursting deal really freaked out my brothers. Big time.”
When asked what’s going to really freak out her brothers in Alien Resurrection, Ryder hems and haws a bit and then finally sighs. “Okay, I will say that this movie is different from the others because the theme is that Ripley is a mother because, you know, she was impregnated by an alien in the last movie. We’re not exactly talking traditional family values here. But, strangely enough, it is a movie about family.”
Ryder shrugs again. “That’s why I love sci-fi”, she adds. “I don’t like action movie very much, but I do get into creature stuff. Somehow human-to-human violence bothers me a lot more than human-to-monster violence. I can accept more [easily] us blowing away an alien.” She pauses and looks down at her hands. “Sorry, E.T.”
Winona Laura Horowitz (the Ryder appellation is her lone concession to “showbiz”) was never an E.T.-loving kind of girl. Her early life seemed custom-built for the offbeat, outsider role that would secure her reputation in Hollywood. She was born on October 29, 1971, in Winona, Minn., and her godfather was famous LSD guru Timothy Leary. Her parents, professional writers and incipient hippies, moved the family around a lot, including to a home in Elk, Calif., that had no electricity. Finally, they settled in Petaluma, Calif., where as a junior high school student, Ryder’s young life took a nasty turn.
“On the third day of junior high, I was beat up very badly because of my short hair,” she says. “Everyone thought I was a gay boy. I had to get six stitches in my head. Six boys slammed me into a locker. Hard. They fractured my ribs and everything. I was just walking down the hall and they started calling me names, calling me a girl. I was yelling, ‘But I am a girl.’ It didn’t matter. I got beat up.”
Instead of the boys catching hell, blame somehow fell on Ryder. “It was horrible. I’m this 12-year-old and Petaluma Kenilworth Junior High School tells me to leave because I was a distraction. I’m sorry that gay bashing was such a distraction for them. And my parents were outraged. I didn’t want to go back to that school anyway. I was too scared.”
For a year, Ryder was taught at home by her parents. “What was great about the whole experience was that I got very bored at home. So I would do my work in an hour, and then I would have nothing to do but read. Books became my friends when I didn’t have friends. Characters from Tom Sawyer to Holden Caulfield to Jo March were my friends. They kept me from being lonely. My two brothers and my sister were in school during the day and my parents were busy writing. So I spent a lot of time at the library.”
Around that time, Ryder’s parents became worried that their daughter was becoming a teen-age recluse, so they enrolled her in classes at the America Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. It was a life-changing move. “That’s where I got discovered and cast in my first movie,” she says. “It’s funny. If I wasn’t kicked out of school, I would never have gone to A.C.T. and maybe I wouldn’t be here today.”
Ryder made her film debut at 15 in Lucas, and the glowing reviews led to the memorable parts in a succession of teen films that were the flip side of the John Hughes coin. Then as she matured both physically and professionally, she moved on to more complex roles in films like Reality Bites, The Age of Innocence, Little Women and The Crucible. The result: Major Stardom-talk show appearances, Oscar noms, wowza cover shots for glam mags. The Big Time. None of which is really her thing. After Resurrection wraps, Ryder hopes to take a break in San Francisco, where she lives quietly. “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.”
If she can find peace in the Bay Area, it’s surely one of the few places left on the planet. For years, Ryder’s life has been fodder for the paparazzi and tabloids. She just smiles about the gossip and says, “I know people say, ‘You asked for it. You became an actress.’ I very much disagree. You should be able to be an actress and have your own life. You give your work to the public and that should be enough. You shouldn’t be chased by cameras – what a nightmare!”
Then again, there are some close encounters that Ryder welcomes. A few months ago, the former girlfriend of one of the boys who beat her up in junior high approached. “She asked me for an autograph, and I said, ‘Hey, remember there was this boy who got beat up at school.’ She remembered and said, ‘Oh, yeah, that faggot.’ I said. ‘That was me.'”
“I got a big thrill out of it,” says Ryder, showing a glint of Sigourney Weaver-like toughness. “The girl was mortified.”
And what about the autograph? Ryder smiles as the words forms on her lips, “Denied!”