Little Woman, Big Star

Winona Ryder is the name above the title in Little Women. But she had to overcome a bizarre adolescence and the throes of depression to get there.

by Jenny Allen for Life | December 1994

In the scene being shot today [for Boys], Winona Ryder’s character has been knocked unconscious in a fall from a horse; she wakes up in a boarding-school boy’s dorm room. Winona’s worried, [writer-director] Stacy [Cochran] wants her to play the scene alert and focused, and Winona feels her character would be cloudier, disoriented. “Where’s my horse?” she says over and over, her voice just above whisper, as the cameras roll. She’s playing a compromise – confused but concentrated. It’s tricky. “I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing out there,” she says after many takes.

She’s miserable, but not really. As she speaks, she’s perched in the lap of David Pirner, the lead singer for the rock band Soul Asylum and her boyfriend of the past year and a half. He is wry and relaxed, smiles easily, smokes constantly (I’m no quitter,” he says). Everyone on the set likes Dave, but Winona likes him the most. He is, she says, “the only happy-go-lucky, jolly musician I know.” When she isn’t working, he stays up until three a.m. with her, watching old movies; when she is, he visits her on location, enduring the tedium with infinite patience. Today is their reunion after a five-day separation, and they can’t keep their hands off each other.

“I’m playing this girl who’s so lost, and I’ve never felt so found before,” she says, and means it. Things were different in 1993, when she was in Portugal, shooting The House of Spirits. She found herself at the bleak bottom of a two-year depression. “I ignored myself, my ‘needs,’ ” she says, self-conscious about the cliché. “I put my career in front of my life. I remember so many of my favorite actors saying ‘My work is my life.’ And it’s not.”

New York City, some weeks earlier. In an ornate stone building on the edge of Chinatown, a tiny, smiling person in denim overalls answers the door. This is her two-bedroom apartment, handsomely decorated in a kind of low-key luxe. There are lots of books around – photography collection, novels, a book of Preston Sturges screenplays. Upstairs in her bedroom are more books, videos, a photograph of Martin Scorcese, who directed her Oscar-nominated performance in The Age of Innocence – a performance that represents the first time she felt proud of her acting.

Winona settles into the sofa. At 23 she’sskinny, 100 pounds or so, but not intentionally–she tried to gain weight for Age of Innocence but couldn’t.

Winona is soulful and sincere, but also light and funny. She jokes about Scorcese, an idol: If he had made Schindler’s List, he would have done Schindler after the war, as a drunk – she screws up her face, closes on eye.

Now the subject is her schedule. “I have lots of time,” she says, “because I just dropped out of this movie.” This movie is Boys. She had been crazy about the screenplay and eager to play a complicated, grown-up character. She was not, however, crazy about a recent script revision that added sex scenes. She will not do this version, she has told the producers. “There’s an obligation to commercialize something when you have a movie star in it,” she says later. It happened on Reality Bites, she feels it got slicked up into “a music video vehicle.” If she hadn’t been in it – if the film hadn’t had a Name – it might have stayed small, more real. “I don’t blame anyone except myself,” she says.

Winona knows she is a big star, a personality a studio can build a production around. She is one of very few such women, and the only one of her generation. This Christmas she stars as Jo in Little Women, and while the cast is an ensemble of fine actors – Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Gabriel Byrne as Professor Bhaer, Eric Stoltz as John Brooke – it is her name that appears above the title. “Certainly Little Women became a reality because of Winona’s participation,” says Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia/TriStar.

Winona can afford to be choosy now, but she has always been choosy. She turned down an offer to do Sydney Pollack’s remake of Sabrina–Audrey Hepburn so defined the role that she felt uneasy about re-creating it. The story worried her too – the fact that Sabrina is a “prize” shuttled between brothers. She has made a habit of refusing roles in films she finds sexist, silly, gratuitously violent. Most movies “blend,” she says. Hers don’t. Her films can be quirky or dark – Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Heathers, Bram Stoker’s Dracula but few are bland, and none fit a formula. She cannot be seduced, says Denise Di Novi, who has produced three of her movies. “Ninety percent get persuaded by people around them – ‘You have to do this part, work with this director.’ But you can have fifty people in a room telling Winona what to do, and if she doesn’t want to do it, forget it.” This goes for all tasks within the line of movie-star duty: For a recent fashion magazine spread, she balked at modeling the clothing. “Corsets,” she says, disgusted, “push-up things, transparent things.”

Weeks later, near Baltimore, Boys is on. What happened was, Winona called Stacy. They patched things up, the script was restored. “The only reason it worked out is because of the conversation,” Winona says. “I’m really happy about that.”

She has spent most of the morning lying in a nearby field – her character has just been thrown from the horse – but now it’s time for lunch under a tent. She sits at a long table with cast and crew. As usual, she loses interest in her food and opts for talking. Everyone who knows her remarks on what a good storyteller she is, though even her mother concedes that she is inclined to embellish here and there.

If Winona is apt to exaggerate – “I like to enhance,” she says, “I don’t ever lie.” – she is also given to a kind of artless self-exposure, as if she hasn’t yet learned, or resists knowing, that most adults keep certain things under wraps. This quality is not calculated but it is cultivated. Michael McDowell, who cowrote Beetlejuice and lived for a time in an apartment above hers in L.A., says her innocence is “self-conscious” but genuine. “She understands how she comes off. She has made a choice to be innocent, and that’s not to suggest there’s anything false about it. She’s innocence through and through.”

Her family is large and loving and not average. Inevitably, Winona has been labeled The Girl Who Grew Up In A Commune and Timothy Leary’s Goddaughter. Asked about Leary, she begins gamely – “He’s a great guy” – but runs out of steam. “None of that stuff interests me,” she says. (She says she is ‘terrified’ of drugs.)

About the commune, where she lived from ages seven to 11, she says, “For a kid to watch a bad drug trip is terrifying.” Finally, “I have some great memories and some terrible memories.” She didn’t like the lack of structure or the nudity. To this day she does not Do Nude and has said she can’t imagine it.

Dave says, “My parents leaned to the conservative side, and hers leaned to the liberal. We’re both overcompensating.”

“She’s seen more movies than I have,” says Little Women director Gillian Armstrong. When the family lived in the commune, Cindy Horowitz ran an informal film society and took her kids to the screenings. When they left the commune, Winona draped her bedroom windows in black so she could watch movies all the time. “I wanted to live in a the theater,” she says. “You know, take out the seats, put in a bathtub.”

She had more time to watch movies than other kids did. “I didn’t have a single friend,” she says. For a year, she didn’t even go to school. On the third day of seventh grade she was roughed up by tough kids and was put on home study. Wasn’t this traumatic? “It was great,” she insists. If she hadn’t left school, she wouldn’t have started classes at the American Conservatory Theater, wouldn’t have got an agent “The bullies,” she says, “gave me my career.”

The story is a bit tidy; maybe it has lost its pain the retelling. She tried going back to school, says her mother, but she remained “different.” “Noni was so miserable and stubborn,” Cindy says. “She went down on her knees and said, ‘Mom, I’m not going back another day.’ ”

Winona did eventually go back to school, and make friend – girls who shared her taste in punk rock and punky clothes. By this time she was, in a way, already gone. She was Winona Ryder, no longer Horowitz, and already making movies.

She grew up on film sets. She met Johnny Depp when she was 17, six months before they made Edward Scissorhands. The romance was intense and unstable – “embarrassingly dramatic.” By 19, during Age of Innocence, things were seriously wrong. She covered up: “I was acting like everything was O.K. – smiling. I was being watched all the time. ” Depp was only part of her “identity crisis.”

Years of work, of “dealing with who people want you to be,” had taken a toll. A doctor diagnosed “anticipatory anxiety” and “anticipatory nostalgia,” whatever that is. (“I don’t think I have that,” says Winona.) He gave her pills for sleep. It got so she couldn’t fall asleep without them. “I got over it. I have Michelle Pfeiffer to thank for that. She told me to flush them down the toilet.” But that depression lasted.

Her parents came to visit her in Portugal, but she didn’t see them much. The girl who doesn’t drink “tried to be an alcoholic for two weeks.” Alone in her hotel room, she would make screwdrivers from the minibar, smoke cigarettes, play Tom Waits’s doleful album Nighthawks at the Diner. One night she fell asleep with a lit cigarette. She woke up before anything caught fire, but that was it for her dalliance with drink. Having hit bottom, she started to climb up. “I haven’t been back,” she says, “and I wouldn’t ever want to return.”

A final day in Baltimore, snuggling with Dave, she says she’s giving up her New York apartment. She wants to move to a smaller city – Seattle, maybe. She has a friend there, and it’s pretty, and she thinks it might be a nice place to raise children. Dave smiles, letting her talk.

Q: What kind of kid are you?
A: I wasn’t a nerd. I was just kind of a lonely kid who loved the movies. I had a lot of imagination – that kept me company.

Q: Why haven’t you done any television?
A: I knew when I was twelve that TV was a bad career move. I thought TV was lame.

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in Life, Dec.1994.

December 1, 1994 | Interview , | this post contains affiliate links