Ryder on the Storm

Ah, youth. Only one year ago Winona Ryder was spoofing the very idea of movie stars. Since then, she’s snagged Johnny Depp, jilted Francis Coppola, and stolen a movie from Cher. And she’s barely old enough to vote.

Winona Ryder won’t wait. That’s what her representative says when she calls to move our meeting up by an hour and a half. The young actress and her fiancé Johnny Depp are in town for only a couple of weeks, to complete Edward Scissorhands, and scheduling is becoming tighter by the second. “Rather than having dinner at La Cucina on Melrose,” her rep tells me, “Winona now wants to meet you for tea this afternoon, at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny Drive.” I request a 15-minute grace period, but there’s no way. I’m told it would be impossible for Winona to wait around the hotel lobby. Particularly by herself.

Winona Ryder Movieline November 1990 02
Winona Ryder Movieline November 1990 01

I acquiesce, hop in the car, and hustle over to Beverly Hills. A half hour after the re-scheduled time of our meeting, Ryder’s nowhere in sight. As the minutes tick by, I decide to cool my heels outside.

Now 19, Winona Ryder’s suddenly exited from the Italian set of The Godfather, Part III. The key role of Al Pacino and Diane Keaton’s daughter in Francis Ford Coppola’s hotly anticipated sequel seemed certain to mark Ryder’s arrival as an adult star. But claiming exhaustion, she walked away from it all.

Finally, a stretch limousine pulls into the hotel’s circular drive. And out tumbles a tiny China doll of a girl. As Winona Ryder comes toward me, she looks absolutely sure of herself. And beautiful as she is in person, her exterior lacks even a trace of Movie Star—which is saying a lot in this neighborhood. When she matter-of-factly approaches me, extends her hand, smiles, and says, “Hi. I’m Winona,” I no longer care how long I’ve been kept waiting.

We enter the cool marble lobby of the hotel, and the actress looks around as if she’s inspecting the place for the first time. She asks me where the restaurant is. “I thought you’d been here before,” I say. “I was told you wanted to have tea here.” She shakes her head no and admits, with a laugh, that she has never before set foot in the place. “Actually, I wanted to do the interview at Barney’s Beanery,” she says, referring to a West Hollywood greasy spoon favored by young celebrities and rock stars, “so that we could play pool while we talk.”

Sitting down in the nearly empty restaurant, Ryder orders tea, and acknowledges that “all of these interviews, and photo sessions, and stuff” can be “a drag.” In fact, she recently moved, with Depp, from Hollywood to Manhattan to escape the publicity machine. “Every move I made here was being documented,” she says, leaning closer for emphasis. My eyes fall momentarily to the great big rock of a diamond resting in the setting of her engagement ring. “If I drove down the street in my car, people stared. If I went out to eat, it was written about the next day. Everyone knew where I was going, everyone knew where I had been. It was, like, everyone knew my schedule. Everyone I met here was in the industry. And even if they were nice and genuine, I’d think that maybe it was because they wanted to use me for something. Maybe they wanted me to be in their movie, or they thought I could get them into a restaurant. It wasn’t real life to me. It was, like, living in a magazine or something.”

Ask Ryder a question, and she goes off like a cannon. Spicing her speech with lots of “you knows” and “likes”, she bounds from one topic to the next, seeming far more like an endearing, earnest teenager who says whatever pops into her head than a seasoned, worldly movie star with a famous boyfriend, a clutch of handlers, and several big movies waiting in the wings.

She loves to talk about Heathers. “Heathers is the most amazing piece of literature ever. It’s one of those things that you take out and read every year.” She goes on to tell me that she tried to get the title of the Heathers theme song, “Que Sera, Sera,” tattooed on her body. “I got proofed in the tattoo parlor,” she says with a wicked grin. “The guy wouldn’t do it because I was too young.”

I bring up all the changes she’s been through since the days of Heathers (hardly more than a year ago), and Ryder admits, “Between falling in love and making movies, things have been very hectic. The last year’s been, like, a nightmare.”

At the very least, it’s been a strange year. In the spring of 1989, she was spoofing the whole Hollywood fame game. At an early screening of Heathers, she and co-star Christian Slater told the audience that they had just gotten married. “In Vegas,” Winona added, holding tight to Slater’s hand. A few days later, she gleefully told a Rolling Stone reporter about the scam romance and joked about how she and Slater wanted to parody the cliched Hollywood celebrity couple: to stage fights in restaurants, act reclusive but leak information anyway, harass photographers.

But Hollywood has a way of co-opting everyone—even satirical young hipsters. And so not very long after Ryder’s exuberant put-on, she fell for real for TV’s pouty heartthrob Johnny Depp. And suddenly the two of them were participating in a National Association of Theater Owners-sponsored salute to the Young Stars of Tomorrow. “In Vegas,” Ryder says, hip to the irony of her situation. “It was the whole Hollywood thing,” she adds, curling her upper lip distastefully. “We flew to Vegas in a private plane and Johnny got to shake Wayne Newton’s hand. He was so excited, he couldn’t stop talking about it.”

Ryder’s celebrity status has now reached the level she was originally parodying: “Johnny and I flew into L.A. from Tampa where we’d been working all day, and we were really tired,” she says, recounting her arrival a few days before. “We got off the plane, and about 50 paparazzi people jumped out and started taking our pictures. We couldn’t, like, see where we were going because the bulbs were popping. One guy stuck out his foot and tried to trip me! They were yelling at us, trying to get an ‘interesting’ picture. Finally, Johnny got so mad that he turned around and flipped them off. Now you’ll see his picture in a magazine and he’s going to look like some a*hole. Like a guy who enjoys flipping off photographers.”

A lot of what Ryder is putting up with is the scene around Depp, who sent up his own teen idol status in John Waters’s film Cry-Baby. The press can’t seem to resist writing about his habit of getting engaged to such starlets-of-the-hour as Jennifer Grey and Sherilyn Fenn. [This has led to a rash of bumper stickers all over Manhattan reading, “Honk if you’ve never been engaged to Johnny Depp.”] Depp has been moved to demonstrate the permanence of his affection for Ryder by having “Winona Forever” tattooed on his deltoid. Ryder tells me, “I was thrilled when he got the tattoo. Wouldn’t any woman be?”

While Ryder refuses to discuss Depp’s—or her own—earlier romances, she’s very convincing when she says she’s tired of having paparazzi cameras trained on the couple’s every move. Still, according to her pal Daniel Waters, she’s enjoying the celebrity trip more than she likes to let on. “There’s a part of her that likes it even though she denies it,” he explains. “Winona’s got a real star quality, and right now she’s got a Natalie Wood obsession.”

“Working with Johnny turned out to be really great,” she says. “Of course I was scared and nervous about it. I mean, if there’s one person that I want to impress with my acting, it’s him. So there was a lot of insecurity during the first couple of days, but it turned out to be a really motivating situation, you know?” Her eyes get wide and seem to twinkle mischievously for a second as she adds, “I think we have pretty good chemistry. We’ll see.”

Tim Burton is her dream director. “Tim talks my language, you know?” she says. “Did you ever meet somebody who you can just talk to? That’s how I feel about Tim Burton. We have the same sensibility; we think the same things are funny.”

Long before Tim Burton decided to cast Depp in the title role, he knew that he wanted to work with Ryder again, having directed her in Beetlejuice. “Winona’s always done these dark roles, and I wanted to see her in a cheerleader outfit,” he says drolly, cracking himself up. “Winona is, basically, a great actress. The role in Edward Scissorhands is tricky because she plays a suburban youth who doesn’t have very much of an edge. Winona brings a weight and believability that isn’t inherent in the role. But she does it very naturally. You don’t see Winona working at it. Her process remains invisible. And acting that way requires a great deal of confidence.”

Long before Ryder saw the script for Mermaids, she read the book by Patty Dann and still remembers its appeal. “It touches different people in different ways,” she says. “Some people think it’s about mother/daughter relationships. Other people think it’s about what happens when you don’t have a father. I think it’s about being a teenager and jumping from one obsession to the next and not being able to figure out who you really are and what you really think… You’re so… I’m looking for a word. What’s the word when you jump around? I don’t know. It’s, like, on the tip of my brain. It’s driving me crazy. But anyway, you know what I’m saying.”

Mermaids had more than its share of troubles getting off the ground, about which Ryder is mum. Cher reportedly went through countless rewrites and three directors (Lasse Hallstrom, Frank Oz, and finalist Richard Benjamin), and Ryder herself was brought in to replace Emily Lloyd. Ryder brushes these matters aside with a wave of her hand, but she does want to talk about working with Cher. “Cher and I were instantly compatible,” she says. “We just struck up, like, an instant friendship. We connected real well and I think it comes through in the film. She’s very wise, but also very girlish; she taught me how to relax. During the last half of the movie we worked every single day—and since I narrate the film, I had to do a lot of voice-overs, which are difficult to get just right—so it was important for me to relax and keep from, you know, freaking out. Cher calmed me down, and she really comforted me, later, over the whole Godfather thing.”

Ah yes, the whole Godfather thing. When Ryder brings up the topic of Godfather III, her teen spontaneity instantly evaporates. 

It’s little wonder. The whispered scuttlebutt around town suggests that the official reason that Ryder skipped out on her chance to play Don Corleone’s granddaughter—she was too “exhausted” after filming Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael and Mermaids—is not the real story, or the whole story. Ryder rolls her eyes and adopts a look of disgust to dismiss my question about whether she’s heard all the rumors about the supposed real reasons. Clearly, yes, she’s heard them all: stories that she was pregnant, that she had a nervous breakdown, that drugs were involved, that Johnny was having an affair and making her crazy, that Johnny talked her out of doing Godfather III so that she could appear in Edward Scissorhands. Ryder acknowledges that the two films’ ever-changing shooting schedules would, in the end, have made it impossible for her to act in both pictures, but claims that the real explanation for her not making Godfather III is just too simple for most people to accept. “They knew I was really tired before I even arrived in Rome,” she says simply. “I got there two days after wrapping Mermaids. I went from the airport to the costumer, then I checked into the hotel and fell asleep. I was so tired that I couldn’t get out of bed the next day. Their doctor examined me, and said ‘You are suffering from over-exhaustion.’”

Ryder and Depp fled Rome for the domestic tranquility of her Northern California hometown, Petaluma. There, while she rested up at her parents’ house, all hell broke loose back in Italy. According to a lengthy report in Vanity Fair, Coppola’s stars balked when the filmmaker elected to recast his own daughter, acting neophyte Sofia Coppola, in Winona’s role. The set was thrown into chaos, and more than one name player reportedly threatened to quit the movie. 

“I know that everybody was really upset,” she says. “Paramount was really angry. I felt bad—I still feel bad. I hate that I had to f** people over. But they knew I was coming there in bad shape. Everybody kept telling me that I had to do the movie; they kept saying, ‘C’mon, you can do it.’ I was so bogged down, and so overworked.” Winona takes a sip from her tea, and pauses. “I learned a big lesson,” she adds quietly, evenly, making it clear that she considers this topic now closed. “I won’t make movies back to back. I won’t get so worn out that I can’t function. I’m going to slow down a lot.”

Ryder herself seems to know this is the kind of part her career would most benefit from. “I’m at that stage where most actresses really screw up,” she acknowledges. “What I have to my advantage is that I haven’t made, like, John Hughes movies. I’m a young actress, but people don’t immediately associate me with high school. Now I need to find a role that’s in the middle ground—not a kid, and not a lawyer.”

She takes pains to point out that [her childhood] was not quite as out-of-the-ordinary as it’s been described. “My parents are intellectuals. My father’s a rare book dealer, my mother’s a video artist. I didn’t grow up in pot fields. We didn’t live on a commune, but on a piece of land where other people had their own houses. It was just, like, a neighborhood, except it was out in the country. It’s not what people make it out to be.”

Still, Ryder’s parents’ good standing among the counter-cultural literati meant that Ryder grew up knowing Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary long before she was old enough to realize their places in history. “My first date with Johnny was at Timothy’s house,” Ryder says. “Timothy’s brilliant. I can talk to him forever. You listen to him speak and it’s like watching a movie. Like turning on the TV, or something.”

I ask Ryder how much of her childhood she feels she’s had to sacrifice to become an actress. “My friend Helene, one of my real good friends from home, just had a prom,” Ryder says softly. “I’ve never had a prom. I’ve never even been asked to a dance. Here I am, almost getting sued, and she’s picking out a dress for the prom. It was like… I want that so bad. Then I realized that maybe I’ve missed out on proms and Valentine dances and keggers, but I have movies as my memories. I like what I’ve done, you know? I wish I could have had it both ways, but I couldn’t, and I don’t regret the choices I’ve made.”

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in Movieline Nov.1990.

November 1, 1990 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links