The Woman in Winona

Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit and “fall into a vortex.” as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

Winona Ryder has grown up since the age of 14 in front of cameras. Now 23, she returns to adolescence to portray Jo March, the girl who wants to become a writer-the character who has been a role model for generations of women-in Gillian Armstrong’s film of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, written in 1868.

Ryder has a passion equal to Jo’s when she speaks about her own form of expression: acting.

“The set…” she says. The word causes her to smile and blurt out half-sentences, a jumble of memories. “I got my first period on set.”

Ryder hugs her knees as she talks about herself. We’re sitting and talking on–what else?–a set. Ryder’s working on Boys, a movie directed by Stacy Cochran.

On the table between us are the props of her life: a tin of cookies, correspondence from fans and friends, a birthday card she needs to sign so it can be Federal Expressed to her half sister, CDs, a nonfiction book about the self-esteem of teenage girls. It’s the messiness of passing obsessions, the typical look of a young woman’s first apartment or last dorm room, but this is Ryder’s trailer, and the sign on the door says PATTY VARE, her current character. Jo is already a past life.

Ryder seems to have put together a monologue about herself, making the standard interview questions unnecessary. She was raised in part on a commune in northern Califomia by parents who were more intellectually curious than hippie-ish. She broke up with Johnny Depp last year and is now involved with David Pirner, the lead singer for the rock group Soul Asylum. Along the way she has costarred in films and has worked with Tim Burton, Cher, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Martin Scorsese.

Talking with her is like being in an open convertible on a Califomia freeway; her autobiographical sentences swerve and veer off. We never reach the center of anything, but it’s an enjoyable ride.

When we discuss her work in movies, a more spontaneous Winona Ryder appears. “When you’ve been an actor your whole life, your emotions and the acting get confused. When you fight with your boyfriend, you start acting–it’s like work. I’ve worked with every young actor. Usually they have a problem, or they’re f*ed up, or they’re recovering.”

I ask about the differences between her and Depp; she answers by explaining that they had nothing in common in their approaches to acting. Dating an actor, she says, is “seeing each other on billboards.” And breaking up “was like The NeverEnding Story because it was such a public thing. We didn’t know how to break up.”

Last July I visited the set of Little Women in Vancouver. B.C., on the day of a big scene–the one where Jo has her hair lopped off and sells it in order to make money for the family.

The costume designer for the film, Colleen Atwood, used dresses from the period, or put together new ones out of old fabrics. Ryder appreciated the lived-in quality of the costumes, remembering without fondness the “corsets and Lycra” of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In her downscale approach to the novel, director Gillian Armstrong has set up parallels between the 1860s and the 1990s. 

Ryder wanted to make a film for adolescent girls and was eager to work with Armstrong. I asked Armstrong about similarities between Little Women and her earlier movie My Brilliant Career (1979), both of which are about headstrong writers. She spoke about how the latter was made during a feminist period, and the female character needed to reject a marriage proposal. Armstrong said she thinks that we can relax now, and that women don’t have to feel betrayed by Jo’s decision to marry.

“All the girls are role models,” Ryder says, “except Amy.” She laughs. Ryder says she has respect for 12- year-old girls, “because that’s when I started acting.”

In Mermaids she’s a teenage daughter at war with a sexy mom; in Age of Innocence she represents societal repression; in Heathers she’s a good girl with a demonic boyfriend. In Reality Bites she’s a Gen X heroine. Ryder says she doesn’t intend to be an icon for her age group. Onscreen, she blurs the outlines of her characters, and in her interview she resists labels, but of course that is exactly what has made her an image of a generation that says it doesn’t want to be defined by the media.

Watching Ryder on the Little Women set I was struck by the contrast between her Jo and the Katharine Hepburn version. Hepburn gave us a feisty young woman who knows what she wants and goes after it; she rearranged notions of what it meant to be a female star. Ryder’s performance exhibited a different kind of daring; she wasn’t afraid of bringing out uncertainty in Jo.

“Gillian wanted me to play Jo as feisty,” Ryder says, “but I saw Jo from the beginning as really confused – as contradicting herself all the time.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Harper’s Bazaar Dec.1994.

December 24, 1994 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links