Winona Ryder has this problem, and as problems go it’s pretty solidly in the first-world category, she knows, but it’s a problem, still: She’ll be having a conversation with somebody. And then suddenly the person she’s having the conversation with will say something to her that reminds her that she is Winona Ryder, the famous actress, and nearly everyone she meets already has “this whole idea” of who she is. And inevitably when this happens, she starts thinking about what it is people think they know about her, which is never a good idea, and the conversation never really recovers.
And it’s interesting that we’re talking about this right now, Ryder and I, because for an hour or so we’ve been sitting in a booth in the ground-floor restaurant of a hotel in Manhattan and we’ve been having the conversation. Ryder has been talking about Michelle Pfeiffer and the reason the chaise lounge was invented (corsets, fainting). She’s told me embarrassing stories about famous people who deserve to have embarrassing stories told about them.
It’s been great, really. But everything I think I know about Winona Ryder, famous actress, is sort of burning a hole in my pocket, and I’m starting to wonder if she’s doing this on purpose, trying to blow past that moment. When she does allude it, it’s in passing, as if I wouldn’t know—she says things like “My first relationship was very public” (you don’t say!) and bats a set of eyelashes as dark and lush as squid ink, then moves on, and if it’s a gambit it’s working pretty well so far, honestly.
Ryder’s 39, was an ingenue. “It’s harder to find good roles, and suddenly there’s new girls. I’m at that age I’ve been warned my whole life about.”
Think about J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot last year, where Zachary Quinto, just six years younger than Ryder, played Spock, and Ryder played his mom, and how weird that was. Ryder made her name in a series of coming-of-age, kind of roles; she’s outgrown that slot without quite growing into another one.
Her dream was to become a weird character actress. She was drawn to roles that get introduced Like Lydia in 1988’s Beetlejuice.
Behind her the two Moving Men bring in a matching blue leather armchair. In the armchair sits LYDIA DEETZ.
Lydia, age 14, is a pretty girl, but wan, pale, and overly dramatic, dressed as she is in her favorite color, black. She’s a combination of a little death rocker and an ’80s version of Edward Gorey’s little girls…
Lydia is cool, Lydia is sullen, Lydia is her father’s daughter by his first marriage. Lydia is usually about half-pissed off. But underneath… we like her a lot.
She had to drop out of The Godfather Part III at the last minute because she was working too hard. Sofia Coppola stepped in. But by then it was the turn of the ’90s, Nirvana was tuning up somewhere out in Washington, and quirky-indie-everything was about to have a moment in the spotlight, a moment for which Winona—luminous and vulnerable and well-read and skeptical in fundamental ways about all this attention—is sort of the perfect movie star.
She met Johnny Depp at a premiere; they experienced what, in retrospect, seems like a gentler, bygone-age version of hyper-public tabloid-hounded courtship; they got engaged; he got a new tattoo.
For an actress so indelibly associated with Generation X, Ryder’s ’90s filmography was heavier on corset-and-fainting-couch stuff than you remember. Still—she owned the decade, Zeitgeist-wise.
Reality Bites, directed by Ben Stiller, 1994. The movie is Gen X halfheartedly pleading its case to history. But there’s one scene in which Ethan Hawke, as Ryder’s a**hole-sage roommate–love interest, puts down the Pringles long enough to tell her, “All you have to be by the age of 23 is yourself.” Ryder was about that age here, and had already checked herself into a psychiatric clinic, for anxiety and depression. (“I got really wiped out, and I had a semi-breakdown. I wasn’t sleeping, I didn’t know who I was because of different roles,” she says.) She whispers back, “I don’t know who that is anymore,” and for a minute it’s not the character talking, it’s Ryder. Bonus: Around the fifty-nine-minute mark, in the diner scene, Winona totally invents that face Kristen Stewart makes at every awards show.
Girl, Interrupted, directed by James Mangold, 1999. It took Ryder six years to get this adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir made; it took Angelina Jolie less than two minutes to walk off with it, with a fearless performance that got her an Oscar. But as Kaysen, Ryder does deeper, trickier work.
This is where our conversation sort of gets weird. Ryder has been talking about certain aspects of contemporary culture that confuse her, as if she’s a time traveler. She talks about TMZ but calls it TZM. She doesn’t know who Justin Bieber is. She says she’s never seen a reality-TV show, and she seems genuinely puzzled and horrified by the existence of Celebrity Rehab.
“I mean, who would want to go through that, on TV?” she says. I spend a few surreal minutes explaining the way Dr. Drew helps patients mind-warped by fame with everything that’s wrong with them except their desire to be famous.
“Yeah,” Winona says, “those things. I think they’re more powerful than people think. People think, ‘Oh, heroin’s the hardest,’ but pills can be… “
Didn’t you have sort of a moment with those?
“I did but it was—I broke my arm in two places.” (This was in 2001, on the set of the Adam Sandler movie Mr. Deeds.) “For about a month, I had to take it. But then I just kept taking it for, like… maybe three more weeks. But the thing I do remember is that once my arm was okay and they were still there, you kind of like… “
What I want to say is, Wait a minute. In an August 2007 Vogue cover story, Ryder actually blamed the whole shoplifting situation on pill-related “confusion.”
She’s off in another direction, talking about her parents again, how they always told her to come to them if she was thinking about experimenting with drugs. She talks about how it’s hard to rebel when you grow up in a world like that.
“I went through this stage where I was really square,” she says. “We lived on this commune, and there was this beautiful waterfall. And there’d be a lot of kids that were naked. But I was in a bathing suit.”
Honestly, there’s something cool about her unwillingness to serve up the shoplifting story as a celebrity-profile data point; it indicates that she’s still embarrassed by what happened, like any normal human would be. A few weeks later, when asked about the incident directly in a follow-up phone call, she says she tries not to talk about it, that she’s been told that if she talks about it once she’ll have to talk about it again and again, with everybody, and it’s clear from the way her sentences start trailing off into false starts that she doesn’t like revisiting it herself: “It’s just like, nothing… I don’t, like, even… I mean, I know people still… I apologize, ’cause I understand the curiosity. I just don’t really want to go there.”
Still, the pill thing matters, because she basically dropped out of sight for four years after it happened, effectively putting an end to the Winona Era.
“It’s hard to imagine a time where Meryl Streep wasn’t the first choice for everything,” Ryder says, “but I was reading some article, and she said something like, ‘Yeah, when I was around 38, 39, I turned to my husband and said, “Should we just call it a day, or should we try to kick the can down the road?” It was so weird to me to think about movies without her in them. But a lot of great actresses have chosen that.”
She’s thought about it. She wants to have kids. It’s the only thing that scares her about getting older. “If I wanted to have a family now, would I be able to come back to work in a couple of years?”
Ryder once said that a big part of her early-twenties breakdown had to do with the stress of acting itself, how the reach for emotional truth often involves dredging up stuff you shouldn’t be made to dredge up without the guidance of a licensed therapist. “I did, definitely, but I also loved it.
“I think, yeah, there’s a lot of danger in that. And I think that made me freak out a little bit. I think I was playing with fire there, for a while.”