Winona Ryder Opens Her Diary

Winona Ryder thinks reading me her diaries is a dreadful idea. I beg her in the name of science, medicine and anything else I can think of. We talk it over. And over. I tell her she would be giving a gift to the readers – something pure, unfiltered, straight from the mountain spring. She tells me that hauling out those spiral notebooks would be “the cheesiest, tackiest thing in the world.” Still, she mulls it over.

On New Year’s Day, Ryder calls from her place in New York. The 22-year-old actress lives in a gorgeous, stately apartment building in Manhattan. Tonight, Ryder’s friend Kevin Haley and her boyfriend, Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum, are downstairs cooking dinner. The actress is in her bedroom, sipping tea with honey. And there’s a stack of diaries on her bed. “I can hardly read my writing.” But she does. Ryder reads an entry, from April Fools’ Day 1993, which she wrote while in Portugal, shooting The House of the Spirits. At the time, she was tumbling toward the end of long-standing relationships with insomnia (five years) and Johnny Depp (four).

“I can’t believe I did that,” Ryder says, laughing, 15 minutes later. “I can’t believe I read you my journals. That’s so lame. Are you totally going to have a heyday with me? Are you going to crush me?”

Upon acquaintance, Ryder will charm you within an inch of your life. She’ll be quirky (“I don’t think I’d be good at trashing dressing rooms. I’d be like ‘Ouch!’”), censorious (“I can’t believe you liked that movie. I’m surprised, and I’m disappointed. I really am. I’m not kidding”), indignant (“They offered me that movie, by the way, and I wrote a very nasty letter saying, ‘How dare you?’”), then quirky once more (“I never sent it”). One afternoon, walking barefoot through the vast, chandeliered lobby of her apartment building, she turns to me and says: “All the famous models live here. I feel like a midget freak.”

Ryder arrives at the restaurant precisely on time and kisses Pirner goodbye in the street. She seems relaxed and settled in, but the moment I turn on the tape recorder, she stares at it as if looking into oncoming headlights. “I get nervous and when I get nervous, I get inarticulate.” I ask if she remembers the first time she ever had insomnia. She looks at the tape recorder again, then takes the leap.

“I was in Memphis doing Great Balls of Fire!. I was 16. I was sick, so I was kind of delirious, and I remember doing the weirdest thing. I took a bunch of grapefruits. . . . You know when you’re sick, and you have a fever? And you pick up an orange or a grapefruit, and they’re comforting because they’re cold, so you put them on your face? John Doe was playing my dad in the movie, and he brought over a bunch of grapefruits. For vitamin C and stuff. So I put the grapefruits all over, like surrounding me in the bed. And I just laid there and tried to sleep.”

Was this Doe’s idea?
Ryder laughs. “No, no, no. It was my idea. I mean, you get bored. I remember just panicking. And the digital clock was going: 3:30! 4:30! 5:30! I stayed up the whole night. I remember – as it got light – it was just the saddest thing to me. I thought I was going to die or something. And from that night on . . . because I knew it could happen, it did happen.”

Weeks later, I remind Ryder of the tale of the grapefruit. “Oh, no” she groans. “Why did I tell you that story? What was my point?”

Ryder has already won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for The Age of Innocence, and this March she could win the Oscar (“Oh, shut up!”). Rumor has it that she’s being offered as much as $4 million a picture. Soon she’ll begin work on a new adaptation of Little Women. But Ryder’s not ditching her core audience: In the wickedly satiric Reality Bites, she plays a young, unemployable filmmaker whose young, unemployable love interest (Ethan Hawke) threatens to turn her apartment into “a den of slack.” Says Ryder, “My agent said, ‘I think you’re going to like this movie, because you can wear jeans in it.’”

The one thing Ryder seems not to have learned on the way to becoming a movie star is how to lie. She thinks things through. Is she being honest? Is she being fair? Is she being defensive or tacky? One night, she calls with a small, hard sound in her voice and blurts, apropos of her diaries, “If you’re only pretending to like me, and you write a really mean article, I’m going to hate myself for giving you fuel.” I stammer assurances. Ryder wants to know how I’ll use the diaries. I tell her I’ll just stick them in somewhere. Now she’s laughing: “What, in the middle of the article?”

April 8, 1991
I wish I could write in this f**ing thing without the fear of it being read or f**ing published one day. Hell, I’m not that famous. Who cares anyway? I’ll probably be dead by then, so it won’t really matter. Unless my kids find this sh* embarrassing . . . .

Right now I wish I had a little apartment in San Francisco. I wish I wasn’t doing what I was doing. No, that’s wrong. I like doing what I’m doing – I just don’t like parts of it. Classic, huh? This sounds so classic: actors bitching and moaning about wanting to be like everybody else. But if they were, they’d just want to be movie stars. I can live how I want. That’s that. No one put this wall up. No one else knelt down around me and laid the bricks. I did it myself. That’s why I’m so exhausted. Or is it just jet lag?

Ryder is the product of a bohemian, countercultural childhood, although strangely so. Her parents took the kids to splash around naked in waterfalls. Ryder now says of nudity in movies: “I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. No matter what. I just couldn’t.”

Ryder has a half sister, Sunyata, 25, and a half brother, Jubal, 24, from her mother’s previous marriage, as well as a younger brother, Yuri, 17, who is named after the first Russian in space. In her stories the clan seems sweet, funny, infinitely gentle.

“For a long time, I was almost ashamed of being an actress. I felt like it was a shallow occupation. I’d go to see a band with friends from school, and people would be watching every move I made. They’d be judging me: ‘Look at her shoes! I bet those cost $400!’ That affected me. I grew up with no money. My parents did what they were passionate about, and they didn’t make money. And there were a lot of kids, so we lived with no electricity, no running water and no heating, except for a stove. Every week my dad would get a pint of Haagen-Dazs, and that was our big, exciting reward. My parents compensated with amazing amounts of love and support, so I don’t regret any of it. But my point is that when people look at me like I’m this really rich, pampered, privileged person – I am. I am right now. But it wasn’t always like that. Sometimes people think I was born on the screen and that I kind of walked into the world. Sometimes I’ll meet people, and they’ll be like ‘Oh, I’m really sorry about my car. It’s really dirty.’ I mean, we had moss and mushrooms growing in our car. If we had a car.”

Ryder often beats me to the next question.

“Why am so I defensive? I’m defensive because it offends me so much when . . . OK, I don’t want to f** this up . . . . I know a lot of young actors who live in these dumps. They have their books scattered, and their mattress is on the floor – and they’re millionaires. That’s fine. That’s their way of living. But the reason they’re doing it is that they’re ashamed. And I’ve talked to them about it. You just want to say, ‘Don’t live this way to show people that you’re real and that you’re deep.’ It offends me, because I know what it’s like to be in poverty, and it’s not fun, and it’s not romantic, and it’s not cool.”

Last year, Ryder wrote in a diary: “I feel like it’s OK to be who I am. It’s OK to be a f**ing movie star. It’s OK to live in a nice house.”

Ryder lives in a nice house. And she can sleep – in a bed, on a plane, anywhere.

Back in her apartment, Ryder gives me a shy, offhand tour. A photo album from The Age of Innocence, in which Scorsese has written, “To Winona: You ‘became’ May Welland by incorporating all the delight, beauty and strength that you already possess.” Ryder is just settling in to this apartment. Her first editions (Jane Austen, E.M. Forster) and original letters (Albert Einstein, Oscar Wilde) are back in Los Angeles. Separated from her worldly possessions, she seems frustrated. “I wish I had more things that reveal character.”

Here’s the thing about Ryder – she reveals her character in stages. I would like to discuss the foolish, oversexed Dracula, but when I broached the subject during an earlier interview, we had the following exchange:

Let’s talk about Dracula.
OK, I felt really connected to Age of Innocence because . . .

Wait. I’m not letting you off the hook that easily.
I don’t know what to say about it that’s . . .

Let’s talk about its amazing similarity to the new Meat Loaf video. Have you seen that?
Yeah. [Extremely nervous laugh] Yeah.

Today, I remind her of a Premiere article about the making of Dracula. “I would never have bad-mouthed Dracula at the time. Luckily, now I don’t need to be Francis Coppola’s favorite actress to have a good career. Now I know I can have my opinion and still be respected. But before, I was scared, because he was just so intimidating. I thought if I spoke out, people would think I was insane.”

Two things have given Ryder the courage of her convictions and finally made her realize it’s OK to be a movie star. The first, very simply, was The Age of Innocence. “It was the first time I ever felt proud of myself as an actress. And it really made it hard for me because nothing compares.” Says Scorsese: “I think she’s reacting to being part of a labor of love. We had a very good time. Winona has a good sense of humor, and her energy is boundless. It was like having rampant youth on the set. She’d be jumping up and down, but then when you said, ‘Action,’ she froze into position. All that energy was put behind her eyes, and I found that really fascinating.”

Ryder’s second rite of passage was more complicated and far darker. It was the search for Polly Klaas. The actress holed up with Klaas’ family, helped scour the fields and man the hot line. And according to Polly’s father, Marc, “She single-handedly put the story back on the front pages” by offering a $200,000 reward. “To me, it really wasn’t a cause,” says Ryder, now on the Klaas Foundation’s board of directors. “It was like ‘This is an outrage, and it’s outrageous that more people aren’t outraged.’ When something happens to a child, the world should stand still.” Ryder found a noble use for something she’d previously been ashamed of: “my celebrityism, or whatever you call it.” And she sorted through some of her own fears, past and present. After all, here is a woman not much bigger than a girl. A woman who has been stalked, though she has been advised not to discuss it.

Ryder worries that people might dismiss her involvement in the Klaas case as a Hollywood photo op, but clearly it was no such thing. Joanne Gardner of the Klaas Foundation remembers the actress’s first phone call: “She was in a hotel lobby in Los Angeles, sobbing. She said, ‘This is my town. This is my junior high. What can I do? Do you need money?’ We talked for an hour and a half. Winona had an awful lot of experience, because she’d had some horrible experiences of her own–being stalked and all that. She had some psychologists that she knew. She had some FBI people that she knew. I mean, this woman . . . I’ve always been a fan, and she’s a lovely little creature, but she astonished me with her grasp of the situation. This is not let’s-go-open-a-shopping-mall kind of stuff. This is life-in-the-balance kind of stuff.”

Just after New Year’s, Ryder and I are scheduled to have dinner, and she asks if I would mind eating at her place. She doesn’t feel up to going out. Which reminds me of what Ryder says about Johnny Depp: not a hell of a lot. She never makes an unkind remark about him, on or off the record. Perhaps to aid in her never-ending quest to be gracious, she doesn’t read Depp’s press and hasn’t seen Benny and Joon or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

Do you ever think about Johnny’s tattoo?

When you were breaking up, did you think about the tattoo?

Well, now that you’re thinking about the tattoo . . .
What do you want me to say? It’s like ‘It’s there. Oh, well.’ If I hated him, I’d probably say something mean. If I was still in love with him, I’d probably say something poignant. He’s a great guy, but I really don’t think about it.

I ask Ryder about the life of a celebrity couple, and she’s more expansive. “I remember us desperately hating being hounded. It was horrible, and it certainly took its toll on our relationship. Every day we heard that we were either cheating on each other or that we were broken up, when we weren’t. It was like this constant mosquito buzzing around us. . . . Now, I feel like I have an identity, whereas before I was so used to people telling me who I was. I was precocious! I was adorable! I was sexy! These labels were being slapped on me, and I didn’t have any life outside of it, except when I went back to Petaluma.”

Ryder would like to protect her relationship with Pirner from the media, insofar as it’s possible. She’s deliberately low-key about what she refers to as, simply, “a nice thing that’s evolving.” “Our relationship is different than any one I’ve ever had. It’s just more casual. It’s more of a friendship, really.” She pauses, fishing for words. “What I’m basically saying is that it’s not full of drama, which is really nice.”

Ryder met Pirner at Soul Asylum’s MTV Unplugged concert last spring. In person, the singer, like his girlfriend, charms most everyone.

The truth about Ryder and Pirner: They share the cooking, and they take turns washing the dishes. It’s 9 in the evening, and the three of us are dining on green salad, linguini in a marinara sauce and roasted chicken and potatoes.

Both are curious and well read. Both are unaccustomed to sleeping at night (Pirner is a confirmed night owl and admits to being useless during daylight hours). And both can think sideways. In person, they have a sweet and easy chemistry. When one of them talks, the other stops, looks and listens. When Ryder goes to the kitchen, she pauses to put her arms around her boyfriend’s neck – like a headlock, only nicer.

Pirner seems in awe of Ryder’s career but not particularly envious. “The other day I heard Winona on the phone telling somebody that she didn’t get in this for the money. What an absurd thing to have to say when acting was all you wanted to do since you were 13. I mean, the only aspiration I ever had was to be in a punk-rock band.” Pirner seems protective of Ryder. And he seems struck by how unspoiled she remains – even after years of people minding her business. Over dessert, I ask Ryder to describe her appeal as an actress. She laughs, turns to Pirner and says, “What’s my appeal, Dave?” To which he has a ready reply: “Your appeal is that you don’t know what your appeal is.”

I leave at midnight. I remember something Ryder read to me from her journal, something she wrote just before she parted ways with insomnia and other sorrows. And I remember that after she read it, she said to me, “If you print any of this, will you be sure to say that this is old, that this isn’t how I am right now? Because I’ve grown up a lot.” Tonight, she won’t get to sleep for hours and hours. Still, it won’t be because she’s fragile or confused. It’ll be because she and her night-owl friend are hanging out reading, watching videos, maybe goofing around on the guitar. It’s a new year, and–for all the right reasons–Winona Ryder will be up all night.

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Rolling Stone Mar.1994.

March 10, 1994 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links