Winona Ryder

The most respected young actress in Hollywood is also the most unpredictable. Witness her turns as a monster masher onscreen in Alien Resurrection and as a prancing spice girl in real life.

In the past year, Winona Ryder has given two eulogies. “I’ve dealt with loss for the first time,” she says, “and it’s so… strange.” One morning, sitting over breakfast in her San Francisco house, Ryder mentions the first. It was for Timothy Leary. 

Three months after I was born, my dad, who was Tim’s archivist, went to see him in Switzerland, where Tim was living in exile after escaping from prison and being called the most dangerous man in America by Nixon, who was furiously trying to hunt him down. My dad and Tim took acid and went skiing, and my dad pulled out a picture of me – the first one ever taken, I was a day old – and showed it to Tim and asked if he would be my godfather Tim said sure.

We didn’t meet again until seven years later, after Tim was released from prison and came to visit us. This was on a commune in Mendocino… For a while, growing up, I wanted to be a writer. This of course thrilled Tim. We talked constantly about books. My favorite literary character was Holden Caulfield, and his was Huck Finn. We talked about the similarities between the two characters, especially their feelings of alienation from polite society. I wanted to catch all the kids falling off the cliff and Tim wanted to light out for the territory.

It was a time when I was in my first throes of adolescence and experiencing that kind of alienation, and talking to Tim was the light at the end of the tunnel every time. He understood my generation, called us “free agents in the age of information.” What I learned from him didn’t have anything to do with drugs, but it had everything to do with getting high… He was the first person outside my family – who you never tend to believe while growing up – who made me feel like I could do anything…

The eulogy’s last line, which Ryder mutters under her breath, is, “We miss you and we love you, Tim.” It’s difficult to know what to say after that.

Ryder who has been acting for nearly half of her 26 years, and who this month appears in Alien Resurrection, can be very thoughtful and honest, if you let her, but she is naturally very careful. Here, for illumination, is a flippant question and its absurd, slightly revealing consequences:

What’s your favorite word today?
That’s very Barbara Walters of you. [Thinks] Like… I don’t understand the question. The word I like the meaning of the most, or a word that I like?

[Teasing] Has anyone ever told you that you over-analyze things?
I feel like I have to be profound, but nothing profound is coming into my head.

Why do you feel like you have to be profound? It’s just a dumb question.
Any one-word answer has to be profound, right?

Why? That’s crazy.
OK. My favorite word today is… [Thinks] marinate. I’ve been using that word a lot lately.

In what way?
As a metaphor For dwelling [on things]. It’s not a positive thing. Like people [say], “What have you been doing?'” “I’ve been marinating.”

So, when will you have “marinated”?
There’s no time limit for marination.

I am invited for dinner at Ryder’s Los Angeles home. Sunyata, her half sister, is doing the cooking.

We eat in the kitchen. We talk, and I let conversation with Ryder follow its own channels: books (“Obviously I worship [J.D.] Salinger, but I have no interest in meeting him. Orwell, I’d really like to sit down and talk with, and I really wish I could have done that”); the ‘8Os career of Ralph Macchio (“I love him. He’s so comforting. You turn on the TV and see his face…”); reasons for preferring San Francisco to Los Angeles (“Gossip up there is: Guess who’s getting married? Guess who’s getting this job? Down here it’s: Guess who just got divorced? Guess who just got fired?”).

[Her relationship with] Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, the second of Ryder’s two famous public longterm boyfriends, was traded in for mere friendship some time ago. (It’s too early to ask yet.) Instead, we talk, and the two sisters laugh a little at me when I explain how much I like holidaying in Mississippi. Then Ryder says, “I was born on the Mississippi, I think.” (She was, famously, born in Winona, Minn.)

“You were born in a farmhouse,” says Sunyata. “I remember it.”

This seems to be news to Ryder. “You do?” she asks.

Sunyata nods. “I was bored,” she says. “I went downstairs, and me and Jubal were skipping rope… I didn’t actually see Winona coming out. The labor was too boring.”

How did she look when Sunyata did see her?

“Sort of marinated?” Ryder suggests.

“Yes,” says Sunyata.

When Ryder was two and a half, the family moved back to San Francisco. “Very bohemian, lots of friends of the family around,” she says. “Yet still we were a very structured family. Her father worked in a bookstore; and from the age of 4 or 5, Ryder would help out, packing up books. They’d walk to work together, and each day he would buy her a pink carnation from a sidewalk vendor and she’d put it in her overcoat buttonhole.

When Ryder was 6, the family moved to a commune in Mendocino. “It was,” says Ryder, “‘Get your kids out of the city; we’re going to have our garden, and it’s going to be utopia.’ I think [my parents] thought it was going to be this really ideal situation.” (She still went to school in the city, a two-hour commute: “We started getting heavily teased – ‘hippie kids,’ you know.”) There was no electricity and no running water. There was a generator, but it didn’t always work. Ryder’s family had its own dwelling, but everybody would eat in the main house and hang out there. “It was a lot of fun sometimes,” she says, “but what I didn’t like about it was it suddenly wasn’t our family anymore; we were suddenly this gigantic family. And I didn’t like that – I wanted it just to be our family.”

They spent four years there. “I wasn’t very happy,” says Ryder. “When we talk about it now as a family, they’re, ‘What were we thinking?'”

What are you scared of?
In general? I’m scared of people lying to me. I should rephrase that. I’m scared of believing people and being let down – in every avenue of life. I like to consider myself a really good judge of character, and I did for years. I thought I could always know if someone was lying . And then when it happens once, you question every time you’ve believed anything.

What has made you feel more tender about that?
I can’t get into it. It’s a personal… I think that once it happens to you once, once you’re betrayed, then you question everything. You think: How many times has this happened to me and I didn’t know? I’ve had endless conversations about this with friends, and they all say you can’t go through life without trusting people. It’s just really hard to find the balance, I guess. That’s what I’m really looking for right now. It’s, like, the hardest thing. Because I never really thought about it before. I just believed people.

When Ryder went to see the Pretenders at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, she was getting crushed down in front, so the bouncers lifted her up onto the stage and Chrissie Hynde sang “2,000 Miles” to the 12-year-old Ryder. “She’d sing a verse, and then I’d sing a verse,” Ryder remembers. Years later, in England, she would meet Hynde again. Hynde remembered the young singing Ryder from the concert, and that cold night the two of them walked the streets of Manchester, Hynde sympathizing with Ryder over her fresh breakup with Johnny Depp. “Everyone else was, ‘oh, you’re young, this happens,'” Ryder says. “And she was the first person who was, ‘I know.’ There’s something about her that is so wise. If you ever want to have girl talk, she’s the epitome of what you’d want.”

How many times in your life have you been in love?
Three. [Pause~ Urn.. what do you mean, “in love”?

Well, that’s the question.
That’s not true then. It hasn’t been three times. I’ve loved people, but really in love… Twice.

Someone just got relegated.
[Laughs] I know. I’m not saying anything else. Poor guy. I feel like it has to be two…

Why? Because you’ve had two official public ones?
Honestly, if I had said “once,” somebody would be feeling really shafted.

Ryder had her first period on the set of her first film, Lucas. “The whole idea of it is so symbolic,” she says. “I just remember feeling really horrible and – not to get graphic or anything – you don’t really know what’s happening, but you do feel this is a really weird moment. I just remember saying this line – ‘Did you have a good summer, Lucas?’ or something – and in the middle of saying it, feeling something inside me. And I just kind of knew it. Even then I was, I can’t believe this is happening to me.”

Did it feel like a rite of passage?
It was just a drag. It’s not anything I ever wanted to get. I know it’s a constant topic of conversation, but if men had periods, the world would be such a different place. There’d be so much more murder. It said in Time magazine a few years ago that the equivalent to PMS for a man would be to stay up for four days and be really hung over.

Before you ever had sex, was it something you were terrified of or was it something you wanted to do?
I imagine I wanted to do it. I wasn’t terrified of it. I was just working so hard. At that point I was having a full-fledged career.

Can you say when, vaguely, this was?
[Laughs] Between the ages of 10 and 20.

That’s vague.
Around 16-ish. [Laughs] Which is actually 16. It’s something I remember very vividly. That whole act, it’s something that I can’t be casual about at all. Even to a fault. I think that I’m much too serious about it in a way, and it ends up becoming an issue.

I speak to some friends of Ryder’s. Denise Di Novi has produced three of the actress’s films (Heathers, Edward Scissorhands and Little Women) and is one of her oldest friends. “People say to me, ‘Has she changed?’ ” Di Novi reflects. “She’s matured and become a woman, but the essence of her has always been there. She’s one of those people who sort of arrived on the planet [as] who she was. In all the years I’ve known her, I’ve never seen her falter for one minute. She’s never been tempted by big, cheesy, commercial movies. The other thing about Winona that is most impressive is that she is not weird with other actresses. Her best friends are Claire [Danes] and Gwyneth [Paltrow]. She is a real cheerleader for other actresses, which is unusual. I think actresses can be very competitive they feel like there’s only so many parts.”

“I feel very protected by Winona,” says Danes. “I feel mothered a lot of the time, in a wonderful way. She has loads of advice. I feel like she’s been through the rounds that I’m about to embark on and survived them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just been about to do some horrible movie and she’s somehow found out and will call me and say, ‘Claire, I’ve heard you are interested in doing this movie. Don’t.’ Like she’s my little guardian angel.” They also just hang out. Recently, the two got together for a video double feature: The Bad Seed (Ryder’s choice) and Footloose (Danes’). They ended up dancing and singing along to the main feature.

Paltrow and Ryder were introduced over lunch by an agent years ago, but they’ve become close friends only recently. “We just sort of started talking,” says Paltrow, “and we had a lot of fun just kind of chatting and being silly. And she was quite helpful to me this summer I was going through a difficult time. She was very supportive. A very dear friend to me. Sometimes I say: You’re so wise about other people; you have to have the same kind of perspective for yourself.”

I ask Paltrow what they have in common.

“Gender!” She laughs. “We’re both girls! We both have short hair. We have similar…fears. We have both struggled with growing up – to a certain extent, mine less than hers – in public. We both have a fear of confrontation.” A chuckle. “That’s why we’re such good friends, because no one will ever provoke a confrontation.”

In early august, Ryder is in London for a holiday. She is photographed coming off the plane, head down. “What else do you do when you’re walking through an airport with spaghetti on your shirt?” she complains. “You can’t actually hold your head up, because you’re too mortified.” When we speak, she says that there is some weird news in the newspapers: “Apparently I am linked to some guy named Dodi something, who I’ve never even heard of in my life, who’s dating Princess Di.” The item says she is one of Dodi Fayed’s ex-girlfriends. This is not true. “I would remember somebody named Dodi,” Ryder says.

The Crucible is one of the three movies of which Ryder is most proud. The others are The Age of Innocence and Heathers. (A sequel to the latter is being planned. “It’s kind of about Heathers in the real world, after high school,” Ryder says.) Her least favorite is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “I’d say that’s the one that I’m embarrassed by my performance the most in,” she says. “When Dracula comes on, I kind of sulk away.”

Ryder has just been asked to do two weeks’ work on Woody Allen’s new movie. She had previously turned it down. “I go back and forth,” she says carefully. “The whole idea of working with someone that you kind of watch go through this huge scandal…” Apart from that, she is developing projects of her own. Offers are coming in from outside, but few of them impress her. “They’re not interesting,” she complains. “It’s really sad. Once you achieve a certain amount of status, a lot of the more interesting, independent films, they assume that you would never do it because they don’t have any money or something. And really that’s the thing that you’re kind of waiting for.”

She probably has enough money anyway, right?

“I’d say.” She pauses. “I probably shouldn’t say that.”

Soon afterward I meet Ryder in San Francisco. Over dinner I bring up the subject of Depp.

You were one-half of the most revered wild romance of the last decade.
[Perking up] Do you think? People don’t even remember that we were together.

Its public face was very golden: the glorious-young-rebel, love-tattoos-and-total-abandon experience of its time.
It was very difficult having it so public. I think it really hurt us, hurt the relationship. It’s made me very… My dad and mom just moved, and they have this is so embarrassing – they have this room of just archives of me, and I was flicking through the old stuff, and it’s really interesting to see how I changed in terms of talking about my relationships. I learned a lot from that – from being so open, and from being stupid.

Nonetheless, that romance was perceived as sort of utopian.
I think that’s a lot to do with him. He’s such a romantic figure. It was a pretty major time. It wasn’t what they made it out to be: a lot of drama. There was quite a bit of that, but it was my first love and my first relationship, a fiercely deep love that I don’t know that I’ll ever… That first love is like that, isn’t it? I don’t know. It was a wild time. Half the stuff they said about us was true, and half of it wasn’t.

Which half?
[Nodding] I know.

You’re friends again now?
Yeah. It’s really great. I mean, it’s not like we’re buddy-buddy. It’s really nice, though, when you think about a person, to not have a pit in your stomach, or cringe, or feel heartbroken, or feel they hate you, or do I hate them? It’s really nice, because after you break up you go through a couple of years of that.

You were completely out of contact?
Yeah. I think breakups are the same in any field you’re in, but it is particularly hard when it’s being documented and when you see the person’s picture everywhere. People don’t usually have that added problem when they break up with someone. They don’t have to see billboards of them. It was very painful for a long time.

In hindsight, do you have a simple thought about why it didn’t work?
This sounds like such a cop-out answer, but I just don’t think it was our time. I think it was our time, and then time passed. You kind of just fall together and then you fall apart. I guess. I thought about it for years, and I kind of don’t really have an answer to that.

I don’t even know who was doing most of the breaking up.
It was mutual. It really was. And you’re just kind of waiting for the other person to say so. But I do feel weird talking about it. He doesn’t say a word about it. I don’t know how he feels. I know I’m not saying anything that could upset him. But it’s something I really want to protect. The same with Dave.

That relationship disappeared quietly.
But that was perceived differently. We’re so close. He really is – and I never use this term loosely, and I know a lot of other people do – one of my best friends. It just kind of turned into something else.

How would you characterize your emotional life now?
[Dismissively] Oh, there’s nothing to characterize.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Well, speaking as someone who was born wanting to get married and have kids – and I am pretty hopelessly romantic – I can’t say it’s a good thing. I think it was necessary for a while. And also I’m pretty focused on other things right now. Being able to travel. Being able to really spend time with my friends. Spend time with my family. I feel really comfortable with where I’m at. There are days when I don’t, but I’m generally pretty happy.

After dinner, Ryder takes the opportunity to inspect, without permission, my CD case. She returns brandishing an A-ha CD and barbed comments. (I’m not ashamed. I have my reasons.)

As a conciliatory gesture, she shares her Spice Girls shame. She just couldn’t get “2 Become 1” out of her head. So she went shopping. “I went into Tower [Records] in New York and bought a whole bunch of really good CDs – Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits,” she recounts, “and I kind of put the Spice Girls in the middle. And the guy is adding them up and he goes, ‘Not you!’ And I go, ‘It’s for my niece.’

Winona Ryder does not have a niece.

The obsession deepens. A couple of weeks later, I discover that Ryder, Danes and her boyfriend, Ben Lee, have photographed themselves as the Spice Girls for a homemade Spice Girls 12-month calendar. Then, Paltrow tells me – “Oh, my, she’ll probably kill me for saying this!” – the two of them took turns in Ryder’s New York apartment with a video camera, acting in their own new Spice Girls video for “2 Become 1.”

“We’d put the camera on the mantelpiece,” says Paltrow, “and then we’d be Sporty and Baby Spice, and then we’d quickly change, throw on a new coat.”

The image of these rich, talented actresses acting out their Spice Girls games locked away in private may strike you as a little weird. But bear this in mind: Few lapses in decorum of any kind are allowed these days for such people. “Obviously, we can’t go out and do this in public,” says Paltrow. “Obviously, we can’t go out to a bar and act really silly like every other 24-or 25-year old girl. You just get sick of going out and then they write about it in the paper: ‘Gwyneth and Winona seen eating a burrito at…’ So you just stay home and order in some food and have some good girl talk and make a Spice Girls video or two. It makes perfect sense to me.”

Maybe it’s that Ryder found her way around the hard stuff (the clever acting, the cool books, the sweeping emotions) a long time ago but, in her rush and enthusiasm, it was some of the dumb stuff (the rollercoaster rides, the Spice Girls dress-up frenzy, the easy intimacy of a pointless giggle) that she left behind.

Ryder calls the next morning and invites me over. “I mean, I’m stuck in my pajamas,” she apologizes.

It’s a beautiful house in the middle of San Francisco, with views over the bay. This has been her main home for the past three years.

Various family members – Sunyata, brothers Jubal and Yuri, Ryder’s mother-come and go. 

There’s a statue standing not quite vertically among some papers on a shelf. I ask what it is.

“It’s a Golden Globe!” she chides.

She says that when she got in last night she wrote in her journal, as she does every night. “I think when we talked about Johnny, that triggered something in me,” she says. “Because I didn’t know if it was OK. I never really know if it’s OK.”

To talk about it from his point of view?
“Yeah, or even from my point of view,” she says. “And it’s just a weird thing. We’ve never had a discussion about… It was a strange thing. And Dave too.”

Ryder must fly to Los Angeles this afternoon to shoot an extra angle in a scene for Alien Resurrection. She’s keen to reject the notion that she took this role because, like so many movie stars these days, she felt obliged to pep up her market value and currency by doing a big commercial movie. She has always loved the Alien movies. Though even Ryder is bored of saying it, she had a picture of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley on her bedroom wall when she was young. Says Weaver: “I thought it was fun, actually, working with someone who, as a child, had seen the Alien movie. And yet working together, I always felt that we were equals. Maybe because she’s more mature and I’m immature.”

“To me,” Ryder explains, “it’s science fiction, Sigourney Weaver. You can’t get classier than that. It’s not like doing a shoot-’em-up movie. It’s not Conspiracy Theory. I mean, I went after it; couldn’t believe it when they talked to me about it. I just felt like I’d struck gold.”

Hardest were the underwater scenes: “That was hands down the worst physical experience of my life,” Ryder says. “You’re in a tank that’s filthy – the crew’s in there for 17 hours a day, and they’re not coming out to go to the bathroom.

You were pissing in the tank?
I did not piss in the tank. I just held it and was miserable. But I know not everyone held it. And it was supposed to be a flooded kitchen, with chicken and milk, and aliens floating by. I swallowed a lot of that water and got very sick.

A few days after I fly home to London, the boyfriend Ryder never knew, Dodi Fayed, dies with Princess Diana at his side. Ryder leaves me a message. “I’m just reeling over this… this news. I’m sorry… I’m rambling…” People call her up asking for comments, and she has to express her regrets but point out that she and Fayed had never met.

“They show so much footage of her alive, you kind of don’t believe she’s dead,” Ryder says of Diana. “She’s just walking around.” And the events have focused her contempt for the paparazzi. She says that there are times in Los Angeles when they follow her car; rather than drive home and let them find out where she lives, she drives to a police station and sits there until the paparazzi get bored of waiting: “And if I was a better driver, I would have been pulling completely illegal moves to try to get rid of them.”

One night, a few days after Diana’s and Fayed’s death, Ryder goes to visit some friends at a hotel. All the New York hotels are staked out by paparazzi because the MTV Video Music Awards are coming up. On the way in, she keeps her head down as the flashes shower over her. When she comes out, much later, there is only one photographer left. “Any chance for a picture, Winona?” he asks, and she says, “No. Sorry. Not tonight,” and walks off. But it makes her think. Two blocks on, she turns back. To thank him for asking. They talk for half an hour. When she finally leaves, he doesn’t even pick up his camera.

Ryder’s other eulogy was for her old commune friend Jesse. Jesse’s memorial service was held in the middle of California redwood country. Everyone from Ryder’s childhood was there. “It was not very traditional,” she says. “It was a bunch of hippies singing and letting go of ashes and stuff.” It was weird, though, because there were lots of video cameras, and she would look up and catch people filming Winona Ryder’s tears.

Jesse was, she tells me, “the most beautiful boy in the world.” They’d still meet up sometimes – he visited her while she was filming Little Women, and she couldn’t see much wrong with him then. But then he went to Japan for the summer to study some kind of martial art, and when he came back he was different.

Jesse was the first boy Ryder ever kissed. It was when she was about 7.  They didn’t really tell anyone, and they went back to being buddies, but there would be other kisses. She mentioned that “Jesse was my first kiss” during the eulogy out in the woods. Life as Winona Ryder seems satisfying, but it is rarely uncomplicated. When she looked up, she saw some of Jesse’s friends giving each other high-fives. They came up to her afterward. “They were very upset and everything,” she says, shaking her head, “but they were, ‘That’s so rad! Jesse always told us that, but we never believed him.'”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in US Magazine Dec.1997.

December 1, 1997 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links