IN THIS NOVEMBER'S HOMEFRONT, WINONA RYDER RETURNS TO THE CINEPLEX WITH HER VERY FIRST ACTION ROLE. IT'S ANOTHER UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTER IN A BODY OF WORK THAT'S LEFT AN INDELIBLE MARK ON THE MOVIES AS WE KNOW THEM. HERE, THE MERCURIAL MUSE SPILLS ON THE SPECTER OF SUCCESS, SURVIVING HOLLYWOOD, AND THE TRAGEDY OF STRATEGY
“Beetlejuice, Tim Burton, my first relationship, the air-quotes ‘incident’ that happened, and then the couple of awkward years of ‘comeback, question mark?’”
Winona Ryder, star of more than 50 films, is laughing while reciting the usual topics brought up on interview junkets. “It’s no fault of the press, they only have a few minutes with each person. But it’s like, Does everybody have AMNESIA?!” She delivers this last sentence with a shrill Midwestern accent, because she’s quoting Kathy Bates in Misery. Conversations with Winona come peppered with major movie moments such as this—a habit both endearing and dangerous, should any reporter unschooled in film trivia fail to notice she’s merely being playful. Here’s another:
“In one way, it’s not offensive at all. But it’s like, the word ‘comeback’ makes you feel like you’re standing in line for another chance, like in Oliver when he steps up and says ‘Please sir, can I have some more?’ ‘MORE?!’”
When paparazzi photos of Ryder looking gorgeous in a tank and jeans on the set of her new film, Homefront, surfaced, the “comeback” conversation began to percolate. Her new look has the fashion industry pointing its antennae in her direction once more, but she prefers to address another topic, one that’s a bit unusual for an actress conducting an interview with a fashion magazine: she talks about movies. A lot. If this comes as a letdown, then you haven’t heard the tale of the comedic Americanization of Jean-Pierre Jeunet during the filming of Alien: Resurrection, or the story of how Winona “looking like Joan Collins in an 80-pound sequin dress” approached Nicholas Hytner at the 1995 Academy Awards and told him she wanted to play teenage Abigail in The Crucible, or the one about the time she gave herself a cheap makeover at the Beverly Center to land the role of Veronica Sawyer in Heathers (after Jennifer Connelly turned it down). There are dozens of these anecdotes, which are so engrossing they could populate their own book, a behind-the-scenes volume on the highs, lows, and sheer absurdity of being a famous movie star at the turn of the millennium. This is, after all, the actress whose filmography includes roles in Heathers, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Mermaids, Reality Bites, Dracula, Night on Earth, Little Women, The Crucible, Celebrity, and Girl, Interrupted, as well as countless other contemporary classics.
Earlier this year, Ryder earned raves for her deep and haunting performance in The Iceman as Deborah Pellicotti, wife of contract killer Richard Kuklinski and a woman whose cluelessness belied a fervent level of denial. This month sees the release of Homefront, a Sylvester Stallone–penned drug-world action flick—a rare first for the 42-year-old actress, who has tried just about every type of role.
In the small town of Petaluma, California, there is a suburban legend that every kid hears about Winona Ryder’s adolescence there. As the story goes, Ryder had attended Kenilworth Junior High School and dropped out after she was gay-bashed by a gang of male bullies who mistook her for an effeminate boy. “The lore! That did happen,” she confirms with a nostalgic laugh. “I was obsessed with Bugsy Malone and had cut my hair short. I remember the halls were empty and these kids started shouting ‘faggot,’ and I didn’t think they were talking to me. Walking home after leaving the nurse’s office—and I’ve never talked about this—I remember pressing on the bandage because I wanted it to look more dramatic. I had this inner monologue going of Humphrey Bogart, like, ‘being roughed up!’ I was pretending I was in some gangster movie. It was oddly my way of dealing with it, because if I didn’t, I probably would have been really scared.” She had the instincts of an actor before she realized she was one. Once she transitioned to homeschooling in the wake of the incident, she found herself with spare time, so her parents enrolled her at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco—where she was ultimately discovered and cast in the movie Lucas. “Had I not been homeschooled I would not have been able to go,” she reasons. “It’s almost weird fate that it happened that way.”
The rest is now Hollywood history, but perhaps what’s most impressive about Ryder isn’t the oeuvre that followed but her encyclopedic knowledge (and genuine love) of film. As we talk, she lavishes praise on fellow actresses from Jennifer Jason Leigh to Veronica Cartwright to Angela Bassett to Sandra Bernhard. She also fondly recalls the experience of making Girl, Interrupted with Angelina Jolie, whom she was adamant about casting (Ryder was the film’s executive producer). The talent of others is something she is incredibly articulate about, and her memory for the names of any and all the crew she’s worked with, from casting directors to makeup artists to stunt doubles, is astounding. “I love movies,” she says. “What I love about Martin Scorsese is that he finds something good about everything—he never has anything bad to say. He finds the one good thing in movies that are kind of unbearable. So, I’ll find the moment and I’ll sit through something, even when it’s on TV. It’s why we keep going back—we’re waiting to relive that moment, and it’s wonderful! I’ve worked with actors who make a big point of telling you that they don’t go to the movies. And you’re like…then why are you doing this? And how can you be so good? I always wonder if it’s true or not.” At the time of our interview, Winona has just returned home to New York after spending a month shooting David Hare’s Turks & Caicos on location, with Bill Nighy, Christopher Walken, Dylan Baker, and Helena Bonham Carter. “We are all sworn to secrecy about the plot,” she says of the 2014 TV movie, second in a trilogy revolving around an ex-MI5 agent caught in a web of corruption. “It’s an amazing piece of writing. I was completely floored because I hadn’t read anything like that in such a long time, and David Hare is a legend.”
Despite her vast experience on movie sets, she still gets starstruck. “The other night Christopher Walken, who is one of my favorite actors, was in hair and makeup and some of us were talking, but they were filming like ten feet away. He just looked at us and put his finger up to his lips, and I was like, Oh my God. I’m having an At Close Range moment! Remember when they’re drowning the guy and Sean [Penn] is watching and there’s that epic shot of Chris Walken going, ‘SHHHHH.’ All these iconic—I just can’t! I feel so lucky that I still get those feelings where my heart skips a beat. The direction I got from David was, ‘You’re beaming too much! You’re actually not supposed to be completely in love with all of these people.’ So in some ways I still feel like a kid, even though I’m not a kid at all. When that goes, I’ll probably hang it up.”
Ryder’s enthusiasm for choosing projects has put her career on an unpredictable path. Now in her early forties, she’s reached an awkward age for film actresses—something she’s managed to circumvent largely by accepting idiosyncratic roles that jump around in the age department. In recent years, she cosmetically matured herself to play Spock’s elderly mother in Star Trek and stole each of her scenes as the aging ballerina Beth MacIntyre in Black Swan, her performance culminating in a pivotal scene where she stabs herself in the face with a nail file. “If you look at Bette Davis, she did all these incredible movies and then she didn’t work for a little while, and then she did All About Eve. I always wondered if she was jumping the gun with age, which she also did in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But in my eyes she was still so beautiful and unique. There’s no one like her.”
When asked to comment on what it is about Winona Ryder that enchants time and again, her close friend designer Marc Jacobs is effusive. “She’s not someone who’s all over the red carpet or the gossip magazines,” he says. “She’s reserved and keeps to herself. I remember we had a show in L.A. and there was such a ruckus when she arrived, the photographers were so enthralled. I asked someone, ‘Why is everybody freaking out?’ And they said it’s because she rarely goes out. She’s a bit of an enigma. She’s an incredibly present actress. I think of her as being very strong, but there is also that private side. She’s super informed and it’s something she keeps to herself, you don’t really know that about her. And she’s not overexposed. There is a surprise in seeing her and realizing there is no smoke and mirrors. She really is that beautiful and that smart.”
Ryder admits that she isn’t working and going out all the time simply because she doesn’t want to. “It used to be that you commit to something and then basically you spend your year doing that. Now there’s a constant conversation of how you have to keep working in order to remind people that you’re around. You have to work to be relevant. If you don’t then people will forget and the studios won’t want you because they won’t remember the last thing you did that made money. It’s all about knowing when to listen to that conversation and—without sounding really hokey—when to tune it out and follow your heart. I was fired from a movie because I did Heathers! I was cast in a movie and the director saw an advance screening and was offended by it and fired me. It wasn’t until years later that it became more appreciated.”
Today, a new generation of actresses is navigating territory charted by Ryder from the ’80s till now. When pressed about what type of advice she might give to a young star hoping to cultivate a similarly iconic career, Ryder is overtly cautious. “I was recently asked about Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence,” she recalls. “In answering I was very genuine, and I did say I thought they were both incredibly talented. But I mentioned something about their privacy and how my heart goes out to them, and the feedback I got was like, ‘How dare she!’ It’s just another example of something being taken out of context, the interpretation was that I pitied them or something. I guess people decide to take things a certain way for headlines or Internet hits. But these are great actresses! I don’t know what they think of me. I would never give advice because I would feel very presumptuous. Their success is very different than mine was, and it’s a different time.”
Though she balks at offering her insight, she does see the big picture when it comes to her own trajectory in the limelight. “For me, half of it has been the sheer luck that I had with Tim [Burton] and Heathers. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Beetlejuice, where would I be? That movie was a big thing for me. Subsequently I think what has kind of worked—and if this is a luxury, I don’t know how I was afforded it—but I was not strategic at all. I do remember feeling a lot of pressure. I remember a lot of conversations where I was constantly hearing, You’ve gotta do this movie so you can do that movie. You’ve gotta make a big movie so you can make a small movie. But I can’t act like that. When I think about the stuff I’ve turned down or the stuff I wasn’t interested in, I don’t have any regrets. Yes, there were some movies that went on to be really popular. But now how do they really fit into things? It’s very interesting. My whole thing is anti-strategy, and I was constantly being told that I was going to go down in flames for certain decisions [laughs]. But I am sure that for as many roles that I turned down, there are some that I was never really offered to begin with!”
Now her anti-strategy has her selling meth, riding motorcycles, and kidnapping children. “She’s this woman who had been in a biker gang, and that is a hard-core scene,” Ryder says of her character, Sheryl, in Homefront. “What’s creepy is that she’s sober and she’s running this drug operation with James Franco’s character, and to me it’s the epitome of evil, in a weird way. If it’s possible to be a victim and be diabolical at the same time, I had never explored that. There was also a slightly campy, arm-candy element to her that appealed to me. She’s such a complete CHICK. She’s what you think of when you hear the words ‘biker chick.’”
“We had a great understanding because we share so many tastes,” costar Franco says of filming together. “She lives in her own world, but it’s a nice world colored by literature, film, and all the best artists. I also had a crush on her when I was younger, so it was nice to actually play her lover.”
In response to potential Oscar buzz about her role in Iceman, the two-time nominee takes it like a true pro—with a grain of salt. “It’s easy to get lost in the pressure. But there is a general sense of support and there’s a very nice camaraderie. I remember when Tom Hanks had won for Philadelphia and then won again for Forrest Gump the next year. I was sitting in his row and I was eavesdropping on some of the other actors talking, and he said something like ‘It’s kind of better to be one of the four who should have won than the guy people think didn’t deserve it.’ It’s kind of a perfect metaphor for fame and success, and it’s a funny thing with awards. There’s always the inevitable backlash. But I love voting, and I always love watching them when they’re on TV.” Spoken like a true movie fiend.
HOMEFRONT IS IN THEATERS NOVEMBER 27