Winona Ryder Opens Her Diary

The actress says she's a cheesy, tacky, nervous, geeky, defensive, pampered, privileged midget freak. Hey, we don't think so

March 10, 1994
Winona Ryder
Winona Ryder on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Herb Ritts

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. For weeks, she says neither yes nor no. Instead, I get the message you occasionally get from those old Magic 8 Balls: REPLY HAZY, TRY AGAIN.

On New Year's Day, Ryder calls from her place in New York, and this time the Magic 8 Ball says, incredibly, SIGNS POINT TO YES. The 22-year-old actress lives in a gorgeous, stately apartment building in Manhattan – an ocean liner drifting through a gray and dingy neighborhood. 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. She's a friend among friends, a homebody at home. And there's a stack of diaries on her bed. "I can hardly read my writing," she says. But she does. Ryder reads an entry, from April Fools' Day 1993, which she wrote while in Portugal, shooting Bille August's muddled epic 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). So the first entry is as follows: "Lisbon. Yikes. Weirdness."

And we're off.

"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. Oh, God. Are you totally going to have a heyday with me? Are you going to crush me?"

Live and in person, Ryder is 5 feet 4 inches and weighs 103 pounds. In a corset, her waist measures 17 inches. Joanne Gardner, media coordinator for the Polly Klaas Foundation, calls Ryder "teeny-tiny." Martin Scorsese, who directed Ryder's revelatory turn in The Age of Innocence, refers to her as "a person of that stature." Janeane Garofalo, who plays her roommate in Ben Stiller's dead-on Generation X comedy Reality Bites, puts it this way: "She's so small! I mean, she's like a little figurine for the coffee table!"

Upon acquaintance, Ryder will charm you within an inch of your life. She'll be geeky ("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 geeky once more ("I never sent it"). Still, your first impression of Ryder is simply that she is lovely and small. With her knees drawn up to her chest and her head hung low, she is a ball that could roll away at any minute. Ryder's size clearly makes her feel vulnerable – outdoors, she walks with a hunched, defensive posture – but often she makes light of 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 fuckin' freak."

Interview no. 1 falls on a blank, gray day shortly before Christmas. Ryder has just returned from the memorial service for Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old girl who was abducted last October in the actress's hometown, Petaluma, Calif., and found murdered two months later. Ryder arrives at the restaurant precisely on time and kisses Pirner goodbye in the street. (Later, I'll ask if I can meet with him, and the Magic 8 Ball will deliberate for weeks.) Once inside, she sits in a corner and removes her "Holden Caulfield hat": a plaid hunting cap with fur-lined earflaps. Her hair is startlingly short. "My mom cut my hair off," she says. "It wasn't my natural color, and she was like `Oh, honey, let me.' Now my ears are always freezing." She gestures at her hat. "So I need earflaps."

Ryder seems relaxed and settled in, but the moment I turn on the tape recorder, she stares at it as if looking into oncoming headlights. Anyone about to be subjected to weeks' worth of questions is entitled to a case of the jitters – Truman Capote referred to the movie star and the reporter as "the nervous hummingbird and its would-be captor." And for a while, Ryder gets smaller and smaller, threatening to vanish. "I get nervous," she says, "and when I get nervous, I get inarticulate." She orders herbal tea and chicken soup. 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!," she says. "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? [X singer] 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, God," she groans. "Why did I tell you that story? What was my point? Hey, maybe the grapefruits gave me insomnia for five years."

Over the next couple of weeks, Ryder will occasionally retreat into the nervous-hummingbird routine. This will take some explaining. With Heathers, which she narrated via her character's journals, Ryder entered her generation's circulatory system. Teenage life was twisted, and Ryder, more than any other actor or actress, was in on the joke. Since Heathers, movies like The Age of Innocence –and even Francis Ford Coppola's overripe Bram Stoker's Dracula – have made Ryder something more than the doyenne of Generation X. They've made her a movie star. Stiller says: "It's funny – girls really like her, and guys really like her. Every guy I've ever talked to has a crush on her." Garofalo says, "I've noticed that even little, little kids like her," adding, "I think Winona's the poster girl of every Trekkie, every computer nerd, every information-superhighway addict, every comedyhead and every comic-book collector. And athletes, too. You know? She's so gorgeous that she crosses over."

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. The actress loves a period piece: In House of the Spirits, a political saga spanning four generations, she plays the defiant daughter of a conservative Latin American statesman (Jeremy Irons), and soon she'll begin work on a new adaptation of one of Polly Klaas' favorite books, 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.'"

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Movies Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.