Winona Ryder Beats the Heat

She was a Hot Actress two years ago, and her temperature's still rising

May 16, 1991
Winona Ryder
Winona Ryder on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Herb Ritts

The original Edward Scissorhands scissor hands rest peacefully on a wooden chest at the top of the stairs. Among the mementos and messages stuck to the refrigerator are a sweet photo of Johnny Depp with cult director John Waters and a piece of yellow note paper bearing Jason Robards's phone number.

In fact, all around Winona Ryder's recently purchased Los Angeles house, one senses a touching attempt to impose some semblance of domestic normalcy. This home base of Hollywood Hotness 1991 has the relaxed bohemian feel of the actress's native Northern California rather than standard-issue L.A. glitz. As Ryder passes a room that houses her beloved J.D. Salinger first editions, she apologizes for the unfinished state of the place. "I'm sorry," she says sweetly, "this is the first time I've decorated a home of my own."

Winona Ryder Opens Her Diary

Suddenly one realizes that for all her down-to-earth charm, there's actually little that's normal about Winona Ryder and her situation these days. After all, your average nineteen-year-old is not setting up house in this ritzy neighborhood. Your average nineteen-year-old isn't the goddaughter of LSD guru Timothy Leary and didn't attend Black Flag and Agent Orange shows with her dad. Your average nineteen-year-old isn't currently cohabiting with and engaged to Johnny Depp. Your average nineteen-year-old does not have her own production company. And most significant, your average nineteen-year-old is not the single most exciting actress of her generation.

Ryder was born Winona Horowitz in 1971 near Winona, Minnesota. She grew up in the San Francisco area with her bohemian, intellectually inclined parents, Michael and Cindy. Her first role was as Catwoman in a family performance of Batman. From there it was on to playing Auntie Em in a summer-workshop production of The Wizard of Oz and Willie in This Property Is Condemned at the prestigious American Conservatory Theater. While taking classes at ACT, she was spotted by a talent scout and before long found herself cast in her first movie, Lucas, in 1986. Shortly before its release, Winona was asked how she wanted her name to appear in the credits and on a whim chose the last name Ryder. "I think my dad had a Mitch Ryder album on," she says.

Since then, Ryder has made a series of vivid impressions in such films as Heathers, Beetlejuice, Great Balls of Fire!, Edward Scissorhands and Mermaids. By last year she had become such a hot property that she made news not only for films that she starred in but also for one that she didn't: The Godfather Part III, which she had to drop out of at the last minute because of physical exhaustion. (She was replaced by the daughter of director Francis Coppola, Sofia.)

Despite a resume that's not exactly jampacked with box-office bonanzas, Ryder is in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose her roles. Recently, she completed work for Jim Jarmusch's still-untitled new film, in which she plays a taxi driver, and she has agreed to appear in Francis Coppola's upcoming remake of Dracula. There's also some talk of her playing a female Jesus in The Second Greatest Story Ever Told.

Ryder says she enjoyed her first brush with widespread media attention around the time of Heathers but has grown uncomfortable with talking about herself. "Most interviews of actresses that I read make me want to throw up," she says as she turns off the CD of Hootenanny, by her favorite band, the Replacements. "I read one not too long ago in which the actress actually said, 'I really, really want to play a blind person.'" She winces and, fine actress that she is, conjures up a convincing gagging noise. With that, Winona Ryder fetches her coffee and cigarettes and prepares to talk.

This magazine named you Hot Actress in 1989, and things have only gotten warmer since then. What kind of career pressures are on you at this point?
There's all sorts of pressures on me at every point. But I just ignore strategy and advice in general because I can't listen to anybody but myself. So as a result I've ended up turning down a lot of stuff.

Anything that you regret turning down?
No. Not at all. Sometimes people would tell me: "Oh, you have to do this. This picture is going to be really, really huge." And maybe it was huge, but I'm not going to do anything for that reason. There are people in Hollywood who devise these entire theories – you can do two small movies, but then you have to do a big movie. And then you can take meetings for a small movie, but then you really have to do two really big movies.

There were people who got on their knees and begged me not to do Heathers. They told me it was going to ruin my career. All this strategy has nothing to do with creativity or art or acting or any of those things. It has to do with money and power and box office and positioning.

Have you done a movie as a career move?
No, never. I did 1969 because I was sixteen years old, I was really bored, and I wanted to work. And it was a big mistake. But I didn't do the movie because I thought it was going to be some good career move. To a true artist the career stuff shouldn't matter. But it matters to too many of those people who call themselves actors but are really just posers. Some people are in this just because they want to be really rich and they want to have houses everywhere. And that's great. But just don't call yourself an artist and then try to tell everybody that . . . Road House was a really powerful, moving movie.

So you don't care about box office?
I'm thrilled if one of my movies is a hit. But you should do what hits you. If I'm in a movie and I'm not really into it, then I feel like I'm . . . lying and like maybe other people will pick up on the fact that I'm lying.

The conventional wisdom is that there are no strong roles for women, but this doesn't seem to have been a problem for you.
See, the thing is, that hasn't been a problem for me yet, because I haven't really played any women yet. I've been playing teenagers, and I've been lucky enough to find some pretty good roles. Like, I loved the role of Myra in Great Balls of Fire!, I really loved the role of Charlotte in Mermaids, and I consider Veronica in Heathers to be the role of my life. Now things get difficult because I've already kind of covered that teenager territory.

Yet you've done so without really appearing in the mainstream teen films. You're one of the few young Americans who have never starred in a John Hughes movie.
Yeah, well, I'm glad of that. That wasn't ever even an option for me. And I don't think he would have ever liked me anyway. Those kinds of films are so corny. I couldn't believe how teenagers didn't mind getting those labels slapped on their back. God, talk about patronizing. Plus, you watch those movies and everyone is, like, thirty playing eighteen. It's just like "Get a life."

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