Winona Ryder Beats the Heat

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

Winona Ryder
Herb Ritts
Winona Ryder on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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."

I'm starting to read scripts in which I'd be playing women in their twenties, and I've already found it's more difficult to find a good young-woman role as opposed to a good teenager role. The weirdest thing was when people criticize you about this stuff. I did this press junket for Mermaids in Aspen, and everyone there was saying, "Why are you always playing teenagers?" And, like, I'm nineteen, what am I supposed to do – play a judge?

Are you impressed with your young peers in Hollywood?
It's kind of disappointing to see a lot of young actors and actresses. It's like they have a look for everything. They have their sexy look, their angry look, their innocent look. And it's so calculated and so posed. It's such a poseathon. Nothing's coming from the inside. It's all exteriors and looks. A lot of the time, I feel some of my peers are in it because they are just really trying to be famous or be looked at. It's not like they really enjoy acting at all. But there are definitely exceptions.

Like who?
I really like Jodie Foster a lot. I think she's going to be just a tremendous director, too. I like Uma Thurman – I think she's a good actress. And I like Julia Roberts.

Considering how quickly things happened for you, would a few years of waitressing have made you a better actress?
Some people think that: "She never struggled." So sue me, you know? What do they want? More and more lately, I deal with blatant jealousy. If I were jealous of someone, I wouldn't be blatant about it. People get so strange here. I'm sure people assume I hate Julia Roberts, because she's really hot and gets to do whatever she wants workwise. I like Julia. I know her a little bit, and I think she's a really cool person. So why couldn't I be friends with someone like that? I'm nineteen. I like to know other people around my age. I think she's talented, and I'd rather be losing parts to her than to some idiot.

Why do you think your dropping out of Godfather III caused so much commotion?
I don't know. I'm really burnt out on even defending myself because the truth is so simple. I was sick physically and exhausted. That's what happened. It's amazing how people want things to be as complicated and nasty as possible. I think maybe some people were waiting for me to fuck up because I hadn't really fucked up yet.

Obviously, I would have loved to have worked with those wonderful actors and a great director. But it wasn't a choice. It wasn't like "Well, I'm not feeling too well today. Maybe I won't do this movie." The doctor was there, and he said: "You have an upper respiratory infection. You can't do it." My leaving the movie was disappointing to everybody, especially to me. But Francis Coppola's a father himself. He has a daughter my age – yeah, obviously he has a daughter my age – and I think anybody who's a parent could understand. I was seventeen years old, and when you haven't been home for a year and you've been working the whole time and you're really sick, you just have to be home. I wanted my mom to bring me soup. People treat me like a kid, and then when they don't want to treat me like a kid, then they treat me like an adult. So they treat me like a kid, and they work me like an adult.

A lot of kids your age are in college. You were a 4.0 student in high school. Have you ever thought of taking a break from acting and going back to school?
Yeah, I've thought about it. But my education hasn't stopped. I read all the time, and I'm still learning. I'm not worried that my IQ is going to drop because I'm not going to college. I really love acting and making movies right now. If I commit to college for four years or even a year, I may have to leave because I get an offer of something I am dying to do. That's not fair to the school, and it would just screw me up. And I don't want to knock college, but I went to visit a friend at a college, and I got there and it was like a frat hell or sorority hell or whatever it is called. It felt just like . . .

High school?
Exactly. There were the same sort of obnoxious cliques. It was all the same, just a little bit . . . older.

Did you miss anything by going into acting so young?
I'm not, like, mourning the fact that I didn't go to the prom or go to keggers. I don't think I would be doing all that regardless of what I'm doing now.

Being part of a celebrity couple must make it impossible to walk around and not get recognized.
The thing is, living in L.A., we don't walk down the street. We just drive cars here. But yeah, it's more so when we're out together, but it's just the price you pay. You get to be rich and famous, and you have got all this money, so you – like "What are you complaining about?" But the paparazzi can be a nightmare.

Your collective star power has made you two tabloid fodder.
I don't know, because I don't really read those papers. You hear about it. It's like a mosquito; it's annoying, but you can't pay too much attention, because it's too tiresome. I worry about it, then I think anyone with any mind of their own wouldn't be reading that stuff anyway.

I don't even like discussing my relationship with Johnny with the press. It's nobody's business. How do you explain a relationship anyway? Nobody knows anything about it, nobody, not even friends know what my relationship is like. I don't even know it. You try to figure out your own feelings and interpret them for yourself, and you have these really strong, incredible, powerful feelings. And then some writer who doesn't know you at all is writing about it. It's like "Wait, what do you know?"

Is it strange to be – and I'm not sure this is the proper term to use with someone your age – a sex symbol so young?
I don't think it's the right phrase when you're talking about me.

Really? A lot of older men in their twenties and thirties were extremely envious when they heard that I'd be talking to you.
You're kidding.

You don't get a lot of that?
No. A general lack of that, actually. I mean it's weird. My friend and her boyfriend had just seen Mermaids, and they were, like, saying, "You were really sexy in that." I was like "What?" 'Cause, to me, that was, like, the most unsexy thing I've ever done.

Then what's the most sexy?
I've never done anything deliberately sexy. I'm relatively shy about that stuff. At the same time, it's exciting. But I'm really grateful that I haven't made myself on the basis of being sexy. With a lot of actresses, that's them. That's what they are, that's what they're famous for, that's what they've sold themselves as. Maybe I've done a couple of bad movies, but I never exploited myself.

Still you've managed to lose your virginity onscreen a few times already.
Right, in Great Balls of Fire! and Mermaids. Yes, I've gotten to share that moment with the world twice. I have to say I'm very uncomfortable with scenes like that, because, let's face it, sexuality is such a private thing. Only people in this business have to, you know, perform it. But luckily, it's just work, and you don't really – well, there's no insertion involved. Thank God. Thank God.

As an actress, do you have a specific method?
As an actress, I hate to hear actresses talking about their craft.

Do you have the desire to do stage work?
Yeah. I know I should say yes. But as much as the idea of continuity appeals to me, I think, like, doing the same thing over and over every night would get boring.

If you're bothered by the concept of doing the same thing every night, why did you get engaged at eighteen?
I'm not going to talk about that. . . . I can't talk about that, it's too precious. And anyway it's definitely not the same thing every night.

Stories about you always comment on your hippie childhood, about growing up on a commune.
And my parents were not these crazy hippies. Maybe my dad was part hippie, but he was more of an intellectual and an observer and a writer. Of course he experimented and did all that stuff that people did in the Sixties, but he was, like, on the intellectual side of things. He was doing it all because he was curious, and he recorded it. And I never lived on a commune. For a year we lived in Mendocino in a house with a car, but it was on 300 acres of land, and there were other houses on the land – it was just tagged as a commune because people wanted to tag it as that. They wanted to make me out as a flower child. But it was an amazing way to grow up.

How so?
My parents are like my best friends, really. It wasn't like they didn't give me any rules. We had this relationship where I could talk to them about things that most kids can't talk to their parents about. I would say: "What's acid like? Everybody is taking acid in my school. What does it do?" And they would say, "Well, you know, this is the bad side of it." They would take all the mystery out of it. They would say: "Well, you know, if you take it and you go to a concert, you are going to get a panic attack and freak out. If you get it on the streets, they make bad, synthetic stuff that's just going to, like, freak you out." So I'd lose interest. Whereas I have a lot of friends who were just told, "No, you can't do that." And they're the ones with the problems now.

Was it ever odd to have such a hip dad?
I remember one time he came to pick me up from school, and he was wearing a SEX PISTOLS T-shirt, and they wouldn't let him pick me up, or they didn't believe he was my dad or something.

You've been written about a lot lately. Any descriptive words you'd like barred from future interviews?
Well, quirky. If anyone ever calls me quirky again, I think they should be shot.

How about "precocious"?
Well, I'm not precocious, and so I don't know why people call me precocious. Yeah, they should be shot, too.

This story is from the May 16th, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone. 

From The Archives Issue 604: May 16, 1991