The return of a 90s icon.
Photos by Drew Jarrett
Also at Porter
Winona Ryder has just arrived for her interview in a secluded boardroom in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. And she needs a minute. We both do. “I’m still really shaken up,” she says. “But it’s my fault. I spent all morning watching CNN!”
It’s been two days since the massacre in Orlando, and everyone is reeling from the shock. “They keep showing the images over and over: Terror in Orlando! American news is so sensational. I wish we had it like in England. I remember the first time I went, I was like 16, and literally the newscast was –“ She puts on a perfect bored BBC brogue: “’Nine bodies were found under a floorboard in Kent today. And now to the weather!’” She breaks up laughing. “
Winona has a way about her. It’s impossible not to be charmed. Once she gets going, she’s off, every thought prompting a new one, a movie reference, or a literary allusion – she’s extraordinarily well read– and her answers meander for miles. Before I can get a word in, she has gone from CNN to the movie , a romantic comedy about a TV news network “which really holds up today”, the Reagan revolution (“there was a lot of stuff, we weren’t being told”), and her dad, who used to write for The Nation, a left wing magazine. And it’s wonderful to watch – she’s all expression and gesticulation. Her hands make all manner of shapes while she looks by turns wry, curious, excited and crestfallen, often dropping to a whisper, even though there’s no one here but us.
And I can’t not mention how stunning she is – even more so in person. Ever the indie icon, she arrived in black jeans and a Bowie T-shirt from the 70s which she won in a radio competition as a little girl. There’s scarcely a line on her face and she turns 45 this year. And then there’s doe eyes that for three decades, directors, fans and not a few interviewers have just fallen into. She calls them her “Edward Gorey eyes” and laughs, referring to a surrealist illustrator who famously inspired Tim Burton. It’s a typically obscure and gothic reference – very Winona. And there I was thinking of Bambi.
Life is good it seems. She lives in both New York and the Bay Area with her steady boyfriend of four years, the fashion designer Scott Mackinlay Hahn, founder of the environmentally responsible label Loomstate. And careerwise, a Win-aissance is underway. Her career has followed that classic arc of an astonishing rise, then a fall, and now a comeback with Stranger Things, a Netflix series about a mother hunting for her missing son that finds the twice Oscar-nominated star firmly back on form.
Until the end of the 90s, in movies like Heathers, Beetlejuice, Reality Bites, Edward Scissorhands, Girl Interrupted, she was the Generation X icon, the boho response to the splashy 80s. Complicated, vulnerable, and like all the best superstars, fame averse, she embodied 90s cool. She dated Johnny Depp – whom we’re strictly not allowed to discuss today for all kinds of reasons – and a string of rock stars, a few wrote songs about her. Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum wrote “Just Like Anyone” about her, and Matthew Sweet’s tribute was simply called “Winona”. And then she stumbled – the shoplifting, the drugs and what she calls “my hiatus”. Which led to a cautious return, role by supporting role – from Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly (2006), her brilliant cameo in Black Swan (2010), up to her portrayal of a tough councilwoman opposite Oscar Isaac in David Simon’s TV series Show Me A Hero. Movie stars are increasingly doing their best work on television these days, and Stranger Things is no exception. Winona plays a mother whose son has gone missing, captured by supernatural forces, and she’s determined to get him back.
“I spent two months basically crying every day,” she says. “I was delirious! Because I’ve never been able to do that menthol thing, you know?” She starts dabbing her eye and laughing – it’s a well known trick in the business, a dab of menthol under the eyes. “I actually have to cry! I was talking to Keanu, who I’ve known since I was 15, and we both felt so old school: ‘um, sorry, I need a second!’ Haha! Things move so fast now!”
Fast is right. Can it be thirty years since Ryder first broke onto the scene in the high school romance Lucas? She was only 15 then, a girl from the liberal bohemia of Northern California. Her dad was a writer and bookseller, her mother an author and video producer, and she remembers the Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg coming over for dinner. Timothy Leary, the iconic American psychologist who pioneered the therapeutic use of psychedelics was her godfather. The third of four siblings, she grew up as a tomboy, even joining a skateboarding crew. “I was pretty good. I was the only girl. Yeah!” she smiles. “But I was like 12, so when I developed, suddenly I was like…” She covers her chest and looks left and right sheepishly.
They moved around a bit, landing in Petaluma, 40 minutes outside San Francisco, when she was 11. And she didn’t know anyone there. “So you know – books became my friends,” she says. They still are. She’s reading the singer Leonard Cohen’s letters and re-reading literary legend Philip Roth’s Plot Against America. When I ask what a perfect day might be, she shrugs. “I’m a homebody. I love reading and watching old movies. Do you know that book store in San Francisco, City Lights?..” And she’s off again, listing names of poets and painters that she knows in that area.
The acting started at 12, and she was a pro by 15, discovered outside her school by a casting director. But her parents were protective. They’d read about Judy Garland, a young girl exploited by the studios, having to work all hours, on a diet of pills. So Winona never missed school and there was no question of moving to Los Angeles for her career. “I’m so grateful,” she says. “A lot of young actors I knew were basically like supporting their whole families – and that’s a lot of pressure.”
Travelling to LA for auditions was an operation. They weren’t rich enough to fly down, so “we would drive down in this 69 Volvo without air conditioning – and it took like 9 hours!” And her parents wouldn’t take her if the roles weren’t “appropriate” (Winona makes a performance of the airquotes). “I loved Rivers Edge, and I had such a crush on Keanu but it had like…” She drops to a breathy whisper. “A sex scene! And then it got around that I was passing on stuff, and people were like, ‘who is this girl?’ Isn’t that funny!”
You didn’t protest? I ask her. After all, it’s Keanu.
“Oh I did. Come on mom, can’t I at least make out?”
But he wasn’t the only reason she wanted to go to LA. She was getting bullied at school, teased – she hated it there. “I remember Beetlejuice came out, and it was a big hit, and I thought – this will help me, you know? But no. People were like calling me ‘witch!’”
Casting directors were unkind too. The vogue at the time was for blondes, so “I think the first four or five movies I did, my character was described as the unattractive one!” she laughs. “And I was maybe told 2 or 3 times I wasn’t pretty enough.” Heathers, a high school comedy starring Christian Slater, is a case in point. Today, it’s widely recognized as a classic, and remains an introduction to Winona for new generations of young girls. It’s a story she re-tells – how she insisted on being considered for the part, and went to the local mall to get a makeover in between. She told them “you don’t have to pay me. I just want to say the words.”
But critically, being told she was not pretty didn’t bother her, which she credits to her upbringing. “Maybe I’m blocking out how I felt, but my parents and the people I admired like Allen [Ginsberg], really put so much on being an individual, not on looks. It was so much more important to be a good person, an interesting and interested person, you know?”
When it came, fame was an uncomfortable experience. She’s often said, “I never wanted to be a movie star”. And her high profile relationships – Johnny Depp, Matt Damon and Dave Pirner – kept the paparazzi busy. As Courtney Love, apocryphally said, “You’re no one in the rock industry unless you’ve feuded with me or slept with Winona Ryder.”
But she’s not complaining. “There wasn’t the internet and this 24hr gossip whatever – compared to now, it seems really tame!”
As successful as she was, working with Tim Burton, Francis Ford Coppola (Dracula) and then Scorsese (The Age of Innocence) – “I feel so lucky and humbled,” she says – there was a flipside. “There were these weird little backlashes, like against the Generation X thing of Reality Bites,” she says. “And I was transitioning from a teenager into a woman. Learning not to look to the industry to validate me as a human being! That’s why I got involved in Girl Interrupted way before it was made.” She bought the rights to the memoir of a young girl in a psychiatric institution suffering from borderline psychiatric disorder. “I remember feeling that way – it’s actually quite normal to feel like you’re going crazy.”
As attached as Winona was to Girl Interrupted, Angelina Jolie rather stole that show. And a couple of years later, Winona’s relationship with Matt Damon fell apart. It was the following year, in December 2001 that she was caught shoplifting at Saks 5th Avenue. Her handbag contained a rattle of pills, some without valid prescriptions.
“Psychologically, I must have been at a place where I just wanted to stop,” she says today, and shrugs. “I won’t get into what happened, but it wasn’t what people think. And it wasn’t like the crime of the century! But it allowed me time that I really needed, where I went back to San Francisco and got back into things that… I just had other interests, frankly.”
She left LA and returned to San Francisco, reconnecting with the City Lights bookstore and the arts scene. There were no paparazzi problems up there. And she got back to helping with Native American causes. “I did a lot of work on the Pine Ridge Reservation, on the American Indian College Fund. I’ve been visiting reservations since I was 19.” All in all, her hiatus lasted four years. “People would tell me that, oh you should be doing this, or that, and you have to keep working otherwise people will forget about you, but I learned to stop listening to those voices.”
When she did return to acting – “you can’t do something for that long and hate it!” – the pickings were slim. “People associated me with the 90s and I wasn’t that anymore. And they didn’t really buy me as my age. It’s that line in First Wives Club – there are three parts for women: babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy! I just never got to play that district attorney!”
Today, however, her phone is ringing again. Something about her 40s, that decade that actresses dread, has turned out to be liberating for Winona. She’s settled and happy. She has even talked about having kids, another subject she doesn’t wants to get into today. There’s talk of a second Beetlejuice movie, and no doubt more to come.
“Well, I don’t know,” she says modestly. “Movies are all big franchise superhero things, and I’m 44 – I don’t think anyone wants to put a cape on me and chuck me out the window! I don’t know how good my bone density is!”
But she’s not worried so much about making the big splashy projects. She’s content to wait until the right thing comes along, a script that hits her in the guts and demands her attention. “At my age, you don’t’ want to repeat yourself, you want to do stuff that’s challenging,” she says. “That’s why I love Stranger Things. I’ve always found those characters fascinating, the struggling single mother that has a lot of guilt and issues. Have you seen Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore? Oh Ellen Burstyn in that…”
She has no ambition to direct or produce. “I can only see my own character’s point of view!” she says. “I’m just not a business person, you know? I wish I was in a way. But acting still excites me. I don’t sleep the day before a new job. I’m sure it’s psychosomatic but still.”
Best of all, Winona is actually enjoying the aging process. “I’m proud of the lines on my face,” she says. I tell her I can’t see any but she insists. “I have some! I need them for work! Older faces have more character. I think about the posters that were on my walls as a kid and it was like Nick Cave [the singer songwriter], you know? The older you get the more interesting you look. That’s why I love Native American culture, they respect their elders.”
In a way, she was always a bit of an old soul. She’s wary of social media, has a love-hate relationship with her phone, and likes nothing more than to hole up at home with a stack of classic movies. “A lot of younger people just don’t know these classics, it’s shocking to me. And they’re working in film!” she exclaims. “Like, I was on set recently and I referenced the movie, the Wall. And people were like, what, the album? I say, no the movie, and they all go straight to their phones to look it up!”
She laughs. “You know, what’s great about getting older is you realize that other things are more important than this business! I hate to bring it to back to Orlando, but it’s true.” She shudders at the memory. “Time is just more precious now.”