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Harper's & Queen, March 1997

INNOCENCE & EXPERIENCE by Simon Worrall. Her famous look of wide-eyed naïveté belies Winona Ryder's determination, talent and maturity. She tells Simon Worrall about her unorthodox childhood and new role as Abigail Williams in The Crucible. Photographs by Brigitte Lacombe

WINONA RYDER IS AMUSED. 'Did you hear why we didn't have the royal premiere?' she says, arching her perfect eyebrows. 'The Queen viewed the movie, and nixed it.' She is three weeks into filming her next film, Alien: Resurrection with Sigourney Weaver, but it is The Crucible that is on her mind: 'Yeah! Apparently it is because it's about infidelity,' she says, chuckling. 'And there's too much going on already.'

It is the first time in our interview that Ryder has had that impish-punk quality that, in films such as Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, and Beetlejuice made her an icon of the MTV generation. The young woman sitting opposite me in a demure Prada outfit is at pains to show how much she has grown up. As Abigail Williams, in Nicholas Hytner's magnificent rendition of The Crucible, she has made a leap forward as an actress. Gone is the off-beat minimalism that has been her signature ever since, aged thirteen, she sidled out of a crowd of teenage children in David Seltzer's Lucas, and said in a deadpan voice: 'Hi! How was your summer?' Gone, too, is the androgynous Gestalt and sticky gaze. In its place is a performance that is rawer, more powerful and more (hetero) sexual than anything she has done before. Her eyes burn holes in the screen.

'It was the best acting experience I have ever had,' she says. 'And my relationship with Nick [Hytner] was the best I've ever had with a director. I feel like I've really found someone who understands me and communicates perfectly with me.' Hytner will collaborate with her again on her next film, The Object of My Affection, a comedy of sexual manners from Stephen McCauley's novel of the same name.

In his autobiography, Timebends, Arthur Miller has said that the idea driving The Crucible is 'the projection of one's own vileness on to others in order to wipe it out with their blood.' Put simply: Abigail is a mega-bitch. Ryder has a different take on the character

'To me, the key line in the movie is when Proctor [played by Daniel Day-Lewis] says to her, "We never touched." For a man to say that to a girl he's been fucking since she was a child! It's so sick. So abusive. It would be enough to send anyone spinning.' And spin she does, destroying a whole town because the man she loves has dumped her. 'I've always played the person that you root for, the person who does the right thing. And to play someone who is responsible, in a way, for these deaths, was a great challenge. But I had to justify it: you have to - you have no choice.'

Abigail Williams as an Oprah-style victim? When I suggest that, in another context, she would have been the sort of girl who betrayed Jews to the Gestapo because she had been jilted by a Rabbi, Ryder sucks in her breath with a strange, croaking sound.

The suggestion cuts to the bone. She was named Winona after the Minnesota town of her birth, and Ryder after Mitch Ryder, a jazz musician her father happened to be listening to when her agent called and asked how she wanted to appear on the credits of her first film. Her real name is Horowitz. Some of her relations died in the Holocaust. 'I'm Russian and Rumanian. So's most of my family. My grandparents made it out to America.' Is that where the melancholy, that always seems to be hovering just below the surface, comes from?

THE TRAGEDY AT THE CENTRE OF The Crucible is precipitated by Abigail's ability to act. She pretends to pull a dagger from her stomach. She shams seeing a yellow bird in the courthouse. Was it hard acting acting? 'Nick asked me to play it like we were really hallucinating. You're acting but you're still saying: "OK, this is really happening." But, eventually, she believes her own lies. She's clearly completely insane.'

Finding that insanity in herself was Ryder's greatest challenge: 'I think it's always complicated to play someone who's insane, but you have to understand their insanity, and that's an oxymoron.

Oxymoron is not the sort of word you hear very often in Hollywood, and few actresses claim to be bibliophiles. 'I have the best first-edition collection in the world! I have all of Salinger,' she enthuses (with her strong California accent it comes out as Sarrnjer). 'And all of George Orwell. A lot of Yeats. I have Forster, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde. It's what I spend my money on.'

Well, some of it. Though only 25, Ryder already has two houses: one in San Francisco, the other in Los Angeles. She drives a new Mercedes-Benz, and has a soft spot for not exactly cheap clothes from Milan. Up-close, she is minute. She might no longer have the seventeen-inch waist once reported of her - the elfin frame is filling out with womanly curves but the first, startling impression is one of tininess. Everything - her wrists, her ears, her feet - is in miniature, as though the shrinking process she underwent in Beetlejuice has not quite worn off.

'I blow over when it's windy,' she says, laughing. Has being so small affected the way she experiences the world? 'I love it romantically, I have to say. I love feeling small against a man.' Blushing. I change the subject.

'Does being so small make you feel vulnerable?' I ask, reminding her of an incident from her childhood, when two louts beat her up in her high-school locker-room (they thought that she was a gay boy). 'Yeah,' she says, chuckling. 'I wonder if I should have told that story. I mean, every kid was. But, yeah...'

The thought fizzles out. Then she leans forward, rests her chin in her hands, and becomes very serious: 'I used to think in my late adolescence - well actually, my mid-to-late adolescence, until I was about twenty - I used to think that I really didn't belong here. It wasn't a suicidal thought: it was very rational. Like, I don't think I was meant to be here on this planet.'

Like the screen icon of an earlier generation, Katharine Hepburn, Winona Ryder remains preoccupied with her childhood and adolescence. With the slightest prompting, she will talk about it at length. When she does, she has a way of disappearing into herself. She is rarely expansive and never theatrical. Yet, like a Peking Opera actor, she has a gamut of minimalist gestures with which she communicates feelings. Martin Scorsese, her favourite director, has said that all her energy is in her eyes, and it is true. Her body-language is cool. Her eyes are all heat and emotion: they glow with enthusiasm, they darken with Angst. 'I feel what happens to you when you're a kid, or a teenager, is as important as what happens to you as an adult. And I think it's important to give that kind of respect: speaking to a six-year-old about their problems should be as important as talking to an adult. I hated it when adults talked down to me. Kids are smart. I am much more fascinated by what they say than by most adults.'

Ryder's childhood was an unusual one, to say the least. Her father, Michael Horowitz, played a Sixties Boswell to Timothy Leary's Dr. Johnson, chronicling the LSD guru's every word and, at one time, even busting him out of jail and smuggling him to Switzerland. To return the favour, Leary became Winona's godfather. She was with him when he died last summer. 'These people were all sitting around really stoned, and I just wanted to go: "He was a person!" He wasn't just all this talk, all these words in books! He was a person. He was my godfather! My relationship with him was one of the most stable relationships I have ever had.'

The commune where Ryder lived with her parents and seven other families on a 300-acre tract of land among the redwoods of northern California was anything but stable. 'For years, I had tinfoil on my windows so no light could come in. I hated light. And my parents were really worried that I had that disease where I couldn't be in sunlight, or something. I moved the TV into my room, and I would just watch this channel that played old movies. I just wanted to remove myself completely from the world I was living in. I hated the whole hippie movement. I hated that we lived in a commune. I hated that we were always very poor. I didn't mind that, actually. But if we had to be poor I wanted it to be like in a movie. I wanted it to be like Oliver Twist' THE YEARS ON THE COMMUNE forged her personality. She will not 'do nude' in films. She loves comfort, not squalor; Armani, not gladrags; structure, not chaos. She does not take drugs. She does not drink. She does not sleep around. Surprisingly, she does adore her parents and siblings Sunyata, Jubal, and Yuri (for Yuri Gagarin, no less), though you can be sure that if she has children herself she will not choose names like those. 'I just wanted so desperately to be normal. Timothy Leary always said: "Question authority!" And I remember when I was little saying to my parents: "Well, you're my authority, and I'm questioning you. My rebellion and my individuality is this."'

Not that she is exactly 'normal'. She likes to hang out with singer Victoria Williams, a sort of female Arlo Guthrie. She is fascinated with other worlds and parallel universes. She likes off-beat films and books. But, when I suggest that her most recent intimate others, Johnny Depp and David Pirner, the hirsute singer of Soul Asylum, with whom she has just broken up, are Sixties-type rebels, she laughs. 'They're actually not. That's their image, maybe, but they're momma's boys, and have a strong sense of family. That was what attracted me to them.'

And that is all she will say about her love-life. She responds to questions with the candour of a teenager, and her reactions - a fluting laugh, a conspiratorial whisper - have a child-like spontaneity at odds with Hollywood's well-lacquered surfaces. But, by skating over difficult subjects and rambling on about ones with which she feels comfortable ('the best thing is to just talk away, and then the interviewer can't ask you too many questions'), she manages to withhold as much as she discloses.

This combination of naïveté and a highly evolved sense of self is the secret of her success. She has been a Hollywood insider since childhood (she made her first film at thirteen, and nine more in the next five years). Few actresses work harder at perfecting artifice. None is as besotted by or informed about Hollywood culture. She has seen, and sees, everything. An ingenue Winona Ryder is not.

Nicholas Hytner has said, 'She is having such a good career, because she never worries about her career.' But no one gets where she has got in Hollywood without worrying about every last detail of her career. By following her instincts, and being discriminating about the films she will do (bottom line: no junk), she has only increased her value.

It now stands at about S4 million per role, putting her just outside the top ten female earners. Recently, she has emerged as a major behind-the-scenes player. Little Women and Dracula (the only junk she has done) were made only because she went to bat for them. She has also been quietly building a career as a producer. She has secured film rights to several books, hired the script-writers, and commissioned the directors. One is Girl Interrupted, Susamia Kaysen's memoir of her confinement in a psychiatric hospital. The other is The Trials of Maria Barbella, by Idanna Pucci. Both are about the Weltschmerz of young women.

Winona Ryder knows all about that, but she seems to be leaving it behind. 'I read a quote of Meryl Streep where she said that she finally felt relaxed when she turned 40. She finally felt like she was in her own skin. And I finally feel like I am in my own skin. You spend years being treated like a kid, and worked like an adult, which is weird. Now I've graduated: 'I've done the cross-over'

The Hollywood Reporter, 5 March 1997

The Hollywood Reporter Salute To Winona Ryder 1997 ShoWest Female Star of the Year >On Her Own Terms The versatile young actress picks movies by following her instincts. by Zorianna Kit.

If the eyes are indeed the window to the soul, Winona Ryder's expressive brown eyes tell all. From her early teen roles in such films as "Beetlejuice" (1988), "Heathers" (1989) and "Mermaids" (1990) to her more complex, Oscar-nominated performances in "The Age of Innocence" (1993) and "Little Women" (1994), Ryder embodies with ease every role she takes on.

"I don't know of any actress of her generation who has that kind of versatility," declares Tom Rothman, president, worldwide productions, Twentieth Century Fox.

Director Richard Benjamin, who guided Ryder through her role in "Mermaids," agrees: "It never looks likes she's acting. It looks like someone is living, breathing and being."

Thus far, the 25-year-old actress's performances have won both awards and critical praise, and Ryder, who's entering her second decade of movie stardom, shows no sign of stopping. "Her playing field is getting bigger and bigger," says actor Daniel Day-Lewis, her costar in "The Age of Innocence" and "The Crucible." "I can't imagine anything that she couldn't take on now. Currently shooting the sci-fi adventure "Alien: Resurrection" for Fox, Ryder is going one step further by helping to produce her next three projects with Carol Bodie, of 3 Arts Entertainment, her manager and former agent. Currently in the works are Fox's "The Trials of Maria Barbella," directed by Giuseppe Tornatore ("Cinema Paradiso"); Columbia's "Girl Interrupted," directed and produced by James Mangold ("Copland") and Doug Wick, respectively; and "Roustabout," which is being developed at Fox 2000.

"She's really authentic, and audiences respond to that," says Laura Ziskin, Fox 2000 president. "I think her authenticity allows her to give us insight into ifie human condition and that's what we like to watch."

Ryder's journey to Hollywood began with an unconventional childhood. Named for her birthplace, Winona, Minn., she grew up in a commune-like atmosphere in Petalurna, Calif, on 300 acnes of land shared with several other families. Exposed to books at a young age by her counterculture author parents, Cindy and Michael Horowitz (Ryder is a stage name), young Noni encountered the novels of George Orwell, Edith Wharton, Gore Vidal and F. Scott Fitzgerald. If she wasn't drifting away on literary adventures, she was making up skits with the other children in the area. When her mother converted an old barn into a movie house, Ryder saw all the movie classics. At 11, her parents enrolled her in San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater (from which she's receiving an honorary degree this spring), where she was spotted by a talent agent who subsequently negotiated her 1986 motion-picture debut in "Lucas."

"She was very sympathetic and sincere playing a child who thought she would never be beautiful," recalls David Seltzer, the director of "Lucas." "It was very poignant because she was clearly about to blossom into a beautiful young woman herself."

After playing an unsettled teen in "Square Dance" (1987), director Tim Burton gave her the role of the hilariously depressed Lydia in "Beetlejuice" (1988), which grossed $73.3 million. The public - and the industry took notice of the girl with the big brown eyes.

Shortly thereafter, director Michael Lehmann cast her as the popular high school girl who goes on a killing spree with Christian Slater in "Heathers" (1989). Labeled controversial for its satire on teen suicide, some critics praised the movie, while others found it morally remiss.

"There were people who got on their knees and begged me not to do "Heathers," Ryder has said. "They told me it was going to ruin my career." But she wouldn't listen. "All this strategy has nothing to do with creativity or art or acting or any of those things," she continued. "It has to do with money and power and boxoffice and positioning." Calling it one of the best scripts she'd ever read, Ryder was determined to do "Heathers."

Denise Di Novi, who produced the picture - as well as Ryder's "Edward Scissorhands" and "Little Women" - was impressed by the then 15-year-old. "She's not swayed by popular opinion, pressure or manipulation, and I think that's why she's so successful," Di Novi says. "She really has a backbone and makes decisions based on the right criteria. She doesn't do things because she thinks it's good for her career or she'll make more money.

According to Jorge Saralegui, senior vp of production at Fox, Ryder was instrumental in helping find a director for "Alien: Resurrection": "When [original director] Danny Boyle dropped out, Winona could have easily gone onto another preject because she's one of those people who always has something lined up. But she took on the role of producer (producer Bill Badalato was not yet on hoard) and, every day for two weeks, parked herself in my office, determined to help find a diector."

Their objective was to find a "highly talented relative unknown," since the history of the "Alien" frinchise was that past directors Ridley Scott, James Cameron and David Fincher were brought to the forefront after directing the series. "We wanted to find the 'next great director,'" says Saralegui.

In making a decision, Ryder screened movies - observing directors' styies - and suggested names to Saralegui until both agreed on French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet after seeing his past work in "Delicatessen" and "The City of Lost Children."

Ryder's talent for producing comes as no surprise to director Gillian Armstrong, whom Winona aggressively pursued and eventually convinced to direct "Little Women" (1994) after seeing the director's "My Brilliant Career."

"Winona has fabulous taste in judging other actors as well," says Armstrong. Ryder spotted both Claire Danes from a bootleg copy of the "My So-Called Life" pilot and Christian Bale from the little seen "Swing Kids." "She told me to have a look at their work," Armstrong says, "and they both turned out to be extraordinary in 'Little Women.'"

The director was pleased as well with Ryder's performance. "I think playing Jo was easy for her because it's quite close to who she is," says Armstrong. "Winona is an intelligent, sensitive girl with big dreams and a strong heart. She was warm and generous to all the girls in the movie, and that was fantastic because it set a tone. They really did become like sisters."

Adds actress Danes. who appeared with Ryder in both "Little Women" and "How to Make an American Quilt" (1995), "She's not guarded when she works; there's no veil there. So people feel close to the characters she plays."

Only once has Ryder's career seemed to falter when, in 1990, an upper respiratory infection forced her to drop out of playing Al Pacino's daughter in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part III," but she quickly bounced back when she teamed once again with Burton on the successful "Edward Scissorhands" (1990), playing what she calls the "so-not-me blonde suburban cheerleader."

"The part wasn't Shakespeare or Joan of Arc, but a definite stretch for someone who instinctively moves closer to the dark than the light," Burton has said. "Winona felt very uncomfortable in her clothes... but still exhibited a real power and total believability. That's what I counted on. Just like in "Beetlejuice," I needed someone to ground the movie so it wouldn't spring off into the stratosphere."

Ryder's foray into period dramas and more adult roles begin with Coppola's "Dram Stoker's Dracula" (1992), a project she initiated when she handed Coppola the script. It went on to earn $82.5 million - Ryder's highest-grossing movie to date.

After appearing in "The House of the Spirits" (1993), Bille August's adaptation of the mystical Isabelle Allende novel - and her third consecutive period drama - Ryder chose Ben Stiller's "Reality Bites" (1994) as her next project, a Generation-X romance that has become a cult classic among the twentysomething crowd.

Twentieth Century Fox president Rothman calls Ryder's portrayal of the scorned and revenge-seeking Abigail Williams in her most recent film, Fox's "The Crucible," "a virtuoso performance" and quotes "Crucible" playwright Arthur Miller as saying that in 40 years of having seen the play, hers was the best Abigail he ever saw.

At presstime, "The Crucible" has earned a modest $7.3 million at the boxoffice, but Di Novi maintains numbers don't reflect the actress's appeal. "She has a real authenticity as an actor, and that's why audiences love her and why she's good in every movie, no matter how good the movie is," she says. "There's something very genuine that comes through, a certain humanity."

Q&A

Winona Ryder

The period-piece princess shares her passion for books, complex roles and human relationskips.

From a rare break on the heavy-duty set of Twentieth Century Fox's "Alien Resurrection," ShoWest's Female Star of the Year recently chatted with Zonanna Kit for The Hollywood Reporter.

The Hollywood Reporter: Congratulations on your ShoWest Female Star of the Year Award. What does this mean to you?

Winona Ryder: This one in particular is really wonderful because it's from the National Association of Theatre Owners, and I'm one of those people who goes to movies all the time. It's my hobby. When I was a kid, I used to want to live in a movie theater.

THR: Were you surprised?

Ryder: I was. I thought these awards went to the most successful boxoffice people. I haven't been in very many successful movies. "The Crucible" really didn't do very well, so the fact that they are giving it to me this year means a lot. I feel honored because I've made choices in my work that a lot of people have thought were really risky. So they're honoring me for the movies I've made and the movies I've made have been my choices.

THR: Your agent at the time was actually against you doing "Heathers," but you wouldn't listen.

Ryder: I think that's when people realized that I was gonna do what I wanted to do. I've always been that way. When I first started out, I was 12 and my agency was sending me scripts and I remember reading them going, "This is terrible. I don't want to do this." And they were like, "You can't say that, you haven't done anything yet." I said, "But I don't like this, and I'm not gonna audition for it."

THR: Let's talk about your many period dramas.

Ryder: I'm attracted to human relationships, and they seem to be explored more in period pieces. They take place in a time where people really talked to each other. There was no other way to communicate. Just face-to-face dialogue. That excites me. "The Age of Innocence" was a monumental turning point for me. It was... working with the greatest director and group of people and feeling like a grown-up.

THR: "Alien: Resurrection" is on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Ryder: Oh, but I've been a huge fan of the "Alien" movies, especially Sigoumey Weaver's character, Ripley. I had a poster of her on my wall all through school. The first "Alien" movie had a huge impact on me when I was a little girl. It was the first time I saw a female action hero. I was really excited that they would think of me for this [movie] because no one ever thinks of me like that. And I was dying to work with Sigoumey Weaver. I feel really lucky.

THR: Do you care about boxoffice success?

Ryder: Sure. If "The Crucible" had been a huge hit, it would have meant the world to me. I think it's an important movie. It says a hell of a lot more about the First Amendment than "Larry Flynt" does, I'll say that. I think it says a lot about politics in society, and it really bummed me out that the movie didn't do better.

THR: You've also done smaller movies like "Reality Bites," but you've said that although you are attracted to such projects, you feel that you ruin them.

Ryder: "Reality Bites" and "Boys" are the examples. I think that if those movies had had an unknown actress [in the lead], they would have stuck more to the script, but because they got a known actress, they tried to capitalize on that and make them big movies and, in the case of "Boys," completely destroyed it.

THR: How?

Ryder: "Boys" was this tiny script that I liked and got attached to do. I also like [director] Stacy Cochran, so I verbally agreed to do it. Then I got this new draft in the mail that was completely different. I tried to pull out of it, but they said they'd sue.

THR: What did you learn from that experience?

Ryder: That next time I get a script for a tiny movie, I'll have to have a serious contract drawn up saying nothing can be changed without my approval. Except the thing is, I don't want to have that kind of power when it's somebody else's movie. I don't want to start taking control away from the director.

THR: Is that why you're getting in on the producing end of things now? You've optioned material for yourself: "Girl Interrupted" at Columbia, "The Trials of Maria Barbella" at Twentieth Century Fox and "Roustabout" at Fox 2000.

Ryder: When I was meeting with ["Barbella" director] Giuseppe Tornatore, I told him, "The only reason I have something to do with the production side is to ensure that you're making your movie. It's to protect you from people who would want to change it." I want the director to make the movie he wants to make.

THR: This is certainly a different side of the business for you.

Ryder: It's exciting to be involved in matching up great writers with great ideas and great directors. Of course, I'm not doing the dirty work, but it's nice to feel like your input means something.

THR: The three projects you've optioned all happen to be books, as have been many of your other past projects.

Ryder: My parents were both writers and turned me on to books when I was younger. The characters were my friends when I didn't have friends. Books were what I turned to when I was lonely or depressed. It was a way to get into another world - very much related to acting. I don't know what I'd do without books.

THR: Is there anything in particular you really want to do now?

Ryder: I'm Russian-Romanian. My original last name is Tomchin. Horowitz (Ryder's birth name) was something my dad's family picked up when they immigrated to Ellis Island because they were traveling with this other family. Most of my family on his side were killed in the camps, but because of my family history, I've always wanted to do something about Russia or World War II.

THR: People who know you tell me you're very funny and would love to see you in a romantic comedy.

Ryder: Try reading the romantic-comedy scripts that are out there. They're so horrible, it's embarrassing'. The thing is, I would kill to do one.

THR: In building your career, are there any movies you regret doing?

Ryder: No. I think I've made some bad movies, but I've learned huge lessons on.them, and I've made some really good friends.

THR: Ultimately, what do you want to be remembered for?

Ryder: I'd like to be remembered for contributing good female characters. I think we have a lot of problems between the sexes in the industry, and I'd like to show what we can do - show the possibilities. I think it's really important to give people more choices.



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