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
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
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
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
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
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."
Winona RyderThe 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.