With two scene-stealing performances on the way, Winona Ryder is about to make us fall in love with her all over again
By Candice Rainey | Elle Magazine, December 09, 2010
In director Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a disturbing psycho-thriller set in the physically harrowing world of professional ballet, it’s slightly jarring to see Winona Ryder take on such a small part, not to mention see her play an aging principal dancer, Beth, who has been strong-armed into retirement by her New York company and tidily replaced by Nina, an ambitious innocent portrayed by a gaunt Natalie Portman. The film takes on a creepy hallucinogenic bent, focusing on Nina’s mental unraveling as she obsessively prepares for her starmaking turn in the company’s risqué version of Swan Lake. Ryder can’t be on-screen for more than 20 minutes—her role lands somewhere between cameo and supporting actress. And yet, as pallid as ever, with impossibly dark eyes that dominate her valentine-shaped face, she manages to make her presence seem big. The movie wouldn’t have the same palpable tension without her.
It might be that the metacasting—a real-life former ingenue playing a former ingenue—is simply effective. But there’s a potent alchemy at work that is Ryder’s alone. When she appears in Black Swan, it’s impossible not to be awash in nostalgia for her charmingly twisted, compulsively watchable films (even in Beetle Juice, her all-in-black teen ghost whisperer made Ryder a heroine for legions of goth-positive girls). That, combined with her stirringly executed performance (there’s a scene in which Ryder takes a nail file to those perfectly hollowed out cheeks that will haunt anyone with a heartbeat for days), makes it difficult not to want more of her. Even Aronofsky, who had Ryder on set for less than two weeks, felt the pull of her legacy. “There’s one scene with her, where I think I did 20 or 30 takes, which is a lot,” he says. “But the reason I did so many is because I couldn’t believe that was all [the time] I was going to get with Winona Ryder. I really just wanted to keep working with her.”
When Ryder calls from her L.A. home, she mentions she’s smoking a cigarette on the deck, having just watched Spirits of the Dead, the 1968 art-house collaboration directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini. “My friend and I are trying to break down these obviously symbolic moments,” Ryder says. “That movie’s nuts. Finally, we’re just like, ‘Oh, the fashion’s incredible!’ ” What is pleasantly surprising about Ryder is that she’s every bit the amiable odd bird you’d think she’d be. Her upbringing undoubtedly shaped her: Her parents, stalwarts of the San Francisco counterculture, hung with Allen Ginsberg and John Lennon. Ryder’s father, Michael Horowitz, is a rare-books dealer and Timothy Leary’s archivist. “My dad just gave me [Leary’s] watch for my birthday,” she says. “It’s called the Borel Kaleidoscope; it’s, like, this interesting kind of watch that when you look at it, you can stare at it forever—it moves in this weird way.” She’s a voracious reader (both Mom and Dad are writers) and begins a lot of her sentences with “Have you ever read that book?” It makes sense that much of her source material comes from the classics: Ryder’s May Welland in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence was as phenomenally intricate on-screen as she was on paper, and her Josephine March in Little Women earned Ryder a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress in 1995. As an avid collector of first editions, she’s a big believer in “paper and pen” and writing letters, and has yet to use the iPad Ron Howard recently gave her after wrapping this month’s date movie The Dilemma. “I don’t use the Internet, but apparently you can find out everything on it,” she says sounding genuinely bewildered. “I have my e-mail on my BlackBerry, and that’s about it. I’ve never read a blog, ever. I feel like it’s taking away that great anticipation of seeing a movie. It used to be you’d hear, like, Al Pacino was making a movie, and you wouldn’t know anything about it. And nowadays, you know it all, like how much [the actors] are being paid. I would hate to see a picture of me and the caption reads, ‘Is she worth it?’ ”
The truth is, audiences haven’t had to ask that question about Ryder for some time now. In the past couple of years, Winona Ryder The Star has all but vanished, save a few hip turns in rarefied films, such as 2009’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, and an all-too-brief appearance as Spock’s mom in J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek. It’s easy to assume that her hiatus may not have been a choice but an informally enforced purgatory for the notorious shoplifting incident at Saks Fifth Avenue in 2001 and her subsequent trial, in which she was fined $10,000 and ordered to perform 480 hours of community service. But that was nine years ago—a century in Hollywood—and when compared with what young actresses with half the talent get away with these days, her past seems pretty tame. Ryder sees it as a self-inflicted dry spell. “If I don’t relate to the [project], even if it’s something that I should do, it’s hard for me to say yes,” she says. “I’m the type who’d rather not work than work on something I’m not into. I’ve done that a couple of times, and I feel like I can totally see it in my performance.”
Can you say which films?
“No, but it’s kind of obvious.” She laughs. “I mean, there’s a couple of times that I did it, for the, you know, paycheck. Even when I was younger—I remember I did this movie that wasn’t good, called 1969. I totally did it ’cause I could get out of school. I can see it in even great actors’ performances, when they’re phoning it in.” Even if there’s a paucity of quality material out there, Ryder is candid about what it feels like to age as an actress. “I did relate to Beth on a certain level,” she says. “Just that thing of, you know, when I’m told I’m not the ingenue anymore. And now I’m 39. I remember when I was younger, I couldn’t wait to be older, because I was always the kid on the set, I was always younger than everyone else. And now I’m older than a lot of the people I work with. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, which is so strange. I was watching TV, and there was this oldies-but-goodies film fest, and Lucas came on. I was like, Oh my God, I’m an oldie!”
Then again, it seems age and experience have bestowed some blessings on Ryder. These days, she seems more willing to explore new territory and isn’t afraid to hustle for something she wants. This month, Ryder plays Kevin James’ cheating wife, who’s caught in the act by her husband’s best bro Vince Vaughn, in the Ron Howard comedy The Dilemma. “She definitely chased it,” Howard says. “She was really willing to come in and read with Vince, to see what it all felt like. And it was great when somebody of her stature volunteers that sort of thing. We pretty much cast her on the spot.”
It’s nearing cliché to say Ryder is poised for a comeback. She may well be, but talking to her, you definitely don’t get the feeling she’s meticulously plotting it. In fact, she seems more interested in other facets of her life, like meeting a nice guy, something that’s not easy when you’ve been the lust object of shaggy-haired, misunderstood men since you were 15. “I remember being at this bar called Tosca in San Francisco, and I met this guy one night. He was really cute, and we were talking, and then, like, he just said something about how he had always had a crush on me. And I was suddenly mistrustful about why he was talking to me. I wanted to be just a normal girl flirting with a normal guy. It’s like you meet people, and they know this stuff about you. It’s why you want to meet somebody who’s in the same business, only because they understand more. But you don’t necessarily want to be with another actor.”
Ryder says she’s not seeing anyone seriously now but has thought about what course her career might take when she, “knock on wood,” has kids. “I would at least take a couple of years off.” Just don’t expect her to disappear altogether. “I remember when I was about 18,” she says, pausing for a moment. “Sean Penn made a bet with me. He had just directed his first movie, and he’s like, ‘By the time you’re 30, I will bet you $500 that you’ll be sick of acting.’ I’m still waiting to collect, because I’m not.”