By Alexandra Breen
When Winona Ryder speaks, there is defiance in her voice that sounds earned. “I don’t want to do the crazy thing and try to hold onto my youth,” she says while promoting her latest film, The Iceman, at the Toronto International Film Festival. “And I don’t want to work just to work, either. At this point in my life, I just want to be a good person. I’m 40, and I’m psyched, because with age comes experience. I’ve paid some dues and had some ups and downs.”
Ryder’s story started with a childhood spent on a commune with hippie parents and quickly led to her discovery by director Tim Burton, who cast her in the film Beetlejuice. Stellar reviews and a relationship with heartthrob Johnny Depp followed—Who could forget his “Winona Forever”-turned-“Wino Forever” tattoo?—as well as Oscar nods for Little Women and The Age of Innocence and a genre-defining role in Reality Bites. Blockbuster flops were the precursors to Ryder’s now-infamous shoplifting scandal, and she signed on to do a few indie flicks before officially resurfacing in the Oscar-winning Black Swan.
“In the ’90s, I experienced a lot of success, and to be honest I wasn’t expecting it to last. You’re told that you get a couple of years if you’re lucky. It was great, but it came with a lot of pressure,” Ryder reflects. “I wasn’t like, ‘Boo hoo, poor me,’ but I realized that I want a home and I want to spend time with my family and friends. It takes something very special for me to want to leave that now.”
One such project is the chilling gangster thriller The Iceman with Michael Shannon. In the film, based on a true story, Ryder plays the blissfully naive wife of Richard Kuklinski, one of the mob world’s most notorious killers. Ryder points out that she’s repelled by violence and typically avoids films that glorify it (a fact that she says stems from personally witnessing the loss of a life in her 20s). However, she found this character’s refusal to acknowledge her hubby’s violent lifestyle fascinating. “I have friends who find out that their husbands are drug addicts or are going to prostitutes and there are those politicians who are [caught having sex] in bathroom stalls at airports and they still go on. It’s that denial that globally, politically and just humanly I was drawn to.” So, we have to ask: Placed in a similar situation, would she consider sticking by her man? She answers with a resounding “Fuck, no.”
Ryder may have been at odds with her character’s morals, but her ladylike wardrobe, heavy on vintage Valentino, was an easy sell. She credits the costume department with helping her get into character. “A woman who wears heels carries herself very differently from a woman who wears sandals. Clothes define how you play a part. If you’re wearing a corset, you’re repressed, and then you get all this attention for your performance but it’s really just because you can’t breathe,” she says with a laugh.
When it comes to her own day-to-day life, Winona Ryder, a Marc Jacobs devotee (and muse), says she’s not nearly as put together as her character. After all, she still chooses to spend much of her time out of the limelight at her home in San Francisco, working for various charities and special interest projects including the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee and the Litquake literary festival. But all those devoted fans cheering for the return of their favourite ’90s screen queen will be pleased to know that she has starred in another thriller—The Letter, with James Franco.
Although she firmly believes in keeping the past at bay, Ryder still cherishes the relics of her successes, including memorabilia such as the infamous suicide letters from Heathers. But when it comes to her fondest and earliest cinematic memory, it’s an event involving her family and not some Hollywood heavy hitter that comes to mind. Her voice lights up as she recalls going to see Fantasia as child with her family. “We were removed from the theatre because I ran up to the screen and threw myself against it because I wanted to get inside of it.” In the end, she succeeded.