Winona Horowitz

"Little Woman, Big Career"

Written by Janet Cawley in 1997

At 25, Winona Ryder is the brightest of Hollywood's young stars.

She was named after the Minnesota town where she was born, spent part of her childhood living on a commune, and had Timothy Leary as her God-father. And let's not forget that her family drove a psychedelic bus nicknamed Veronica. If anyone seemed headed straight for a life of long hair, sandals, and tie-dyed T-shirts, it was Winona Ryder.

But instead, this daughter of counter-culture stalwarts became a screen star of the first magnitude, one of the few from Hollywood's Gen X set who can carry a film on her own. Not that she's disowned her past or even particularly distanced herself from it: she's imbued with a keen social consciousness, is passionate about books, averse to makeup, and indifferent to glitz and glamour. For that matter, she doesn't even bother to live in Hollywood, preferring her house in San Francisco ("the greatest city in the country," she insists).

At a mere 25, Winona has played everything from tremulous teens on the brink of maturity to delicate 19th century romantics, from a betrayed Puritan out for revenge to her upcoming turn as an android in Alien: Resurrection. What's more, this ethereal, waif like star commands a will of pure iron. As producer Denise Di Novi, an old friend, once said, "You can have 50 people in a room telling Winona what to do, and if she doesn't want to do it, forget it." She's taken roles her agents begged her not to (the murderous Veronica in Heathers) and refused to do nude scenes. She's bucked the trend on alcohol and drugs (she says the only time she drinks is for courage on airplanes; as for drugs, she once took some prescription pills for insomnia but flushed them down the toilet when she began feeling dependent). At a time when so many of her movie contemporaries are checking into rehab or searching for themselves, Ryder knows exactly who she is and how she wants to live her life.

In person, she is all huge eyes and translucent skin, with a body thin as latticework. At five-feet-four and 100 pounds, Ryder complains she has trouble gaining weight. Picture a combination of the two Hepburns - Katherine's spunk and Audrey's elfin body - with a cowlicked gamine hairdo. On this day, she's wearing a black and brown sweater, long black skirt, black boots and absolutely no makeup or jewelry. Her amazingly high cheekbones are her main ornamentation.

As usual, she's found a social theme in her recent work, in this case the film The Crucible. "The idea of witch hunts, scapegoating will probably go on forever," she says earnestly. "Whether it's [Olympic Park guard] Richard Jewell or ghetto kids... The truth of the matter is, if today the media decided [they] hated you, you'd be the most hated person in America tomorrow."

She adds that she finds her own fame a two-edge sword. "God, it's such a hard thing," she sighs. "You want to use your name and fame [for good] but you don't want to be tacky and exploit it. It's hard."

One of the causes to which Ryder contributed was that of Polly Klaas, the apple-cheeked 12-year-old kidnapped from her bedroom in Petaluma, California, during a slumber party in 1993. Ryder, a one time Petaluma girl who attended the same junior high school as Polly, although at an earlier time, became passionately involved in the hometown case. She offered $200,000 reward for Polly's return and went out with the search parties herself. It wasn't a publicity stunt, says Polly's father, Marc. "When we were out looking for Polly, Winona actually shrank from the cameras."

By coincidence, Ryder was about to star in the film version of Little Women, Polly's favorite book. When the youngster was found murdered, Klaas gave his daughter's volume to Ryder, adding a note of thanks below Polly's inscription. "She said she kept it at her bedside through the filming," he recalls. Later, over the wishes of studio executives, Ryder dedicated the movie to Polly.

That kind of humanitarian concern apparently began early. Her parents, Mike and Cindy Horowitz, "certainly gave her the social consciousness," says Klaas. "They rooted in her the idea we have to be responsible to our society."

Ryder's parents, who still live in Petaluma (her father owns 'Flashback Books,' a store that specializes in 60s era literature, and her mother is a video artist and a film maker) invariably are described as counter-culture. Winona was their first child - born Winona Laura Horowitz on October 29, 1971. Off beat children's names were the family norm. There is an older half sister, Sunyata, and half brother, Jubal, from her mother's first marriage. A brother, Yuri (named after the first Russian in space), followed five years after Winona. Winona (Noni to family and friends) didn't exchange the name Horowitz for Ryder until she was 15, when she and her father - by one account inspired by a Mitch Ryder album - decided it sounded like a suitable stage name.

Part of Ryder's intriguing lore has been her godfather: the late L.S.D. guru and 60s iconoclast Timothy Leary, who, she said, instructed her always to challenge authority. She was with Leary when he died last year, and also spoke at his funeral, quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald. Another close family friend was the late beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

Clearly the Horowitz household wasn't Ozzie and Harriet territory. But it was happy and stable in its own way. They lived simply: Winona has talked of remembering how a weekly pint of ice cream was a big family treat. But she also added, "My parents compensated with amazing amounts of love and support, so I don't regret any of it."

For four years, beginning when Winona was about seven, the Horowitzes lived on a commune with no electricity or running water near the northern California town of Elk. "We had to use our imagination a lot," Ryder later recalled. "We were surrounded by books. I was never bored."

Which may explain her great interest in literature today. Her favorite author, hands down, is J.D. Salinger. "My all-time favorite novel is Catcher in the Rye," she told the Los Angeles Times. "It's my bible. I bet I've read it 50 times... I was crushed when I found out a whole generation had read it before me. I thought it was just my book."

She also claims a more than passing acquaintance with classical literature: on the set of Bram Stoker's Dracula, she was reportedly the only cast member who had read the entire novel (and in high school, no less); later she admitted to having wanted to play Abigail in Arthur Miller's The Crucible since first reading it at 12 or 13.

Says Crucible director Nicholas Hytner of his well-read star, "Winona is so articulate and literate - it's in her genes, really. She comes from a very bookish family."

While on the commune, Ryder's mother screened classic movies in a barn, giving the fascinated Winona a first look at acting - and by age eight she knew that's what she wanted to do. At the same time she developed a list of heroines unusual for a young girl of her era: Bette Davis, Greer Garson, Ginger Rogers, Ingrid Bergman. Even today she admits to being a fanatic for old movies.

Despite, or maybe because of, the freedom of her early lifestyle, Ryder experienced a reverse kind of rebellion: she longed to live like other kids, in a house with picket fence. At 11, she got her wish when the family moved to Petaluma, a farm town some 45 miles north of San Francisco whose main claim to fame was its many chicken breeders. But happiness - or at least the picket-fence variety - eluded her. First, there was the matter of Veronica, the psychedelic bus. In typical pre-teen fashion, she was mortified when her parents drove her to school in it. More painful was her failure to fit in with classmates. Years later, she told the story of how, when she was 12 and just starting a new school, some bullies looked at her lanky body and extremely short hair and mistook her for a gay boy. They slammed her into a locker and fractured a rib. She returned to classes briefly, but confesses to being miserable - "I didn't have a single friend" - and persuaded her parents to let her study at home.

They sent her to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, where she was spotted by talent scouts and asked to audition for the role of Jon Voight's daughter in the film Desert Bloom. She didn't get the part (Annabeth Gish did), but her audition tape was impressive enough to win her an agent and a first film role, as a teen cheerleader in the underrated film Lucas. She was all of 13. The school bullies, she latter reflected gleefully, "gave me my career."

Ryder grew up on movie sets, and it wasn't always easy. "If I got a pimple, I could potentially shut down an entire film for a day," she remembered. "That's a lot of pressure on a teenager."

She followed Lucas, with another low profile film Square Dance, then scored her big breakthrough in Beetlejuice, followed by cult favorites Heathers and Edward Scissorhands.

It was via Edward Scissorhands that Ryder, at 17, met her first real boyfriend, co-star Johnny Depp. It was a stormy relationship, lived in the public eye. Depp had "Winona Forever" tattooed on his arm (columnist Liz Smith recently reported that in deference to his current girlfriend, supermodel Kate Moss, Depp has had the tattoo altered to read "Wino Forever"). When they broke up three years later, Ryder reflected, "I was just really young. I don't know what his excuse is, but that's mine".

Her second boyfriend - and at the quarter-century mark, she's really had two - was David Pirner, lead signer of the band Soul Asylum, with whom she was happily entwined for several years. They supposedly broke up, but recent reports have them back in the "on" category - or at the very least "off and on." And there's also the matter of Daniel Day Lewis, with whom she starred in The Age of Innocence and The Crucible. There were rumors the pair had a fling during the filming of The Age of Innocence (by The Crucible he was dating - and later married - Arthur Miller's daughter Rebbeca), but again the reports were more nebulous than nailed down, which is how Ryder likes it.

However, she does allow that children are definitely on the agenda. "I'm one of those people who wanted to be mom since I was five," she once explained. "But I don't know when it's going to happen."

Meanwhile, she remains close to her family (her father's pasta remains her favorite food) and is busy concentrating on her next movie, Alien: Resurrection with Sigourney Weaver ("It's really cool, a great script"), for which she cross-trained six hours a day to build muscles.

"When they first mentioned doing the movie I almost jumped out of my seat," she told Vogue last winter. "You see, my whole family is obsessed with Alien... I must have been about nine when I saw the original, because we were still living on the commune. And I wanted to be Ripley. She was the first women's action hero."

Marc Klaas calls Ryder a hero in her own right - first to Polly, who idolized Ryder as a role model, then to him, after Polly's death. "What a wonderful young lady she is," he states simply.

Ryder insists she's just following her own internal compass. "Whenever I've had choices to make," she once explained, "I've known how to make them. I don't know if that comes from the 60s or if it comes from something else. But it's a wonderful thing to know."