IT WAS almost quarter of a century ago, but Winona Ryder can clearly recall her first encounter with Tim Burton. “I remember vividly – vividly – meeting him,” the actress says.
She was 14, and the unknown kid from the sticks had come to Los Angeles to audition for a part in Burton’s new film, Beetlejuice. “I didn’t look unlike Lydia,” she continues, referring to the ghost-seeing adolescent she played in the spooky comedy. “I had black hair and was wearing black. And I was talking to someone in the waiting room for a while – just about movies and music. Then after about 30 minutes I said, ‘Do you know when this Tim Burton guy is showing up? Because I might be in the wrong building.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s me.’”
Ryder laughs. “I had no idea that a director could be so, like, cool in that way.”
For both parties, a lot – an awful lot – has happened since Beetlejuice. Him: cinematic triumphs (Ed Wood, Sweeney Todd), $1 billion successes (Alice in Wonderland), enduring partnerships (onscreen with Johnny Depp; in marriage with Helena Bonham Carter). Her: a Golden Globe (for Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence), two Oscar nominations (for The Age of Innocence and Little Women), a failed high-profile romance or two (with Depp, to whom she was engaged, and Matt Damon), an even more high-profile shoplifting conviction and a subsequent absence from the spotlight.
Now, after a second collaboration on Edward Scissorhands, the pair are working together again, on the heartfelt, stop-motion children’s horror film Frankenweenie. The main character is based on the young Burton, and he has cast Ryder as the voice of the girl next door. “All of Tim’s movies to me have … with all of the darkness that is associated with him … there’s so much heart in all of his movies,” enthuses Ryder, the words tumbling out of her.
“I sobbed at Ed Wood, and when I saw Frankenweenie for the first time, the other night, I was crying. Edward Scissorhands, I always cry. It’s like there’s always someone with an incredible amount of purity,” she says, “even if they look a certain way.” Ryder, for all her obvious smarts, has a habit of not completing sentences, or missing out words, as if her thoughts are racing ahead of her mouth.
“What kind of people do I like?” muses Burton as he considers his third project with Ryder. “Well, I like interesting people. People that follow their own style and their own fashion and don’t worry about trends and everything. Anybody that shows their own individual flair you can always recognise. And,” he adds, “usually people who are wearing black I take more interest in.”
Is it any wonder that Ryder – raised in a commune, goddaughter of Timothy Leary, a hypnotically dark beauty, a moment of larcenous madness, a long time out of the limelight, still dressed in black – is such a prized collaborator for the director? And is it any wonder that she has entrusted a key step in her softly-softly comeback to the filmmaker who, all those years ago, started her out? “Oh, it’s always amazing,” Ryder sighs, referring to working with Burton.
She’s wringing her hands tightly but her smile is wide. “I’m trying to think of new adjectives to use because it truly is such a special experience every time. Even just being around him. He’s one of my favourite people I think in the world, just to be around. So it never really feels like work in that way, even thought it is very creative.”
Burton and his leading lady have gathered in separate hotel suites in Disneyland in Anaheim, California, to promote Frankenweenie. The Disney-funded film is a rhapsody in black and white, a modern-day fairy tale that pays homage to the classic horror films of yore. It’s the story of Victor, a cinema-loving boy who brings his beloved dead dog Sparky back to life, and the monstrous mayhem that ensues when his more wayward classmates apply his discovery to other deceased animals.
The tale is, in part, based on the director’s childhood in Burbank, Greater Los Angeles – he was that lonely kid who loved his pet and loved making home movies. Ryder is the voice of Elsa van Helsing, his captivating gothic princess of a neighbour. “Even if Tim’s not verbally [directing you],” Ryder says, “you always feel very safe. And if you want to talk about a scene, you can. But you just don’t need to. It’s a telepathic thing that happens.”
It’s a big deal for both, and a passion project all round. Burton, a skilled illustrator, first drew the semi-autobiographical characters in the early 1980s, and made an early, shorter version of Frankenweenie in 1984.
For Ryder, it’s another plus-point in her cinematic rehabilitation, after a long time out of the spotlight in the wake of her legal and emotional problems of the early Noughties. In the last few years, her sole films of note have been a cameo in JJ Abrams’s Star Trek (2009), in which she played Spock’s mother, and a supporting role in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), in which she was brilliant as the ageing, brittle prima ballerina threatened by Natalie Portman’s up-and-coming dancer.
Ryder hasn’t done a full interview in an age, and time with her has been carefully controlled and vetted. When she talks, her hands clasp tightly together and, though she looks younger than her 41 years, she’s also thin and pale under her make-up. Her 2001 arrest is firmly off-topic, but to recap: Ryder was found guilty of stealing $5,500 (around £3,400) of designer clothes from a Beverly Hills store. She was fined, put on probation, sentenced to 480 hours of community service and had to undertake psychological and drug counselling. She didn’t work for almost five years afterwards.
But, while such an experience can never be fully in the past, today Ryder is instantly, gushingly friendly and eager to chat – albeit on subjects that I’d rather save for small-talk after the fact instead of them eating up precious interview time.
So, on hearing my Scottish accent, she dives in with, “One of my favourite actors is Peter Mullan. I was on the jury one year at Cannes and we gave him the award for My Name is Joe – and he wore a kilt,” she says, eyes widening. “I have a picture that I had up for so long that I cut out from a magazine, of me and him in his kilt with his award.”
This sets off a torrent of recollection: other films and actors that were in contention at the film festival that year; other films that Mullan has starred in and/or directed; other British independent films she has loved.
The comments and enthusiasms tumble from Ryder – a mention of the Shane Meadows film This Is England, set around the time of the Falklands War, catalyses a quick digression about her confusion over the conflict (“I still talk to friends that are English and they can’t really explain…”), a question about how Margaret Thatcher “handled it”, then a detour into how IRA prisoner Bobby Sands was elected an MP while on hunger strike, and how good Michael Fassbender was at playing Sands in Steve McQueen’s film Hunger, then on to another film about the period, Some Mother’s Son, starring Helen Mirren. It’s only when a hovering assistant reminds Ryder that the clock is ticking that she gasps, halts and blurts, “I’m sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry.”
Ryder was born in Minnesota to groovy activist parents. When she was seven, the family moved to a commune with no electricity in rural California. After three years there, the family moved again. She was bullied at school, which led to a spell being home-educated, before she moved to another school. It was, to say the least, an unorthodox childhood, and didn’t exactly prepare Ryder for the acting world in which she started to become involved as an adolescent. “I was shy,” she admits. “And I did come from a very different kind of family and place than a lot of kids in LA who were sort of maybe discovered or, you know, kind of uprooted and moved to LA.
“We never did that. My parents were, like, ‘I never moved to LA, I always actually lived in San Francisco’ – I had to maintain a 4.0 [exam grade] and only worked during the summer. They were a little bit afraid, I think, of Hollywood. It’s hard on kids, the rejection.”
Ryder’s mother and father worked, variously, as writers, editors, publishers, video producers and book collectors, and were friends with authors (Aldous Huxley, Philip K Dick), Beat poets (Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti) and counter-cultural figures. Her father, Michael Horowitz, worked closely with Dr Timothy Leary, the psychedelic drug guru, and continues to oversee his archives.
These people still figure in Ryder’s life. She tells me she has just received a postcard from Ferlinghetti, and directs me to dig out an interview her father recently gave, entitled ‘The Archival Catastrophe of 1975’. “It’s the first time that something is revealed that is very, very interesting,” she says conspiratorially. (The interview appears in a blog on the New York Public Library’s site, and relates to Horowitz’s experiences in front of a federal grand jury in the wake of Leary escaping from prison, where he had been held on drugs charges.)
What of her father’s plans to make a film of Leary’s life, reportedly starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role? “It’s still…” she begins. “You know what, it’s one of those things. He’s tight with DiCaprio’s dad, they grew up together in New York, and DiCaprio owns the thing. But I hope that happens. Because my godmother, [who] I’m very, very close to – and I don’t know what part of his life they’re going to do obviously – but my godmother was saying, ‘You have to play me.’”
She doesn’t elaborate, but at the time I presume that this must mean Leary’s widow is Ryder’s godmother. But I later find out that she’s dead too. So who knows who her godmother is? It’s another of those areas on which Ryder is vague.
The comedy actress Catherine O’Hara also stars in Frankenweenie, and she too was in Beetlejuice. I ask about her memories of 14-year-old Ryder. “Winona looks the same now. She’s a freak of nature,” she laughs, “a beautiful freak of nature. She had the same kind of open, wide-eyed innocence,” she says, mimicking her look. “She was like this little girl who had never been in this world before. She was like that on Beetlejuice – a real eccentric. Her parents were these hippy [types] … and she had these great, eccentric, theatrical, creative people in her life from the beginning.”
When I recount this to Ryder, she smiles. Her response is, again, a jumble of memories and points. “Oh my God, that’s funny. That’s such a compliment…” Her take is that she was “sort of an awkward kid – I started acting at puberty and went through it on film. It’s hard to think of yourself back then, but I was very similar the character of Lydia, physically. I had black hair and I was very pale and I was very into [gothic illustrator] Edward Gorey. And what’s weird, when I doodle when I’m on the telephone, I always do the same thing – this little character…” She takes my notepad and doodles a girl with a mess of hair over her eyes. “I did that before I met Tim, when I started [acting] around 12, which was when I first dyed my hair.”
Ryder’s performance in Beetlejuice led to the part that made her a much-loved Generation X ‘It’ girl, in the cult 1988 high school satire Heathers. But today she says she had to “really fight quite hard to be cast in Heathers because I wasn’t considered attractive enough to be in that sort of popular girl clique”.
Any teenager’s self-esteem would take a knock with comments like that. But given her unusual upbringing, I suggest that Ryder must have been especially ill-suited to Hollywood’s brutal ways. “Yeah,” she nods, “and that’s sort of also why I chose to…” She stops again.
“You know, I do have to sort of be there when I work. But there are times when I base myself out in the Bay Area [of San Francisco]. Because [Hollywood] is a tough town in a way if you’re pinning everything – your own personal happiness – on how successful you are. And how do you rate success?” she says, cocking her head.
Slowly, gingerly, Ryder is getting back in the Hollywood game. Since Frankenweenie, she has filmed The Iceman, a thriller about a real-life American serial killer. It’s currently doing the film festival rounds and has attracted rave reviews. It was, she admits, a gruelling shoot. “But it was great because I was so fascinated…” she begins, before tailing away again.
It seems it was the same when she read the script for Black Swan. “I was like, ‘Wow,’ it never occurred to me…” she starts. “It was just really interesting. And I really thought a lot about All About Eve and Bette Davis.”
Is this, then, how the talented but (it seems) fragile and over-revving Ryder has to survive in Hollywood these days? By taking on only a few films here and there, bespoke projects that either arouse her passion, and/or offer the security of working with people she has long known and loved? Or, after a high, giddy 1990s on big films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and Alien Resurrection, just smaller films? “I had a lot of success and I was able to be very do-what-I-wanna-do.
“But taking a break and getting my life, like, you know, what was important to me and just having, you know, having that feeling of like, if I don’t do that, I still, you know, I’m still a happy person, and have other stuff going on that’s interesting and fulfilling.”
Her topsy-turvy speech fades to a big smile. And that other stuff that’s interesting and fulfilling? Who knows. Because now the assistant and a PR agent are hovering, and Ryder really must stop talking. She has an urgent appointment signing some Frankenweenie posters.
As she stands and approaches the posters, she starts with the fan-ish gabbling again. Given her personal acquaintances with the Beats, she’s keen to see Walter Salles’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. “You know what’s weird? I didn’t even know it had been made. I don’t know how they’re gonna do it. It’s like Joyce or Beckett – how are they gonna do that? But it’s a fantastic book. And Ferlinghetti’s story is really amazing too. He served in the Second World War, he was in Hiroshima two days later.”
Then, mention of Leary and DiCaprio leads into talk of the actor’s role in Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming Great Gatsby. Apropos of the film’s 1920s fashion look, she says, sort of randomly, “I know Kate Moss is really into the vibe right now.” Then, “I love Fitzgerald. That was one of the first books [I read], This Side of Paradise. And I went to his place in Minneapolis. Zelda Fitzgerald was great.”
And off goes Winona Ryder, autograph pen in hand, smilingly blethering all the way. n
Frankenweenie is on general release from Friday