Winona Ryder has this problem, and as problems go it’s pretty solidly in the first-world category, she knows, but it’s a problem, still: She’ll be having a conversation with somebody—an interesting conversation, the kind two regular people have when they discover a mutual admiration for, like, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral or something. And then suddenly the person she’s having the conversation with will say something to her that reminds her that (a) she is Winona Ryder, the famous actress, and (b) nearly everyone she meets already has “this whole idea” of who she is, already thinks they know everything there is to know about her, more or less. And inevitably when this happens, she starts thinking about what it is people think they know about her, which is never a good idea, and the conversation never really recovers.
And it’s interesting that we’re talking about this right now, Ryder and I, because for an hour or so we’ve been sitting in a booth in the ground-floor restaurant of a hotel in Manhattan, one of those almost purgatorially anonymous luxury filing cabinets uptown by the park, and we’ve been having the Philip Roth conversation, metaphorically speaking. Ryder—tiny, in a newsboy cap and a City Lights Bookstore T-shirt and a tangle of gold necklaces—has been talking about the Saw franchise and Michelle Pfeiffer and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and the reason the chaise longue was invented (corsets, fainting) and melatonin and her crush on the young Anthony Hopkins circa 1977’s Audrey Rose. She’s told me embarrassing stories about famous people who deserve to have embarrassing stories told about them.
(A Mel Gibson anecdote: “I remember, like, fifteen years ago, I was at one of those big Hollywood parties. And he was really drunk. I was with my friend, who’s gay. He made a really horrible gay joke. And somehow it came up that I was Jewish. He said something about ‘oven dodgers,’ but I didn’t get it. I’d never heard that before. It was just this weird, weird moment. I was like, ‘He’s anti-Semitic and he’s homophobic.’ No one believed me!”)
It’s been great, really. But everything I think I know about Winona Ryder, famous actress, is sort of burning a hole in my pocket, and I’m starting to wonder if she’s doing this on purpose, trying to blow past that moment where we acknowledge the room’s considerable elephant population. When she does allude to the elephants, it’s in passing, as if I wouldn’t know they’re there—she says things like “My first relationship was very public” (you don’t say!) and bats a set of eyelashes as dark and lush as marabou dipped in squid ink, then moves on, and if it’s a gambit it’s working pretty well so far, honestly.
We do get to talk about Darren Aronofsky’s movie Black Swan, an arty-pervy head-wrecker that might be Aronofsky’s best film, or 2010’s, or the most deluxe-classy exploitation film released by a major studio since Showgirls, or all of the above. It’s basically a girl-world version of Aronofsky’s The Wrestler—instead of waiting for Randy the Ram’s heart to explode, we’re waiting for Natalie Portman, as a ballerina driven to the edge by her boundary-defying mom (Barbara Hershey) and a preening evil-Balanchine type (Vincent Cassel), to go crazy or break a leg, and feminine signifiers like lipstick, ribbons, feathers, toe shoes, cake, tulle, blood, and orchids stand in for ‘roids and staples, but the awful anticipation is the same. Ryder’s in it for maybe ten minutes, and all of them are crazy and important. She’s the former ingenue who refuses to go quietly when Cassel pushes her aside in favor of Portman. The character is a raging mascara-smeared wreck who embodies, in a Ghost of Christmas Future kind of way, everything the movie has to say about the terrible toll performance extracts from young women.
It’s about ballerinas, but it could just as easily be about actresses. And maybe it is, really. Ryder’s 39, a former ingenue herself, and casting her as the cracked-mirror version of Portman, who’s ten years younger and an exemplar of a breed of actress that essentially didn’t exist as a Hollywood commodity pre-Winona, opens up all kinds of meta-resonances. It’s the best role Ryder has had in years, but you could imagine some actresses having second thoughts about steering straight into that subtext.
Ryder didn’t, though. “I thought it was a cool parallel,” she says. “Being replaced by the young thing. I know that definitely happens in Hollywood. It’s harder to find good roles, and suddenly there’s new girls. I’m at that age I’ve been warned my whole life about.”
Think about J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot last year, where Zachary Quinto, just six years younger than Ryder, played Spock, and Ryder, in a weird Grey Gardens head scarf, played his mom, and how weird that was, even in the context of a movie involving time travel. Ryder made her name in a series of coming-of-age, losing-of-virginity kind of roles; she’s outgrown that slot without quite growing into another one. To put it in merciless Hollywood-math terms, she’s too old to coquette and too young to cougar. That’s one reason she’s in an odd place at the moment. That’s the simple answer. There are other answers, but it’ll take us a minute to get there.