As a child, Winona Ryder was encouraged in her dreams of Hollywood by her parents, who were hippies with an appreciation of fine films. Growing up in near-poverty on a ranch commune, Winona watched movies in a makeshift cinema created by her mother, who hung a big white sheet in a barn.
"That's where I first saw all of Elia Kazan's movies, all of John Cassavetes'," recalls Winona. "She'd show everything, including Gigi and An American In Paris, those musicals with the amazing trippy sequences. I think my parents loved those because...well, they were smoking a lot of pot."
Named after the Minnesota town in which she was born, Winona Horowitz came into the world on October 29, 1971, the daughter of bohemians Michael and Cindy Horowitz. A goddaughter of Sixties icon Timothy Leary, she was raised, along with her three brothers, as an independent spirit. Bitten early by the acting bug, Winona began studying acting at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco at the age of 12, and was soon pursuing a film career. In 1986, she adopted the name Ryder and made her debut in the teen angst drama Lucas, with critics and audiences alike spotting the pixie-haired 15-year-old's star quality. After her next film, she dropped out of high school and began an independent course, finishing her studies with straight As.
Winona's doe-eyed looks quickly gained her attention, first as an angst-ridden teen in the hit film Beetlejuice, then as a youngster who tortures her classmates in the black comedy Heathers. She made the transition to adult roles flawlessly, becoming the queen of 19th-century period pieces with Bram Stoker's Dracula, Little Women and The Age Of Innocence. The latter two films each earned her an Oscar nomination, while The Age Of Innocence garnered her a BAFTA nod and a Golden Globe award. Now in the third decade of her career, she has played everything from a blonde cheerleader in the quirky fable Edward Scissorhands to a space droid in Alien:Resurrection.
The actress insists that her role choices are from the heart, not part of some grand plan. "I didn't do the strategic, career-building thing, where I make two big movies, then a small independent one, then another big one," she explains. "I do the films I like."
One project close to Winona's heart was 1999's Girl, Interrupted, the true story of a young woman institutionalised after a suicide attempt. It was a film that she first signed on for when she was 21, not long after she herself had been treated for depression. "This movie was my way of exiting adolescence," she says. "It's a farewell piece to that time of my life, to all those roles that I had. I just didn't realise it was going to take seven years to make." The film was well-received by critics and earned co-star Angelina Jolie an Academy Award.
The 5ft 4in actress is well-known for her sense of style often appearing on the red carpet wearing vintage designer frocks and is equally famous for her high-profile boyfriends, something she says is due more to press coverage than the reality of her romantic choices. "I don't try to hide it or anything, but nobody wants to hear about Ian the computer scientist," she said recently. Regular Joes aside, Winona's past beaus include Johnny Depp, David Duchovny, musician Beck and Dave Pirner of the rock group Soul Asylum, a relationship that ended in 1997 after three years. Most recently, she stepped out with Good Will Hunting star Matt Damon, but the two broke off the extremely private relationship in 2000.
Winona has faced a multitude of challenges recently. Her two latest films, Autumn In New York and Lost Souls, were box office failures, and health issues caused her to pull out of the low-budget British movie Lily And The Secret Planting. Then, in December 2001, she was arrested for shoplifting at a posh Beverly Hills department store, charged with grand theft, and released on $20,000 bail. With a court date pending and two more films in the pipeline, Winona's future is anybody's guess.
One thing is clear: Winona would probably prefer to stay out of the headlines. "I feel there's a tendency towards over-exposure," she said. "I know there are some actors that I don't want to see for a while, and I don't want to become one of them myself."