Winona back on the big screen

Winona Ryder
Winona Ryder

After putting the shame of her shoplifting conviction behind her, actress Winona Ryder is back to her best and doing what comes naturally - playing unconventional characters in Tim Burton movies. Shereen Low reports.

Winona Ryder’s life reads like a gripping work of fiction.

There have been so many ups and downs throughout her three decades in the movies: a host of awards, some high-profile romances - and a shoplifting charge to boot.

Through it all, she has always maintained her dignity and class - and, perhaps most importantly, her high-profile friendships.

Today, the actress oozes glamour in a figure-hugging black dress and monochrome Roger Vivier heels, with her dark brown hair tied back and a slick of red lipstick on her lips.

She’s opening up about the latest chapter in her life: reuniting for a third time with director Tim Burton on his acclaimed animation Frankenweenie, which opened this month’s London Film Festival for its European premiere.“Tim is so special to me in so many ways and I do feel like I owe my career to him in a big way because of Beetlejuice, so there was no luring,” she says, explaining why she agreed to voice girl-next-door Elsa Van Helsing in the spooky family comedy.

“He’s a dear friend, a brilliant guy and a brilliant film-maker so I’m just so thrilled to work with him again. It’s been 25 years since I first met him.”

It was Burton who gave Ryder her big break in film by casting her in 1988’s Beetlejuice. Having already appeared in two unremarkable films, she was unsure whether she should look for more roles or head back to college.“I would go to auditions and I didn’t look like anyone else and I wasn’t really getting [mainstream] kind of parts. So I feel that him giving me that role was the biggest gift and it led to other stuff,” she says.

“I can’t really imagine what would have happened otherwise - I probably would have ended up back in school, and maybe I wouldn’t have pursued acting.”

Ryder, who was born Winona Laura Horowitz, may now be 40 but, thanks to her flawless complexion, she could easily pass for someone 10 years younger. In fact, she doesn’t look much different from her Beetlejuice days.

“It’s interesting because, even with Beetlejuice, I was an awkward kid. I started at puberty, and went through it on film,” she admits.

The Minnesota-born actress has never tried to be a Hollywood sex symbol, preferring to gravitate towards dark stories and unconventional characters. She carved out a career playing the Goth type, starting as Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice and continuing in Heathers, Reality Bites and Girl, Interrupted.

“Lydia was one of my favourite roles because I related to her a lot. That did lead to other roles, but I had to really fight quite hard to be cast in Heathers because I wasn’t considered attractive enough to be a popular girl,” she recalls.

“But I have just been really lucky that the directors that I’ve worked with don’t gravitate [towards conventional good looks].”

Her friendship with oddball Burton is certainly unconventional. “I vividly remember meeting him for the first time,” she says.

“I was talking to someone in the waiting room for a while, about movies and music. And then, after about 30 minutes, I was like, ‘Do you know when this Tim Burton guy is showing up because I may be in the wrong building?’, and he was like, ‘Oh, that’s me’. I had no idea that a director could be so cool and down to earth.”After the cult success of Beetlejuice, Burton offered Ryder a role in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands opposite her then boyfriend, Johnny Depp.

Her career really took off in the Nineties, and she won praise for her performances in Mermaids opposite Cher, period drama The Age Of Innocence and Little Women.But at the peak of her success, in 2001, the actress was convicted of shoplifting and accused of stealing thousands of dollars worth of designer clothes and accessories from a department store in California.

She blames painkillers that she was prescribed from a “quack doctor” for confusing her, but says she never touched those pills again.

“I didn’t have this tremendous sense of guilt, because I hadn’t hurt anyone,” she says. “Had I physically harmed someone or caused harm to a human being, I think it would have been an entirely different experience.”

When her probation was lifted in 2005, Ryder continued to act, although it was only when she made a cameo appearance in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek in 2009 that she became noticed again.

Since then, she has enjoyed scene-stealing roles in Oscar-nominated Black Swan as an ageing ballet dancer and as an adulterous wife in The Dilemma.

More than 20 years since their last collaboration, she’s now back in the careful hands of Burton for Frankenweenie, a black and white 3D animation based on his 1984 short film.

The story, told in stop-motion with puppets, follows a boy, Victor, who decides to bring his dead dog back to life.

Burton based Ryder’s character, eight-year-old Elsa Van Helsing, partly on her. And Ryder reveals that she, in turn, based the character on her Beetlejuice alter ego, Lydia.

She explains: “I related to her a lot because I was pretty shy at that age. I kind of based my character’s affection for Victor a bit on how much love and affection I have for Tim - he’s my favourite person in the world. But I did also base her a little bit on how I imagined Lydia from Beetlejuice as an eight-year-old.”

Ryder and Burton are in tune with each other perfectly, both on and off set. “I’ve always had an almost telepathic relationship with him, where he just has to make a tiny movement and I know exactly what he means,” she says.

The actress admits she cried when she first saw the finished film at its Los Angeles premiere.

“It just encapsulates everything he is about. This movie is so personal to him, I mean, Victor is Tim. For all the darkness that is associated with him, there’s so much heart in all of his films.

“I think that’s another reason why children really still love films like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. There’s not a better feeling in the whole world than having a kid come up to you and say, ‘Are you the girl from Beetlejuice?’”

There are rumours that Burton will make a sequel to Beetlejuice, starring Michael Keaton and, of course, Ryder.

“I don’t really know any details but of course I’d do anything for Tim,” she says.

With a little help from her friends, Ryder is returning to her former glory. There’s another starring role in crime thriller The Iceman with Michael Shannon and James Franco, before she reunites with Franco on psychological thriller The Letter.

She is currently in New Orleans filming action movie Homefront, which has been written by Sylvester Stallone and again stars Franco as well as Jason Statham and Kate Bosworth.

“I don’t feel that ambitious because I started so young and it was very fun. I just did what I found interesting,” she says. “I’ve been very, very blessed and very lucky.”