by LAEL LOEWENSTEIN
Even those of us who aren't card-carrying
members of Generation X can't help but feel as if
we've grown up with Winona Ryder. We've watched her
battle high school bullies in "Heathers,"
write her grad school thesis in "How to Make
an American Quilt" and enter the working world
in "Reality Bites." Now Ryder is poised
to lead us into new territory. Her latest film, "Girl,
Interrupted," is based on Susanna Kaysen's bold
and candid memoir of her stay in a psychiatric ward.
The film marks the 28-year-old Ryder's
debut as executive producer, an active step in her
ongoing agenda to make challenging films for young
"It's really an insult, what's
out there for young women in America," Ryder
told us in a recent interview in Los Angeles. "We
give them films like 'Runaway Bride' and say [patronizingly],
'Here's a nice romantic comedy; this will satiate
you.' But that doesn't challenge you or raise issues
or bring good conversations to the table."
Surviving Hard Times
With the release of "Girl, Interrupted,"
Ryder has been talking openly for the first time about
her own history of depression. In 1991, Ryder took
a break from shooting "The House of the Spirits"
to check herself into a psychiatric clinic for sleep
deprivation. At the time, she was feeling the strains
of an exhausting work schedule, chronic insomnia and
her public breakup with actor Johnny Depp.
After five days in the clinic, feeling
no better, Ryder checked herself out.
"Being there didn't help me at
all," Ryder recalls. "But what I did get
out of it is the knowledge that those places don't
give you a pill that fixes you or a sheet of secret
answers. You can't pay enough money to have a place
cure that feeling of being broken and confused and
way too sensitive for this insane world."
What helped eventually were the perspective
and self-knowledge that came with time. Ryder also
took solace in reading books like "Girl, Interrupted,"
that made her realize she wasn't alone.
Deeply connected to the material,
Ryder began a six-year journey to turn "Girl"
into a film. She signed on as executive producer,
determined to protect the integrity of the material
and to have a role in making key decisions.
Better Films for Women
Ryder's role as executive producer on "Girl,
Interrupted" signals her ongoing commitment to
reshaping the landscape of films for young women.
Long frustrated with the movies available for teen
audiences, Ryder has often chosen projects that are
less mainstream -- and ultimately, less commercial
-- than many of her peers in the industry.
"We need to offer [young women]
something that they can relate to and something that
shows they're not alone in feeling confused or misplaced,"
For Ryder, that 'something' comes
in the form of a strong, complicated female lead like
the role of Susanna in "Girl Interrupted."
"Susanna was of the few characters
I've read that was brutally honest without being self-indulgent,"
she says. "And she was a rebel, which for a female
was rare. Usually all the great rebels are boys --
Holden Caulfield, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn."
Reluctant Role Model
Ryder faces a double-edged sword in her quest to make
provocative films for young women. While she's adamant
about challenging girls' minds, she is less enthusiastic
about acting as a role model.
In 1996, Ryder came under attack when
an advocacy group accused her of smoking too much
in her films. She's still stinging from the accusation.
"I will do whatever I have to
do for a role on film, and I will do whatever I want
to do in my life," she says. "It's nobody's
choice but my own, and I don't believe I am influencing
anybody but myself."
Ryder is also ambivalent about using
her celebrity status to promote various causes. The
child of liberal parents, she has spoken out for Amnesty
International and campaigned for the release of incarcerated
American Indian activist Leonard Peltier.
"There's a part of me that thinks
we should keep our politics to ourselves," she
says. "But as a human being, I have a social
responsibility to walk with my head up, to follow
my heart and protect my freedom of speech and that
Compared to other young actors who've hit the fast
lane and burned out, Ryder seems remarkably poised
and grounded. She attributes that composure to her
family and friends ("I really scored in that
department") and to living in San Francisco.
Though she has residences in L.A.
and New York, she calls the Bay Area home. "Had
I moved down to L.A. when I started acting, things
would have been a lot different in my life,"
she says. "San Francisco has been my salvation."
Ryder says that as she faces her 30s,
she has a new understanding of the pressures of her
career and the expectations of the media. She also
says she's learned to be more forgiving of herself.
"I've learned that it's OK to
be flawed, that life can be messy, that some days
you glide and some days you fall, but most important,
that there are no secret answers out there,"
she says. "When you finally accept that it's
OK not to have answers and it's OK not to be perfect,
you realize that feeling confused is a normal part
of what it is to be a human being."