Winona Rider coming to terms with her mental illness

  July 1999 By Philip Berk

Career, Interrupted.

Petite, intense, Winona Ryder hasn’t made a movie since The Crucible.

So what has she been doing?

Recovering from a nervous breakdown.

Like the character she plays in Girl, Interrupted, Winona spent time in a psychiatric ward when she was l9 although unlike that character she left after a week without getting help.

Girl Interrupted is based on a best selling memoir by Susanna Kaysen who documented the two years she spent in a mental institution in the l960s.

Winona read the book — “it just grabbed me by the throat” — and knew it was her destiny to get  the film made.

Six years later it is a reality.

How much did the project mean to her? I ask her

“It was a labor of love. It was six years of my life. I’ve never felt so passionate about anything before. It was my whole life. It took over my life.”

Because she’s been so forthcoming about her own mental illness, isn’t she concerned that people might think she’s still psychotic?

“Anyone who thinks that way, any person who says they don’t have these struggles, I’d be inclined to question their sanity. I think it’s insane to say the world is normal. The world is crazy, and it’s very normal for everyone of us to feel confused and that we don’t belong. 

“I think it’s really important to lift that stigma and get people talking about it, especially young people. I made a conscious choice to talk about the fact that I went through a pretty turbulent time when I was nineteen. It’s still something that I struggle with. We need to have this dialogue. It’s really important. I know it would have been a great comfort to me if I had been able to talk about it instead of being ashamed to admit I was confused.”

What was there about the book that so impressed her?

“I had always been interested in the subject matter because it’s something I’ve gone through a lot. I’ve always been drawn to books and movies that explored those themes. But this one was different. It wasn’t ultra feminine, it wasn’t saccharine and sweet. It had an edge to it, and it had a message that said there aren’t always answers to the big questions. You can’t go to a hospital and get a pill that’s going to fix everything. You can’t pay a lot of money and get fixed. You have to go inside yourself and fix yourself. That’s a hard lesson to learn when you live in  a world of instant gratification. Quite frankly, I’m terrified of what the future is going to be like because of the Internet. Pretty soon we’re not going to be able to sit  face to face with anyone anymore.” 

If Winona sounds insecure, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

After all, she dropped out of Godfather III  eight years ago for health reasons, 

just about the time when her long term relationship with Johnny Depp ended suddenly.

For years she refused to talk about the break-up.

But now that Johnny has embraced fatherhood so fervently, she’s fully prepared to talk about him.

“He was my first love,” she remembers, “and your first break up of your first love is always really tough. Yeah, that was tough.And it was around the time when I went through my first rough time.” 

Since then she’s had relationships with singer David Pirner and more recently  Matt Damon. 

Did the break-up shatter her illusions about love?

“It makes you more careful, but I’ve remained really good friends with Johnny and every other guy I’ve gone out with. So I’m really lucky in that regard. I’ve never had a really bad experience. I feel blessed with the people that have been in my life in that way.”

Is she still romantically linked to Matt Damon?

“He’s a great friend. Very honest, very good hearted, a really wonderful person.”

Moreso than anyone of her generation, Winona has always been a kind and caring person.  

You may remember when Polly Klaas, a young girl from her hometown (of Petaluma, Calif.) was kidnaped and ultimately found murdered, she started a fund for her and insisted on dedicating Little Women  to her.

The studio tried to drop the end-title dedication — they thought it  “too depressing” — but Winona gave them an ultimatum: Either the dedication stays or she does no promotion; wisely Columbia  backed down.

In person Winona is still as lovely and delicate as her most attractive roles suggest. 

Four years ago, when no one suspected she was mentally ill, she told me, “Life is confusing and inconsistent. That idea needs to be celebrated in movies.”

Girl Interrupted does just that.

During the making of the film, she did a lot of self examination.

“I definitely delved into my own psyche quite a bit. I went into places in my head that were very, very dark, places I’ve never wanted to revisit. I had always kept my fears and anxieties to myself, so I kind of reopened them and tried them on again. I got back to those emotional places, and it was terrifying. I was really frightened, but in the end  it was like you stare the monster in the face, and you realize you can beat it. And I did just that.”

What did she take away from the experience?

“I learned how easy it is to make mountains out of molehills.”

Is she a happier person now?

“I’m much happier. People seem to think I’m so depressed. But I’m not. I did go through a hard time when I was nineteen and twenty, but who didn’t?  I mean, I’m not crazy. Everyone has a rough time when they’re teenagers. I want to be very clear about that. I’ve overcome a lot even though there’s also a lot of stuff I’m not prepared to talk about  publicly.”

The character she plays in the movie keeps a journal.

Can she relate to?

“Actually yes. I keep a journal. I write every night. I’ve kept a journal my whole life. I also read a lot. I’ve read every night of my life. I can’t remember a night I didn’t go to sleep reading.”

And her family, how supportive have they been?

“I happen to have an amazing family that keeps me grounded. My parents have been together twenty eight years even though they never got married until a few years ago when they decided, ‘Oh we should get married now,’ so we all went down to the court house, and they got married. 

“We’re all real close. I have one sister and two brothers. When I first started to act, I wanted to live in L.A., but my parents insisted I live in Petaluma. I stayed in school, which I didn’t want to do either, but my parents made me, so I guess I have them to thank.”

After graduation she moved to Los Angeles?

Why was L.A. such an attraction?

“All of my favorite actors lived there. They were tortured and in pain, so for a while I thought that must be the way it works. I tried to mess myself up so I could be like them, but I actually couldn’t do it. I tried being an alcoholic for two weeks, but it really didn’t go over too well. I just can’t be a reckless person.” 

So what did she gain from that experience?

“I learned that I can be happy and normal and relaxed — and a good actress as well.”

Does she still feel that way?

“In all honesty, I still feel like a kid. I still get excited when I get a job. I still get excited the first day of work. I still have that enthusiasm. If I ever lose that, I’ll probably quit, but for now I love what I do. I really do. It’s my life, it’s my form of expression.”

As a child, she and her family lived on a commune. Her godfather was the (notorious) LSD guru, Timothy Leary. How does she look back on those years?

“I tend to romanticize them. There were no faxes, no phones. You had to rely on communication. Your relationships with people and family was the most important thing. You didn’t leave home when you were sixteen. We had no electricity, no running water. It wasn’t all that great to wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to flick on a switch. You had to find matches to light a kerosene lamp.”

Would she recommend that way of life for others? 

“I guess the great thing about  growing up on a commune was that there was no television. We had to rely on conversation and imagination. I think that’s really important, but I also think it’s important that children grow up in a traditional home, with parents who impose curfews. My parents were lenient, so I rebelled and became very traditional. It’s kind of interesting to see how that happens.” 

Has she made compromises in her career?

“I’m sure I’ve made some, but I don’t remember what they were. I don’t think I’ve made any significant ones. Every now and then you have to give up something to get something. What’s important to me is to keep the things I love. That’s all I need, and my family.”

And how will she spend New Year’s Eve?

“With my family. I have a new niece who was born in October  so I’m kind of paranoid about things like the power going out. I’ll be with them just in case. I feel real nervous.”

For the record, she’s completed a movie since Girl Interrupted. It’s called Autumn in New York, and her costar is Richard Gere.

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