Riding shotgun, Winona Ryder kicked her feet up on the dashboard and pumped up the volume on KROQ-FM, ebulliently crooning to the Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl.” It was time for her favorite pursuit--exploring abandoned houses.
“Quick--turn right,” she said abruptly as the car approached Sunset and Doheny, bumping along in heavy evening traffic. “It should be around here somewhere. The stories about this house sound incredible. I hear it’s a great spooky old place.”
A spooky place with quite a pedigree. “The guy that lived there is supposed to have slaughtered his whole family,” Ryder said as the car headed up into the Hollywood Hills. “I bet it was very bloody. Now the house is totally abandoned. But there’s supposed to be a side door that’s open so we can get inside. . . .”
Having just graduated from high school (“with a 4.0 average!” she boasts), the smart ‘n’ sassy 17-year-old actress could be safely home reading scripts--she has a stack on the living room table in her new West Los Angeles apartment. Newly relocated from Northern California, Ryder is Hollywood’s hottest young heartthrob, heiress apparent to Molly Ringwald’s teen throne.
After seeing her in such films as “Beetlejuice,” “Square Dance” and “1969,” critics have raved, labeling her performances “deft” and “remarkable” and praising her “fascinatingly offbeat comic timing.” Variety calls her “fetching.” Cosmo has dubbed her the “wonderful” Winona Ryder.
Expect more kudos--and barbs--with the release of “Heathers,” a fiendish black comedy which lampoons nasty high school cliques and teen suicide rites. Starring Ryder and Christian Slater as a pair of pranksters who subvert the school’s snooty social elite, “Heathers” has already triggered howls of outrage from critics unhappy with its flip satire of teen suicide.
(Blasting the film, The Times’ Sheila Benson wrote: “No amount of production sheen or acting skill seems excuse enough for the film’s scabrous morality or its unprincipled viciousness.”)
If Ryder is impressed by her new acclaim--or notoriety--it doesn’t show. Pretty and precocious, she crackles with contradictions. Cruising around Los Angeles the other night, she exhibited an endearing jumble of jittery teen emotions, skidding from dreamy idealism to cranky impatience, soulful fervor to girlish glee.
Prone to exuberant monologues, Ryder spent the evening celebrating such odd pop-culture bedfellows as Ellen Gilchrist, Mojo Nixon, Jack Kerouac, Kirk Gibson, Ian McEwan, the Replacements and J. D. Salinger.
She can leap from a learned dissertation on Harper Lee (“I think it’s very probable she wrote a good part of Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ ”) to a scathing denunciation of ex-Dodger second baseman Steve Sax (“I used to idolize him. I’d write my name as Winona Sax on my school books. Now that he’s gone to the Yankees I detest him!”).
Raised by bookish, politically active parents Michael and Cindy Ryder--her godfather is Timothy Leary--she’s a throwback to a pre-MTV generation. “My all-time favorite novel is ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ ” she said decisively. “It’s my bible. I bet I’ve read it 50 times. It was my dad’s favorite book, too. He says when he was in high school the only things he’d say were dialogue from it.
“It’s funny. I read it at age 12--and I didn’t get it. Then I tried again when I was about 14. And--wow--it was gospel.” She gave a sheepish shrug. “I was crushed when I found out a whole generation had loved it before me. I thought it was just my book.”
Of course, when Ryder is hungry--make that famished--such literary conceits are forgotten. Before her search for abandoned houses, she had dragged her companion off to a crowded West Hollywood eatery, where she cornered a maitre d’, hoping to nab a free table. Forced to wait, she fidgeted impatiently, tugging at a baggy white T-shirt, tapping the floor with her high-top sneakers.
It’s lucky she still has an appetite. Co-starring as Myra Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis’s 13-year-old child bride in the upcoming “Great Balls of Fire,” she was felled by a particularly virulent flu during the film’s last month of shooting in London.
“It was awful,” she said after being seated. “I was on these penicillin-type drugs--I couldn’t sleep or eat or anything. Finally, they brought a doctor in to give me a shot and even he was freaked out. He thought the whole film depended on me surviving.”
Ryder cringed. “He had this horse needle and he was so nervous that he kept missing the veins on my arms. So finally he just jerked it out of my arm and--without even telling me--gave me a shot in the butt!”
She sighed. “My only vivid memory of London.”
Ryder is more nostalgic about “Heathers,” which by her count, she has watched “at least 20 times.” She said she “flipped out” over the script, especially the character of Veronica Sawyer, whom Ryder has tartly described as a girl “whose teen- Angst bull has a body count.”
“Veronica Sawyer became my new role model,” she said, digging into a huge plate of angel-hair pasta. “I felt like--if I don’t do this movie I’ll never be able to live with myself. And I’ll kill whoever does do it!”
She stoutly defends the film’s perverse portrayal of brittle teen mores. “The film is obviously exaggerated, but I think it rings true,” she said, twisting the cap off a grapefruit sparkler. “And anyway--isn’t that the whole concept of being a teen-ager? It’s a time when everything in your life is exaggerated--every emotion, every event.”
But critics wonder--could kids misinterpret the film’s sly satire of teen cliques and suicide pacts? What if they miss the joke?
“Oh, yeah, we’re getting hammered on that,” Ryder said glumly. “I don’t think we make that stuff look romantic at all. We make it look sad. When kids die in our movie, everyone suddenly claims they were your best friend. What’s romantic about that?”
She poked at her pasta. “I know this stuff scares people. My best friend, Heather, was completely disturbed by it--and we usually agree on everything. But I think the movie’s very smart. It’s the first time I’ve done a film I could say was really important. Even if you don’t like it, you have to admit it opens a whole new can of worms.”
Ryder has already discovered that nearly all publicity is good publicity. “I read all the bad things your critic said,” she said with an impish grin. “I thought it was great. It’s exactly the kind of review that would make you run out and see the movie.”
At 17, Ryder is hardly a rebel. Yet she is intrigued by teen outlaws of previous generations--she’s already gearing up for a visit to the Griffith Park Observatory, home of several key scenes from “Rebel Without a Cause.”
“I have great parents,” she said. Her father is a bookseller who specializes in ‘60s books, and her mother works for a video production firm. “I was never a rebel. Well, maybe once when I was 13. I don’t do things that are harmful to me. I’ve experimented with stuff--people are curious. But curiosity is one thing. Destroying yourself is something else.
“I’ve already seen actors who’ve been very destructive. I’ve had friends--really good friends--who as soon as they became successful, went from being happy to being totally (messed) up. It’s terrifying.”
As for her acting career, Ryder ranks it high--but not highest--on her list of priorities. “It’s up there, but it still comes in back of family, friends and social consciousness,” she said, back on the prowl for her deserted mansion. “But acting is very strange. I get insecure--I wonder if it’s all a fluke. It’s hard to keep your confidence up. . . .”
Suddenly, Ryder crouched high in her seat. “Here it is!” she said, motioning toward a tiny side street. “Make a left.”
Keeping her eyes peeled, Ryder tried to explain this odd hobby. “We just started doing it for fun. Instead of going to a party, we’d find an abandoned house, roam around and tell ghost stories. My friend Heather and I did it all the time. We’d have a drink and pretend we were the Jets from ‘West Side Story.’ We knew all the dances and everything. We’d climb on the roofs of houses, with these great walkie-talkies to communicate with each other.
“One night we started flirting with these guys over the walkie-talkies and they must’ve tracked us down, because all of a sudden this big truck started coming toward us. We had to dive down on the roof so no one could see us.”
Finally, Ryder spied the mystery house. She breathed a sigh of disappointment. It wasn’t abandoned--just under construction. A formidable alarm system discouraged closer scrutiny. “Geez,” she said. “Not exactly what I expected, huh?”
Ryder poked around the yard for a minute, then returned to the street. “We used to do some very mischievous things in school,” she said as the car headed back through the hills. “But I worry about doing too much of that stuff in L.A. You’d probably get caught.”
Ryder gazed down at the bright lights of the Sunset Strip. “Guess that means it’s time to grow up, huh?”