"How far should I go?" Winona Ryder asked Richard Benjamin, director of "Mermaids."
"You're 15, crazy about him, thinking outrageous thoughts . . . ," he suggested, letting the film roll as Ryder fell onto her love interest (Michael Schoeffling) and -- behind his back but in plain view of the camera -- gave the actor's jacket a surreptitious lick.
That touch is one of the more inspired in the film, a coming-of-age drama in which Ryder plays the religious daughter of a promiscuous mom (Cher). By Cher's reckoning, Ryder walks away with the film.
"Winona's sensors are so good that I use her as litmus paper," says Benjamin. "If the words don't come out right, I change the approach. She's incapable of faking and is full of little gifts. That moment could only come from a wild, lusting, teen brain."
Movie audiences can see more of Ryder's gifts, more facets of that much-vaunted 19-year-old brain in the modern-day fable "Edward Scissorhands." This time Ryder is decked out in a blond wig as Kim, a cheerleader whose initial skepticism toward Edward -- the unfinished creation of a scientist who left him with scissors for hands -- blossoms into romance. The movie reunites the actress with director Tim Burton, for whom she played Lydia in the 1988 sleeper-hit "Beetlejuice," and pairs her for the first time with her real-life fiance, Johnny Depp (of TV's "21 Jump Street"), who plays the title role.
"Winona has an honesty, an integrity which I respect," says Burton. "No matter what, she follows her own drummer. She's also canny about things. She knows a lot more than she lets on." Patrick Palmer, the line producer of "Mermaids," agrees: "The adult side of her is very clear, with very strong opinions. Like Cher, she's very calculating in that she knows what is good for her and does what is best for herself in the long run."
In the case of "Scissorhands," Ryder, tired of the pressures of "carrying" a film, consciously took on a less prominent role than she had in previous movies: "Lucas" (her first movie, shot during her eighth-grade summer vacation); "Square Dance" (in which the 14-year-old Ryder gave Jason Robards and Jane Alexander a run for their money); the controversial, morally ambiguous "Heathers" (in which she took high school high jinks to new heights); and, more recently, "Welcome Back, Roxy Carmichael" (disappointing both personally and commercially).
Ryder's own childhood was, in fact, the polar opposite of the pastel-colored tract houses and suburban mores depicted in "Scissorhands." Moving to San Francisco from Winona, Minn., (for which she was named) while still an infant, she was one of four children reared by progressive, socially conscious parents. For a year, they all shared a 300-acre plot with seven other families in the northern California town of Elk before moving to Petaluma where her family still lives. Imagination flourished in the absence of television. Eminences such as poet Allen Ginsberg drifted in and out.
Her father, Michael Horowitz, a San Francisco bookstore owner specializing in '60s fare, served as archivist to Timothy Leary (Winona's godfather). Mother Cindy, who makes educational videos, once converted a barn into a movie house where young Winona and the locals soaked up old films.
A voracious reader and a straight-A student, Ryder's conversation is sprinkled with allusions to Gore Vidal, Louisa May Alcott and George Orwell (not just "1984," but "Down and Out in Paris and London"). J.D. Salinger is her patron saint, "Catcher in the Rye" her bible -- a book she's read, she swears, a couple of hundred times.
At the age of 13, Ryder enrolled in acting classes in San Francisco's prestigious American Conservatory Theater. She lost out on a part in the film "Desert Bloom" to Annabeth Gish, but the impressed casting agent sent her tape to Triad Artists, which agreed to represent her. A substantial role in "Lucas" soon followed and the offers have been coming in ever since.
Acting took hold for good, becoming an all-consuming passion. "Sometimes I think it's an outlet, sometimes the opposite," she says. "It fills me up and I don't know where to put it. I guess I sweat it out in my sleep or something. It's great concentrating so hard you feel your brain will explode. When I'm acting well, it's the most exhilarating experience. When I'm bad, it's miserable. I feel like I'm lying to people . . . and that I have to finish lying so that I -- and they -- can go home. I feel like I'm gypping people, wasting their time."