Winona RYDER At the tender age of 19, this rising star comes of age on screen and off

December 14, 1990|By Aljean Harmetz | Aljean Harmetz,New York Times News Service DL Los Angeles

Los Angeles Winona Ryder sits cross-legged and barefoot on a sagging green couch in an empty living room.

Ms. Ryder, who likes to say that she has come of age on screen about 900 times, is, equally painfully, coming of age in bTC "Mermaids," "Edward Scissorhands" and real life.

Six weeks past her 19th birthday, she has recently acquired a number of Hollywood necessities: Starring roles in two new Christmas movies, an engagement ring from a television star who has tattooed "Winona Forever" on his right arm, her own house in the canyons north of Beverly Hills -- and the knowledge that youth and a kind heart will not keep you out of the supermarket tabloids.

She moved into the house less than a week ago with the couch and a mattress and is living off borrowed dishes.

Drinking coffee from a borrowed cup, grinding cigarette butts into a borrowed ashtray, she recites the lessons she has learned during the last year.

"To get off a plane after you've worked all day and flown six hours and to have 50 photographers trip you and call you a whore to get a response is repulsive.

"Now that I've had my first experience with the tabloids, if I'm in a limousine I'm afraid to talk to the person I'm with because of the driver. Even in a restaurant people eavesdrop on you."

In five years, Ms. Ryder has made nine movies: "Lucas," "Square Dance," "Beetlejuice," "1969," "Heathers," "Great Balls of Fire," "Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael" and -- opening today nationwide -- "Mermaids" and "Edward Scissorhands."

In the latter, she plays Kim, a golden-haired high school cheerleader who falls in love with a maimed mechanical man. In "Mermaids" she plays Cher's unmothered daughter Charlotte, a 15-year-old Jewish girl who wants to control the internal and external chaos of her life by becoming a nun.

At 16, with her wickedly sympathetic performance as a teen-ager who murders her arrogant high school friends in the anarchic black comedy "Heathers," Ms. Ryder became a cult heroine to sardonic students in prep schools, college students everywhere and most film critics under 40.

But the articles in the supermarket tabloids -- which have triggered the wariness that marks a real-life coming of age for a movie star -- were caused by the movie she didn't make.

Last December, three days after finishing "Mermaids," Ms. Ryder flew to Rome to play Al Pacino's daughter in "Godfather III." She never got any farther than her hotel room.

Was it nervous exhaustion, a nervous breakdown or a temper tantrum by her boyfriend, Johnny Depp, the star of "Edward Scissorhands," that caused her to back out of the Coppola film? Did Mr. Depp threaten to leave her unless she returned to California with him?

"The truth is so simple," she says. "I was sick. The doctor said, 'You're too sick to work. Go home.' "

Prone to sinus and bronchial infections, Ms. Ryder had been sick for the last several weeks on "Mermaids," a fact confirmed by people on the movie's crew who had to shoot around her. The infections exacerbated an insomnia that has plagued her since she was a child when she read algebra books to put herself to sleep.

Ms. Ryder's roles in "Mermaids" and "Edward Scissorhands" are almost diametrically opposed. It was easy for her to portray the angry, anxious Charlotte, who distances herself from her promiscuous, careless mother.

"I loved the fact that she was completely inconsistent," says Ms. Ryder. "I'm completely inconsistent. Every day I'm in a different mood."

Wearing a blond wig and playing a cheerleader in a candy-colored suburb was much harder.

"Winona told me she never had a more difficult time than playing a normal, suburban teen-ager in 'Edward Scissorhands,' " says director Tim Burton. "Putting on Kim's clothes, she felt she was playing somebody from another planet."

Says Ms. Ryder: "Kim was like the girls in eighth grade who called me a weirdo and threw Cheetos at me. I had a crew cut, and I liked the Sex Pistols."

Johnny Depp, who plays the boy who has scissors in place of hands in Burton's fable, is, for the moment, living in Ms. Ryder's unfurnished house. Several months ago, Mr. Depp and Ms. Ryder moved to New York, seeking a measure of anonymity.

"It didn't work out," Ms. Ryder says. "I couldn't deal with the fact that if I got hungry at night I couldn't go anywhere because of the crime factor. Why live that way by choice?"

Plans to marry are vague. From Cher on down, friends have warned Ms. Ryder that Mr. Depp, 27, is too old and too encumbered with ex-girlfriends.

But the relationship feels right, Ms. Ryder says, so she shakes the warnings from her head.

What she intends to do now is work with the offbeat filmmaker Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger Than Paradise") in a movie scheduled to start filming next month.

"I'm insanely thrilled," Ms. Ryder says. "I play a cabdriver. Gena Rowlands is my passenger. She was my inspiration to be an actress."

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