Here's Hollywood clout: After the media became bored with the story of Polly Klaas, the young girl who was kidnapped from her home in Petaluma, Calif., Winona Ryder stepped up and kept the story alive in the national consciousness by offering a reward for the safe return of a little girl who, 15 years earlier in that same town, might have been her.
Klaas was eventually discovered to have been murdered. "Little Women," which opened yesterday, is dedicated to her memory.
"I thought it was an appropriate dedication because it was her favorite book and I was offered the movie the day after she was kidnapped," Ms. Ryder recalls. "The whole time that was going on, [her parents] gave me her copy of 'Little Women' and I just thought, that was a real big reason why I did [the movie]."
Here's more Hollywood clout: Ms. Ryder fought the Powers That Be at Columbia Pictures to keep that dedication in the movie's credits.
"It was an absolute nightmare," she says. "They promised me it would go in, and then they told me [several] weeks ago that they didn't want it to go in because they thought it was too depressing.
"And I said, 'But you promised me' " -- and here, Ms. Ryder's dark, large, expressive eyes reveal the depths to which the executives' insensitivity wounded her -- " 'and you promised her family.'
"I shouldn't be telling you this, but they said, 'Sorry.' I said, 'Well, I'm about to do a press junket for you -- I'd really do it if I were you.'"
The implied threat worked -- the dedication was reinstated.
At 23, Ms. Ryder, is one of the most powerful actors of her age group in Hollywood. In fact, this "Little Women," Hollywood's third adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's evergreen 1868 coming-of-age novel, may not have been made at all had it not been for her passion for the project.
Director Gillian Armstrong's film stars Ms. Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Trini Alvaredo ("The Babe," "Stella"), Claire Danes ("My So-Called Life"), Kirsten Dunst ("Interview with the Vampire") and Samantha Mathis ("Pump Up the Volume," "This Is My Life") as the members of the March family, coming to terms with life during the Civil War when women were considered second-class citizens.
It has been receiving ecstatic reviews from critics astounded that such sentimental material can carry such strong emotional resonance.
Ms. Ryder stars as Jo, the most contemporary of the sisters, a headstrong tomboy who dreams of being a writer.
"I immediately connected with Jo as if she was living today," Ms. Ryder says. "It didn't even occur to me that this was a period piece. I had to remind myself that the Civil War was going on in the story. She had this incredible driving passion and had everyone telling her that it wasn't possible because she was a woman. That's happened to a lot of people I know, and it's still a big issue today."
For a decade, Ms. Ryder has been appearing in movies, and she can state categorically that she hated growing up on film, in front of all America.
"It's probably the most dangerous thing about this industry, to put children through that," she says. "The only way it can be done successfully is to have great parents who aren't putting pressure on you and are protecting you, and I was lucky enough to have that. I suffered, and I had it great. A lot of kids didn't have it so great."
She recalls a particularly telling incident that affected a young co-star.
"I remember working with a kid who had a pimple and they couldn't shoot him because it was big," she says.
"It was costing the production $300,000 a day to shut down. And the camera crew and the director and the producer were making a huge deal about it in front of this teen-age boy who was just dying of humiliation. It was really awful. I don't think he'll get over that day of them discussing his skin in front of everybody."
Ms. Ryder survived those awkward years, though she admits, "I went through a couple of years where I had the hugest identity crisis -- I didn't know who I was, and I wanted to be what people were writing I was." Now she's one of the biggest stars of her generation -- for better or worse.
Life under the media microscope, she concedes, can be a real pain -- tabloids recently erroneously reported that she was engaged to her boyfriend, David Pirner of the rock group Soul Asylum.
"Everybody called, and I'm thinking, 'So that's what you [read] in your spare time.'
"It gives me the creeps," she says of America's preoccupation with celebrities. "But at the same time, I'm really interested in people that I don't know. I understand it to a certain extent, but you can't understand it when it's about yourself."
Especially when, like Ms. Ryder, you're just coming to terms with your celebrity. "Once you have clout, they kiss your [butt] and they give everyone else [grief]. It's almost worse, because you feel bad -- they'll be asking you, 'Can we get you anything?' and when someone else asks for some water they'll say, 'Shut up!'
"I'd rather be on the other side of it," she says, adding with admitted hyperbole, "because it's almost more awful to be treated like a princess while everyone else is being crammed into their tent for their gruel."
Indeed, Ms. Ryder prefers not to consider herself as someone with clout or a celebrity or fodder for the tabloids at all.
"It's hard for me to think about that," she says with a grin, "without becoming a really obnoxious person."