Winona Ryder: From ‘Beetlejuice’ to ‘Frankenweenie’

“Frankenweenie” (L-R) PERSEPHONE, EDGAR “E” GORE, ELSA VAN HELSING (voiced by Winona Ryder) and WERE-RAT. ©Dinsey Enterprises.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—At 13, Winona Ryder landed a plum role in Tim Burton’s horror comedy “Beetlejuice.” Young and relatively new to Hollywood at the time, she didn’t recognize the filmmaker when they first met on the Warner Bros lot. She simply assumed the gangly fellow she was talking to in the reception area was one of the director’s underlings.

Of course, once “Beetlejuice” became a success, Ryder’s career took off like a rocket. She went on to star in a wide range of films, earning two Academy Award nominations (for 1993’s “Age of Innocence” and 1994’s “Little Women,” in which she played headstrong Jo).

The dark-eyed beauty worked again with Burton in 1990’s “Edward Scissorhands,” co-starring Johnny Depp. The two subsequently dated for a while.

Like so many Hollywood starlets, Ryder has had her share of ups and downs, both personally and professionally, including an embarrassing arrest and trial over an alleged shoplifting incident in 2001. She has since gotten her life and career back on track, with a memorable supporting performance playing a fading ballet star in 2010’s “Black Swan.”

Nearly a quarter-century after she first met Burton, she is once again playing a schoolgirl in one of his movies. She provides the voice of Elsa, the understanding classmate of a young boy named Victor, who reanimates his beloved dead pet, in “Frankenweenie,” a full-length animated redo of Burton’s 1984 short live-action film.

At 40, Ryder appears to be half her age. For an interview, she is dressed in a conservative black business suit with a Tom Waits T-shirt beneath. Her light brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail.

Though she seems visibly anxious about talking to the press, with whom she’s had a love-hate relationship over the years, the wide-eyed Ryder nonetheless also appears determined and committed to promoting the new animated horror movie that is an homage to Burton’s favorite Hollywood classics.

Q: How was it working with Tim Burton again?

Ryder: It was an absolutely thrilling. It was incredibly special. This is a very special one. Everything about Tim is very special. I love him so tremendously. He’s given me a career, but also, just personally, he really changed my life with “Beetlejuice,” in terms of it letting me feel like it was actually okay to be kind of like (the character) Lydia. I sort of looked like that (character) anyway. I wasn’t really expecting to be very successful in Hollywood, but he allowed me to do that role and kind of gave a voice to that part of me. That led to other things.

Q: Can you talk about that sort of alchemy that you share, like how Tim got you and how you got him, and how he was able to bring that to the screen?

Ryder: When I met him 25 or 26 years ago, I had done two little movies. I didn’t live in L.A. To go to an audition, my parents would have to drive to L.A. from the (San Francisco) Bay area, which is a long drive. People thought somehow that I was very picky. But it was really just this drive. We couldn’t do it all the time. But when I got the “Beetlejuice” script, I was like, “please can we go?” I remember I went on the lot and I was sitting in this waiting room. This guy came up and we were talking about music and movies for, like, 25 minutes. Then I was like, “Am I in the right building? Do you know when this Tim Burton guy is coming?” He was like, “Oh, that’s me.” I was like, “What?” I had no idea that a director could be someone that I could sort of hang out with and talk to.

Q: How did Tim compare with the other directors you’d worked with?

Ryder: The other two I’d worked with were more authority figures. They were wonderful but I just had no idea that someone that I would directors could be someone I’d like to hang out with. I thought he was a messenger or from the art department or something. We were wearing the same type of clothes; my hair was the same color as his. We were both wearing black. I just don’t know what kind of roles I would have gotten if I hadn’t done (“Beetlejuice”).

Q: Was that movie an important step in your career?

Ryder: It did lead to other things. So, I do feel a very strong bond with Tim. Then, of course, “Edward Scissorhands,” which is one of my favorite films to watch, regardless that I’m in it. It’s just so beautiful. Then this movie, I just feel so much gratitude but also tremendous love for him. He is someone that has changed my life in a personal way and a professional way. He has such a strong vision and I know “Beetlejuice” really was his vision. I just feel so lucky that I got to be part of it. I like to think I brought a little something to it because I was sort of like that. But it’s so much his vision, but he invites us in, in such a warm, interesting way. He’s not like anybody else.

Q: “Frankenweenie” is about a boy who loves his dog so much he wants to bring him back to life after he dies. Did you have a dog while you were growing up?

Ryder: Well, I didn’t; my brother did. It was a stray. It was missing a leg, so he was called Tripod. My brother named him.

Q: Your mom used to work at a movie theater, right?

Ryder: I grew up in the (San Francisco) Bay area and we lived for a while in Mendocino County on sort of a commune with seven families. My mom had been a projectionist at the University of Minnesota. At 19, she founded the film society there. She loved movies. At the commune, they had a barn and they put up a white sheet and she had a projector and showed movies on it. I remember seeing “To Kill a Mockingbird” and  “Gigi.” I remember seeing “A Woman Under the Influence” and some very deep movies like that as well.

Q: John Cassavetes films? When you were a kid?

Ryder: Yes. (She laughs.) I didn’t really understand them. Yet they were so real and I kind of loved them, so that was wonderful. Then, when we moved into the city, we got an actual television. There were days when my mom would let me stay home from school if there was a great old movie on, like “North By Northwest.” I remember I got to stay home that day, and when they showed “Born Yesterday” and “Sullivan’s Travels.” So I felt like I actually got more of an education in a way seeing these film classics.

Q: What teacher inspired you the most?

Ryder: I had a couple of influential teachers, but one in particular, Mr. Frank, who is a history teacher, was good. He taught us about history in more of a story way. He was so engaging, and he would even play Monty Python records like “The Holy Grail” and “Life of Brian.”  He was, maybe, not a very religious man, but it was just a really great way to teach. We would learn about the Crusades in a weird way.

Q: What did you think of Martin Landau’s unconventional teacher character, Mr. Rzykruski, in “Frankenweenie?”

Ryder: What he says to the parents is so amazing if you think about just today and what’s going on with teachers. It’s like what he’s saying about the oppression of ideas. What he says about the importance of individuality and of exploration of ideas, it’s so profound. He’s also very polite at the end. It’s his honesty. The parents just can’t understand it. Tim told me on the plane that he prides himself on looking at situations in different ways. There are different avenues to explore. Sometimes out of that sprouts a Tim Burton … in Burbank (California). I’m sure it’s because you often know someone like the characters he has created. His characters really do inspire and make a huge difference. They stay with you forever. In fact, Tim’s teacher, who is 82, is coming to the premiere in L.A., and I can’t wait to meet him.

Q: Your character, Elsa, gets to sing a little song in the movie. How did you like singing?

Ryder: I loved that I didn’t have to sing it really well. (She laughs.)  I got to do it exactly how I would do it, very nervously and begrudgingly. I just found out I was on the soundtrack. I don’t know if that’s going to be downloaded so much.