Winona Ryder Feels Liberated to Play Her Age -- Even If Hollywood Didn’t Want Her To

by Stacy Lambe 3:10 PM PDT, October 08, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

With an acting career that has spanned nearly three decades, it’s easy to forget that Winona Ryder is 43 years old. (She turns 44 on Oct. 29.) Seemingly ageless, she’s been immortalized on screen as a gothic rebel and film ingénue, who first garnered attention in 1988 for back-to-back hits, Beetlejuice and Heathers.

Today, Ryder continues to make headlines for looking nearly the same as she did 25 years ago. But the actress is quick to dismiss that attention.

“It’s such a double-edged sword, because, it’s like, I want to be allowed to grow up,” Ryder tells ET, curled up in a black tracksuit -- she thought we were going to chat by phone -- in a suite at the Crosby Hotel in New York City. She blames the current state of nostalgia on social media, which has resurfaced younger pictures of her. “How do you win? If I don’t look ageless, I look haggard. Or if I look normal or whatever, then they’ll talk about how bad I look.”

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That sword she’s referring to could easily be swapped out for a scalpel, as so many actresses have done in order to maintain a certain appeal. Ryder, however, has no interest in plastic surgery. “I don’t judge, but I’m just terrified of needles,” she says.

While her eternal appeal has its benefits -- Ryder is one of the faces of Marc Jacobs’ fall 2015 campaign -- it's clear from talking to her that, in some ways, it has hampered her career. 

Photo: Marc Jacobs

“I feel like when you’ve had a lot of success in your teen years and 20s -- and I’m not trying to speak for anyone else -- but something kind of happens where you are in your 30s and people associate you so much with those other roles,” Ryder says. “So, they don’t really think of you as old enough, even though you are old enough.”

By 2001, the actress proved herself as a formidable talent with Oscar-nominated roles in The Age of Innocence and Little Women, alongside more cultish films -- Celebrity, Girl, Interrupted, Reality Bites -- and even appeared as herself in Zoolander.

But after turning 30, she was arrested for shoplifting and took a four-year break. “I feel like I kind of had this thing in my 30s where it was just hard because people were really holding onto this ingénue thing,” Ryder says. She was rebelling against herself, telling Interview magazine in 2013, that her legal troubles were a culmination of being sent “off in another direction.”

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“I wasn’t that anymore and I looked young, you know, and I’m not complaining about that, but I also agreed,” Ryder adds, as she sits wide-eyed on the room’s loveseat. “I wouldn’t buy myself as a district attorney when I was 35 either, even though I could have been one, you know, age-wise.”

Even though she got back to work, with forgettable roles in The Ten and Sex and Death 101, it wasn’t until she landed a part in Black Swan that she felt liberated enough to play her age. The film, directed by Darren Aronofsky, went on to earn Natalie Portman an Oscar for her role as an ambitious ballerina who stops at nothing to become a principal dancer.

“I’m so grateful to Darren for giving me that role,“ Ryder says. “It wasn’t something I pursued, because I didn’t think in a million years I could be a ballerina or anything. But, you know, I really owe him a great debt there.”

Photo: Getty Images

The film ultimately put her back on the right path. Ryder followed Black Swan with small roles in The Iceman and her new film, Experimenter, in which she plays the wife of psychologist Stanley Milgram, opening on Oct. 16. She also garnered excitement on TV with Comedy Central’s Drunk History and the HBO miniseries, Show Me a Hero. Her new direction became less about being the star and more about finding work she cares about.

“You don’t want to spend four months being miserable with people doing something you don’t care about,” Ryder says, adding: “The size of the role starts to become less and less important as you get older. Carrying the movie is way more terrifying.”

She also relishes in playing her age, particularly in Show Me a Hero. “The way that [director Paul Haggis] shot me was super unflattering but great,” Ryder says. “Look, we all want to look good and stuff, but I think there is something great about embracing getting older.”

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Without referencing the current discussion about ageism in Hollywood, which has led many actresses to speak about being overlooked as they get older, Ryder applauds the likes of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Juliette Binoche for setting the example for aging gracefully. “You look at a lot of these actresses that are winning Academy Awards, and they’re beautiful,” she says.

The actress even has a special phrase for blushing in honor of Binoche. “Very genuinely, I’d call it Binoche-ing,” she says as she pinches the top of her own cheeks, referencing the French actress’ early 1988 film, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but maybe there’s a new standard of beauty,” Ryder adds.