As a teenage star in the ’80s, Winona Ryder made excellent movies like Heathers and Beetlejuice. Now she’s taking a trip back to the decade in the Netflix sci-fi horror series Stranger Things, which has been earning rave reviews from critics. Ryder, whose credits include Oscar-nominated performances in Little Women and The Age of Innocence, plus Reality Bites, Mermaids, Edward Scissorhands, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and more recently Black Swan and The Dilemma, had never starred in a TV series before she took on the role of Joyce Byers, a mother whose son goes missing under mysterious circumstances.
While she couldn’t tell us much about rumored reboots of two of her iconic movies, she had plenty to say about her Stranger role, what she was up to in the ’80s and why she avoids social media.
“I’m allergic to the menthol stuff that they blow at you to make you cry. So I had to really cry and sustain that all day. You have to stay in this dark place. It was very draining.”
What drew you to Stranger Things?
It was something that I’d never done, a role I’d never done, a genre I’d never done. I had a lot of compassion for Joyce. She wasn’t perfect, and I appreciated that. She was complicated. She was struggling. I think she carried around a lot of guilt that she was leaning on her older son a lot. She’s like a lot of women I know who are just really good people and just trying the best they can to get by. I appreciated her flaws. There was nothing cookie-cutter or perfect about her. And I also think that she reacts quite appropriately to these insane things that are happening. I don’t know what else she would do, or any parent would do, under those circumstances.
A lot of your scenes are intensely emotional. You spend a lot of the episodes crying and freaking out about your missing son. Was that draining?
Yes, only because I’m allergic to the menthol stuff that they blow at you to make you cry. I had to really cry and to sustain that all day. You have to stay in this dark place, and yes, it was very draining. I was in such an emotional state for a lot of it, and I had to sustain that for long days. But I think in the end it was gratifying.
But was it tough to shake after shooting each day?
Yes, I was so exhausted. It was exhausting sustaining that state for a long time. I would just go home, but I had to do my prep the night before for the next day.
Stranger Things is set in 1983. Do you remember what you were into then?
My eyes were sort of opening to what was going on in the world, and it was through bands—The Clash, U2, Bob Geldof. I started participating more and I remember I did my school report on 1984. It was the Reagan administration and there was stuff happening in South America. But I still had a small-town, innocent experience. I grew up in the Bay Area. I skateboarded. I also started acting. That was something I could only do in the summer and only if I maintained a 4.0. We never relocated or anything, so I was able to have a sort of semi-normal upbringing.
People have been calling this your comeback.
That’s a tricky word. You worry, it’s like they’re setting you up to fail. If this doesn’t work, then you’re going back to wherever they think that you were. It really is all about perception because I do have a full life, but it’s just not all about the industry. Obviously you work hard on something, you hope that it will find an audience and it’ll find its niche, and I think what I was really blown away by was that it’s not just a genre thing. The Duffers [Stranger Things’ creators] somehow managed to bring all of these different elements and storylines together in a really organic way that transcended the genre. In my process, I block out anything that my character wouldn’t know about, so I wasn’t paying much attention to the other stuff. So when I watched it, I was sort of on the edge of my seat too.
“Stranger Things was my first series and my first foray into this format. The reaction has been completely overwhelming in the best possible way. I’m incredibly humbled and very grateful.”
Has your career progressed the way you hoped?
My 30s were a little bit tough, because I either looked too young or I wasn’t right—or people didn’t buy me as the age I was. In the last few years, I did a couple things that I was proud of, but in a very supporting role. Show Me a Hero was a giant ensemble, and it was really Oscar Isaac’s show. But this was my first series and my first foray into this format. What had initially scared me about it was that I couldn’t read the entire thing. But I adjusted my perspective and used my own confusion and my own “trying to figure out what’s going on” for my character. The reaction has been completely overwhelming in the best possible way. I’m incredibly humbled and very grateful.
You avoid social media. Why?
I think that part of it is I’m just a private person and I don’t know what I would really want to say to the world. I also don’t know quite how it works. I’m of the generation of talking face to face with people, not talking to them when they’re texting. But I also know that there are great things about it and it brings people together and there’s a lot of positive stuff out there, so I’m not anti-it. It’s just not for me.
TV Land is supposedly making a Heathers reboot. If the project does go forward, would you be interested in a role?
This is the first I’ve heard about it. I know there was this rumor a while ago that there was going to be a series, but I have no idea.
There’s also talk of a Beetlejuice sequel.
There’s a lot of that. Honestly, I always feel bad because I have no information to offer and I think people don’t really believe me, but actually it’s true. If it all comes together, if the script is great… but I really don’t know.