NEW YORK -- Winona Ryder is talking about her dreams. Not the ones that feature an Academy Award or the ones with a nice husband and a mess of little Ryders.
These are bad ones. The nightmares.
"I used to always have this nightmare that I was on a beach and there were kids falling off a cliff," she says. "You know when you can't run in sand? Well, I just couldn't get there in time."
Ryder then collapses inside herself, inside her snazzy black Helmut Lang suit. "I used to have nightmares about that for a long time," she says slowly. "I've never told anyone that."
From "Heathers" and "Edward Scissorhands" to "Reality Bites" and "The Crucible," Ryder has literally acted out her youthful angst, an angst that endeared her with every raw turn.
"I'm a very, very blessed person if you look at my life. I have a great family, I have money, I have a career. But at the same time, I have my own problems, and I spent so much time feeling like I could never talk about them," she says. "Actors are not allowed to complain -- that's one unwritten rule."
Now as she approaches her 29th birthday (Oct. 29), Ryder has a few things she wants to talk about, including her anxiety attacks and depression, a film that went horribly wrong and the meaning of her nightmare.
Go ahead, Winona, let it out.
"I feel like I walk away from movies with a lot more compassion for people, for what we go through," she says. "I find that with each role I take on -- even if the movie doesn't work -- you tap into some places in yourself that you don't even know existed."
Named for her birthplace in Winona, Minn., Ryder moved to California and was raised in Petaluma. "I feel like it's probably too dramatic to say I was a troubled teen; I wasn't a troubled teen in the way that I was getting in trouble. I just found the world way too extreme to deal with.
"I could never understand things that were happening. Like, it was really hard for me to get my mind around things. I remember my parents trying to explain to me about rape, violence, war. I was always asking, 'Why? Why? Why?' I felt like I was way too sensitive to be in the world."
A talent agent spotted her at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. Her first films were "Lucas," "Square Dance" and "Beetlejuice." Soon she was Hollywood's sprite, appearing in "Mermaids," "Great Balls of Fire," "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "Little Women."
Her grinding film schedule, coupled with a widely publicized breakup with actor Johnny Depp, sent Ryder off the deep end. She checked herself into a hospital (temporarily) after trying to drown her anxiety attacks and depression in alcohol.
"When I was 18, I was driving around at two in the morning, completely crying and alone and scared," she recalls. "I drove by this magazine stand that had this Rolling Stone that I was on the cover of, and it said 'Winona Ryder: The Luckiest Girl in the World.' And there I was, feeling more alone than I ever had."
She went back to that dark awful place for her upcoming film "Lost Souls" with Ben Chaplin. To prepare for her role as a woman trying to prevent a satanic conspiracy, Ryder consulted a Roman Catholic priest, read the Bible from cover to cover and watched videotapes of young women's exorcisms.
"It was brave of her to venture into this territory," says Janusz Kaminski, the film's director. "This is a genre movie and I know there's a certain stigma attached to it. But she's brave enough, and we see her as an adult. She's not a victim anymore."
For Ryder, it was frightening territory.
"What terrified me was these girls had really lost their minds. They were in extraordinary pain -- they were completely gone. And they were doing it to themselves!" she says in wonder. "That to me is my biggest fear: losing my mind."
The film sat on a shelf for two years while the studios churned out competing end-of-millennium nightmares. While it gathered dust, Ryder went to work on "Girl, Interrupted." She played the role of a young woman sent to a mental institution after swallowing 50 aspirins with a vodka chaser.
Although she is proud of her work on "Girl, Interrupted," the shoot was mentally grueling, which is why she agreed to do the May-December romance "Autumn in New York" with Richard Gere. (One reviewer wrote, "As the film's terminally ill heroine, Ryder gives one of her least impressive performances.")
"That was such a strange experience for me. It was rewritten before we shot it, so it wasn't exactly the script that I had signed on to do. I preferred the original script," she says. "That was my sort of foray into trying to make a romantic movie and, you know, a lot of people didn't think it worked. I have my own problems with it. But I'm not bitter."
Now, back to that nightmare.
Holden Caulfield, the hero of J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," dreamed of watching helplessly as children tumble off cliffs, so it should come as no surprise that Ryder would consider Caulfield a soul mate.
"Absolutely," she says, laughing. "That book was my religion. Holden becomes your best friend and your boyfriend and your shrink. That book plays a big part in my life until this day.
"I'll never sound the way I want to sound talking about it, but it's something that I do look for when I read, because that was the first book that had that kind of impact on me."
Then with a sigh, she adds, "I'm always looking for Holden."
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