With her dark eyes and delicate, quick movements, at times Winona Ryder seems like a bird in flight. No wonder she excelled in the role of the Dying Swan/ ballet dancer Beth Macintyre, in Black Swan in 2010. Her fragility is the first thing you notice. Michael Shannon, her co-star in The Iceman, a drama about the mob serial killer Richard Kuklinski, says, “I feel very protective of her. It's like that King Kong vibe of 'everyone leave her alone.'”
Of course Ryder has never been left alone – not since the age of 17, when she got her break in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. And when, in 2001, she was charged with shoplifting in Beverly Hills, it was a guarantee of a media, if not a criminal, tag for life. Winona Ryder, the starlet who became a screwball.
The actress, 40, underwent her own personal rehabilitation years ago, and now Hollywood is rediscovering her too. Since her supporting role in Black Swan, she's had box-office success with Vince Vaughn in comedy The Dilemma, has just reunited with Burton for animated horror Frankenweenie, and is also receiving acclamation on the festival circuit for the part of Deborah Kuklinski, wife of Richard, in The Iceman.
No wonder she is chirruping away: she talks for minutes at a time, hardly pausing for breath, which she attributes to nerves. She barely looks 30, never mind 40, and you feel that if you cut her through, all you would find is sweetness. Even the Beverly Hills police described her as “a very nice lady.”
Frankenweenie is the first movie Ryder has made with Burton in 21 years. His Beetlejuice and later Edward Scissorhands made her a star. She credits him with “her whole career.” A career that is now entering a new phase. “As you get older, it becomes more about how good a role is rather than how large it is”, she says. “So I loved those parts in Black Swan and The Iceman. When you are younger, we all think, 'I want to be the lead, I have to be the lead', but no offence to anyone, the supporting parts are often better.
“You're not going to find me like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, watching old movies that I have made. It's nice not to have everything focused on you. For example, with Natalie Portman in Black Swan, I felt, 'It's your turn now, I had my go.'
“Let's be honest, I had a good run at lead roles, and it's kind of nice to be out of it.”
She did have a good run. After playing the cynical teenager Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice, Ryder became the goth alternative to the young Julia Roberts. Heathers, which also debuted in 1988, sealed her status. Although her agent had begged her not to do it, the dark, twisted comedy about teenage suicide was a global success. And then, in 1990, came Edward Scissorhands, the Burton movie which put her together with Johnny Depp. They became the Brangelina of grunge though famously Depp had to change his tattoo of “Winona Forever” to “Wino Forever” when they split in 1993. She then dated the up-and-coming actor Matt Damon.
Before her 30th birthday, she had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and won Oscar nominations for playing May Welland in Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and Jo March in Little Women in 1994. But her punky sweetness didn't equip her to deal with Hollywood. Coming from an idealistic, bohemian background – Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was a family friend, and she spent part of her childhood growing up in a commune in California – pressure did not agree with her. Aged 20, she checked herself in to a medical facility, suffering from anxiety and depression. Due to start filming The Godfather Part III in 1990, she was too exhausted to get out of bed.
“Remember, I was so young when I started acting,” she explains. “I have been doing this now for 30 years. And after a while, you get weary. But you are so conditioned to working, and you are surrounded by all these people telling you what to do, that you can just go mental.”
Perhaps this is the key to where it all went awry. Between 1996 and 2000, Ryder made films like Alien Resurrection, Stacy Cochran's panned romance Boys and Autumn in New York with Richard Gere. It wasn't a fulfilling period, although she did serve as executive producer on James Mangold's Girl, Interrupted, which she fought for four years to get made. She was acclaimed for her leading role as Susanna Kaysen, although at the Oscars, it turned into her co-star Angelina Jolie's coronation, when the Hollywood ingenue won the Best Supporting Actress award.
Ryder went on to make the appropriately titled horror Lost Souls, and then in December 2001, was arrested on charges of shoplifting up to $5,000-worth of goods from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, and of possessing illegal prescription drugs.
A year later, she was sentenced to three years' probation, and 480 hours of community service. She did not make another film until 2006.
Perhaps it was an act of self-sabotage to remove herself from a road she didn't want to travel down any more. At any rate, Ryder credits the past few years as being “the best in my life.”
“I just wanted a normal existence,” she says, wistfully. “And that's what I have been concentrating on for the last five or 10 years. I live in San Francisco, I never could settle in Hollywood. I stay well away from Los Angeles and the business.”
There is a child-like quality to Ryder. She brings it to the part of Deborah Kuklinski, a woman who doesn't probe too deeply into what her husband does. Ryder also avoids the things in life she finds too harsh.
She spends her time reading –she owns every paperback edition of her favourite novel, The Catcher in the Rye. She also plays guitar and is something of a rock chick –after Depp, she dated Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner, and until 2008, was engaged to indie rocker Blake Sennett from Rilo Kiley. Currently single, Ryder recently declared she needed to “get me a husband”, but she seems deeply satisfied with the life she has created for herself.
“You don't want to wake up, be old, and find yourself with just work. I will only take a job now if it's special,” she says.
“Special” includes The Iceman, and she is now filming Sylvester Stallone's new drama Homefront with James Franco.
“I am really happy,” she says. “I am in a really good place.”
'Frankenweenie' is released on 17 October; 'The Iceman' is released later this year
This article will appear in the 13 October print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine