Backstage at the Dorothy Chandlier Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles, March 1996, Winona Ryder, in a 20’s style dress and crimped flapper hairstyle, was still shaking from her walk along the red carpet near where the crowds have been gathering since dawn for a place close to their idols on the most important date of Hollywood’s glamorous calendar. For the last hour or so, the stars have been arriving for the 69th Annual Academy Awards ceremony. Goldie Hawn had told her how to handle that sort of crowd, ‘Turn your head and smile, but don’t stop.’
Later Winona could recall how restless she had felt when presenting Bruce Springsteen to the Oscar audience. ‘I was a nervous wreck!’ she confessed, ‘but that only lasted a couple of seconds.’ Not even words of assurance from Anjelica Houston could ease her trepidation. ‘You look so fabulous,’ Anjelica told her. ‘You have nothing to be nervous about.’ Little more than five minutes later, Winona was crossing the vast Pavilion stage to the centre microphone. `It’s certainly a tremendous honour for me to be here to introduce our next performer,’ she shy announced,’ because he’s a real hero of mine.’
Only miles away on Twentieth Century Fox’s studio lots, west of Los Angeles, Winona would be the following year, in the final stages of filming her next film, Alien Resurrection, and probably trying not to think too much about the Oscars. If the thought had flitted through her mind at all, it was likely to be with a degree of disappointment. One review after another for her performance in The Crucible had predicted an Oscar nomination. Even the buzz around Hollywood blazed much the same message.
As Abigail Williams in Nicholas Hytner’s 1996 screen adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play written in the 1950’s and set during the witch-trials of 1692, she played a teenage servant girl who is spurned by her married lover and begins accusing innocent people of sorcery. For the first time in her career, Winona was playing the antagonist, desperate with lustful anger. ‘I’ve always played the person that you root for,’ she explained, ‘the person who does the right thing. And to play someone who was responsible, in a way, for all those deaths, was a great challenge.’
But she did it with such demonic and hollow-eyed fierceness that her performance was also universally praised for its powerful portrayal of raw sexuality. ‘It was great,’ laughed Winona at the thought, ‘because it was an opportunity to do it without taking my clothes off and getting sprayed with glycerin and roll around with somebody. To me, it was much more sexual than that. It was a different kind, very aggressive.’ It was nevertheless, she continued, `the best acting experience I have ever had. I can’t remember raising my voice in a film before.’
Hollywood and the Academy voters, however, perhaps didn’t understand or appreciate her efforts as they would someone like Jodie Foster, who works from the outside in. Foster intellectualises a performance before internalising it. Winona does it the other way round. She works instinctively, then brings a creative intelligence to bear. With Winona, the effort doesn’t show. She makes it look too easy. It is what makes her method of the acting spectrum so fascinating.
‘She brings a weight and believability that isn’t inherent in a role, but she does it very naturally,’ confirms Tim Burton, who had directed the actress in two of his movies. ‘You don’t see her working at it because her process remains invisible.’ Winona agrees. ‘I try to do things as naturally as possible. I hate rehearsing because I always like to save everything for when I do it. I just try as much as I can to really be in the moment.’
For Winona, The Crucible was only one step in her resolve to shake off any last trace of her cute and adorable teenage typecasting while remaining both visible and successful. By landing a prominent role in the fourth installment of the Aliens saga, she was finally distancing herself from her past – from all those teen roles that have been her signature ever since, aged thirteen, she sidled out of a crowd of teenage children in David Seltzer’s Lucas and said ‘Hi! How was your summer.’ At the same time, though, Winona was completely re-establishing herself as loudly as she could, and how better than with Alien Resurrection. ‘I’m finally out of corsets,’ she joked, ‘and speeding off into the next century.’
The story of Alien Resurrection takes place two hundred years after the conclusion of Alien 3 and is set entirely on the Company ship ‘Auriga,’ which is held in deep space. The new Company clones the original Ellen Ripley and the queen alien inside her by splicing her DNA with that of the unborn predator. The new Ripley, the eighth in a series, is the result of a project to create a biological weapon for sale to the highest bidder.
Into this setting comes smugglers ship ‘The Betty’ carrying a cargo of frozen humans to act as hosts for the hostile aliens. Their crew, one of whom is Winona’s character, the ship’s mechanic and an ndroid named Call are accused of terrorism by the military personnel after she is discovered leaving Ripley’s cell. Violence quickly breaks out between the two crews, and in the ensuing chaos, the captive alien specimens escape into the body of the ‘Auriga,’ now set on a course towards Earth.
Ripley joins up with the crew of ‘The Betty’ in a race against time to save themselves and to prevent the aliens reaching Earth. The remainder of the movie focuses on their journey through the ‘Auriga’ back to ‘The Betty’ with a spectacular underwater alien chase and another up an elevator shaft.
That underwater and elevator sequence commenced the filming of Alien Resurrection in November 1996, and represents one of the most challenging movie stunts, and ‘the greatest of my entire career,’ admits stunt co-ordinator, Ernie Orsatti. For Winona, it was equally courageous as she would overcome several fears that she had not faced since childhood. Fear of heights was one, but greater than that was her fear of water, since she was once pronounced dead in it as a child. She had an underwater near-death experience when she was only twelve years old.
She was at Dillon Beach in Northern California and got caught up on the undertow. ‘It sounds very dramatic, but I was under for a long time. Luckily for me a lifeguard pulled me out. I didn’t have a pulse and he had to pump the water out of my lifeless body.’ For a few frightening moments, Winona had technically died from drowning. Besides that, there was another hazard at stake. ‘I had cut school to go to the beach so it was a big deal.’ And to complicate matters even more, Winona recalls, ‘I was with my stoned friends, who were like, “Ooooh!” and freaking out.’
It was no surprise that Winona had not been underwater since. And although, as she herself explains, ‘I’d jump into a pool, I could never force myself to stick my head under.’ The studio understood her reluctance. They would simply hire a stunt double in her stead for the scenes through the sunken underwater set that depicted the flooded kitchen of the ‘Auriga.’ She was simply delighted. However, the idea fell through when Winona sporting a new hair cut made all the difference to any possible compromise. ‘I cut my hair really short and when the director saw me, he said there was no way he could find a stunt double because my face was too exposed as a result of the cut’…