Get Winona Ryder buzzing on old movies and she’s like a hummingbird, rattling of titles of favorites faster almost than she can get the words out: “The Last Wave,” “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” “To Kill A Mocking-bird,” “Ball of Fire,” “Bridge on the River Kwai.”
“Anything by Billy Wilder, ‘One, Two, Three,’ ‘Sunset Boulevard,'” she cries. “I’m a freak over William Holden. I think he’s the most underrated actor.”
And while on the phone in her trailer on the 20th Century Fox lot where she’s shooting Jean Pierre Jeunet’s “Alien: Resurrection,” Ryder decides she’s going to watch something old tonight, maybe the Gary Cooper starrer “Random Harvest,” on video with her mother.
Refreshing, to be sure, to see a fervent yen for film history in a 25-year-old Gen X-labeled actress. Ryder considers herself a self-taught student of cinema. She loves watching, discussing and learning from films — a passion she picked up from her mother Cindy.
Maybe that’s why NATO/Showest decided to laud her with its coveted female star of the year designation.
Or maybe it’s simply that she has become one of Hollywood’s hottest, most stylish young actresses with two Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe Award to prove it. Early in her career, Ryder’s insouciant, yet serious demeanor led her to become the Gen X poster girl for pics like “Heathers” and “Mermaids.” But she has since matured into more fulfilled parts in “Little Women,” “Age of Innocence” and recently, “The Crucible.”
Now, she has her pick of the champagne roles, a privilege that she takes pretty seriously. “It’s a very instinctual thing that happens,” she says of how she chooses the parts she’s willing to play. “I read a script and I either react in a very emotional way or I don’t. When I do, I take the role. When I don’t, I know it’s not right. It’s the easiest part of doing what I do.”
Ryder was named for the town she was born in — Winona, Minn. But she grew up in Petaluma, Cal. and began her acting career at 13 when a talent agent spotted her during a stage performance at San Francisco’s American Con-servatory Theater. A screen test led to her first role in “Lucas.” That led to “Heathers,” which became a cult classic and established Ryder with the Gen X crowd.
In 12 years since she started, Ryder has made 19 feature pics with a cattle call of major directors: Nicholas Hytner (“Crucible”), Al Pacino (“Looking for Richard”), Jocelyn Morehouse (“How to Make An American Quilt”), Gillian Armstrong (“Little Women”), Martin Scorsese (“The Age of Innocence”), Billie August (“The House of Spirits”), Francis Ford Coppola (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”), Jim Jarmusch (“Night on Earth”) and Tim Burton (“Edward Scissorhands” and “Beetlejuice”).
She’s even done TV, lending her voice for two animated shows — “The Simpson’s” and “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist.”
“I was lucky because everything that happened to me happened very gradually,” Ryder admits. “I didn’t have to go through a sudden change, getting used to stardom or success. I led a somewhat normal life.”
Ryder still lives in San Francisco where her family resides. But she likes splitting her time between L.A. and New York.
“I spend a lot of time down here and in New York. I have a nice group of friends down here,” she says of the City of Angels. “I’m not one of those anti-L.A. people. The business has been really good to me.”
To help her find the roles she wants, Ryder has created the company with Bodie. Already, the pair has five projects in development, all of which are about strong-willed young women. A few titles include: “Dreaming,” “The Trials of Maria Barbella,” “Roustabout,” “Deborah Chessler” and “Girl Interrupted.” Three of them are true stories and they’re all based on books.
Ryder, for all her filmography, is also an avid reader. Her parents, in between protest marches in the 1960s, were writers and instilled a “love of literature” in the actress.
She says that Bodie is stuck with the “dirty work” of producing. “I’m doing the fun easy stuff, like getting excited about the project coming together,” she squeals. “I’ve never been faced with that.”
She also has something to say for arrogant Hollywood types who are constantly demanding. “If you’re just persis-tent and you just follow through with people, things get done a lot simpler,” she warns. “There’s no friction. There are other ways of going about business.”
On “Alien: Resurrection,” Ryder is not allowed to discuss the movie outside the set. But she can certainly talk about her co-star. She says she admires Sigourney Weaver, not only because the actress defined the role of perhaps the prototype strong modern woman of the ’80s in the original “Alien.”
“She’s a real pro, a real team player,” Ryder says. “She always does what’s best for the movie, regardless of whether it’s best for her. A lot of these people take these movies not as seriously when they’re working on them.”
She gushes like a schoolgirl when discussing Scorsese, whose film enabled her to capture a best supporting actress Oscar nomination. (Her other was a best actress nod for “Little Women.”)
“He has such precision and detail,” she says. “He made me more of a perfectionist. It’s an almost irritating thing. His attention to detail is astonishing. Also, his humility is amazing. He’s so brilliant and he doesn’t even realize what people consider him to be.”
At the Golden Globes in 1996, Ryder sat with Scorsese and writer Jay Cocks during the interminable awards cere-mony and played a movie trivia game where she actually stumped Scorsese, who is known for his voluminous memory of film trivia. “We passed notes back and forth to each other and asked these really obscure questions. But I’ve passed Martin’s test,” she boasts.
Ryder leans politically left, but will rarely discuss politics, especially with a reporter. Ask her if she ever takes po-litical stands in Hollywood and she mutters: “No, not really. Though I went to the Fire and Ice ball last year. But I guess cancer isn’t a political thing.”
She says she’d rather keep such subjects to herself.
“I’m pretty private about my politics,” she concedes. “I think it’s important. I never wanted to be shoved into being a role model or jumping on a bandwagon. It’s a very fine line to walk. It’s great when you can help out a cause, but you have to be careful.”
She points to Jane Alexander as a profound influence both as an actress and politically on her from their days to-gether on a small indie pic called “Square Dance.” Alexander, who had not yet taken on the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, taught Ryder about artists rights.
She was named for her birthplace, Winona, Minn. Her parents are Mike and Cindy Horowitz, but Ryder says she took a pseudonym on her first movie “Lucas” because it seemed to make sense at the time. She was 13.
“My Dad came up with it,” she remembers. “It was the day that they were calling about the credits on ‘Lucas.’ They called and said they were doing them right now. I don’t remember why he chose that. But I think there was some-thing about a Mitch Ryder song.”
As for future goals, Ryder says hers are simple. “Just make good movies that mean something, for right now. My other goal would be to live a full life and have great kids, you know the typical stuff, to really just live the best, most honest life possible. I’d like to change the world, but I’d like to do it on my own terms.”
And she’d like to keep on stumping Scorsese at trivia.