Saturday, 16 July 2011

Winona Ryder Interview Q&A

I often get asked questions about Winona Ryder, because of my book. Below is taken from some of the Q&A that I prepared for the filming of The Real Winona Ryder for Channel 4 in 2003. I always find it strange filming an interview. For some reason, the pre-filming conversation I have with the interviewer, while the camera crew and sound guys set up, always seems much more relaxed and natural when compared to when I get to talk in front of the camera! The questions were sent to me several days before the shoot. And the answers, which I scribbled prior to heading off to the location, which on this occasion was a screening theatre in London, was my script, if you like, what I used as a general guide to what I was going to talk about on camera...

Tell us about the Timothy Leary connection. Who was he, and what was his connection with Winona?

Timothy Leary was the key figure in the 1960s counterculture movement and would probably be best described as a social renegade before it was fashionable to be one. He was kicked out of the West Point Military Academy and also dismissed from Harvard University for experimenting with hallucinating drugs on his students, and that of course, won him both notoriety and jail time. It was that whole “turn on, tune in and drop out” thing that made Leary a controversial figure some years before the entire world felt the need to go to San Francisco and put flowers in its hair. The connection with Winona and Timothy Leary was that he was her godfather, and that came about three months after Winona was born when her father Michael Horowitz, who by then was working both as a bookseller of counterculture literature and also as Leary’s archivist. The story is that while Michael and Leary were skiing in Switzerland, Michael pulled out a photograph of Winona when she was a day old and asked Leary to be her godafther. Winona still has the photograph and whenever she shows it to a journalist, she’ll take it out of its frame, flip it over, and proudly show off Tim’s inscription welcoming a newborn Buddha to planet Earth. Undoubtedly her relationship with Leary was a very special one, and if its true that we all have one major influence in our lives, you know, that special person who inspires us more than any other, is our mentor and guide, or whatever, then that’s what I believe Timothy Leary was to Winona. You could say that Leary’s death had the same affect and impact on Winona as much as Brian Epstein’s death had on the Beatles. And I think that is evident when you compare Winona’s career, public image and private life since Leary’s death to Epstein’s death bringing changes in how the Beatles lost their direction and as we know eventually split up.

Talk about his death and how WR spoke at the memorial service.

Timothy Leary became ill with prostate cancer Winona put her career on hold to care for him during the final weeks of his life and moved into his home to do exactly that. We have to remember that their relationship did have a very special bond. But was much more conservative than I think people would imagine. Time and time again, journalists would make her out to be a flower child of hippie parents and Leary, of course, being tagged as the LSD guru. But they were very close. Winona has described him as the most gentle, funny, kind and wonderful man that she has ever known. They would do most things together, like going to the Dodger games, tucking her up in bed when she was younger and reading her stories, and generally took great care of her, like an uncle would. I don’t think it was this big party thing. If anything he was very protective of her. She spoke at his funeral and read from the eulogy she had prepared, which basically told the story of how he became her godfather, and why he meant so much to her, and also talked about how she felt alienated through her first throes of adolescence and for her, talking to Leary was the light at the end of her tunnel. Certainly it had nothing to do with drugs, but it was about getting high on conversation and getting by and making her believe that she could do anything she wanted. The funeral ceremony took place in a battered airport hangar in Santa Monica, and lasted two hours with a video tribute set to Beatles music, and another in words by the noted spiritual leader Ram Dass, and of course Winona’s own eulogy and she also quoted F Scott Fitzgerald, the library of which, interestingly enough is now owned by Winona’s father.

Describe Elk, the countryside up there and the commune.

Elk is situated on the Mendocino coast in Northern California, a few miles from Greenwood, and for anybody who’s been there, will know, it is incredibly picturesque, has a very Edenic setting and is often regarded as the place to go for self- healing simply because of this incredible tranquil quality that it has. If you asked a local how they would describe it, they would probably describe it as the heart of Redwood country, which is to say, it would be the equivalent of what we here in Britain think as a forest or a very well covered woodland. According to Timothy Leary, it was one of the most successful up-scale hippie communes in the country. The commune was about 380 acres of this beautiful land, and was then located right next door to an Indian reservation and was managed in those days by a co-operative of eight families, and to this day, the total population of Elk is what it was then, 250 people. It had no running water, no electricity and no heating except for a stove. So it really was a back-to-basics lifestyle. And living in such an environment, especially for Winona, would of course, force her to use her imagination much more than perhaps children who lived in a city with electricity, running water and all those sorts of modern day amenities. So she would read books, invent her own games, do lots of storytelling and also, most importantly, would put on these little theatre shows - and if you think about that, then its very simple to understand how acting become second nature to her. Much of her playtime would have been spent in making the unbelievable believable, and what is acting, but doing exactly that. So think of it in those terms, it’s really no surprise that she was going to be very good at it when she did it for real in front of a camera.

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