Winona Ryder has had her brushes with infamy and trouble, but that doesn’t keep her from opening up. When we speak, she’s gabby and funny, in part because she’s really into her new film“Experimenter,” a semi-experimental biopic about Stanley Milgram (played by Peter Sarsgaard), the psychologist who did famous/infamous tests on people’s willingness to follow orders, no matter how inhumane they may be. Ryder plays Milgram’s devoted wife Sasha, though she’s not just a typical movie spouse. It’s a chance to work with Sarsgaard and director Michael Almereyda (of the playful Ethan Hawke “Hamlet”), both longtime friends. And it’s also nice to, as she puts it, “really mean the stuff you say in these [interviews].”
I know you had a fairly atypical childhood, growing up on a commune in California…
When I say I lived in a commune for four years, people think I was in a cult. [Laughs] And it was not a cult at all. It was seven families in the Redwoods in Mendocino. But my parents were definitely on the intellectual side of the hippie movement. They were more sort of observers. They were activists and stuff, but it’s interesting because in some sort of unconscious rebellion I stayed away from a lot of those things.
Your form of rebellion would be doing the things most people do as rebellion.
I never do yoga. We did it when we were kids. I don’t do it now. I probably should. I don’t do drugs. Drugs were not encouraged, but my parents did have the thing of, “Don’t get them on the street. If you’re really curious please come to us.” I think that’s a good attitude to have. But I didn’t want to. [Laughs]
That’s odd, since Timothy Leary was your godfather.
This is his watch. [Shows watch with no numbers on it] But he was more of a godfather to me. He was very protective. He never let anyone do anything around me. He would take me to baseball games, help me do my homework. He was the opposite of what you’d think Timothy Leary was around me. But there were a lot of people around then. It’s a shame because at the time I didn’t know who any of them were. They were just grown-ups. I later found out one of them was John Lennon. [Laughs] I’m like, “What? Why didn’t you tell me?” I wish I’d known.
You could have pestered him for Beatles stories.
Or, you know, not terrorized his son.
But I was going to ask, growing up around that scene, I imagine you were exposed to the stories of and ideas around Stanley Milgram, as well as Philip Zimbardo and Hannah Arendt.
I remember the first time I found out about him. It was from the Peter Gabriel song “We Do What We’re Told,” from the “Us” alum. I was driving with my dad and I was like, “What does this mean?” And he told me. And I’m a big reader. I’ve read about the banality of evil and about Eichmann, because I lost family in the Holocaust.
What’s interesting too is the way “Experimenter” is told. It covers a lot of Milgram’s career, but it’s done in this expressionistic way that foregrounds ideas.
I’ve known Michael Almereyda since he was 16. He’s the kind of director — and I can tell you this — that actors want to work with, because he is one of the very few uncompromising directors out there. He just won’t do something if he doesn’t want to. He’s not the kind that says, “Oh, alright…” And biopics, they’re tricky, especially when you’re cramming in a couple decades. Michael is so thoughtful and interesting, and what he chose to focus on was so far from what a classic biopic is. I’m nervous to use the word “untraditional,” because I also like traditional stuff. But [“Experimenter” is] so imaginative and thoughtful — when I say “thoughtful” I can’t put enough emphasis on that.
He uses a lot of Brechtian distancing techniques, such as occasionally using blatant rear-projection when characters drive.
When I first heard about the rear-screen projection, I was like, “Can we not afford a set? What’s going on?” [Laughs] But when I saw it it was amazing.
Your character also has to convey a lot in scenes that aren’t always about her. She’s quiet but also quietly strong.
Look, I’ve played wives before, and it’s like “The Wife” and whatever. But this one felt deeper. I did it to work with Michael and Peter, who is truly one of my favorite actors. I’ve known him for like 20 years. I felt like the stuff they chose to focus on with us was interesting. It wasn’t her nagging. She was very much a part of his life. It didn’t feel token to me.
It also doesn’t over-stress how much it has to say for how we live now.
It’s sadly relevant. Michael and I were texting when the shooting happened in Texas. Like, “This movie is becoming real.”
Even on social media, even the nicest of us sometimes unthinkingly let our worst, bullying instincts come out.
I’m not on it.
That’s for the best. And you missed it when you were younger.
I’m kind of relieved. I can’t imagine doing it. Who has the time? And don’t you have to read what people say back to you?
You shouldn’t read the comments, even if you’re not a public figure. But I do remember reading something about how, 10 or 15 years ago, you were tired of acting. What brought you back?
I don’t really go on the Internet. But my parents do. [Laughs] They don’t have Google Alert or anything, but they showed me something in The Guardian. The headline was, “I have no interest.” And I don’t where that came from. That was probably in response to some weird question. I will say I have a lot of other interests. I did take some time off in my 30s. I went to law school — well, I wasn’t official. I knew the dean and I was allowed to sit in one some classes because I was interested in constitutional law. I really consider San Francisco home. It’s a very different life than people think of actresses having.
But I still feel very connected and passionate about work. Still, as you get older it feels like it takes a lot of time. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on something I don’t like. Even if it’s just doing these small movies. Look, this isn’t a blockbuster. It’s an art film at a time when there really aren’t many. I don’t know how “Experimenter” is going to do. But it was a joy. It was a joy to work on, and it was challenging and you were always thinking and reading. I’m really proud to be a part of that. But it’s all I’ve ever known, acting. I don’t know if could do anything else. [Laughs]