Winona Ryder Talks With PopMatters About the 'Experimenter'

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Winona Ryder speaks to PopMatters about Experimenter, aging in Hollywood, and why she's the only actress who doesn't want to direct.


Director: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Kellan Lutz, Dennis Haysbert, Taryn Manning, Anton Yelchin, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Josh Hamilton, Lori Singer, Donnie Keshawarz
Rated: NR
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-10-16 (Limited release)

In 1961 Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram ran a series of experiments aimed to measure just how willing people were to inflict pain on others under the "excuse" of following orders. Milgram intended to explore the moral implications behind Hannah Arendt's theory about the "banality of evil"; the experiments were incredibly controversial and are now the center of Michael Almereyda's Experimenter which has Peter Sarsgaard play Stanley and features Winona Ryder as his wife Alexandra "Sasha" Milgram. Ryder brings a sense of endless curiosity to the part, a trait she's used quite effectively in films like Little Women and Girl, Interrupted, which saw her play characters who crave knowledge more than anything.

Somewhat more surprising is to discover that outside of character, Ryder has the very same quality. As we sit down to discuss the film in her hotel room in New York City, her eyes widen and she seems as curious about knowing more about me, as I am about her. She talks in a throaty whisper, and at times seems wary of what she should say or not. One can't blame her, after surviving the paparazzi-loving '90s, she became one of the most private modern movie stars, limiting her appearances onscreen and off in the 2000s. To suggest she's going through a "comeback" would be a disservice though, considering how iconic her characters are (in the past few years we've seen Heathers come to life as a musical, and there are plans of a sequel for both that and Beetlejuice).

Perhaps more than any other actress of her generation, Ryder has been unafraid to reveal the perils of stardom, and the darkness of the system, it's a testament to her brilliance that when she played former-prima-ballerina Beth in Black Swan she imbued her with equal parts heartbreak and horror. In Experimenter she once again grounds a character that could've been either too "supporting" or just "stock", through moments of quiet desperation and confusion, she becomes the most indelible presence in a fascinating film.

* * *

Stanley Milgram's work seems more relevant than ever ...

Frighteningly so ...

... if anything we seem to have become even more indifferent to genocide, police brutality and social injustice. Was this what attracted you to Experimenter?

It's probably a big reason why the film was made. Had they been not relevant, he still would've been a fascinating man, but they're frighteningly relevant in every way, from police brutality, all over the world. I know the experiments were a direct response to what happened during WWII, how people just followed orders, but this mob mentality can be applied to practically everything nowadays, which is really unfortunate.

You're notorious for not being in social media ...

I have to be careful with what I say [smiles] but I think social networks can also be used for great things. For instance my cousin has a book coming up and I wish I had, you know [she types with her fingers as if she was holding a phone] my insta-whatever. I think it's also creating a real disconnect between people, I'm probably a little nostalgic for the days where we you talked to people face to face or called them on the phone. I feel like the younger generation who only know texting, they have no idea about all these things that we went through that were character building, you know, getting up the nerve to call someone on the phone. When you text you can think about what you're going to write. Anyway, I don't mean to bash it. I get afraid that it desensitizes us, one thing that scares me a lot about the internet, and why I don't go on it a lot, is the stuff that you can see on YouTube. I have nieces and nephews, who are teenagers, and the fact that you can see such violence, that even I can't handle ... it's a terrifying world.

I'm totally not for censorship, it's not that, but there's no way to regulate it. I remember sneaking into R rated movies when I was a kid [laughs] and being afraid of getting caught, but now you can access anything. For me, personally, it's difficult because people on the street can just start filming me, and it's not like they're fans of my work, they just come up to you [does a "tough guy" voice, while pretending she's holding a phone] "You're famous right? You're an actress." It's not as genuine as when people happened to have a camera and they liked you so would ask for a picture. It's such a different world.

I think Stanley Milgram would have been fascinated by social networks, which in their way have made us even more indifferent to the needs of others because being behind screens allows people to bully others, to be abusive and insensitive.

You're right, I would've loved to have heard his take on this.

I'm assuming that you met with Stanley's widow Sasha, to discuss your character, and this is not the first time you're playing a real life person. Whenever you play a real life person do you feel like your responsibility in how you play the part is to the person, the screenplay, or to yourself?

Sasha is a wonderful woman, she has a real spark, she's incredibly intelligent and funny, so of course I wanted to please her and infuse as much of her in the character as possible. But there's been other times, like when I did The Iceman for example, where I deliberately stayed away from the real life person, she also stayed away from me, but I didn't believe she didn't know about all this crazy stuff [her husband did], and I just felt like talking would get me nowhere. I did things like Girl, Interrupted and that was very helpful. You do have a sense of responsibility.

Michael Almereyda seems to be working in the same vein of making cinema of ideas, that Coppola and Scorsese worked in during the '70s

I've known Michael since I was 16 and I've been a huge fan of his and wanted to work with him for so many years, as do all actors. He's one of the few uncompromising directors around today. Literally he would rather go teach somewhere than to make something he didn't believe in, and have full control over. He's elegant with his choices, he's so creative and imaginative; this isn't a biopic, the stuff that he focuses on and the choices he makes are really unusual, things I hadn't seen before, it's refreshing. I know this is a very cliché thing to say but he's just a real artist. I'm pleased that you liked it because I don't know these days how movies do, but I hope this film inspires other filmmakers to stick to their guns more, and to look at things and tell stories in a more unique way.

You're right, this doesn't feel like a "biopic" ...

I've only seen the film once so far, I'm seeing it again tonight, but I feel that each character in the movie is a real performance, even the people who are getting the experiments, the subjects are fantastic. What I love about Peter, I also love him as a person and he's a dear friend of mine, is that you never see him acting, he is the character. Simultaneously by being the kindest person that you could hope to work with, you never see him perform, I think he's one of the best we have.

You've talked about a period during your career when you looked too young to play older characters, and you were too old to play younger characters, and it made me think of how people like Jennifer Lawrence are often criticized for playing characters that are too old for her. It's essentially a lose-lose situation if you're an actress.

All I know is I had a lot of success in my teens and 20s, and then I did go through a long period where I stopped working for a little while. I didn't realize how hard it would be to kind of come back, so I struggled with playing my age. People just associated me so much with my younger roles, and even though I was the right age they just thought of me as Reality Bites, so I feel that the few years have been liberating because I've been able to play people my age. I can't speak for people like Jennifer Lawrence; she's incredibly talented, and I'm not sure what movies you're referring to ...

Her work with David O. Russell mostly, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle ...

Oh, was she not right for those? I don't even know how old she is. I always thought she was the age of her characters. Anyway, yeah, that's crazy!

Based on your artistic choices and your love of movies, I'm curious, is directing your own films something that interests you?

I feel like I'm one of the last actresses who doesn't want to direct, because I really love working with directors and when I'm playing a character I really try to think only of my character's point of view, I think it would be really difficult to think of so many different points of view. It may change, but as of now I can't really imagine it. If I can help get something made by helping to produce something I'm happy to do it, if it's something really special and my name helps. A lot of actresses produce but it's just their name, I've been asked a few times in my life if I want to direct, and I'm more interested in documentary stuff I think, but maybe that'll change, who knows?

Thank you so much, it's been a pleasure talking to you!

Thank you as well. [whispers] Wow, I didn't know that about Jennifer Lawrence ... [shakes her head]

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.