Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Winona Ryder Talks With PopMatters About the ‘Experimenter’

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

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.

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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 clich√© 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]