Winona Ryder has a telepathic connection with Tim Burton. At least that's how the actress describes her working relationship with the director. There's no surprise there, either. Beetlejuice was a breakout movie for both Burton and Ryder, and their movie magic together only magnified with Edward Scissorhands.
It's been over 20 years since their last feature film collaboration, but the stop-motion-animated Frankenweenie has brought the two together again. In it Ryder voices Elsa van Helsing, the next door neighbor of a young Victor Frankenstein, an ambitious lad who brings his dog back to life after it's accidentally run over.
We sat down with Ryder at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX to talk about what it was like to work with Burton again and how things have changed since Edward Scissorhands.
Q: When did Burton first come to you with the project?
Winona Ryder: It was a couple years ago, but I can't remember the actual month or year. It was a couple years ago that I remember he first called, and of course I'd do anything for him, but especially Frankenweenie. I worked with him 25 years ago, not long after he'd done Frankenweenie, so I knew it was such a personal thing to him, and I knew because of that it would have to be very, very special.
I do have this sort of telepathic thing with Tim. Working with him on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, he used the same words and the same [gestures with her hands like she's picking apart a spiderweb]. Even if he can't find the words, he's very expressive visually.
Q: So it was like no time had passed?
Ryder: That's sort of what it's always been like when I see him. It's one of those great relationships, you know? He has this way [makes the same strange hand gesture]...I remember being on Beetlejuice, and this was before all directors used monitors, so he'd be right there, and just in my periphery I could see him. And he'd come up and go, "[hand gestures]...you get it?" And I'd go, "I get it!"
And that's the way it is with Tim, you get him or you don't. It's so important to have that telepathy, if you will.
Q: Your character's physical design was at least partially inspired by you, was that something you knew going into?
Ryder: No, I didn't! I saw some early images, but I didn't know that. I just sort of drew on Lydia [her character from Beetlejuice], and what I imagined Tim would be like at that age. And, of course, I remembered what it was like when you're that young and your pet, if pet is even the right word...
Q: They're more like friends, at least to the kids in the movie.
Ryder: Exactly! If you want to just to describe my character generally, she's just Victor's friend and neighbor. But, she also has this special empathy for him which I think comes from the understanding of her own relationship with her own dog.
Q: You mentioned something interesting, and while it doesn't apply to this since it's stop-motion animation, have you noticed a change in the relationship between directors and actors because they spend so much time just watching from monitors these days?
Ryder: It obviously always depends on the director, and I think monitors are great for directors to see the shot and watch playback to look for things. There is something advantageous to that. But, and maybe I'm just old fashioned, but there is something I miss about it. I've talked to other actors like, "Remember when directors used to be two feet away from you? And not two blocks away in video village?" It is hard for directors to go back to that, I think, since there are a lot of advantages. A great director can do both, but there's a lot of not so great directors who don't even know. They don't even ever watch you in person, and it does create a distance.
But a good director will always come up and talk to you if you need them, or if they need you. And Tim is just always there if you need to talk about something, or if he just needs to do the gesture thing. There's nothing manipulative about Tim. He just lets you feel your own emotions, rather than instructing the audience to. I think that's why children respond so much to Beetlejuice, he's not manipulative in that way. Even Edward Scissorhands, which is so beautiful and heartbreaking - I love that movie whether I'm in it or not – he just allows you to feel, he doesn't make you feel.
Everyone who loves his films, they love them in their own personal way. I can't tell you how many people, in all walks of life, from musicians, to filmmakers, to accountants, who are like, "I saw that movie and it changed my life!" People become artists because of Tim. And he's so modest, always playing it down.
Q: To be fair, you're also a huge part of Burton's best movies, and you've helped create some iconic and very influential characters.
Ryder: I suppose, but it's more the film and Tim Burton. Some people have pointed out Lydia, and I'd like to think I brought something special to her, but it really is Tim and his vision. I remember when I met him, I had dyed black hair and I probably wouldn't have continued acting if I hadn't gotten Beetlejuice. I was waiting in his office, and he came in and I thought it was someone from the art department, because he was so young and different. We were just talking and talking and I said, "Do you know where this Tim Burton guy is? Am I in the wrong building?" and he was like, "No, that's me." I just love spending time with him, so it never feels like work. He's someone I'd honestly do anything for. I'd read the phone book for him. He's so special. And I think he also opened the door for so many other people. Can you even imagine a world without Tim Burton any more? I was watching a Law & Order the other day, and it was an old one with Jerry Orbach, and someone made a reference to Tim Burton, just because it was something dark. But that's just Tim. He's still the same, cool guy.