Winona Ryder Says Casting Director Told Her She Wasn't "Pretty Enough" to Be an Actor
The rising star and '90s It Girl was advised to pursue a different career.
Not every child actor manages to make the transition to teen star, let alone adult A-lister. Winona Ryder, however, has managed to navigate the ups and downs of fame since making her film debut at 15 in the 1986 teen drama, Lucas. After breaking out as one of the quirky girls of the '80s, the young actor became one of the most in-demand It Girls of the '90s. While she dealt with some career lulls, Ryder made a major comeback in the mid-2010s when she was cast as Joyce Byers in the major Netflix hit, Stranger Things.
At 51, Ryder has a long list of credits to look back on, but back when she was first auditioning, her success wasn't guaranteed. The star explained in an interview that her look and non-traditional style led at least one casting director to tell her she wasn't "pretty enough" to be an actor and advise her to try for a different career. Perhaps it's not a surprise that someone who became famous for being unique wasn't deterred by comments like that. Read on for more of what Ryder shared about being judged for her appearance as an aspiring teen performer.
Ryder was the Goth Girl Next Door.
While Ryder played a supporting role in Lucas, it gave her enough screen time that filmmaker Tim Burton noticed her. In an interview collected in 1995's Burton on Burton, the director claimed that seeing her performance in that movie was what convinced him to cast her in Beetlejuice. The hit 1988 film led to a string of other offbeat teen roles, including playing Cher's daughter in Mermaids, being the Veronica in a world of Heathers, and starring opposite Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands.
Ryder was already dating Depp by the time Edward Scissorhands rolled around in 1990, having met him at the premiere of the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire. The two became the hottest couple on the red carpet in the early '90s, cementing the rising star as an unconventional sex symbol. Even after they broke up and Depp changed his "Winona Forever" tattoo to read "Wino Forever," it just added to her heartbreaker mystique.
But not all casting directors saw her appeal.
Ryder cemented her return to the A-list with Stranger Things, but even before that, she was on track to a comeback with 2012's The Iceman, 2013's Homefront, and two episodes of the Comedy Central series, Drunk History. During that period, she did a cover story for Interview Magazine, in which she talked about her experiences trying to break into Hollywood in the mid-'80s. "I was unusual looking—I didn't have the look of that time," she explained to the outlet in 2013.
"If you look at Lucas—and, basically, my first five or six movies—the characters are not described in the scripts as attractive people," Ryder pointed out. "So I scored in the sense that if I hadn't done those, I don't know that I would've been cast in other things because I wasn't really considered a beauty."
She went on to say that she was fully aware that this was the industry's opinion of her, and it wasn't just through her agents or the rumor mill that she heard these things. "I remember one time in particular. I was in the middle of auditioning, and I was mid-sentence when the casting director said, 'Listen, kid. You should not be an actress. You are not pretty enough,'" Ryder recalled. "'You should go back to wherever you came from, and you should go to school. You don't have it.'"
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Comments like that didn't deter her, however.
For some prospective teen actors, an experience like that would have been soul-crushing. But Ryder shrugged off the comment. "She was very blunt—I honestly think that she thought she was doing me a favor," Ryder told Interview. The actor credits her upbringing for enabling her to let that sort of criticism roll off her back. "[T]his is a testament to my parents and how they raised me—I wasn't crushed," she said. "They had always instilled in me that it was way cooler to be an individual and to be unique and that you don't want to blend in."
As an established star, Ryder is still asserting her individuality through the roles that she chooses. In an interview with Yahoo! Movies also from 2013, the actor said that she's been picky about adult roles, turning down any where she would be a one-dimensional mother or wife. "I'm not interested in playing the girl that's just there to make the guy, you know, give him a talking to," she explained.
She's embracing aging.
To Interview, Ryder opened up about the confusing focus on perceived age in the industry, remembering how she was told that she looked too young for some roles in her early career, even though she would be playing someone who was her peer. As a woman who was then in her 40s, she also addressed the pressure to have cosmetic procedures done to appear more youthful. "I'm not trying to knock it, but, you know, I have a little bit of traffic now on my forehead—which I'm like very proud of actually—and it's interesting how people just instinctively are like, 'Oh, maybe you should get something done for that,'" she said. "And it's like, 'Really?'"
These experiences aren't limited to Ryder either. Many of her contemporaries have similar stories. The series Yellowjackets, currently airing on Showtime, stars three of Ryder's former co-stars: Christina Ricci (Mermaids), Tawny Cypress (Autumn in New York), and Juliette Lewis (The Darwin Awards). In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, they were asked about their own teen roles and what the industry was like particularly for women then. "We come from the '90s where, when I had blond hair, I was the pretty airhead, and then I dyed my hair dark, and I was the wisecracking, sarcastic girl," Lewis snarked of being typecast. Her co-star Melanie Lynskey recalled that when she was younger, "[T]he feedback was constantly like, 'You're not beautiful. You're not beautiful.'"
She's passing down what she's learned to her young co-stars.
Speaking to Harper's Bazaar in 2022, Ryder acknowledged that dealing with fame as a young woman led to some dark times "because [she] just wasn't taking care of [herself]." When she was working on 1993's The Age of Innocence, her co-star Michelle Pfeiffer reached out to her. "I remember Michelle being like, 'This is going to pass.' But I couldn't hear it," Ryder explained. Now, she's trying to make sure the next generation of stars does, specifically by supporting the younger cast of Stranger Things. "I want the kids to understand, this does not happen," she said of the show's popularity and how stressful the spotlight can be. "And I'm always telling them, 'The work is the reward!' Because when I was that age, it was so hard to enjoy the fruits of my labor."