LOS ANGELES – Squarespace’s Super Bowl commercial generated more buzz in Minnesota than Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes did on the football field thanks to Winona Ryder’s whirlwind tour of the town she was named after.
But missing from that ad, as well as just about every story ever written about the star, is her much stronger connection to the state, a period in the mid-’90s she tried lying low in Minneapolis, far from the harsh glare of the national spotlight.
Was the escape plan a success?
“It was and it wasn’t,” said the 48-year-old actress during a recent promotional tour for her latest TV series, “The Plot Against America,” an adaptation of the Philip Roth novel that imagines what would have happened if another famous Minnesotan, Charles Lindbergh, had become president. “I think back on it, I think about all the time I had to pretend I was fine and that I didn’t really care, when actually I did. It’s interesting. I can talk about it now.”
To fully appreciate Ryder’s state of mind during that period, you need to journey back 25 years ago, when Ryder was her generation’s Jennifer Lawrence.
Zoe Kazan, who was 5 when “Beetlejuice” came out, channeled her real-life awe of Ryder in playing her kid sibling in “Plot.”
“I think there’s a quality of hero worship that happens between younger sisters and older sisters, no matter their personalities or age difference,” said Kazan, whose credits include “The Big Sick.” “That’s very useful for me, considering how much I admire Winona.”
Back in the early ’90s, movies like “Heathers” and “Edward Scissorhands” were catnip to teens hungry for fare more grown-up than “Sixteen Candles.” Alt rocker Matthew Sweet had written a creepy lust song in her honor (“Could you be my little movie star?/Could you be my long lost girl?”). Boyfriend Johnny Depp was sporting a “Winona Forever” tattoo on his right arm.
Backlash was inevitable.
“People in Hollywood can be a bit bitchy or mean,” said Ryder, wearing a black dress and cape that could easily be keepsakes from her version of “Little Women,” the 1994 drama that earned her one of two Oscar nominations. “The minute you’re successful, you’re a sellout. I watched it happen with music and it happens in indie film, too.”
Ryder’s escape to the Twin Cities had little to do with a desire to be close to the city she was born in — she only spent six months in Winona before her family relocated to California — and everything to do with a different sort of longing.
The actress, fresh off her relationship with Depp, had met Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner at a 1993 taping of “MTV Unplugged.” By the end of the year, Ryder had played a political assassin in the band’s video for “Without a Trace” and decided to move into the red-hot rocker’s home in Minneapolis.
The change of address got almost no attention; the same couldn’t be said about the relationship.
Soul Asylum, which had been an underdog band since forming in the early ’80s, had an unexpected hit in 1992 with “Runaway Train.” That mainstream success, along with the lead singer’s high-profile romance, set the couple up for scrutiny.
Rolling Stone referred to Pirner as Ryder’s “boy toy.” A 1995 album review of “Let Your Dim Light Shine” referenced a “chorus of charges that being Winona Ryder’s beau has mellowed Dave Pirner and robbed him of his creative juice.” Author Pamela Des Barres called Ryder the ultimate rock groupie.
Fans at a 1995 showcase for Soul Aslyum at South by Southwest were so obsessed with spotting Ryder in the sold-out crowd that Pirner had to make a stage announcement that his girlfriend wasn’t in the house. An Austin Chronicle reporter, however, would insist that a disguised Ryder was indeed there, hanging out with MTV’s Tabitha Soren.
Pirner, who has remained friends with Ryder since they broke up around 1997, declined a recent interview request.
Ryder said the Twin Cities press could be just as intrusive as national media — and hurtful, especially when they painted her as a vixen who had destroyed Pirner’s former relationship with a Minneapolis woman.
“Women writers were particularly mean back then. They were the ones giving me these ‘I’m With the Band’ awards,” she said, often leaning forward and talking in a half-whisper during the hotel room interview, as if she were letting you in on a secret. “No one really believes it unless they were around back then. I remember thinking, ‘I just can’t win. Maybe if I just don’t work, they’ll like me.’ ”
Those thoughts may have lingered after Ryder moved away.
While she continued to make movies for the next two decades, it was mostly secondary roles: cameoing as Spock’s mother in “Star Trek,” rolling her eyes at Adam Sandler in “Mr. Deeds,” locking lips with Jennifer Aniston on an episode of “Friends.”
But about five years ago, Ryder let it be known that she was ready to get back to meatier work — and open to doing television.
David Simon, best known for creating “The Wire,” jumped at the opportunity, casting her in a small but colorful role of a city council member in his 2015 miniseries, “Show Me a Hero.”
“I’m secretly proud I took advantage of that moment in her life,” said Simon, who first got interested in Ryder when he learned she was a big advocate for his book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” and the TV series that followed, “Homicide: Life on the Street.” “She no longer had to be the child queen in Tim Burton land.”
“Stranger Things,” which came out a year after Simon lured Ryder to the small screen, is the series that reintroduced Ryder as a pop culture icon. “Plot” is poised to become the project that does the same to her stature as an actress.
In the six-part series, she plays a lonely Jewish-American woman in Newark, N.J., whose infatuation with John Turturro’s Lindbergh-lovin’ rabbi blinds her from the fallout of the new president’s decision not to enter World War II and to establish diplomatic ties with Adolf Hitler.
By the time she realizes that anti-Semitic policies have destroyed her family, not to mention the country, it’s too late. The scenes in which she attempts to reconcile with her sister are as emotionally wrenching as anything she’s done in her storied career.
“It wasn’t a revelation,” said Simon, who also spearheaded “The Wire” and “Treme.” “But it was a delight.”
Ryder seems completely at ease with the move to TV — Netflix recently released footage of the “Stranger Things” cast engaged in a table read for Season 4 — as well as her feelings about Minnesota.
“It’s such a friendly place. The people are so sweet,” she said. “That’s why things that happened back then make me pout a bit. But I’m over it.”