From 1996 – 2000, I met dozens of celebrities while working in the West Coast bureau of Premiere Magazine and later, at Us Weekly. These interviews ran the gamut from 30 seconds on the red carpet (Leonardo DiCaprio) to an hour on set (George Clooney). And of course, there were many stars I never interviewed or even saw – not ever in the entire time I worked in Hollywood (Julia Roberts).
In Celebrity Flashback, I’ll share the details of one of those close encounters.
If you don’t count an over-the-phone interview I did with Harry Connick Jr. in college, my first celebrity interview ever was with Winona Ryder.
It was a chilly Wednesday night in late November 1996 – almost Thanksgiving. I’d been sent by my boss, Anne Thompson, to cover the premiere of The Crucible, the period film Winona made with Daniel Day-Lewis based on the play by Arthur Miller. Winona played a girl accused by her fellow villagers of being a witch.
The premiere was held at the state-of-the-art Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, which is inside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences building on Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of Beverly Hills.
I had just moved to L.A. a few months before with no job and no contacts. I got the gig at Premiere because the guy who answered the phone when I called was a fellow midwesterner named Max Potter who took pity on me. He gave me an unpaid internship transcribing interviews for the senior writers and sorting the mail. By that November, I’d been hired as an editorial assistant — still transcribing but also answering the phone for Anne, the bureau chief, and writing whenever I could. They paid me as if I were a freelancer: $1 per word.
Most of the writers and editors were too senior — and too over it — to go stand behind a rope on a weeknight and jockey with other media outlets for a quote or two. And it was a tiny staff: in addition to my boss and Max, there were only three other senior writers. Everyone else was in New York.
I had no idea what to do or what to ask when Anne gave me the assignment a few hours before the event but I jumped at the chance. In those days, I wore no makeup and paid no attention to what I was wearing so I’m sure I went straight over to theater from work.
It should be noted that I also got 30 seconds with Daniel Day Lewis that evening. I think he introduced his wife, Rebecca Miller, to me; they’d met on The Crucible (she’s Arthur’s daughter). He was soft-spoken and respectful and nice.
But it was Winona I was waiting for. In my high school years, I must have watched Heathers at least 50 times. She was a teenage angst hero.
So here I am, on the red carpet, probably wearing something from The Gap, and here comes Winona. She was wearing a strappy black dress and her shiny black hair was cut in a supershort pixie. Her skin by contrast was pale and flawless. She had big eyes and a fragile ‘don’t hurt me’ look. Her publicist guided her my way. Publicists liked Premiere because we were film lovers and generally nice to celebrities. We didn’t dig through their trash or ask them questions about their embarrassing shoplifting arrest.
I clicked on my tape recorder and asked, So what made you want to do this movie? or What drew you to this character? It was something stupid and easy like that.
But instead of playing along with some easy, bullshit answer, she wrinkled her nose and said, ‘Where are you from?’ Meaning, which publication.
‘Premiere,’ I said proudly.
You would have thought I said Playgirl. She literally recoiled. And moved on to the next journalist.
Most of the schlubs covering the red carpet didn’t also get to go inside and watch the movie. But Premiere had cache. I always had tickets to go inside, walking the same red carpet the stars had just worked and watching the movie with the director, producers and cast who’d made it. Such was the case that night. And I ended up sitting one row back and directly behind Winona.
Throughout the movie, I struggled with two things: 1) to stay awake and 2) the impossible size of Winona Ryder’s shoulders, which were small as a child’s.
It’s not easy to watch a boring, unfunny or just plain bad movie with the people who made it. You cannot yawn. Who knows who you might offend?
The next day, I found out from my co-workers that Winona had a beef with Premiere over something we’d written about Mermaids, the movie she’d made a year or so before with Cher.
Over the next several years, I never ran into Winona again.