WINONA RYDER WAS WORRIED. She had found exactly the house she wanted: a white Colonial built in 1727 in Essex, Mass. (pop. 3,000). It was charming, spacious—and within easy reach of Hog Island, where in the fall of 1995 she was shooting The Crucible, Arthur Miller's tale of the 17th-century Salem witch-hunts. Ryder paid the owner $18,000 to move out for three months and went about making the place seem like home. She hung old movie posters in the bedroom, put up curtains and installed a security system. Still, the actress felt uneasy. "People are looking at me all the time," she said to Sandy Tomaiolo, the wife of her real estate agent. "They're peering in my windows."
"Then shut the curtains," a somewhat incredulous Tomaiolo recalls telling her. "This is New England. People wouldn't stare if Elvis showed up."
Ryder listened politely—then posted a full-time security guard at the end of her driveway. And who can blame her? At 25 the star of The Crucible is entering her second decade as a movie actress who, among certain members of her generation, has an almost mythical status. What true fan doesn't know that she spent several childhood years on a commune in California? That her godfather was the late LSD guru Timothy Leary? And that, when she was 18, her first love, Johnny Depp, tattooed "Winona Forever" on his arm? Depp may have moved on to model Kate Moss, and Ryder to an on-again, off-again romance with Soul Asylum lead singer Dave Pirner, 32, but the 5'4", 100-lb. star remains the focus of scrutiny—and not just from overeager admirers.
In November, in a story on CBS's 60 Minutes about the pervasiveness of smoking in Hollywood, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano singled out Ryder as the role model who has done "more damage to young girls" than any other actress "because she does smoke all the time in every single movie she makes."
True, Ryder chain-puffed her way through Reality Bites, the 1994 homage to Generation X. But clearly Califano hadn't considered such smoke-free roles as 1990's Edward Scissorhands or '93's The Age of Innocence—or '92's Bram Stoker's Dracula, in which the actress sucks lots of blood but not one cigarette. The fact is, whether smoking (an occasional off-camera habit), eating Eskimo Pies ("she eats every kind of junk food," Bites costar Janeane Garofalo once said) or telling dirty jokes (she was a corseted cutup while filming 1994's Little Women), Ryder leaves a lasting impression. Actor Bruce Davison recalls the first time he saw the then 19-year-old at the Golden Globe Awards: "She was just sitting there in a white satin dress, sipping a Coke. I thought, 'Wow, what an incredible beauty.' "
He was unnerved five years later to find himself on the set of The Crucible slapping that same beauty. As the Reverend Parris, Davison is called upon to smack Ryder's Abigail Williams, a young woman who seeks revenge after being scorned by Daniel Day-Lewis, her adulterous lover. "Winona says to me, 'You'll be really careful, won't you?' " says Davison. But after several takes feigning the hit, the actor recalls that he accidentally "clipped her" on the ear. She finished the scene, then ran to her trailer. "I was beside myself, practically in tears," says Davison. After 20 minutes, Ryder came out and said, "It's okay. I can hear now and I think the scene is good now."
The assignment at hand is always what's paramount for Ryder, who, unlike many of her peers, has chosen roles with little regard for their star-making potential. When she was 15, her agent begged her not to act in the morbid comedy Heathers. Ryder paid no attention. The movie achieved cult status, and her turn as a teen murderer proved her breakout role. Other films—last year's Boys, for instance—have been less successful. But her work ethic never wanes. "I don't know if we could have made Little Women if not for her interest," producer Denise DiNovi, who worked with Ryder on Heathers and Scissorhands, recently told PEOPLE. "I've become very dependent on her, asking her opinion on costumes, casting, even sets."
"She is very, very determined," adds Richard E. Grant, who appeared with Ryder in Dracula and The Age of Innocence. "Around the set she giggles like someone who has just come out of high school. But when the camera rolls, she doesn't screw around."
On Crucible that focus—and perhaps her innate shyness—led to misunderstandings. Locals who worked on the crew were put off by what they thought was Ryder's snobbery. While most of the others in the cast chatted freely and visited the town's shops, Ryder kept to herself. "She wanted to do her part and be left alone," says Edward Frisbie, who drove carriages and wrangled animals on the set. In time, though, he and others came to see Ryder's reserve as professionalism. "She was intent on what she was doing," says animal wrangler Drew Conroy. "It wasn't her job to mingle with people who tended sheep."
Indeed, what down time Ryder had she spent in her rented home, practicing lines in front of the fireplace, knitting and, for two weeks, playing house with Pirner. The two recently ended their three-year relationship, but they were cozy in Essex last year, wowing local kids (he handed out guitar picks as souvenirs) and hopping into a white limo to get takeout. A few dates last year with The X-Files' David Duchovny went nowhere, she said in last month's Vogue. And there is talk in Hollywood that she has reconciled with Pirner, who was with her at the Manhattan premiere of The Crucible in November. Says Ryder's pal Jay Cocks: "They looked very solid to me."
Back in Petaluma, Calif., where Ryder's family moved when she was 11, neighbors fondly recall the girl they knew as Noni. To Ann Peterson, owner of the Fourth Street Cutters salon, Ryder will always be the kid who wore her hair in a punk pixie cut and skate-boarded with Peterson's sons. "She was a little offbeat," says Peterson. No surprise: The daughter of counterculture enthusiasts Michael and Cindy Horowitz was raised (along with brother Uri, now 20, and Sunyata, 29, and Jubal, 27, her half sister and brother from her mother's first marriage) to find her own way. She began studying acting at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater at 12, and at 14 appeared in her first film, the teen romance Lucas. Awed by her skills, Martin Hogue, her former drama teacher at Petaluma High, rarely ventured tips to the budding star. "I didn't feel I was competent to do it," he said.
Working on such films as 1988's Beetlejuice often kept her from class. But Ryder worked with a tutor, sent in her homework and graduated with an A average. Her parents had no problem with her unorthodox choices. Michael, 58, who now owns Flashback Books in Petaluma, and Cindy, 56, a video artist and filmmaker, were happy for her to skip class just to go see a good film. And at home she would chat with such family friends as Timothy Leary and poet Allen Ginsberg. As Leary told PEOPLE in 1990, "She was surrounded by thoughtful bohemic types."
Today, Ryder (a stage name she and her father picked when she was 15) has homes in Manhattan, Beverly Hills and San Francisco. But the actress, who has started shooting Alien Resurrection, which began filming in November, is still uneasy driving her new black Mercedes. Her idea of fun is to pal around with 17-year-old William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet star Claire Danes, whom she met on the set of Little Women. "We hang out and talk about boys," says Danes. "Now I'm growing up, so we can be on more of a similar level." She'll have to grow fast. Ryder may look—and giggle—like a kid. But don't be fooled, says a friend, producer DiNovi: "She's an old soul."
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
LYNDON STAMBLER, ANNA DAVID, SHELLEY LEVITT and KEN BAKER in Los Angeles, GABRIELLE SAVERI in San Francisco, MARK DAGOSTINO in Essex and BRYAN ALEXANDER in London