When you meet Winona Ryder, it’s hard to shake the feeling that she belongs to another era. It’s not just that she doesn’t appear to have aged a day since films like Edward Scissorhands and Girl, Interrupted made her a ’90s icon. It’s that she still keeps old cassette tapes of important voicemails and bootleg VHS tapes of concerts. On the topic of the Internet, she muses, “Part of me didn’t want to have kids, because it’s such a crazy world. You really can’t control what they see.”
Luckily for her, this era–that is, the present–also belongs to another era. Nostalgia is the strongest tide in Hollywood, with sequels and reboots like Star Wars and Ghostbusters putting a fresh spin on recent history–and nobody evokes the not-so-distant past quite like Ryder. That makes this a fine moment for her to return to the spotlight. Her new project is Stranger Things (July 15), a Netflix thriller series set in the 1980s; Ryder plays a mother living in a small Indiana town whose son goes missing, just as an alien escapes from a secret government facility. If this sounds Spielbergian, that’s deliberate–the series’ creators, brothers Ross and Matt Duffer, have said they wanted to pay homage to beloved films from their childhood, like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The show is a love letter to that era’s spooky charms.
That’s why Ryder is a smart casting choice. She had such a long run playing unconventional women in the late ’80s and ’90s–think Beetlejuice, Heathers and Dracula–that her doe-eyed gaze conjures a mood as much as a memory. But characters like the ones that made her famous are scarce now. “These days, it’s either a small movie made with no money over six years or the superhero movies,” Ryder, 44, says. “I can’t really envision myself in a cape getting chucked out of a window.”
Ryder’s rise to celebrity status in her teens and 20s, and her tabloid-fueled fall shortly thereafter, made her a national obsession. The nearly decade-long hiatus that followed kept her tethered to the moment she exited the public eye. America watched her male co-stars–like Ethan Hawke, Christian Slater and Johnny Depp–grow up and become A-listers. But for those who haven’t seen the small roles she’s taken over the past few years, Ryder is frozen in time.
Ryder was more than a ’90s It girl; she was one of the decade’s defining performers. Her look defied stereotypes–a producer notoriously told her when she was a teen that she wasn’t pretty enough for Hollywood–and she starred in, well, stranger things. Even when she donned a blond wig to play the high school cheerleader, it was for Tim Burton’s surreal Edward Scissorhands. She made dark swagger cool.
But Ryder was also one of the early casualties of the tabloid era. She got engaged to Depp when she was still a teen, and the couple became paparazzi magnets. He tattooed Winona forever on his arm. (After they split, he altered it to Wino forever.) Depp is back in the headlines now as he separates from his current wife Amber Heard, who has alleged that he physically abused her. For her part, Ryder says Depp was “never abusive at all towards me.”
“I’m not calling anyone a liar,” she says on the subject. “I’m just saying it’s difficult and upsetting for me to wrap my head around it. Look, it was a long time ago, but we were together for four years, and it was a big relationship for me.” She continues, “I have never seen him be violent toward a person before.”
Ryder is willing to discuss the accusations because they are so serious, but for the most part she has gone to great lengths to stay out of the public eye since her 2001 shoplifting arrest, during which police found a syringe and painkillers in her possession. She says she struggled psychologically during that time. She produced and starred in her passion project, Girl, Interrupted, because she identified with its depressed heroines. “You can’t look to the industry to validate you as a person. That can just lead to incredible disappointment,” Ryder says. “I was guilty of that when I was younger. You get caught up in it, surrounded by people that are telling you it’s the most important thing.”
For almost a decade, Ryder was largely absent from the screen. “I took some years off, and I didn’t realize that was very dangerous in terms of my career,” she says. “When I was ready to come back, I was like, ‘Oh, where did everyone go?'” Studios didn’t know what to do with the teen-rebel icon who was no longer a teen.
That began to change in 2010 with a well-received performance in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan as an aging ballerina fighting to stay relevant as a younger, newer dancer (Natalie Portman) ascends within the company. In the years since, Ryder has found a new niche, specializing in stories set in the recent past. She starred in the film Experimenter, about the Stanley Milgram experiments in the ’60s, and in HBO’s ’80s-set political drama Show Me a Hero. Now, there’s Stranger Things.
As an anguished mom who believes that her missing son is communicating with her in supernatural ways, Ryder delivers what may be her best performance in decades. Once again, she employs that wild look viewers will remember from her early work.
But tackling this new project, she says, has also allowed her to step into a different kind of role. Ryder has become the grownup woman she always wanted to be. “I started acting so young–I secretly wanted to be older,” she says. “I’m finally getting to play my own age, and it’s liberating. I would not want to go back to playing the ingénue.”
This appears in the July 25, 2016 issue of TIME.
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