“You have to believe that the craziest thing is going to happen,” says Matt Duffer, who with his twin brother, Ross, created the Netflix series Stranger Things, premiering this Friday. He’s referring to their first choice for one of the show’s lead roles—a single mom in 1980s suburbia whose son goes missing in connection with a secret government experiment. Matt goes on: “Sometimes it doesn’t, but sometimes it does. And then you’re on set with Winona Ryder and you have to pinch yourself.”
It’s tempting to cite Stranger Things as the latest evidence of a Winona renaissance (Winonaissance?) following her exquisite performance in David Simon’s 2015 HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero and ahead of the unconfirmed yet rapturously awaited Beetlejuice sequel. But the truth is that Ryder, now 44, has been working for the past decade—after that one scandal and an ensuing four-year hiatus.
The projects have ranged from family dramas to shoot-’em-ups, and most of them, with the exception of Star Trek, have been flops. But this seemingly random string of roles isn’t random at all. It’s a remarkably brave response to what happened one December afternoon at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills.
In hindsight, Ryder’s 2001 arrest for shoplifting marked a crucial shift in American culture—a dividing line between people becoming famous for their talent and people becoming famous for, well, trying to become famous. Just months afterward, Harvey Levin debuted the TV show Celebrity Justice, which covered the shoplifting trial exhaustively and led to Levin’s creation of TMZ a few years later. In 2002, Gawker Media launched, and one of its earliest scoops was the Paris Hilton sex tape. Of course, the scandal that followed created Hilton’s career instead of preventing it. Next came The Real Housewives, the Kardashians, the YouTube stars, the Instagram influencers, the Republican candidate for president. These days, there’s no such thing as bad press—only bad engagement.
Ryder could have leveraged her newfound infamy: a posttrial reality show, a sit-down with Oprah. But other than appearing in a 2003 Marc Jacobs ad campaign that slyly sent up her felonious past, she took a long break. And when she returned, she did so quietly, determined to take risks and play against type—an especially bold move given Hollywood’s ageism when it comes to substantial female roles. She did slapstick with David Arquette (the admittedly terrible Darwin Awards) and a Vogue cover. She did a CBS TV movie and modeled for Rag & Bone. She stole scenes in Black Swan and played a mannequin in a Killers video. In her constant mingling of high and low she practically out-Franco’d James Franco.
To Matt and Ross Duffer, though, Ryder has always been a leading lady of the highest order. “It’s that movie star thing,” says Ross. “I don’t know how to articulate it, but you either have it or you don’t. And she obviously does. Winona goes all-in.”