Putting a true story on film is never easy, especially when it’s someone’s autobiography. The lead character’s innermost thoughts and feelings drive the whole movie, and the other characters are filtered through that lens. In Girl, Interrupted, Winona Ryder has the task of bringing to life Susanna Kaysen’s memories of her time in a Massachusetts mental hospital, while co-star Angelina Jolie plays a charming, sociopathic fellow patient who had a profound impact on Kaysen’s life.
Ryder not only has the lead role in the film but is also an executive producer, who was with the project for about six years total. “When I read (the book), it got into my system,” she says in a recent interview in Los Angeles. “As soon as I got the OK from Susanna, that she was OK with me playing her, I never gave up. Even when it got really bad and we got some really bad drafts of the script early on, I got very down, but I never gave up.”
Nevertheless, Ryder wasn’t fully convinced the adaptation would work until she saw Heavy, the writer-director James Mangold’s first film, and decided that he was the person for the job. “It’s not a very cinematic book at all,” Ryder says. “(But) he just got it. He just clicked. He understood (Susanna’s) struggle, what was going on in her head. He understood her fears and anxieties, and her humor. He was able to translate that.” Although two other screenwriters’ names are on the film, Ryder says they were responsible for early drafts, and she gives Mangold almost sole credit for pulling everything together.
Ryder was attracted to Girl, Interrupted partly because it didn’t have the “saccharine sweetness” often associated with movies about women. “It had such an edge,” she says. “It’s very hard to find, in literature, that sort of honesty cut with such humor and without this droning self-indulgence.”
Ryder corresponded with Kaysen for some time before starting the film and found her to be “almost too smart for her own good sometimes. Her writing is such that she can almost write herself into corners and feel trapped by her own intelligence.” The two finally met in person during filming, and both were impressed with how well Ryder had already captured Kaysen’s personality based on the book and their correspondence.
For Jolie, finding the essence of her character, Lisa, was much more challenging. The person on whom Lisa was based died before the project began, so Jolie missed the real-life reference that Ryder had. “I don’t know how (Lisa) would feel about things being written about her,” Jolie says. “It was somebody’s point of view. I don’t know how she felt about Susanna.”
Jolie’s only real avenue of research was the local bookstore, where she ended up reading books on serial killers. (Ironically, she had just finished work on The Bone Collector, in which she played a cop tracking just such a character.) “I sat there on the floor reading about them, one after another,” she recalls. “And it was these amazing accounts of these things where they knew they should feel bad, (but) they were doing things on impulse and couldn’t stop. And it just struck me that they really see things and they live on impulse.”
Playing Lisa allowed Jolie, the daughter of actor Jon Voight, the freedom of being similarly uninhibited, but she found the experience ultimately “empty” and exhausting. “(Lisa) knows what she wants to do to people,” she says. “But she doesn’t know what she needs. She’s just watching people from a certain place — she doesn’t come near them and feel them. She doesn’t think they see her. She’s just not there.”
Taking on such a role, especially on the heels of The Bone Collector, was almost too much for Jolie, and she picked the upcoming action movie Gone in 60 Seconds for her next project. “I was going to drop after I’d done these two films, and I couldn’t take any more tolls on myself,” she says, although not having her usual emotional scenes in the new film was harder than she had anticipated. “I didn’t know I would actually have a problem as a person without having that release. I couldn’t call somebody and have them over so I could cry in their arms. My instinct was, ‘I wish I had a scene.'”
Despite her Girl, Interrupted character’s volatile nature, Jolie has mixed feelings about whether the women in the story belonged in a hospital. “You follow somebody who really shouldn’t be in there, (but) I don’t know if you can say if the other people should get out or should be in,” she says. “I don’t know if anybody should be institutionalized, but I also don’t know if it’s so much better being out.”
Ryder, on the other hand, has a much stronger opinion on the subject. “I do not think Susanna belonged in an institution,” she says. “I mean, she saw a psychiatrist for 20 minutes and they locked her up for a couple of years. I don’t think there was anything wrong with Susanna. Susanna was just a normal 19-year-old who was having kind of normal problems.”
Ryder believes that it was much too common to hospitalize people in 1967, when Girl, Interrupted takes place, and perhaps not common enough now. “Back then, you could get locked up if you were just a little sensitive or confused, if you were gay, if you burned your bra, anything. They would lock you up for four years and medicate you and throw away the key,” she says. “Now, if you are suicidal, schizophrenic, manic-depressive, homicidal, saying you’re going to kill the president — the most we can keep you locked up in America is 21 days. So there are kids out there who are really in a lot of pain, with serious illnesses and maladies, who can’t get help.”
Ryder sees Kaysen’s story as one many young women can identify with, and she hopes it can help those who are having similar problems. For her part, Ryder is extremely proud of the finished film and the impact it might have. “It far exceeds my expectations, and they were pretty high,” she says. “What I fantasized about was something glorious, and what I see is something even more than that. If I just went to see this movie, and I wasn’t in it, it would be the equivalent of years of therapy for me.”