Mockingbird," she says. "That's when I really fell in love with the movies." She attended a regular school during those years, but "I definitely had a difficult time-like, socially," she says. She was a great student academically, but "I was an outsider."Raised without television, she spent much of her time reading and playing outdoors, putting on little shows with the other kids and inventing adventures-she remembers pretending tree sap became jewels for treasure hunts.
She moved to Petaluma, Calif., when she was around 11 and began acting soon after-though her strict parents required she maintain a 4.0 grade-point average and work only in the summer. She was naturally drawn to roles that reflected the fringe characters to which she could most relate, and by 13 she had been cast in her first film (playing "the homely girl," she says), opposite Corey Haim and Charlie Sheen in the movie Lucas (1986).
Soon enough, she was spinning her outsider feelings into movie gold. She was a breakout star in the dark-comedy cult-classic Heathers (1988), about a teen who destroys (literally!) the snobby high-school clique that's ruining her reputation. She really hit her stride in her work with quirky director Tim Burton, with successful collaborations in Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Frankenweenie (2012).
In 1991, Ryder began working with another of her recurring collaborators, Keanu Reeves, while filming Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). "He's just one of my favorite people," she says warmly. "He's always, like, been there for me, and that's kind of rare. We have this deep bond." She and Reeves also like the same things. When a friend recently commented that Ryder was a homebody who wanted only to stay in and watch movies, Ryder knew the label wasn't entirely correct. "I was thinking, I've gone over to Keanu's and watched movies." She laughs.
Ryder, who's never married (at least offscreen), has nonetheless crossed paths with many of Hollywood's top stars, both personally and professionally, in the course of her career (see "Leading Men," right).
In the 1990s, Ryder starred in one of the defining movies of her generation, Reality Bites (1994). She also earned Academy Award nominations for her roles in The Age of Innocence and Little Women. And she executive produced a project that truly spoke to her: Girl, Interrupted, about a woman institutionalized after having a nervous breakdown. At the time, she shared her personal struggles with anxiety and depression in the hopes of lessening the stigma of mental health issues.
She praises the "spectacular mentors" she's met over the years, veteran actors like Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, Anne Bancroft, Maya Angelou, Ellen Burstyn and Alfre Woodard. Perhaps that's why Ryder is so protective of the teenagers-including Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown and Gaten Matarazzo-she now works with on Stranger Things. "I'm the mom, but I'm not really the mom," she says. "It's not really my place to be like, 'You don't have to go on Instagram.'"The best advice she has for them harkens back to her own childhood: Kids should have a home to go back to that is away from the business.
Much like Ryder still does, wherever "home" may be. For now, it's at a friend's apartment in New York City, where she's staying while filming the HBO miniseries adaptation of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, an alternative history in which Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by trans-Atlantic pilot Charles Lindbergh. But she has maintained a home in San Francisco, so she's currently "sort of bicoastal," she says. "I'm actually always trying to ask myself that