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Winona Ryder reveals her real-life battle with anxiety

The ”Girl, Interrupted” star says she feared for her sanity working on her new movie

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Winona Ryder
Steve Granitz

Playing an emotionally unstable teenager in ”Girl, Interrupted” (opening Dec. 21) was a task Winona Ryder felt a little too qualified to tackle. The 28-year-old actress backed out of ”The Godfather III” in 1990 due to overwhelming anxiety attacks and, like her character in ”Girl,” voluntarily checked herself into a mental hospital (at the time, her last-minute departure from the Coppola film was attributed to a respiratory infection). ”It was very scary, because the role [in ”Girl”] did mirror a lot of stuff I’ve been through,” she says. ”I was terrified to play a character who was full of fear and anxiety knowing that I have been full of fear and anxiety, and it’s not something that’s just past tense for me. It’s something you battle with your whole life.”

To tell the true-life story of author Susanna Kaysen, Ryder had to find a method to relive her own madness. ”You have these trunks inside yourself of fears and anxieties, and when you’re on a plane or experience a loss, they kind of open up and this fear pours through you,” she explains. ”You try to shove it back in the trunk, and you can’t. And for the movie I went back into these trunks, these dark places I didn’t want to go back to.”

That’s why the set became an emotionally dangerous place. ”To play an anxiety attack, you have to get an anxiety attack. And I didn’t know how to put a lid on that when they said ‘cut,”’ Ryder explains. ”My heart would still be going a million miles an hour, and I would be sweating and I would feel like I felt when I was 19 and felt totally alone and couldn’t describe to anyone in the world how I was feeling.”

Ryder is speaking out now in hopes that the film — and her own dark experience — will help others who are grappling with their fears. ”I’m a very lucky person and very privileged, but I also have the same pressures as any human being,” she says. ”Since I’ve talked about my anxiety, I’ve gotten a really good response. Young women were grateful to learn that it happens to everybody, even to people they consider perfect people with perfect lives.”