Those eyes—sepia-colored and impossibly wide—helped Winona Ryder captivate a generation of moviegoers in the ’80s and ’90s. She used them to marvel at ghosts in Beetlejuice, stare daggers at the popular girls in Heathers and become a movie star. And even now what she can do with them inspires awe in those who work with her. “She would be laughing and joking with the crew, then do a scene where she had to burst into tears,” says Gregor Jordan, who directed Ryder in the recent drama The Informers. “I’m in awe of actors who can switch on and off like that.”
Ryder turns on plenty of emotion in the box-office smash Star Trek—in a small role (as Spock’s tragedy-beset mom) that marks the 37-year-old actress’s first major studio movie since 2002. Where has the Gen X touchstone—once a Hollywood superstar who dated Johnny Depp and Matt Damon, was best friends with Gwyneth Paltrow and garnered two Oscar nominations—been? Building a quieter life, far from the scrutiny that followed her arrest for shoplifting more than $5,000 worth of clothing from Saks Fifth Avenue in 2001. “Right now she loves being an actress, and she also loves the life that she has on the other side of that camera,” says Kim Collea, her friend and makeup artist on Stay Cool. “She’s a happy person, but she’s also a very private person.”
Her headline-making 2002 trial abruptly ended Ryder’s run as an It Girl. “The attention she got was so cruel,” says Collea. “It was difficult emotionally for her.” According to friends, she has spent much of the last seven years in San Francisco with her family, engaging her passions for books, classic film and, yes, fashion—she’s a regular at boutiques and vintage shops. Waiting for her agent’s call? Not so much. “Doors may have shut for Winona, but I don’t get the sense she was clamoring to get them open,” says a source who worked closely with Ryder in the early ’90s and feels the actress has been treated unfairly. “She had one slipup. It is time for Hollywood to forgive her.”
Ryder has already moved on. Five years after her conviction (she was sentenced to nearly 500 hours of community service) she explained the incident as the result of confusion brought on by painkillers she overused after breaking her arm. “That happening, in a very weird way, was a blessing because I couldn’t do [painkillers] anymore,” she told Vogue in 2007.
To be sure, the Ryder returning to the limelight—she attended Trek‘s Los Angeles premiere and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala May 4—is more guarded than the one who left it. “It was like she put these walls up and she wasn’t going to let anyone new in,” says a source who worked with her recently. Gone are the rock star boyfriends: A former paramour of Soul Asylum front man Dave Pirner and singer-songwriter Pete Yorn, Ryder’s been single since her breakup with Rilo Kiley guitarist Blake Sennett last year, say friends. Now she spends nights with pals watching movies at home. Most significantly for those who know her best, Ryder—who has been open about her battles with depression in the past—seems at peace. “Everyone has their ups and downs in life, and hers were in the public eye,” says her Stay Cool costar Mark Polish. “But she is in a good place in her life now.”