Winona Ryder talks being a 'Stranger Things' mom and Gen X icon: 'I was never the first choice'

Brian Truitt

Generation X might feel this in their gut: Someone had the audacity to once say, “OK, Boomer,” to Winona Ryder.

Granted, she didn't know what they were talking about. Ryder admits that her young “Stranger Things” co-stars usually are the ones making her hip to modern slang.

“The kids just explained who ‘stan’ is, by the way - like to stan something. Stan is a fan,” she says proudly.

“Forever, I was like, ‘Who's Stan?' So I am in the know there, even though it makes no sense to me. In a way, I think I'm lucky that I don't know what is an insult.”

Fresh off a move from Indiana to California, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryders) embarks on a big adventure in the fourth season of Netflix's "Stranger Things."

On the horror-tinged Netflix show (premiering its fourth season Friday), Ryder, 50, is “Stranger Things” main mom Joyce Byers, fresh off a move from Hawkins, Indiana, to California when she embarks on a globe-trotting adventure. But the actress – who had a breakout role as goth teen Lydia Deetz in 1988’s “Beetlejuice” and then starred in seminal films such as “Heathers” and “Reality Bites” – is also the pop-culture matriarch for a series that wears its 1980s influences on its jean-jacket sleeve.

“She felt like such a huge part of our lives growing up,” says Ross Duffer, who created “Stranger Things” with his twin brother, Matt. “Once we cast her in Season 1, that's when the show found its identity, and it just all clicked into place.”

While Ryder – who's been in a relationship with fashion designer Scott Mackinlay Hahn since 2011 – doesn't have children of her own, she calls her young co-stars "my loves. I know it's such a cliché, but they're like family. I'd do anything for those kids."

The actress, 50, talks about Joyce’s role this season, why she’s glad to be a Gen Xer and which classic role she’s looking forward to reprising.

'Stranger Things':Season 4 trailer is full of surprises

More:Is ‘Stranger Things’ a rip-off? Aspiring screenwriter sues Netflix, Duffer brothers for script similarities

Winona Ryder wears a Kate Bush pin at the "Stranger Things" Season 4 premiere in Brooklyn.

Question: You wore a Kate Bush pin to the “Stranger Things” premiere. She has a song that factors into this season’s plot, but are you just a fan?

Winona Ryder: I’ve been obsessed with her since I was a little girl. I've also for the last seven years been dropping hints on set wearing my Kate Bush T-shirts. I don't know if you did this, but in my school you had to dress down for P.E., and sometimes I just wouldn't. I'd just sit there with my headphones listening to her. She's a hero of mine.

Q: What’s new about playing Joyce this season?

Ryder: I feel like in the past, she's trying to figure things out. She's got the Ouija board on the wall, or (she's) taping together Will's drawings. Very crafty. But this season, she is literally fighting for her survival and to save the people she loves. She doesn't really have time to plan or use her critical thinking, which was really fun as an actress, actually.

Q: You experienced firsthand a lot of what the kids in the show do, from Walkmen to roller rinks. Over the past four seasons, what piece of nostalgia has meant the most?

Ryder: In Season 1, there was a record player, and some of the kids didn't know what it was. I had to explain what records were. (Laughs) That was wild to me. And also explaining rotary phones, they just didn't grow up with them. But I really related to the kids and was super protective of them because I had been doing that, working on films at their age. 

Q: Would you have done something like “Stranger Things” in your teenage "Beetlejuice"/"Heathers" years? 

Ryder: If “Stranger Things” was around then, the nostalgia would be like the 1960s? I don't know. I was very like my character in “Beetlejuice”; they actually didn't have to do a lot to me. I was very pale, I had that hair and I was very monotone. (Laughs) That's why I credit Tim Burton with giving me a career: I was never the first choice for any of those movies in the ‘80s.

Winona Ryder (second from left) co-starred with Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofolo and Steve Zahn in the 1994 drama "Reality Bites."

Q: Gen X has been labeled the "Forgotten Generation" between baby boomers and millennials/Gen Z. What are your thoughts about how our generation fits into the world?

Ryder: It's so weird. I just remember we very purposely never said “Gen X” in “Reality Bites,” even though it's associated with that expression. That was this label they slapped on us, but then it really caught on. (But) I will say this: I'm super grateful that I didn't grow up with the internet and social media. I don't think that I could have been an actress if everything was that exposed. It would've just flipped me out. There's a lot of young people who just can't even imagine a world without the internet.

I remember the first time I called a boy. You practice, you're so nervous and you write things down and get up the nerve. It was a real character-building thing. I was 14, and of course it was a disaster, but you learn how to get up the nerve. Kids don't have to do that anymore – they can construct witty texts.

Gen X:The Super Bowl halftime show was a rude awakening for 'old people'

Winona Ryder, who starred as goth teen Lydia Deetz opposite Michael Keaton's title character in the 1988 film "Beetlejuice," is game for a sequel.

Q: Are you down for joining the “Beetlejuice” sequel that's in the works?

Ryder: I'm in! I'm definitely excited and I'm really hopeful that it'll happen. The only way we would do it is if everything was perfect and we had all the people – obviously Michael (Keaton) and obviously Tim. That's what I love about Tim. He's such a perfectionist. He can't do something unless it's completely his vision. It’ll happen if it can happen the perfect way.

Q: After four seasons of playing Joyce, do you hope Lydia is now a mom?

Ryder: I can't imagine she would've had kids. Can you imagine even a pregnant Lydia? That would be the last thing she would want. (Laughs) She doesn't even want to be on Earth. She definitely doesn't want to bring someone into this world. I could be wrong, who knows?