Winona Ryder was born Winona Horowitz and named after the town in which she was born, Winona, Minnesota. She grew up in a ranch commune in Northern California which had no electricity. She is the goddaughter of Timothy Leary.
Her parents were friends of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and once edited a book called "Shaman Woman Mainline Lady," an anthology of writings on the drug experience in literature, which included one piece by Louisa May Alcott. Winona Ryder was later to star as Jo in this author's Little Women (1994).
Ryder moved with her parents to Petaluma, California when she was ten and enrolled in acting classes at the American Conservatory Theater. At 13 she had a video audition to the film Desert Bloom (1986), but didn't get the part. Director David Seltzer, however, spotted her and cast her in Lucas (1986). When telephoned to ask how she'd like to have her name appear on the credits, she suggested Ryder as her father's Mitch Ryder album was playing the background.
Ryder was selected for the part of Mary Corleone in The Godfather: Part III (1990), but had to drop out of the role after catching the flu from the strain of doing the films Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990) and Mermaids (1990) back to back. She said she didn't want to let everyone down by doing a substandard performance. She later made The Age of Innocence (1993), which was directed by Martin Scorsese, whom she believes to be "the best director in the world".