Winona Ryder Once Explained Why She Wanted Ethan Hawke in ‘Reality Bites’: ‘Ethan and I Have a Connection’

It’s been more than 25 years since Winona Ryder and Janeane Garofalo staged an impromptu dance-off to “My Sharona” in a gas station convenience store. The 1994 Gen X slacker comedy Reality Bites is older today than its characters are in the movie and has graduated to the status of minor cult classic. But if it weren’t for the efforts of Ryder, the movie may never have existed. The Heathers star was instrumental in getting the film off the ground — and in casting Ethan Hawke, who played her on-screen love interest.   

Winona Ryder was key to getting ‘Reality Bites’ made  

Ryder was a major movie star in the early ‘90s and had recently earned an Academy Award nomination for her work in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. She was sent a copy of the Reality Bites script (written by Helen Childress) and immediately expressed interest in making the movie, as she related in Uproxx’s oral history of Reality Bites. 

“Look, Winona gets a lot of the credit for this movie,” her co-star Hawke told Uproxx. “She had just worked with Scorsese. She was as big as an actor can be at that moment in time.” Ryder “wanted to give Ben Stiller a chance to direct a movie,” he added.

In the movie, Ryder plays Lelaina Pierce, a recent college graduate making a documentary about her and her friends’ lives. Her character is dating Michael Grates (Stiller) a young exec at an MTV-esque cable channel, but she also has feelings for her emotionally unavailable slacker friend Troy Dyer (Hawke). 

Winona Ryder says she felt a ‘connection’ to Ethan Hawke 

Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites
(L-R) Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites | Universal/Getty Images

In addition to getting behind Stiller as a director, Ryder also threw her support to Hawke, who had at that point only appeared in a handful of movies, including Dead Poets Society and Alive.

“A few other names came up, but I really had my heart set on Ethan, and I actually didn’t really know Ethan, either,” Ryder recounted. “But I’ve always felt like, I don’t know — Ethan and I have a connection. He started really young like me. We both had obsessions with Salinger. We listened to the same music. He was someone who I just really felt an affinity with.”

Ryder’s instinct that Hawke was the right person for the role of Troy was spot on, with Hawke later admitting there was a lot of himself in the character.  

“[Troy] was another aspect of me. Pretentious and self-serious and full of himself and wildly insecure,” he told GQ in 2018. “It was guys I knew, guys I wanted to be, guys I didn’t like.”

Ethan Hawke credits Winona Ryder with changing his career 

Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke at the Tribeca Film Fest
Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke | Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

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Hawke has said that he’s grateful to Ryder for lobbying that he be cast as Troy, saying that the movie helped change the course of his career. He also praised her for supporting a script written by a woman. 

“We all are indebted to Winona using her strength and her power at that moment to care about another woman’s voice, to really caring and giving it a chance,” he said at a Tribeca Film Festival panel celebrating the movie’s 25th anniversary, according to Vanity Fair. “I’m indebted. Winona believed in me, Winona got me this job, and this job changed the trajectory of my career entirely.”