Debra Winger's life has enough stories to fill a dozen movies. Want to hear about overcoming adversity? When Winger was 17, a car accident put her in a coma for weeks and left her partially paralyzed and blind for 10 months, during which time she vowed that if she recovered, she would become an actor.
How about a great discovery story? As a struggling unknown actor, she crashed an audition and won the coveted role of the brash, sensual Sissy, opposite John Travolta, in Urban Cowboy, which made her an instant star. A hint of scandal? It's no secret Winger has had tense relationships on set, such as with her An Officer and a Gentleman director, Taylor Hackford, and her Terms of Endearment co-star Shirley MacLaine. And how about a tale with a surprise twist? After turning 40, with three Oscar nominations to her name, firmly ensconced as a sought-after actor, Winger did the unthinkable: She walked away.
Which, of course, leads us to everyone's favorite kind of story: the comeback kid. The problem is, it's not an accurate description, at least not in Winger's eyes. She understands the fascination with her choice to take time off to pursue other interests, including raising a family with her husband, actor-director Arliss Howard. And her break has been noted; Rosanna Arquette even made a documentary in 2002 titled Searching for Debra Winger that the actor participated in. But in reality Winger has continued to work over the years, appearing on stage and in indie films such as Eulogy and Big Bad Love (which she produced and Howard directed) and earning an Emmy nomination for her turn in the 2005 TV movie Dawn Anna. So why does everyone make such a big deal about a little time off?
Frankly, it's because we've missed her. Since she burst onto the scene in the late 1970s, audiences have known that Winger was something special. With her unmistakable throaty voice and take-no-prisoners gaze, she has captivated audiences. This month she makes a welcome return to the big screen in Jonathan Demme's drama Rachel Getting Married as Abby, the complex and distant mother of two young women, played by Rosemarie DeWitt and Anne Hathaway. There is much anxiety and anticipation built around the arrival of Abby at the rehearsal dinner, and when Winger appears on screen, she doesn't disappoint. Volumes are spoken in a single look between Abby and her ex-husband (Bill Irwin). Behind the calm façade, her deep blue eyes reveal a storm of emotions.
Winger is with the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, looking much younger than her 53 years and exuding an air of easy confidence and joy that seems at odds with some of her tortured onscreen characters. She speaks freely and honestly about everything — from the upcoming election ("I'm going to work for Obama in October because, you know, I have to. We feel this way every election, but I think this time it's really true that it's a crossroads for America") to roles for women ("I'm here now because I have some desire to look at what might be available at this age, and I'm interested in that again") to her new projects. Winger published her first book this year, Undiscovered. The tome — not unlike its author — defies easy description. It's intensely personal but not an autobiography; it's more a collection of poems, essays, and drawings that ruminate on a life as a daughter, a mother, and, occasionally, an actor.
Back Stage: Your big break came with Urban Cowboy, but your road to getting the part was sort of unusual, wasn't it?
Debra Winger: Urban Cowboy was through an open audition. I remember reading the article by Aaron Latham it was based on, fantasizing, "Oh, if I was just further ahead in my career, I would have an agent and go out for this movie." That's how much I related to the character of Sissy. James Bridges was directing, John Travolta was starring, and at the time Sissy Spacek was cast. I was going about my business, and then I saw in Drama-Logue this open call and figured it was for minor characters. I started calling people I knew that worked in agents' offices and found out that Sissy had fallen out. So I thought, "Maybe it is for the lead!" I had a commercial agent, but she couldn't get me an appointment.
Back Stage: So how did you crash the audition?
Winger: I got on the Paramount lot; I forget how. I think I knew one of the guards. There was this grassy area by [producer] Robert Evans' office. I sat on the stoop, and it was lunchtime, and Jim Bridges and Aaron Latham came walking back [from] lunch. I was dressed as I thought the character of Sissy would be dressed; that was my goofy approach. I had my tight jeans and a thick leather belt and a little tank top and my cowboy boots. And I said, "Hey, y'all!" I think Jim just thought, "This is either the most ridiculously outrageous thing or brilliance." It could have crashed. But I got a screen test off of that. I screen-tested with actresses you would know and some unknowns.
Back Stage: But the studio didn't want you?
Winger: It was war. Jim Bridges told me he wanted me and the studio said, "Who the fuck is she?" [Laughs.] "That's not gonna happen." He called me and said, "I'm fighting for you, honey." So I decided the best thing I could do was go down to [the bar where the story was set], Gilley's. I took the train down to Houston because I couldn't afford a plane, and I got a job as a waitress at Gilley's when this was all going on. Jim knew everything I was doing. I would leave him these little messages, "I'm on my way to Houston. If you guys decide that you can use me, I'll be there." In my brain, I thought, If I pay my own way, that will be a plus!
Back Stage: Well, it worked.
Winger: I don't know what worked. I think Jim was always going to give me that shot; he really was. The way I found out I had the role was John Travolta called me, which was really sweet. We had screen-tested together, and he had told Jim, "I want to tell her." It's a sweet story for a young girl.
Back Stage: Is that bravado something you would recommend to actors today? Winger: I don't think the world is the same, is it? I think it's a more cynical world. When I tell this story, it sounds like when I was coming up and I would have to sit around rolling my eyes reading stories about the actresses of the '40s discovered in Schwab's, you know? It sounds like an eye roller. You write this story, and I'll cringe. I'd love to hear today's version — probably the story of some blogger. It's something else. But there's always a version of the same story: You're in the right place at the right time. You're prepared. I think readiness is the thing that people forget about in what I would criticize as celebrity culture. It's great to have those magical moments where you're in the right place at the right time and you're seen — but are you ready?
Back Stage: And you were?
Winger: I was. I really wanted to be an actress.
Back Stage: But when you achieved success, you were okay with walking away for a while. Are you tired of talking about your hiatus from acting?
Winger: Yes. Because it is what it is. It's more of a Rorschach. I can tell more about the person asking — like the fact that you call it a hiatus. And I don't look at it that way, because I'm living my life. So if I had thought of it as a break, I would have planned this. I would have said, "In 10 years I'll work again." It didn't appeal to me. I got drenched in something. I got saturated. So I went out and lived and wrote a book and did some parts when I felt like it. I didn't look at it as something that was so cut-and-dried. And in the beginning, nobody really does look at their lives in that way, until it's in retrospect. Or unless the press is asking.
Back Stage: It's been presented as more of a definitive choice to step away —
Winger: But that's in the press, not by me. I never used any of those words. I just signed a little card that signed me off of my benefits from Screen Actors Guild. Yes, I definitely took a hard move. It wasn't like, "Eh." I said, "I'm not going to read anything, because I'll just be tempted." Honestly, the ratio of interesting projects had been widening for a long time. It was like [a ratio of] 1 to 7 interesting things. Then it was 1 to 10. And I thought, "I've got some things I want to do in life." And once in a while something would pierce through, and I did it.
Back Stage: How were those scripts able to make it to you?
Winger: For whatever reason, they made it through. Somebody was really persistent. They weren't necessarily coming from studios; that was the easiest thing to shake. I wasn't interested [in studio films] anyway, because I didn't feel like the movies were synonymous with how I felt as a human. I felt like you were forced to be overly perky and youthful. I won't go into any detail, but I think you know what I mean for a woman.
Back Stage: But you look amazing.
Winger: Well, that's nice, but — well, I'm trying to take the compliment graciously. But you see me. What I find compelling in women you can see in their expressions and the way they carry their bodies. I just figure that at some point there's a few of us out there that figure they'll catch up with us. The reality of the business will come around again for those of us that didn't buy into it. Let's just encourage each other — that's what we have to do. I think there should be a party-line pep-talk morning — 'cause mornings can be rough on a girl — wake up in the morning, and I'll call Patty Clarkson and Frannie McDormand, and let's all say, "Don't do it; let's hang in there!" We need this encouragement to find our way and feel great about ourselves the way that we are. So that we don't have to do it till we die. Because that's what you have to do with that shit: You have to do it till you die. Angie Dickinson was the first one to tell me that. She said, "You have to do it till you die. Because if you don't do it, it's worse than if you never did it."
Back Stage: You mentioned wanting to see what's out there for women your age. Have you been finding good scripts?
Winger: Because this phase has just begun, we'll see what's out there. I think it's only possible that the economics of the business has to find its watermark. It doesn't matter if I read a bunch of great scripts they're trying to get made. That's always been the case. Let's see what actually gets made. And let's see if filmmakers really do want women that look like people they know in their life. I think they do. If you look at the studios, we see more women involved in the studios and we see more people that understand that their mother looked a certain way that these actresses don't look like. And we want to tell these stories about people. When I was out there on the book tour, it was an opportunity to talk to women who said, "Please, can I see myself up there? Instead of what I'm meant to spend thousands of dollars looking like?" So we'll see.
Back Stage: How did Rachel Getting Married make its way to you?
Winger: That was Jonathan. It came from him directly, and I met with him, and his effervescence is very contagious. And he had this idea that he wanted to have this wedding and he wanted people to show up in character and he wanted to film it. And it sounded like a really interesting idea to me.
Back Stage: There are many scenes that didn't make the final cut, including one with you and your onscreen husband, played by Bill Irwin. Were you prepared for that?
Winger: Yes. I never question why a director — well, every director I've ever worked with will laugh at that — of course I question it. But in this case, I didn't. On [digital video], there's seven films being made. You're really giving yourself over to the director's cut in a way that you're not on film. You just had to throw your arms up in the air and go. But I do miss that scene.
Back Stage: Is it ever disappointing to see how a film turns out?
Winger: Oh, I think it's totally human to be disappointed. First of all, it's sort of cliché how an actor thinks the film is all about them. And now that I'm married to a filmmaker, I see you have to cut and slash and burn to make it your own. So I don't ultimately question it, but I do miss things now and then that round out your character. But it's essential to value the process continually — no matter how much you might feel a little addiction to success or feel a pull towards commercial stuff now and then. You know what the game is. It's essential to keep a connection to the process. That's why I can tell you I loved that scene; I don't have any bitterness. I'm curious. I loved the process of shooting it, and I always have that. That doesn't get taken away from me. I had a great experience shooting it and creating the character and my relationship with Bill, and that's there for me.
By the Book
Back Stage: You published your first book this year. What prompted you to write Undiscovered?
Winger: An editor. Without David Outerbridge, who the book is dedicated to, I simply wouldn't have done it. I love collaborating. That's probably why I love being directed and why I love to produce, which is bringing people together. I think in a way this book is as much a collaboration as it is my own writing. He had read some interviews with me and tried contacting me through my agent 10 or 11 years ago. I got these messages all saying, "Do you want to write a book?" And I didn't respond. Then I got a call from Liv Ullmann, of all people, one of my personal heroes and a woman who had written a book that I did read — and I rarely read autobiographies. It was a big experience for me back in the mid-'70s. She left a message, and I called her back, and she said, "You should answer my friend David's calls." I felt terrible. It turned out he had pushed her to write her book.
Back Stage: Undiscovered isn't a standard autobiography. How do you describe it?
Winger: It's been a problem. I had this list of words I shouldn't use, from Simon & Schuster — words that are certain death, like essay. But the fact is, it is a collection of essays on different subjects. I guess I try to be in a bigger conversation than just one sentence, so it intrigues you. Because if you're not intrigued to read it, there's really no reason. You're not going to get a whole bunch of information about someone's sex life. There's some. [Laughs.] Even though some of the things are autobiographical, I'm telling them from a sense of universal truths. Things I've learned being out in the world, speaking with other mothers and daughters and people from all different walks of life with all different dreams in their hearts.
Back Stage: Even though the book isn't about your acting career, per se, it seems like there's a lot of great information actors can draw on.
Winger: It's funny, I was talking to somebody who said he read it and immediately handed it to his 25-year-old daughter, who wanted to be an actor. And I was like, "Wow, that wasn't really something I had planned on." He said, "I just want her to know that no matter what she chooses, to keep an eye on the life, on everything being important."
Back Stage: Did you enjoy the writing process?
Winger: It was a really rewarding experience to go out on a book tour and have contact with humans. I sort of dreaded it. I'm not good at selling myself. But I didn't realize for years when I went out to promote something, I talked to the press. Not that that can't be fun, depending on the person I'm talking to. But it's not like meeting people and having a conversation about how something you did connected with something in their life. I had a blast.
Back Stage: You said you're not good at selling yourself, but isn't that pretty much what an actor does with auditions?
Winger: I was good at it early on; I'm not anymore. And I just did it the once; pretty much since Urban Cowboy, I haven't done it. I sold myself on that one and don't remember really doing it after that. I never fought like that again.
Earned Oscar nominations for her roles in Terms of Endearment, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Shadowlands; other notable credits include the films Cannery Row, The Sheltering Sky, Forget Paris, and Wilder Napalm
Appeared in such productions as How I Learned to Drive and Ivanov at the American Repertory Theatre
Was awarded a teaching fellowship at Harvard University through her friend Dr. Robert Coles; she taught a course called The Literature of Social Reflection. "It was a lovely course; it was like a syllabus for life. In the end I think any teacher will tell you that you learn more from your students than you could ever give them."
One of her early roles was as Wonder Girl, the kid sister to Lynda Carter's character on Wonder Woman. In interviews, Carter has said Winger made disparaging remarks about the show. Replies Winger, "I don't know what she's referring to except I used to make jokes about her costumes. But she did have these golden tits that stuck out and when she turned, they didn't. I was 18 years old, staring at these gold bazooms that didn't move. That's all I ever said. So there you go. Lighten up."
Write the author at email@example.com.