Debra Winger has a reputation. Read almost any profile from her 41-year career, and you’re likely to find the word “difficult” mentioned a time or two. Winger’s squabbles with Shirley MacLaine during “Terms of Endearment” are the stuff of Hollywood lore. Protesting the misogyny she’d experienced on-set, Winger refused to participate in publicity for “An Officer and a Gentleman” (more on that later). In 1986, when asked about working with her on “Legal Eagles,” Ivan Reitman said, “Talk to her other directors. Debra works out of a nervous tension, and she thrives on that tension.” Nonetheless, Winger remained a sought-after actress, earning three Oscar nominations along the way.
In 1996, disappointed with the quality of the scripts she was offered and the experiences she’d endured, Winger left Hollywood for six years. She’s emerged several times since, including a standout turn in “Rachel Getting Married,” a guest arc on “In Treatment” and, now, a headlining role opposite Tracy Letts in “The Lovers.” Winger and Letts play a long-married couple embroiled in extramarital affairs who discover a spark that threatens to reinvigorate their relationship. It’s a romantic comedy that twists most romantic-comedy conventions.
Winger has given many interviews to promote the movie over the past few weeks, and most descriptions of the 61-year-old actress praise her warmth and candor ― the opposite of someone often branded “difficult.” As of Wednesday morning, I can confirm that sentiment. Letts arrived at A24’s offices for our interview at the same time I did, and as we sat down with Winger, she twinkled at the sight of her co-star, who is best known as the Pulitzer-winning writer of “August: Osage County.” (He’s also Carrie Coon’s husband, which is a sterling credential by itself.) Winger had a book in her hand when I greeted her, and our discussion remained lively and humorous, even while implicating her so-called reputation.
What are you reading?
Debra Winger: Oh, Brecht. You sort of have to balance the publicity tour with Brecht.
You guys have been —
Yes. You’ve been all over the place over the last couple of weeks.
DW: I’m sick of myself. How about you?
Tracy Letts: I was sick of myself before this started.
DW: I figure in my case — not his — I’m just going to stick my head up from the ground every seven years and see quite a big shadow, and now I’ll just go away for a long time, I promise.
Every time you resurface, it feels like an event. “Debra Winger is back!”
DW: Yeah, but is it worth it? Isn’t this film worth it?
DW: OK, so I rest my case. It was a short one.
Is it that you’re not getting many offers in between, or do you just not feel like working much?
DW: That’s really none of your business [laughs]. No, I’m kidding. I choose what I choose. I did it when I was younger, too. The most I did was one film a year in those days. I haven’t changed.
Even if you were only doing a movie a year, profiles from the ‘80s and early ‘90s consistently brand you as the “it girl.”
DW: Yeah, the “it.” That’s exactly it — they make you into a thing. I just think it’s so refreshing when you get to talk to somebody where you’re having a conversation, not this weird language of celebrity. I was just watching “Fargo” to see [Carrie Coon’s] work, and it’s so refreshing when you see an actor coming and you know they’re going to do what’s right for them. The machine isn’t going to eat them up. I guess I was just that person. I think maybe I came up in a time when nobody fought the machine. But right now, it’s a little easier to fight it because there’s so many people.
And celebrities’ actions reverberate more intensely because of the proliferation of media.
DW: You get out of a car without any underwear and you’re on the cover of a magazine. But I’m just saying that I think what I talk about is worthy of talking about, so that’s why I do this.
Carrie Coon is a good example of an actress who is thriving in her wheelhouse and avoiding the bullshit.
DW: Right. I really am just so rooting for her. Now Tracy really gets to just be quiet and listen. He’s not really awake yet.
Because of your characters’ parallel storylines, so much of “The Lovers” is dependent on how the movie came together in the edit. The violin score is delicate and surprising. I’m sure you’ve both had experiences where the finished product does not reflect the movie you first imagined. What were your reactions upon first seeing this one?
TL: I was delighted to see how closely it resembled what I thought it was going to be when I read the script. It looks the way I thought it was going to look, which is great. The music was the wild card. I didn’t foresee that, and it’s such a great additional element. It’s sort of an additional character.
DW: Right. What [director Azazel Jacobs] is referencing, from enthusiasm and love, are movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Inside his head, that music was always happening. But because it originally wasn’t put in the budget, I think he was surprised that A24 just said, “Yeah, go for it, man.”
The movie works because it’s sympathetic to both of these characters. The audience never forms an exclusive loyalty to either. We constantly shift back and forth as the storylines unfold.
DW: Yeah, I loved that. That was probably my biggest surprise seeing the film. It challenges your preconceived notions of “Well, he is lying to her” and “She is lying to him.” It really shifts allegiances, and I think that’s so lifelike.
Do you feel like it’s a romantic comedy? Is that an apt label?
DW: I feel like it was running headlong toward romantic comedy, and then the safety pin in Azazel Jacobs’ ear got caught on something and pulled us into mystery. I think it’s a mystery. Every love story is a mystery.
TL: I don’t get some of the genre distinctions. I don’t know what necessarily makes a romantic comedy. I guess you know it when you see it, right?
DW: It has a bad connotation to me.
You were the it girl during the modern rom-com boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
DW: Yeah, I don’t know what rom-com means. Was “The Thin Man” a romantic comedy? Because it’s so much deeper than the words “romantic comedy.”
TL: Is “Annie Hall” a romantic comedy? I don’t know.
DW: Right. So I think “romantic comedy” means “bad movies.”
TL: Well, let me tell you, I think to myself, “That’s a movie that has a certain lightness of tone and a fantasy ending and a fantasy idea of what love is.”
DW: It’s a very manicured look. And everybody feels good, and you don’t have to work very hard, and you don’t have to bring yourself to the film, and it has a billboard where a guy has a look and the girl is standing there and his pants are down around his ankles.
TL: I haven’t seen that movie.
DW: I’m just making up the billboard. And there’s a dog.
TL: If that’s the cast, this is not a romantic comedy.
DW: Although your pants were around your ankles a lot.
TL: They were. More than once. Literally and figuratively.
I love that so much of what these characters go through is expressed through wordless exchanges. Tracy, you said something a few years ago that’s interesting ―
TL: Oh, God. I’ve said a few things.
You talked about acting being an extrovert’s pastime. In this movie, you play a lot of introverted beats. In one scene, Debra’s character offers to share a bottle of wine one night, which is abnormal for this couple, and you cycle through a whole history of emotions internally while deciding whether to accept.
TL: I think of it as listening. In the theater, where most of my experience is, we work so much with language. But it doesn’t matter if you’re in theater or you’re doing improv or a film or a sitcom. It always comes back to listening. For me, in that scene, I can’t worry about trying to communicate something to Debra through my eyes, as opposed to just hearing what Debra is saying to me wordlessly. That’s really the key for me as an actor, just trying to be present and available to my partner and listen to what she’s saying by not speaking.
DW: I like that. Listen to what I’m saying by not speaking. I say that to my husband all the time. He doesn’t always listen.
Once you started acting for a camera, was it hard to learn how to telegraph emotions in a less outsized way?
TL: Yeah, if your experience is onstage, you have to learn to modulate. It’s so hard to learn it as a craft if you just work as a day player, or a week here or a week there for a number of years, as I did. But I have to say it was the experience on “Homeland,” just the ability to go on a set regularly and start to learn people’s names and get comfortable, not feel like an interloper, but feel like I’m actually part of the thing. Your shoulders can start to drop and you can start to be comfortable with the fact that there’s a camera in the room and just start to tune your listening skills a little bit. Then the modulation just flows from there.
DW: But I have to say, with modulation, my favorite moment in the film is in that scene, his response to “Would you like a glass of wine?” I just say, “Show that clip for the movie. That’s it.” He’s shaking his head no, but he says yes. I just remember watching him going, “Holy fuck!” So I don’t know about modulating because that would have worked from the balcony.
Debra, you’ve been open in the past about experiences in your career —
DW, looking at Tracy: “I’ve been open in the past ... ”
Let’s say you’ve been outspoken about experiences where you didn’t get respect.
DW: Did I use “respect”? Are you sure I used the world “respect”?
Let’s see, I have a quote right here.
“I do need respect, and I didn’t get it.” That was referring to “An Officer and a Gentlemen.”
DW: Oh. Well, that was human respect. That wasn’t, like, respect for my acting.
Right, that’s what I mean. You’ve said men on the set would hand you water pills to try to make you slim down.
DW: We’re talking a real low bar [laughs]. But most of those people are dead, so I can’t speak about them. And I hope that they’re resting in peace, but I doubt it. It wasn’t Richard Gere, which has always been misconstrued. It was the producer aspect of that. That was tough. And for a young actress, we’re often victimized by that. I think there’s a lot more talking about it today, so we’re less apt to fall for it, but really, I was thrown to the sharks.
Had you said what you did about “An Officer and a Gentleman” today, more people would have rallied behind you. Actresses are encouraged to talk about bad experiences like that now.
DW: Thank God I did it then. I didn’t need a rally. I probably needed a mom and dad who got me a little more ready, but God bless ‘em, they had no idea where I was headed, nor could they have imagined how I would be treated. I would often call my mother in the middle of the night saying, “I don’t want to do this.” She’d say, “So quit.” Which is great because you want to think of most parents going, “You have to be strong.” My mom would go, “Get out!” And that would make me stronger. I’d say, “No! I’m going to do it, but I’m going to get it right.”
TL: I’m not so sure you’re right about that, actually, that people would rally behind the person who says that.
DW: Yeah, they’re eager to eat you.
So many actresses now speak of the pay gap in Hollywood and being mistreated by powerful men.
DW: But they’re talking about — let’s be honest. Oh, God, don’t say this, Debra. Don’t say this.
TL: You say whatever you want.
DW: No, I’m just saying, often, as women beautifully are, they’re opposing things. So they may be talking about those things, but they’re cutting their faces and they’re doing things to comply with a sense of beauty and celebrity that works against being honored for who they are. I have a problem with that. I have no judgment on what people do to make themselves feel better, but it’s hard. It’s like making $6 million on a film and then doing a telethon to raise money for whatever. I say we cut a few steps — we put a bucket out in front of the dermatologists’ offices and just put the $10,000 in the bucket for Haiti and don’t get the facelift. Oh no. I said it. Carrie will still be my friend. Sorry! I really honestly say and believe, “To each his own.” But I do see the hypocrisy in that, and women begging to be respected for who they are, but we can’t really see who they are anymore. We certainly can’t see who they are at a certain age. I’m not saying I look great — I’m saying it’s tough, let’s deal with it.
With the collection of experiences you’ve had —
DW: I’m so fucked. This will be on HuffPost. Oh, God [laughs].
But how do you know, in taking a project today, that you’ll get the respect you deserve? How do you decide an offer from, say, Jonathan Demme or Azazel Jacobs is worth accepting?
DW: It’s a crapshoot. But you have a feeling when you’re sitting with them, and it’s a collaborative thing, so you hope for the best. That’s the exciting part about making films: It’s a collaboration and you’re taking a chance. It’s a leap of faith.
Well, see you in seven years, Debra.
DW: I’m so fucked. People will rally around me, Tracy! Tracy, they’re going to rally around me!
TL: And they will.
DW: You’re so right that they would not.
“The Lovers” is now open in limited release. This interview has been edited and condensed.