Debra Winger is back. The legendary actress earned three Oscar nominations in the ‘80s and ‘90s (for An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment, and Shadowlands — three extraordinary performances) and last won raves nearly 10 years ago as Anne Hathaway’s mom in 2008’s Rachel Getting Married. A little-known fact about the actress is that she dabbled in her early career as a stand-up comedian, and so in a full-circle kind of moment, she’s also recently entered the realm of half-hour comedy, playing Ashton Kutcher’s mom on Netflix’s The Ranch.
The Lovers, also, is a film wholly dependent on Winger’s odd, wondrous comedic rhythms. She stars alongside Tracy Letts (a veteran stage actor and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of August: Osage County) as an unhappy wife and husband, each engaged in an adulterous relationship outside the marriage, who are on the brink of calling it quits when they embark on a new affair — with each other.
You could say the movie, directed by independent film wunderkind Azazel Jacobs (Momma’s Man, Terri) is sort of an arthouse cinematic spin on Rupert Holmes’ cornball classic “Escape (The Piña Colado Song),” — and the year of that song’s release, 1979, also might have been the era when a nuanced, idiosyncratic human comedy like The Lovers would have been a huge hit. “It has all the strength of an independent film,” Winger says when asked what drew her to the project, “but it has the feeling of an old-timey big movie.”
Winger, by her own admission, is a happy warrior from that 1970s and ’80s filmmaking tradition. And during a lively conversation, Winger — in between talking about Kendrick Lamar, Colson Whitehead, Rilke, Kristen Stewart, O.J.: Made in America, and James Baldwin — discussed that nostalgia for the old business, the new movie, and her carefully pruned career.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So in the public imagination, I feel like you’re sort of one of those flowers that blooms every seven years or something.
DEBRA WINGER: Oh, that’s a nice way of putting it. I’ve heard it put so many different ways over the years.
I’m assuming that you still get offers to act in things all the time. Did The Lovers just come at the right time?
No, it was a difficult time because I had just finished another job two days before. But I definitely had seen Momma’s Man and Terri, which was Aza [Jacobs]’s last film, with John C. Reilly. I had seen Terri at a theater in New York with my son Noah, and we waited afterwards because we heard the filmmaker was going to be there. I waited just to meet him and tell him, Thank you for that experience.” Then I wrote him a note and just said, “Hey, man, if there’s ever anything that you think of that we could do together…”
Oh, really? Do you write notes to directors often?
Occasionally. Not very often. But, man, also when I saw Clouds of Sils Maria, I went, “Wow, there’s some of the movies I love coming back in fashion.”
Definitely. It’s an incredible movie.
Oh, yeah. So I wrote Olivier Assayas a letter. I do that because I don’t know how else it works.
It would so cool to see you in an Assayas film.
Well, I got a quick response, but I was writing first as a fan. I don’t if I can wrench him away from Kristen Stewart. Maybe I can play her mother.
I won’t jinx it. Let me ask about The Lovers. In the movie, you’re half asleep in bed, and you kiss your husband. And it shouldn’t feel awkward, but it does. Is that a metaphor for your relationship with the film business?
Well, I’ve always wanted to do movies for the process, not the business. The business has gone so kerflooey. But, yeah, I guess. This movie is sort of all about: How do you make love last? How do you stay in love when you’re kinda sick of it? How do you stay in love when you’re fighting, how do you stay in love when somebody is lying to you?
And that’s where this movie lives and breathes. It explores the weird strains that develop in long relationships.
Exactly. This past Thanksgiving, I had my husband [Arliss Howard] and my stepson’s mother and my oldest son’s father [Timothy Hutton], all of us all together at the house. That was a first. And it was great. There wasn’t that strain, finally. I think after the election, a lot of people felt, whatever side you were on, “Just, wow, who can I feel close to? Who can I not feel the anxiety out in the world that everyone is feeling right now?”
And did working on The Lovers help you to explore that more? Because the subject matter sounds so—
Bioidentical? Yes. Yes. Aza and I were in ongoing conversations while he wrote the script. I think that’s not a coincidence. We were sending each other versions of the script for two years going, “Not quite there, no, this isn’t for me yet.” Then we would have these long conversations, lunches, whatever, and I know that this story came out of him but also was informed by the fact that we were going to work together.
What was Tracy Letts like to work with? I know him mostly as a playwright.
Most people do, but he’s just a fantastic partner to work with as an actor. I think he’s just finding this groove right now in movies. It’s kind of funny to me. Suddenly we’re seeing him everywhere. And he’s just physically, to me, so endearing. I wish that we actually had more scenes together. It’s kind of funny that we shot so much of this film apart from each other — which tells you a lot about marriage. When you’re married that long and you both work jobs, you break it down and how much time do you actually spend together?
This was shot pretty quickly, I would think.
Thirty-two days, yeah. But that’s not unusual for an indie. I mean, my husband and I made Big Bad Love in 32 days. And I line-produced that, so I know intimately what 32 days has in it.
What was your longest shoot ever on a film? Was it The Sheltering Sky?
Yeah, that was close to five months. Urban Cowboy was pretty long too.
When you think back, was there something ultimately satisfying in those long, epic film shoots?
It was pretty brutal. But I think it’s all in the rich tapestry. I’ll probably end up quoting Rilke here and not myself because if you have a Rilke quote that says what you want to say, why would you say it? “The road from inwardness to greatness passes through sacrifice.” I always feel that when I’m in the teeth of something — well, when I was younger, I thought it was awful. Now I see those awful moments as great opportunities.
It reminds me of Shadowlands. There’s that amazing line that you have: “The pain is part of the happiness.”
Oh, yeah. “That’s the deal.”
“That’s the deal.”
I used to say afterwards, “Comma, sadly,” but, you know, it’s really rich to have enough adversity pretty early on that you’re ready for the suffering. Because without it, I don’t think there’s much worth, you know? I mean, I’ve listened a lot to Kendrick Lamar. This is his kind of gospel. And man, oh, man. Oh my God. It’s so magical. Just the fact that he can bridge a whole sort of genre that I might not connect with is a beautiful thing. I’m a 60-year-old white woman from the Midwest. What can I bring to anything that can help bridge something to something?
Are you always searching for those opportunities?
I hope so. The house that we rented for Los Angeles to shoot The Lovers, it was like a character in the film to us. And the guy we rented from is an Iraqi vet. He needs to rent it to us because he can’t make his nut. So to me, that all becomes part of the film. That we’re shooting in this house, [depicting an] American couple that is living right now in what should have been upwardly mobile home, but which is now barely middle class.
And that all becomes part of the experience?
It’s in the fabric, whether you consciously think of it or not. You look at that neighborhood and you go, “Oh, I know those kinds of neighborhoods.” Then if you thought about it, you would realize, “Oh, yeah, when we’re talking about the last presidential election, those are the stories we’re hearing about.” People who put down for a house that were promised this, promised that, who are going belly up, whose homes are being sold from underneath them, who have kids in school, is it charter, is it private, you know? It’s all those questions in the background of just shooting in that house.
You’ve always spoken your mind. Do you think it’s easier for actresses to be a little more outspoken now? For someone like Lena Dunham, for example, just to have more of a personality in interviews.
I don’t really know. I mean, it’s nice to be polite sometimes, and sometimes it’s necessary to be impolite. Not on-purpose-impolite. It’s necessary to do what you have to do, no matter the consequence. I think what’s stupid is to live in social media. I do have a judgment on that. If you’re a public person and making that deal with that devil, then you’d better be ready to pay a piper, right? I don’t want to sound like Trump, but a lot of them seem like they’re in their basements with fuzzy slippers.
But how much do you notice a gender line there?
Well, yeah, I have no doubt that women on social media are persecuted more. And you know what? Women, since the beginning of f—ing time, have suffered more inequity and more inequality. I mean, it’s in our DNA to rise up. And we’ll still have your children. And we do it because we’re strong enough to do it.
Do you see a lot of current films? I’m assuming you’re an Oscar voter.
I am. So I see all the ones where they have the money to send out screeners. But that isn’t always where cinema is. [There was] a long time where that just wasn’t my jam, you know, watching what the Oscars were doing. But now they’re a little bit more representative, I think, maybe? I don’t know. It’s year to year. They seem to have actually synced up a little bit. I just love that a film like Captain Fantastic can get a nomination for Viggo Mortensen. I sat in an empty theater when that opened at the Lincoln Square theater in New York. But two weeks later, that audience was filled, so that’s how it still works. It’s got to be able to sit there for a minute.
What are you reading right now?
I was just reading Colton Whitehead’s newest book, The Underground Railroad. I’m on the very last chapter.
What do you think of it?
Well, you know. I watched seven hours of O.J.: Made in America, then I watched I Am Not Your Negro. James Baldwin was my hero when I was a teenager. But to have those recent experiences and then to read this book, it’s almost like I’ve had this open dialogue inside myself, which I just have to admit, I haven’t had enough in my life. I’m thinking of James Baldwin saying to Dick Cavett, famously, “America is not going to be okay until it figures out this problem.” It makes the hair stand up on my neck because I know it’s true, and I know it’s true at every level.
That’s the power of art in a nutshell, right?
Totally. And that’s why I love Kendrick Lamar, too. Know thyself, you know? That’s what it’s about. We’re all trying to get there.