She pulled off one of the great disappearing acts in Hollywood, but it’s still easy to spot Debra Winger in a crowd. Sitting in a Manhattan restaurant, the actress looks much the same as she did riding the mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy, swept up and away in the arms of Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman, and hugging her children farewell in Terms of Endearment. Her long, dark curly hair has a reddish cast now, but even behind pale tinted sunglasses, she can’t hide those big blue opaly eyes.
Pauline Kael hailed Debra Winger as “a major reason to go on seeing movies in the eighties,” but after a long run in films like Betrayed, Black Widow, The Sheltering Sky, and Shadowlands (which brought her a third Oscar nomination), Winger quit Hollywood in 1995, stopped making movies, and became a New Yorker.
“You could tell she was disenchanted with the business,” says her friend, novelist Tom Robbins. “She liked the work, but not the other stuff. And Hollywood is mostly about the other stuff.”
Winger was 40 when she walked away. Now, after a six-year absence, she is back in Big Bad Love, playing the ex-wife of a struggling writer. Produced by Winger, the emotionally charged independent film is directed by and co-stars her husband, Arliss Howard. He knew what he was in for, having been through another labor of love with her when their son, Babe, was born in 1998. “She looked up in the middle of this particularly crushing contraction, saw a group of people staring at her through the half-opened door, and said, ‘In or out, in or out …’ The tougher it gets, the funnier she gets,” Howard says. “And there’s nothing sexier than a truly, deeply funny woman.” Especially one that can act. “I don’t know if Hollywood deserves her or is entitled to her,” Robbins says. “But it will certainly benefit from her return.”
Arliss told me you were standing on a road in Ireland in 1995 and you said, “That’s it, I’m done.”
I wanted out for years. I got sick of hearing myself say I wanted to quit. It’s like opening an interview with “I hate interviews!” Well, get out! I stopped reading scripts and stopped caring. People said, “We miss you so much.” But in the last six years, tell me a film that I should have been in. The few I can think of, the actress was so perfect.
This is the first film you’ve produced.
The endless phone calls! Sometimes I think I could slash my wrist. But it takes six minutes and 55 seconds for your blood to circulate out of your body, and my family won’t leave me alone long enough.
How do you know that?
I looked into it once.
Were you nervous to be onscreen again?
No. Maybe before we started. Working out the hair and wardrobe. You realize as you’re talking to people that they assume that you want to look younger. Nobody even questions it. It’s assumed by the photographer or the photo editor that you want everything taken off your face.
Most women are freaked out about getting older.
We’re all freaked out. You just have to be freaked out quietly. It happens about 42, 43. You can feel where it’s going to go. Here’s my recipe: Live with fewer mirrors. It’s part of the reason for doing fewer movies, because you have to start every morning with two hours in front of a mirror. I mean, who wouldn’t be depressed? I am not saying it’s easy to age. But women have to be really vigilant because the world is geared toward helping you to look younger at every turn. There’s a small club of women who are willing to age.
An Officer and a Gentleman was on television last night.
I did not have a great time on that set. Studio mishegoss. I was being really jerked. And most of those guys are dead now. So I don’t feel bad. People like Don Simpson – they were pigs. I’m sorry, may he rest in peace, but he’d go to dailies and bring me a water pill. They treated girls very badly. I was trying to stand up to it. And it was hard. I was really young. “Is she fuckable? Do I want to fuck her? Will I get to fuck her?” That’s all it’s about in that world. And I don’t go to the movies for that. It wasn’t about finding a guy I wanted to fuck. It was about dreaming about life.
I guess it’s safe to say you never slept with someone to get a part.
Laughs. I did the opposite of that – “I’ll sleep with you if you’ll let me out of this movie!”
Speaking of notorious Hollywood producers, you worked with Robert Evans on your big breakout movie, Urban Cowboy.
All I remember is the massive amounts of cocaine on the front of his shirt. What is he made out of? And I’m, like, 23 years old and I see Robert Evans, and that was Hollywood to me. It was kind of a gift if you think about it. Had it been any less ridiculous, I might have bought it. I might have bit.
You weren’t their first choice, were you?Sissy Spacek was cast, but John got bit by his dog and they had to postpone the shoot. Then her part opened up.
Michelle Pfeiffer was up for the role, too.Yeah. Michelle and I are about the same age. We came up in the business together, but now she looks like my younger sister. Hmmm, how does that happen? Takes a bite of crème brûlée. Mmmmm. That’s so good it makes me want to kick someone! It’s like those vinegar-and-salt potato chips that make me want to slap someone.
You see, you do have anger issues!
Oh, yeah, big ones. Big ones. To the waiter Come here, come here! Jokingly slaps him. Oh, he likes it!
You met former Governor Bob Kerrey while making Terms of Endearment.
He was 39 years old when I met him. These Midwest boys – he’d never been out of Lincoln, Nebraska, except to Vietnam and back. He was just wholesome and wonderful. Meeting him is a very funny story. At that time, Pat Kingsley repped me, and I wasn’t flying in those days. So I was taking the train from Texas to Nebraska when we changed locations. So I sent my luggage ahead and I hopped on the train. And I called her on a stop and she said, “You have a press conference as soon as you get in. I’ll pick you up.” I said, “I’m not doing a press conference!” She said, “You have to – we’re arriving in the town, you’re receiving the key to the city. The governor will be there. And he’s gorgeous and he’s single.” And I said, “Pat, I am not!” She said, “He’s a Democrat! And he’s a war hero!”
So I went barefoot in this calico dress because I was in character. Bob must have have seen me, and that was it for him. I can see it now from his perspective. Then I would get these unbelievable letters on the set. He was asking me out. They were written so beautifully, lovely – they were breaking my heart. He was wooing me! James Brooks was saying to me, “He has the Medal of Honor! I can’t believe you can’t sit and have dinner with him!” I said, “He’s not my type. He’s conservative. And he has a really big head!” The last letter said, “Come out with me and I’ll tell you some stories.” So I met him for dinner. And I looked up and I thought, He looks like a Martian. But that was the last objective thing I remember, because I fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with him. We walked, we talked. The sun started to come up. We fell so madly in love. I couldn’t stop listening to him.
I fell very hard. I know he did, too, so I can say it. And it was the real deal. It was just making those two lives meet that was impossible. I tried the pillbox hat for a while. But I couldn’t.
Had he told you about his Vietnam story?
I knew the truth. I had always encouraged him to tell, because I felt that the nation needed it. But he was probably right. At that time it was too early. People were just getting over even accepting vets back in any cordial way. I would have liked him to come out with it sooner. But that didn’t come between us. I always knew the truth.
You were married to Timothy Hutton, which seemed so out of left field. How did that happen?I don’t know either. It’s the weirdest thing. We hosted Farm Aid. I had freshly broken up with Bob, and I married Tim within a few months of meeting him. So you figure it out. There’s no bad blood there. I fell in love with him when I watched him on the Oscars Hutton won for Ordinary People when he said his father didn’t live to see him. He was 26 when I met him and 27 when Noah was born. I was 32.
You met Arliss on Wilder Napalm in 1993. He told me he could feel you coming down the hall.For me, it happened physically. I was thinking about the movie and I shook his hand and it was like the “Popeye” cartoon: I felt it going up my arm. We fought it – Come on! Oh, no! We’re old enough to know that love is not all sweet, wonderful times. And I had just decided that living alone and never being with anyone was really the answer. To my chagrin.
You’ve been together nine years, married for four.
There’s been bad days. There are days when you feel divorced, and if you don’t let that out, you’re in trouble.
I asked him what the key to your relationship is, and he said people don’t ever really know what makes them work, but every day he tells you, “I’m stickin’.”
And I usually say, “Who asked you to?” And he says, “Well, I’m here.”
If I could have one prayer answered, I would pray for patience. I move so fast sometimes. I try to slow down. Sometimes the house suffers. I have the greatest partner in the world. Arliss does laundry and washes dishes and is there for the kids. Totally kissy-kissy in that way. Still, the organization and the way a house runs is the woman’s work. I don’t think that I’m that easy to live with. I have to be reminded that I can have fun. I need my family to remind me in a loving and nice way to lighten up.
In 1995, you were two weeks into shooting your last film, The Divine Rapture, with Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp, when the financing fell through. What was it like working with Brando?
I first met him at an Andy Warhol party in 1979. Urban Cowboy wasn’t even out yet. I don’t have the Marlon thing. All the guys do, but to me, he’s a bit tragic. I love him because of what he was, and what he was is probably what hurt him. But I find him tragic. Because he’s very locked up. Locked in there. I do remember the day he slapped Johnny Depp. It was like a lover’s spat. Maybe he sees in Johnny the young him and wants to keep from happening what happened to him. I don’t know. He slapped him in a scene, but they were improvising – which is all you ever really do with Marlon. But we had fun acting together. He was wearing some Kabuki makeup. And he had dyed his hair red, because we were in Ireland. I have the footage in my living room.
And to think, he was such a god.
Well, there’s only one direction from there. And everybody ought to get hip on that.
What’s the most money you’ve ever made on a film?
I got out before the whole thing exploded. I was at the top of my deal, but it wasn’t anywhere near what happened when those other girls arrived. Would I be bitter about that? No. But it does put money in perspective. It’s like a merry-go-round: You go up and down, and sometimes you get the golden ring. But there are so many actors going for the ring every time that there’s nothing in between. There’s just golden rings. It’s boring. The money stands for something that’s just less quality. Arliss and I have the How Much Money Does He Need? game. Like when you see someone well-known in a commercial, you go, “How much money do you need?” I just never required that much money. It corrupts. Bigger house? Bigger car? Who cares?
Are you back now?
I’m definitely open to reading scripts again. I’m not interested in … I’ve hit my sell-by date on turkeys. I don’t want to try to be something I’m not. I’d love to work with Wes Anderson, Bernardo Bertolucci, Richard Attenborough, Agnieszka Holland, and Quentin Tarantino, depending on the material. I’ll tell you where I’m at: Yesterday, a photographer was shooting me for another magazine, and he said, “Ooooh, I love that freshly fucked look!” And since it was eleven o’clock in the morning, and I’d just gotten out of bed with my husband, I actually had been. I had that look. Love that morning stuff! At the same time, one of his assistants was saying, “Wow, you’re my mother’s favorite actress!”