In the early 1980s, I did a number of celebrity interviews in New York City for Philadelphia’s venerable evening newspaper, The Bulletin. In late January 1982, I was excited to have an interview scheduled with one of my favorite actresses, megastar Debra Winger, about her new film Cannery Row. But a day before the interview, wouldn’t you know it, the 135-year-old paper folded. The fates were not kind. It would take another 35 years before I finally got my interview with Debra Winger.
The extremely personable actress said, “I love that story” when I told it to her last month when we met, fittingly, in New York City to talk about her new film. The Lovers is playing around the country, including at the UA East Hampton Cinema. And it’s a big deal because the actress who won our hearts in Urban Cowboy and went on to receive Oscar nominations for Best Actress for An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment and Shadowlands is starring in her first motion picture in 15 years. She’s playing opposite the super-talented Tracy Letts in Azazel Jacobs’ offbeat film about a middle-aged married couple, Mary and Michael, who suddenly are physically attracted to each other again and begin to cheat on their respective lovers, Robert (Aiden Gillen) and Lucy (Melora Walters).
Winger’s return the screen is a welcome homecoming. Many of us worried that when she deliberately stepped away from Hollywood, it was permanent. There was even a movie about it!
Danny Peary: When Rosanna Arquette interviewed you for her 2002 documentary, did you know its title would be Searching for Debra Winger?
Debra Winger: It wasn’t titled that. I did the interview because Rosanna had been very kind when my husband Arliss Howard and I made Big Bad Love, which he directed and I produced, and we both starred in. Rosanna was in it, and believe me, the conditions were tough over a 32-day shoot and she was a real trooper. So she told me, “Oh, I’m making this little documentary about women in Hollywood called State of the Art, so can I interview you?” I said, “I don’t like to do that kind of thing but you were really kind to us, so I’ll do it.” So that’s how that happened. Two months after we talked, she called and said, “I never intended it to be called Searching for Debra Winger, but I figured I wouldn’t get a lot of other actresses to speak to me if I didn’t call it that.” It was very nice of her to call me because my name is public domain and she didn’t have to ask for permission. Arliss assured me—famous last words—“Who’s going to see it?” It turned out to be a huge hit. It is a subject that, for whatever reason, fascinates people.
DP: You say in the documentary that you hadn’t chosen to never make movies again and that you hadn’t permanently retired, but did being in that film influence you to eventually return to acting?
DW: No. I never saw the finished film because I didn’t want to answer questions about what I said in it. Big Bad Love already had awakened me to the fact that I love making movies, that I love the feeling of collaborating with others in that way. I keep waiting for a certain age of entertainment journalists—present company excepted—to phase out so I don’t have to answer the same question over and over, “Why did you retire?” You got it right that I never really retired, I just didn’t get the “game,” I was never someone who liked celebrity.
DP: Surely some people asked that question because they missed you. Movies missed you.
DW: That touches me. I know what you mean, and separate from myself, I missed me too and the possibility for me to exist in films. Although it looks very modern, I do think The Lovers rekindles something, energetically, that I felt when making films in the past. That’s what enthused me about being in it. When I pop my head up like a groundhog every seven years or so, in each thing I do, however small—Rachel Getting Married, In Treatment [on HBO]—I do try to infuse that thing that lit me up years ago. I hope that in the future there will be a sector of movies like this where I can do my thing.
DP: I read that before its writer-director, Azazel Jacobs, even had a project in mind for you, it was you who approached him, writing him about his previous movie?
DW: Yes, I thought Terri was a lovely movie. There was something in that movie that really moved me. I knew he is the son of radical lefty [experimental filmmakers and artists] Ken and Flo Jacobs, and when I met him I found him very interesting. Azazel wears a safety pin in his ear, he is a big fan of The Clash, that kind of thing. He sort of busted me on my expectations. Yes, it was Terri that I responded to, but it was the contrast between the film and the filmmaker that made me feel enthusiastic about working with him.
DP: What did you two talk about before and during the making of the film? You are known for being demanding with your roles because you care so much about getting them right, so were you on the same wavelength?
DW: Oh, gosh, we talked about so much. We talked about Mary and Michael’s relationship and the type of people they would seek out for affairs. We went through the script and I read it out loud to him. It was great. We became very, very close. About being on the same wavelength—he was making the whole movie. I spoke to him about everything but he was the one who decided where to put the camera and made all the other choices. It wasn’t a collaboration in regard to the filmmaking.
DP: When people ask me if The Lovers is a comedy, I say, “Not exactly.” What do you say?
DW: One critic who “got it” compared The Lovers to films by Eric Rohmer [a revered French “New Wave” director of elegant, intelligent and chat-filled seriocomedies], and it does have a similar tone. But when asked, I say it’s a mystery. It’s a mystery to me why we have to categorize films, but we do, so I’ll say I think it’s a mystery because it’s about love. Every film about love is a mystery, and The Lovers is a lovely investigation into love. We can be so free in other parts of our lives, but when it comes to love, this unbelievable, magical thing we have with another human—a connection that totally enlivens us and helps us see ourselves—what the hell are we doing? We have love but then we have this institution called marriage. I’ve been married 25 years and, of course, it has wonderful aspects, but it’s a death-like institution that doesn’t make it easy to grow and change. It’s constructed to keep things the same. It’s constructed, out of innocence, to make a family and keep everybody safe. But to keep love alive in there is difficult.
DP: It’s jarring that Mary’s first line in the film is, “Hey, I love you,” and then we see she’s not saying it her husband but to her lover.
DW: I love the way Azazel opens the film where we don’t know who Michael or Mary are expressing their love to. We don’t know if we are seeing two permanent couples rather than a married couple with their lovers.
DP: In the early scenes in the movie, before Mary and Michael start having sex again and cheating on their lovers, we see them having difficulty after years of marriage even to look at each other, stand or sit close to one another, or talk about anything more personal than purchasing toothpaste. When playing those scenes, were you thinking your character is in pain because she sees the relationship has really gone downhill?
DW: I think at that point in the movie, Mary’s in a primal, animal mode. She has all of her senses, and physically she’s feeling a bit of discomfort. You know, the feeling of walking on egg shells around someone you know so well, and all the time your mind is going, “God, I can’t believe I’m doing this” or “He knows I’m not really mad,” or whatever it is we go through. It’s almost childlike what we do in marriage.
DP: According to their grown son, they had been unhappily married for years by the time they have affairs with Robert and Lucy. Have they had earlier affairs?
DW: He did. I think it’s clear that it’s not the first time for him because of their son’s reaction to what’s going on. I think Mary might have gotten tired at some point and just said, “Let me see what I can find.” I think the feeling Azazel expressed in there, without overstating it, is that Michael was a serial philanderer.
DP: Viewers may wonder if she used to be more suspicious of him, because she doesn’t pay much attention to what he’s doing outside the house anymore.
DW: Right. You have to think about all the years that have passed. She once paid attention and it was hurtful, but she was raising a kid and when he was little that required all her attention and energy. She wouldn’t have had time to watch Michael or have an affair herself. Now he’s at college. I approached it as if Robert is Mary’s first affair. Sometimes, and I don’t know if this sounds sexist, but in my experience the female spirit is the one who usually upsets the applecart. For the most part, men don’t want things to change too much, but his wife walks in and says, “That shirt looks like s**t on you.” Or whatever. My instinct in playing this was: The minute Mary started changing, the whole thing blew up. Before that, she was going through life, accepting things.
DP: How long do you think they were a good couple, until their son was born?
DW: I’d say about a dozen years. I didn’t feel that their relationship had been so bad for so long. I felt that what happened to their marriage was a gentle falling asleep. Because what they had is still so close to the surface that it doesn’t take much to stimulate it. They didn’t look at each other anymore, they stayed away from each other, but it’s not that they are fighting. Maybe there had been fights over his affairs but I didn’t see these people as violent or malicious. I would say that’s the most salient point.
DP: They also don’t seem to feel too guilty.
DW: They were just yearning to find that lost feeling that lights them up, and they found it with other people. But I do think they both feel bad about it. They are feeling a bit sheepish since neither of them is proud of what they’re doing. They never intend to hurt the other. Mary doesn’t say, “I’m going to have an affair and throw it in his face.” It’s not like Sissy riding the mechanical bull in front of Bud [John Travolta] in “Urban Cowboy”—a slice of Americana that holds up—which was in his face, and was about jealousy.
DP: Do you think if they were not having affairs they would suddenly become attracted to each other, or have their libidos been awakened by their affairs?
DW: That’s a good question. It’s hard to say. Is that spark between them that once lit them up still the same as it once was? In the middle of the film, when they sit on the bed together after he gets out of the shower and she’s getting ready for work, is a moment of agelessness. They’re in the bodies they’re in. She’s older and tired and he’s not looking the same as he did when he was young, but, though we didn’t know them years ago, we read in their eyes that they see each other like on the day they met.
DP: They have passionate sex, very probably, for the first time in years. When reading the script, did you think that would instead be the moment when they finally get the nerve to confess to each other that they want to leave them for their lovers?
DW: No, I never thought that was a confession scene. Even when reading the script for the very first time I never thought that was coming. They’re a couple who—and a case in point is the phone conversation they have about ordering duck at Chinese restaurants—speak to each other in code. Most couples eventually do that. They don’t really need to talk.
DP: Viewers begin to sense that they are really seeing each other again for the first time and remembering their connection. So it looks like they may change their minds about breaking up. Without giving away the ending, were you surprised by what happens?
DW: I felt it was always fluid. I dealt with it as, “You know what? We don’t know until we get on the ice.” I thought maybe Azazel would feel differently, but I just dealt with it as I do life, which is, “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
DP: Did you notice how often Mary and Michael say “I’m sorry” and “I apologize” to each other and friends, often adding “I’ll make it up to you?”
DW: I didn’t. Wow. That’s really interesting. To each other, what they are likely saying is empty and doesn’t mean anything. They aren’t really sorry, and they’re not going to make it up to them. In regard to apologizing for breaking appointments and lunch dates with others, those words are perfect. They say so much about living a lie. You’re always letting someone down.
DP: Although Mary and Michael have drifted apart, do you agree that viewers might want them to come together again because they’re each better than the people they’re having affairs with?
DW: I don’t think it’s a qualitative thing. I don’t judge them that way. There’s so much water under the bridge in their relationship. Who knows what we were like when we were at the age they fell in love. Feistier? Angrier? Who knows? Whatever fueled you in the beginning sort of dissipates.
DP: In such films as Urban Cowboy, An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment, your characters come across as feisty fighters who always stay true to who they are and their values, and men always have to come around to their sides. We rooted for those young women. Do we similarly root of Mary?
DW: What I loved about Azazel’s script is that he was nimble enough so that viewers are constantly changing their allegiances. You start out saying, “Well, Mary is a bad person because she’s having and affair. And Michael’s a bad person because he’s lying.” You kind of get to the point where Robert and Lucy are the wronged people because Mary and Michael aren’t being fair to them. Because of what they have been promised, Robert is planning a life with Mary and Lucy is planning a life with Michael. But your view of the characters may change later in the film. I liked that Azazel kept us shifting who we rooted for. I always love my characters so much, whatever they’ve done. If we could only do that in life, and really love ourselves in a pure way, it would make us so much stronger out in the world. Somehow I am able to do it with my characters so easily, with my whole self. That’s what you’re responding to, and the question is: “Who do we root for and why do we root for them?” Bad guy, good guy—it doesn’t matter. The one with the most open heart is who we root for.
DP: Was it important for you, at your age, to be sexual on the screen?
DW: It was. I told Azazel, “I’m giving you a yes to this film, and I’m telling you we shoot anything and I trust that you’ll cut in a manner that is right.” And he did. We shot the sex for two days. We shot everything, so he could have cut it in many different ways. Including sex was very important to me. We’re not glorifying the sex, we’re not exploiting it, we’re just showing it’s part of life. Why don’t we ever get to see carnal love between two older people? It’s like we just tucked that away. The point was to show connection at any age. In The Sheltering Sky there is that painful moment when my character feels the urge to make love to her husband but they cannot connect, and it’s a really painful idea of sex. In my earlier films and The Lovers, sex is an aspect of connection. I think that anything that I’ve done has been about connection and I haven’t done any gratuitous sex since [my 1976 debut film] Slumber Party ‘57—and I learned my lesson early on. Maybe other actors and actresses don’t talk about sex scenes in regard to connection and communication between characters, because they are so shocking to do. It’s very hard to feel comfortable when doing them, but luckily on this set, between Tracy, Az and I there was a lot of trust. It wasn’t an issue. Tracy and I said to Az, “Here’s what we did, use it if it helps you tell the story.” That’s what it came down to.
DP: In an interview in a national magazine recently, you talked about how when you go to the grocery store, young cashiers don’t know who you are and you’re fine with that. But are you appreciative of people like me who were your fans 20 and 30 years ago and are still are fans?
DW: Yes. I love talking to people who love film and what I do for a living. And I think I’m pretty good at taking a compliment. It’s just that celebrity is a whole other thing that has very little to do with film. It’s weird and scary, and the people who love that thread I never could connect to.
DP: Does The Lovers make you want to make more films?
DW: That’s an easy answer. Yes! So if I get offered another role like this and get to collaborate—and get a few more days to shoot it because I’m not getting any younger and could possibly make more than my cab fare home—this is the kind of experience I crave.
The Lovers is playing at United Artists East Hampton Cinema Saturday at 4:20 p.m. and 9:55 p.m. and Sunday at 4:20 p.m.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.