At this point, any movie starring Debra Winger is worth our attention. Since taking a break from Hollywood for six years at the height of her fame in the mid-’90s, the three-time Oscar nominee has maintained a mystique as the One Who Walked Away. Which overlooks the fact that since returning to acting in 2001, she has worked steadily, on projects such as Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” and the recent Netflix sitcom “The Ranch.”
“But we like that mystique,” Winger says in a recent interview in Los Angeles, breaking into her unmistakable, irrepressible full-throated laugh. “Don’t list any of my credits. Let’s stick with the mystique. It’s self-perpetuating sometimes; it doesn’t matter what I do.”
What she has done now includes “The Lovers,” in which Winger stars as Mary, a woman having an affair behind the back of her husband, Michael (Tracy Letts). He is too distracted to notice or care because he is carrying on an affair of his own. (Aidan Gillen and Melora Walters play their respective paramours.) An impending visit from their college-age son (Tyler Ross) and his new girlfriend (Jessica Sula) becomes a catalyst for both Mary and Michael to truly shake things up.
With its powerfully understated and finely detailed performances from Winger and Letts, the picture is a welcome return for writer and director Azazel Jacobs, whose previous film was 2011’s “Terri” starring John C. Reilly and Jacob Wysocki. (In the interim, Jacobs worked on the television series “Doll & Em.”)
The chemistry between Winger and Letts, the flinty sparks that fly between them, gives “The Lovers” much of its energy.
“I did not know that was going to happen until the first day of shooting. That was a total welcome surprise,” Jacobs says in a separate interview. “They just from the beginning found this groove with each other and challenged and inspired and just brought everything to a much higher level. It’s what you’re always hoping for, but it’s hard to aim for, hard to expect.”
They just from the beginning found this groove with each other and challenged and inspired and just brought everything to a much higher level.
Jacobs and Winger kept in touch, and he tried out a few ideas on her, but it wasn’t until the exploration of marriage in “The Lovers” that she grew interested enough to participate.
Winger, with bare feet, slim black jeans and a black button-down shirt, sits alongside Letts, the award-winning playwright and actor, who on this day in a West Hollywood hotel suite wears brown boots, gray jeans and a grey fitted T-shirt. There’s an easy back-and-forth between the two, with a cheerful lightness replacing their on-screen marital tension.
I am changed the way people grow and change, but I’m not mellow. Ask him.
While both of their characters in the film carry on affairs outside their marriage, neither Winger nor Letts ever judged them for it, feeling it more important to understand why they behaved the way they did.
“It’s a really interesting thing to consider what are the things you are willing to judge other people for. And that line changes as I get older,” Letts says. “I’m getting to be a combination of less judgmental and more thin-skinned.”
The movie’s elegantly roving visual style began in part when a Steadicam wouldn’t work and cinematographer Tobias Datum suggested a very long dolly shot instead. While Jacobs was initially skeptical, once he saw how well it went, he continued down that path, particularly after he noticed how well Datum and Winger collaborated.
“Debra, she knows camera like I’ve never experienced in an actress,” Jacobs says. “I’ve never witnessed anybody fall in sync with a cameraperson like that. He’s always predicting where the actors are going, but she could just as easily tell where he wanted to go.”
Since Winger’s breakout role in “Urban Cowboy” and on through films such as “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Terms of Endearment,” “The Sheltering Sky” and “Shadowlands,” she has been bringing to the screen performances once described by the late L.A. Times critic Charles Champlin as “vibrantly sensual.”
At the same time, she garnered a reputation as a difficult collaborator, leading Shirley MacLaine to notoriously refer to Winger’s “turbulent brilliance” in an Oscar acceptance speech. Winger also didn’t mind saying publicly when she didn’t like how a picture had turned out, which broke with many of the unspoken protocols of Hollywood decorum.
We’re not pushing the needle by talking about it. Something must be done. Measures must be taken. I don’t want to talk about it.
So, has she changed at all in how she approaches her work?
“Nope. So you go figure,” Winger says with a hint of mischief. “I am changed the way people grow and change, but I’m not mellow.” Looking toward Letts, she adds, “Ask him. I am not mellow.”
Letts jumps in, adding, “In terms of this film, Debra wasn’t hard to work with for me at all. I think it’s not talking out of school to say she liked me, she liked the director, she liked the [director of photography], she liked the script.
“Debra isn’t somebody who suffers fools, and let’s also identify this out loud, she’s a woman. And if a woman expresses an opinion, and if she expresses it however she expresses it, grumpy or demanding or whatever spin you want to put on it, there’s a whole different value placed on that because she’s a woman.”
“I can’t disagree with this very intelligent man,” Winger says with a smile. “And I didn’t ask him to say that.”
As Winger has been making her way back into the spotlight over the last few years, it has coincided with a moment when the attention to women in Hollywood, both behind and in front of the camera, has amplified and picked up momentum.
“I so ignore it,” Winger says. “We’re not pushing the needle by talking about it. Something must be done. Measures must be taken. I don’t want to talk about it. It’s the first argument I had with Gloria Steinem, and we continue to have that argument every week when we go out to dinner. I get going out when you have a specific goal or a cause or something you need to accomplish, but opening up ‘a conversation about women in film,’ I swear to God, I don’t get it.”
She pauses, then adds, “I’m going to get in trouble for that.”
The sense that Hollywood pushed Winger away, had no place for someone like her, is what led Rosanna Arquette to title a 2002 documentary on women and Hollywood “Searching for Debra Winger.” (Winger herself has never watched it.) Winger grows suddenly tongue-tied when asked to address the idea that she is an oracle for a younger generation of women.
“You do it by example, not by what you say,” interjects Letts. “You’ve done it by example. You’re not going to say anything to summarize the experience of women in Hollywood.”
“True,” Winger says, “but I wish that the strength could come from somewhere other than the source of pain. That’s the clue I’ve found, and young actresses, I can pick them out, I can see them, and there is a fearlessness and something scary about them at the same time. Because they come with a fierceness that says, ‘I am not going to look for my power from the source that wants to take it away. That’s not who I am going to get involved in the struggle with. My sense of power is going to come from my life. And from, in a way, ignoring that fact that you think I shouldn’t be here.’”
She nevertheless seems well aware of the totemic fascination she holds for people as someone who made her own decisions regarding what is now referred to as “work-life balance.” But she is also very conscious of the kinds of movies she both wants to be in and wants to see, movies rooted in relationships and genuine human experiences.
For Winger, “The Lovers” is not a small film.
“I think it’s right-sized,” she says. “I think this film is right-sized.”
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