Somehow, Debra Winger hadn’t heard the old joke about the three ages for women in Hollywood – babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.
When I ran it by her, I heard the familiar Winger laugh.
“I think I skipped district attorney,” she cracked.
That isn’t really true – she was in the lawyer drama Legal Eagles – and it isn’t really true that her latest role falls into Category 3.
Winger stars in The Lovers (opening Friday), a movie that comes by its title honestly. The onetime ingenue star of Urban Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman has – at 61 – been given one of the most sexually candid roles of her career.
She prepared for it by being a 61-year-old woman.
“I think that I have an ego, but, look, if you’re altering your looks, working out more than any normal human can work out in order to achieve a certain, unreasonably perfect standard, you’re not going to be able to tell a whole bunch of stories. You’re going to end up limiting yourself. I’ve always been a poster child for `Let’s take the makeup down a notch,' ” Winger said.
In The Lovers, she plays a woman in a long, fraught marriage to an inattentive and unfaithful man, played by Tracy Letts, the actor and playwright (he wrote August: Osage County). Both spouses are having affairs – she with a younger man (Aidan Gillen). His is acknowledged, hers is not, leading to intrigue that adds unexpected, unpredictable spice to their relationship.
For Winger, it means R-rated scenes with two different men. Winger knows that’s unusual territory for an actress her age, but she says the constraining factors that affect actresses apply to women in all walks of life.
“You see the trap that’s there for women, to be desexualized. For one thing, you do it to yourself. You’re picking the kids up at school, you don’t want to be dressed provocatively. That’s not my thing, anyway. I play it kind of safe. I’m lucky to have a healthy marriage, a husband who’s always telling me I’m looking great.”
Winger is winning praise for the role (“her radiance shines through,” said Variety) and for her work in the Netflix series The Ranch, playing a bartender and sounding board for her son (Ashton Kutcher), a former pro athlete now adjusting to life out of the spotlight.
Winger knows all about that. After a lucrative career and a trio of Oscar nominations (Terms of Endearment, An Officer and a Gentleman, Shadowlands), she grew weary of limited choices in Hollywood, and so she made a radical one.
“For me, the antidote for it was just to have a life. To choose the kind of life I wanted, not just the kind of role I wanted,” Winger said.
She married actor Arliss Howard, moved to a farm in Sullivan County, N.Y., and raised children – essentially taking 20 years off, though she returned from time to time to take supporting roles in movies like Rachel Getting Married.
It takes a lot to get her back – she mulled over The Lovers for five years, working with writer-director Azazel Jacobs (who directed the HBO series Doll & Em), until the script was just right – for Winger, that meant a nod to the movies of the 1970s (John Cassavetes, Bob Rafelson) that made her want to be an actress.
“It’s a small story, a concise story, very low-budget, but it’s so full of life and so true, at least as far as these characters are concerned,” she said.
Winger is excited about new platforms like Netflix, new types of stories, and new specialty film companies like A24, which backed The Lovers and recently backed Moonlight all the way to a best-movie Oscar.
I asked her whether these new avenues will mean more opportunities for people who had been marginalized by the old Hollywood system she rejected.
“I think that’s probably true. There’s that old adage, women should write more. And I’m all for more people having the opportunity to tell their own stories,” Winger said. “But I have to point out this story was written by a 43-year-old white guy, and it’s one of the best roles I’ve ever had.”
The cheating spouses in The Lovers are involved in lengthy affairs. The movie mines that situation for a strange sort of comedy – their dormant marriage becomes a refuge from the demands of extramarital affairs, and though the subtext remains unspoken, husband and wife begin to sense they have a lot in common.
“We’ve all bought into these ideas, the institution of marriage, owning a home, having a job," she said. "We’re told you need all of these things to have the American Dream, and so often part of it doesn’t work out, so you have this whole sector of America white-knuckling it.”
Winger said the movie was shot in the home of an Iraq war veteran who rented the place to help make ends meet.
“Believe me, they were happy to have the income. They were not making it, but we’re all under this pressure to look perfect.” she said.
Winger said her time on the farm keeps her away from the politics of Hollywood, and from politics in general.
“I can’t even watch the news channels anymore," she said. "I try to find the least-biased place, but it doesn’t exist. I defy you to even name it.”
Her refuge is performing, a vocation she plans to return to now that her children are grown.
“That’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the years. It’s really magical for me, that space between 'action' and 'cut.' What I get out of it is sacred, and I don’t use that word lightly. The way I feel when I’m working is the way people feel when they go to church.”