When Debra Winger was in her 30s and people called her "outspoken" or "difficult" – meaning, "She has opinions" and, "She says them out loud" – she didn't care. She was plucking plum roles and earning Oscar nominations (three, including for Terms of Endearment). When haters whispered, "It must be her time of the month," if she took extra minutes in her trailer to prepare a scene, she shrugged it off.
"If it were Robert De Niro or Al Pacino taking that time, they'd be labelled serious and everyone would be really quiet when they came on the set," Winger says with a laugh. She's on the phone in her car in Los Angeles, driving from rehearsals for her Netflix series The Ranch (she plays Ashton Kutcher's iconoclast mom) to a hospital to visit a friend. Her voice is warm and husky, and still bears the flat vowels of her native Ohio.
"I had so much energy for the fight, I wasn't fazed by it," she goes on. "I speak out when there's injustice or indignity, but mostly I get on with my work. If you want to be a sexist or a racist, you better not be in my way or hurt anyone in my scope. But if you're suffering your inner problems, that's your evolution. I feel bad for men who don't see what they're doing. But those aren't the men in my life and they're not going to stand in my way."
In the late 1990s, so the Winger mythology continued, she tired of the fight, and stalked away from Hollywood (an impression exacerbated by the 2002 documentary Searching for Debra Winger, which was really about the dearth of female roles). But her absence wasn't about rejecting work; it was about spending more time with her sons: Noah, from her first marriage, to the actor Timothy Hutton; Gideon (Babe), from her current marriage, to the actor Arliss Howard; and Sam, Howard's son from a prior marriage.
"I'm not being a poster child for it, I just wanted to raise my kids," Winger says. "When I was working on location, no matter how much they were there with me, I don't know that I was there." She still worked intermittently – for example, her juicy turn as Anne Hathaway's mom in 2008's Rachel Getting Married. "I just didn't go full out for every role I could find. I never didn't like acting." She laughs again. "People would ask me, 'Where have you been?' Well, just not in the same place as you."
Winger turned 62 this week. Her youngest is in university. And she's diving back into work with "fresh feeling about everything," she says. "I'm in a good place. Every day is essential. That's how I've always lived, but I feel it anew. I'm excited to tell some real stories."
Her new film The Lovers, opening Friday, is as unvarnished as it gets. She and Tracy Letts play an unhappily married couple; each is having an affair and about to leave the other. But unexpectedly, something reawakens between them. Writer/director Azazel Jacobs wrote the script with Winger in mind – they'd been friends since 2011, when Winger saw his film Terri and was moved enough to send him a letter.
"I'm so grateful to address the confusing subject of how to make love stay," Winger says. "How do you do that? So many of us want a long relationship, yet have a love/hate relationship with that wanting. We fear becoming boring, turning into someone we don't want to be." She and Howard have been married 21 years. Letts recently wed the actress Carrie Coon. Jacobs came to set every day wearing a Clash T-shirt and a safety pin in his ear. It's a testament to his writing, Winger says, "that there's room in it for all our points of view."
The film also dovetails with the political, the missing middle class, she adds: "It's about people who are white-knuckling their lives because they can't afford the luxury of separating. They have jobs, not careers. They're trying to madly express themselves but they can't afford psychotherapy."
Winger thinks most contemporary films "miss the point" by not dealing with real lives. People chide her that films can be simply entertaining. "But that isn't my deal," she says. Lately, though, she's seeing "an opening for hard stories to be more palatable. Maybe because the news is so bad, maybe audiences are toughening up and are willing to work a little harder."
As far as making her own marriage last, "That falls under the broad category of, 'I don't know anything,'" Winger says. "Full disclosure, we would have been divorced four times if it was up to me. I'm a fleer. I would have tried to cut my losses. But Arliss decided, 'This is where I'm staying.' And each time when the feeling passed, God, was I grateful that he was standing there."
Two years ago, turning 60, Winger "prepared for a huge experience." She spent the birthday alone at her farm in upstate New York (she also lives in New York City), and had "an amazing experience of feeling totally enlivened by the fact that I'm here, relatively healthy. It amazed me that I made it." She snorts a little. "It wasn't exactly a new feeling, though. We women get our mortality sandwich long before 60.
"And I feel so many of the same things I felt at 29," she continues. "So many! I feel like a little kid. When I was a little kid I felt like an old person. I'm not afraid of aging. I don't love my face, so I own a few less mirrors. Soon I'll just have the one over the bathroom sink to make sure I don't have spinach in my teeth. But I'm forging ahead with the face I've got."
I ask if she's happy. "Oh, jeez, that's such a minefield," Winger replies. "I am, as much as I've ever been. I'm accused on a regular basis of being intense. But people's perception of 'happy' is strange to me. The days when I can really feel my life, it doesn't matter what I'm feeling: sad over a sick friend, angry about something, fighting for a better part. That fully engaged feeling is what I refer to as happy."
The hardest times in her younger years, Winger realizes now, were about "feeling all alone in the world, that nobody understood me. The longer I live, I really kind of see that we're [expletive] in this together. Not just me and the people I love, but the world. It's why people are in so much pain about our current political picture. They hate the divisiveness, the creating a chasm from a small separation."
For Winger, being intense means being in the moment – "in present tense," she says. "People say, 'Whoa, back off, there's time.' I don't feel that. I never have felt that. The only thing I know for sure is that there may not be another moment."