Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Debra Winger Is Back...Finally!
Expanded Edition of 6-13-08 Chicago Tribune Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
The luminous actress and now author returns in Rachel Getting Married, a recent portrait, the cover of her insightful book of essays,
at the Rachel premiere with screen daughter Anne Hathaway
Debra Winger, star of some of the most treasured films of the 1980s – Terms of Endearment, Urban Cowboy, An Officer and a Gentlemen
and three time Academy Award nominee – walked away from filmmaking in 1995 to raise a family with husband actor-director Arliss
Howard on a small farm in upstate New York. She’s only sporadically appeared in films since but now the actress has returned to the
limelight – this time as the author of her first book. “Undiscovered” is a lyrical collection of Winger’s essays on life in the country,
profound and funny insights into her personal journey, and occasional tantalizing anecdotes about her film roles. The book is as
individual and passionate as one would expect from Winger. She chatted with freelance writer Richard Knight, Jr.
KATM: You do realize that it’s hard for the public to understand your walking away from “Hollywood,” right?
DEBRA WINGER (DW): Well in their mind I’m walking away from their idea of Hollywood because (laughs) there is no “Hollywood.” I
wasn’t walking away from anything in my world, I was walking towards something. I think the only reason it became a big thing was
because so many people talked about it who don’t do it. But for me that was a good period of time to be gone from that kind of life
and major roles in that way. They weren’t saying what I wanted to explore in life and now I actually feel like there might be some
synchronicity again. It’s been about a dozen years; I’ve done so many other things and I’ve never lost my interest in acting. I
never left for that reason. I left more because of the business and I could have done theatre for those ten years.
KATM: That was one of my questions. You’re in the Catskills – theatre in New York is right there. Why not just do a play?
DW: Well first of all I wanted to be with my kids at night.
KATM: Okay, gotcha.
DW: I made that choice and that wasn’t the sole reason. I think there’s a pattern that when you find yourself—I don’t know, I
guess I’m allergic to certain things so you get to a certain age you play Medea, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Streetcar” (laughs) –
you've seen ‘em all. I don’t mean to be disparaging for those who do those roles but it was not my choice and nothing else was
coming, to be honest. Nobody was breaking down my door to do their new play because I didn’t really have a track record on the
stage. I had done some theatre up in Boston but I’d never done theatre in New York. So, I’m open now, I feel, in a way that I’ve
never been and who knows if anybody cares.
KATM: You write perceptively about women literally having the lines erased from their faces in our culture and especially in movies.
Does a hit movie like Sex and the City starring middle-aged women give you hope with regard to parts for women?
DW: I think it’s a great thing that women went out in droves to see that movie. I think it’s wonderful and I think women have
always shown they’re looking both to be entertained and challenged in a theatre. I don’t think women are afraid of movies that
make them think; make them feel sad. The movies that I’ve been associated with are not exactly Sex and the City but women are
leading the way to the theatre on those. They used to call it a date movie where the girl gets to choose.
KATM: Right. Now they’re called “chick flicks” but even that term is now a no-no.
DW: Right, we can’t say that. But you know, I think that in it is some wisdom. I remember the old joke, while women are deciding
which schools the kids go to, where you’re going to live, how the money’s going to be spent, and where your health care is coming
from, the men are out standing around the barbecue solving all the big world problems (laughs). So I think this is a well known fact
and we’re not breaking any new ground here.
KATM: Your co-stars from the early 80s – Travolta, Nicholson, Gere – all those guys are still box office contenders.
DW: Yes and I love all of their careers in different ways and I think it’s really interesting they can be with a woman their own age or
not in a movie. I think the best example being Clint Eastwood with that 30-something leading lady. If you have a woman with that
age disparity with a man that’s what the movie’s about (laughs hard). That’s the subject of the movie.
KATM: The one juicy tidbit from your book the gossip columnists have pounced on suggests Jack Nicholson asked you to tour
brothels in Germany to look for prostitutes.
DW: And it’s not even in there! That’s what is so funny. If you read the quote I went to brothels with Jack. If you’ve traveled –
especially in Berlin in the eighties when we were there – the best meal you could get was always in a brothel. It makes no mention
of what we’re doing there. I have to deal with these headlines saying I “outed Jack about his love of prostitutes.” As far as I know
he was the guy who left with me so I don’t know where the prostitutes came in (laughs).
KATM: I was going to ask you to come up with one more nugget. Did Richard Gere have milk breath or did Shirley MacLaine wear
too much perfume? You certainly have enough stuff to draw on, right?
DW: Well, I do but it’s kind of ancient history, don’t you think? I’m sure they’ve done a lot more interesting, lascivious and
dangerous things since I’ve known them. You’ve got one that has explored her other lives; one that travels with the Dali Lama; we’
ve all found our way.
KATM: Have there been any actors or films recently that have inspired you?
DW: Well I love that Charlotte Rampling has found her way back. I love Charlotte Rampling and I love these smaller films that she
has done. It’s not necessarily whether I love the film or not but I love that she’s found her way back and looks like a human. I
loved, um, okay, well, this is significant that I can’t put a name or the name of the film…she was nominated this year for an
Academy Award. She played an Alzheimer’s patient. You know who I’m talking about.
KATM: Julie Christie in Away From Her.
DW: Julie Christie, yes. Once again, the film is what it is but my God, I found her transcendent. So yes, I think these are very
encouraging things. I always have a hard time with that question because they’re kind of personal. It isn’t that I don’t want to say,
“Oh this person is wonderful or this person influences me” it’s that sometimes when you mention something it stops working for
you. It’s almost like superstitious. So I have that. I mean, I tell them if I meet them (laughs) and I also have now, in this
moment, I have projects of my own or with my husband (actor-director Arliss Howard) that I’m very excited and energized by and you
sort of get one pointed, you know, a fixation on that.
KATM: Your book is a very tantalizing warm up. You touch on things and then I’m hungry for more. I want to know about filming
Terms of Endearment, I want to know about An Officer and a Gentlemen and the unfairly overlooked Mike’s Murder, one of my favorite
DW: Well, when I’m ready to make those big bills, I’ll be writing that book (laughs). That’s what my publisher assured me. I guess
if I ever found out what the purpose of it was I could probably do it easily. I love telling stories. When people interview me live I’m
totally forthcoming about stories like that – as long as it’s not going to be in print or recorded. It’s just for whoever’s in the
audience. It’s always been for me kind of fun and then everyone walks out of there, “She told this story about da da da” but
nobody can prove it (laughs).
KATM: Well no longer in the YouTube, cell phone camera age.
DW: Oh my God, that’s right!
KATM: Did your sons growing up just love the fact you were the voice of E.T.? Did they make you say, “E.T. phone home” until you
wanted to kill them?
DW: No, they never even knew it. I would never tell them stuff like that.
KATM: Really? That’s like the coolest trivia of all time.
DW: And I think best relegated to that bin (laughs).
KATM: Have you still got Sissy’s belt buckle from Urban Cowboy that you write about in the book?
DW: I know I still have my cowboy hat and I know it’s in the attic but I’d have to search for the belt buckle.
KATM: You talk a bit about Urban Cowboy and Sheltering Sky but there’s really not much about Terms. Anything you can share about
DW: The reason I don’t talk about Terms is that A) everybody has and B) it’s so ubiquitous. When VCRs first came out they had
this vhs you could put it so it turned your TV set into a fish tank. It was a really long tape of fish swimming and if you looked up at
your screen it would just be a fish tank and I kind of think of Terms that way now because every time you turn on the TV it’s just sort
of on and it’s got a wallpaper quality to it. I’ve even been in public places where it’s on. At a TV store once I even saw a mother
and daughter standing there, doing the scenes by heart. So it just loses its punch.
KATM: Did they see you?
DW: Oh, I’m never seen (laughs).
KATM: You just made a picture with Anne Hathaway and director Jonathan Demme?
DW: I did. I believe the new title is Rachel Getting Married and it’s basically the story of a family on the day of the wedding of one of
my daughter’s (played by) Rosemary Dewitt. Anne plays my other daughter, coming home from rehab. You know, its typical family
KATM: So this is Terms of Endearment but now you’re the Shirley MacLaine part (laughs hard).
DW: That’s hysterical but no, it’s not because it takes place on one day but I will tell you this, I was shooting one day and it struck
me that I was the age that Shirley was when she played my mother. (Pause) I had to sit down. I had to get a chair, okay?
(laughs) It was a weird moment.
NOTE: This interview was originally conducted in June of 2008 when Winger was promoting her book "Undiscovered." There's only a
bit about Rachel Getting Married but because I had such a great time talking with herI thought I'd post an expanded version of our
interview. You can also hear some of the audio of our interview by going to the Movie Queens podcast HERE.