Debra Winger on Her Big-Screen Return in 'The Lovers,' 'Jaguar' Sex Scenes With Richard Gere, and Jonathan Demme

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
Debra Winger (Getty Images)

There are all sorts of numbers floating out there. It has been three years since Debra Winger last was seen in a film (The Choir), nine years since her last widely seen role (Rachel Getting Married), and 16 years since her last romantic lead (Big Bad Love), and 22 years since her last major studio movie (Forget Paris). But as Winger asks with a laugh, “Who’s counting?”

One constant over all the years, though: When Winger does make a film, her performances are praise-worthy. The thrice-Oscar nominated actress best known for the ’80s favorites Terms of Endearment, Urban Cowboy, and An Officer and a Gentleman is racking up raves once again for her biting new matrimonial “cautionary tale,” The Lovers.

Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs (Terri), the indie stars Winger and Tracy Letts (best known for his work as a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright and screenwriter) as Mary and Michael, empty nesters who’ve fallen out of love and are each carrying on secret affairs. They separately conspire to finally leave one another after a visit from their college-student son (Tyler Ross), but a spark between them unexpectedly reignites, complicating their escape plans.

In a phone interview with Yahoo Movies, Winger talked about what The Lovers says about marriage, reacted to Richard Gere’s admission of their “animal attraction” on An Officer and a Gentleman, and remembered her late Rachel Getting Married director, Jonathan Demme.

Yahoo Movies: What did you find relatable about Mary in The Lovers?
Debra Winger:
I identified with some aspects of her life, but although I may find relatable parts of the character, I’m really most interested in telling the story. And where the story goes was of interest to me. I’ve observed that it’s really hard to keep love alive in long-term relationships and marriages. There are inevitable waxes and wanes, and sometimes it wanes for a really long time.

What were those aspects that you did identify with?
Well, I think the trap of the institution [of marriage] itself. I’ve been with my husband [actor Arliss Howard] for 25 years and we’re very, very different, but a lot of things are the same. We’re different in the way that I wake up every morning and go, “Oh my god, we’re here, together, still, wow. Are we gonna do this thing?” [Laughs] I would say that he comes to it with a little bit more, shall we say, stability. But somehow that mix works for us. I don’t know what the key is, or the answer is, it’s different for every couple. But I reassess on a regular basis and find that that works for me. And I think maybe Michael and Mary haven’t bothered to reassess… But I think that’s probably what I found most interesting was the cautionary tale aspect.

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in ‘The Lovers’ (A24)

This is your first lead film role in, I believe, 16 years.
Yeah, but who’s counting? [Laughs]

Nerdy journalists like myself, I guess. But it seems like over the years you’ve had kind of a love-hate relationship with the film business. You’ve taken hiatuses before. Are you pretty choosy with the films that you will make these days?
I don’t think of it as choosy, but if you have a sensitivity to food, somebody that likes that food is going to call you a picky eater. But somebody who gets hives from that food doesn’t look at it as a choice [laughs]. Not to make an analogy to food, but it seems to be very in right now.

I just learned what I could and couldn’t do. You could call it choosy but I could also call it a limitation. I have a limitation because I’m not good at moving smoothly through things that I find either hypocritical or difficult. So when budgets exploded and [there was] the advent of CGI… I don’t begrudge it when it’s used correctly but as the star of the film? But all of these aspects I’ve seen, when in the hands of artists, used as tools to get a story told, and then I’m interested again.

So it sounds like we won’t be seeing you in the next Transformers movie.
Well, I’m not saying that because every once in a while they take one of those franchises and they throw them to a really interesting director. My youngest son [cinematographer and director Noah Hutton] is a real cinephile, so he can tell me, “No, Batman 4, that was the good one!” Or whatever, he’ll kill me if that is not the correct one. [We think she means Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.] So yes, there are some of them that are run-of-the-mill superhero movies, and then every once in a while you go, “Oh, that’s kind of an interesting mix. That director and that piece of material.” And they find what has made those stories last so long… But will you see me in the next Transformers? Probably not, but who knows? I’m not against anything. I’m too old to have those big opinions.

The Lovers feels like it has very European sensibilities. Did you get that impression from writer-director Azazel Jacobs, that he was drawing inspiration from overseas?
Well, Azazel brought a lot of films to my attention before we started shooting that we watched together or shared having watched. But I would say the reason we say “European sensibility” is because we’re referring to the European films that make it to America. But of course Europe also has a bunch of cruddy films that we don’t have to bother seeing [laughs]… But there were American films of the ’70s, from [John] Cassavetes, or Hal Ashby, filmmakers that you would’ve said the same thing about then: “Oh, this is European.” But we have our own tradition of that in the States.

It’s funny that we get all of Europe’s best films and they seem to get all of our crappiest.
Isn’t that true? I’m glad you can laugh about it, it makes me cry. I had to practically go to someone’s living room — the theater was so small — to see Heal the Living, which was a beautiful film from a woman from the Ivory Coast [Katell Quillévéré]. So it’s true for other countries as well. But it’s just like McDonald’s. They don’t get our great chefs, they get McDonald’s, the rest of the world.

The film is called The Lovers, so naturally there are some love scenes in the movie. How do you find those, are they awkward or uncomfortable, or just another day’s work?
Well, I don’t know if I’d use “another day’s work.” They’re always extraordinary. But I was just very comfortable on the set, and I was very comfortable with Tracy Letts, who is just a calm and patient scene partner. But when I did start to lose it, if I started to get self-conscious, he would just say in the most hilarious tone I’ve ever heard, “It’s the job! It’s the job!” I think he was good at reminding me that this is part of the story we were telling. How can you tell the story of a marriage and affairs without being frank?

Do those scenes get any easier or any less awkward over the years? Are they easier now than say on Officer and a Gentleman or The Sheltering Sky?
I’m listening to your references and how long ago those films were and I’m like, “Maybe I just wait long enough so I don’t remember it and I’ll do it again.” [Laughs] My kids are 10 years apart. There might be something to this theory.

Debra Winger and Richard Gere in ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ (Paramount)

Speaking of Officer and a Gentleman, I talked to Richard Gere recently and he described your connection on that film — and in those scenes in particular — as “an animal attraction.” He said there was “an animal physicality between the two of you.” Would you agree with that characterization?
OK, I’ll go with that. What animal?

He wasn’t specific.
Oh, good, ’cause I wanna choose jaguar! [Laughs] No, I think we were a certain age and it was not a problem. I don’t know, it’s never been a problem for me.

What films of yours do people most approach you about?
You know I can go long, long times without being recognized. I don’t think I go into the world of where that comes up much. But I think there are touchstones for people, they’ve had experiences that resonate with them. So it’s usually Terms or Urban Cowboy because they’re slices of American life that really resonate with people… But it’s great when people support you over the years. It’s really a meaningful thing.

More recently got raves for your appearance in Rachel Getting Married, directed by Jonathan Demme, who just passed away, sadly. What was your experience with him?
Yeah, big loss. I don’t know, I always go, “Wow, Charlie Manson is still alive and we have to lose Jonathan?” That’ll just get your idea about faith right there. I can get really sad about losing him but the guy just filled it up till the end. He was at Standing Rock shooting months before when he was in remission. He was just so full of life. I was discussing it with my son Noah who worked with Jonathan a few times, that I think the shocking quality of somebody like that dying was how alive he was moments before. It wasn’t like he had some decline. He was like, “I’m still here? I’m going to be doing this.” He shot a segment [the new series] Shots Fired. Just an amazing guy.

All I can say is he had the energy of a young person inside of him always, and I think that kept him searching for new things and how he could help. He always wanted to help. He was useful in his life, and will probably remain useful because of his work. What more can we say about what we’re supposed to do in this place for the time that we’re here?

The Lovers is now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer:


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