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Debra Winger is back on the big screen on her own terms in 'The Lovers'

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in a scene from
Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in a scene from "The Lovers."
Photo credit: Robb Rosenfeld

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Actress Debra Winger was a huge star in the 1980s and '90s, appearing in films such as "Terms of Endearment," "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Shadowlands" — all of which garnered her best actress Oscar nominations.

Winger took a break of sorts beginning in the late '90s to focus on other projects. But she never quit acting altogether, and occasionally appears in mostly smaller films and TV series.

Winger is back on the big screen this week with a character-driven indie film called "The Lovers," by writer and director Azazel Jacobs.

It tells the story of a long-married and detached couple who are both carrying on affairs. As they drift further apart, their secrets conspire to bring them back together.  

The film is intimate and grounded in reality, void of fancy camera work and visual effects. It harkens back to a time when the major studios made films just like this, not the comic book and superhero stories they are now obsessed with. Winger recently visited The Frame studio to chat with John Horn.

Interview highlights:

On how the film industry has changed in the past 20 years:

When the bottom fell out of the independent film industry, which was quite a while ago now ... it's not so far from what is happening in society. It is a mirror image of our class system and our socioeconomic picture in a way. The middle part was taken out. You can make a film now for $5,000 or you can make a film for $500 million. It's pretty hard to make those $1 million-$30 million films, which is the sweet spot.

On getting involved with "The Lovers":

I saw a film — a wonderful film — called "Terri" with John C. Reilly. I went to the theater and I saw it and there was a Q & A with the director [Azazel Jacobs] afterwards. And I went, That's the guy that made this film? I wrote him a letter and I said, "If you ever think of me for anything, I'd love to work with you because your touch was pretty sweet." Therein began a conversation that lasted about four years where he would send me some material that had been sent to him. I would send him a script that I thought, maybe, if he worked it, it could be passable. Then he finally sent me this and he had written it.

On whether Jacobs was qualified to write characters much older than himself:

What's lost about this art of filmmaking is that we forget a really good film is a blueprint for you as an actor to hang your life on as the character. You have to go in there and inhabit it. He knew the key to it being a blueprint. I think his emphasis on casting has to do with people that can fill what he can't know yet at 44.

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in a scene from
Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in a scene from "The Lovers."
Robb Rosenfeld

On her preference for unobtrusive cinematography:

Fancy camera moves are the opposite of effective. I stopped going to the movies for a while because I would just get nauseous. So to actually work with a cinematographer like Tobias Datum, who's the real deal, was really reminding me of my roots and remembering films from the '70s and '80s — [John] Cassavetes and Hal Ashby, where the director and the cinematographer were there in service of the story and the characters. That didn't mean that you didn't see a beautiful film, it was just that you're not self-conscious about the camera. 

On Jacobs' directing demeanor and what he would say to the actors:

"Take your time." He was always calming us down. I mean, me. I don't know what he said to Tracy [Letts]. But Aza had this amazing patience, as did Tracy. I'm the only impatient person in this mix and I was very grateful for that wait. I just really needed that. He really had the right amount of reins. I never felt like we were rushing, even though we made that film in 23 days. I was the oldest person on the set. Those are some [tough] hours that you're pulling when you're making a film. It would be nice to have more of a cushion and still make quality stuff, so hopefully that part is being resuscitated with companies like A24, who made this film. I think they're really reminding us of what the beauty was in the power of a filmmaker.

On the economic nature of relationships:

In America now, that is a really big informative aspect of relationships. It's a luxury to be able to say, We're not cutting it here in this marriage. Let's try living separately. Hello? How many people can do that? It's not just courage and it's not just philosophy — it's economics. Even though this film is about people in that middle class — which, by the way, we shot out in Santa Clarita in a tract development that, I guess, when built was upwardly mobile — those people as we know now are white-knuckling it. I do think that we're telling, in a way, a story of function. I do think that it's great to talk about what happens when you fall asleep in your marriage. It is really about falling asleep to me. There's a moment where you wake up and you find yourself in a real pickle. 

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in a scene from
Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in a scene from "The Lovers."
Robb Rosenfeld

On when she took a break from acting:

At that point, I realized that it wasn't the scale [of a project]. I felt much more compelled to do things that were outside of films. I taught for a while and I wrote a book. I did things that I didn't think of as going away from show business. I just didn't think about films because they weren't where I could figure out the next thing I wanted to meditate on. In those years that ensued, I had a really good time. I did some really amazing things that I hold as really important. But you know, the opposite of depression is not happiness — it's vitality. And I think if you're not feeling vital and you don't feel your life, you better wake up because it's a pretty finite thing we're dealing with here.

On what inspired her to return to acting:

I started to see things that were interesting. I started to meet people that I liked again. I started to see some young directors that were coming up and finding ways to make film. A new medium came in. Certainly TV started to encompass bigger stories. I started to watch stuff on TV that I couldn't believe I was watching.

On gender equality in Hollywood:

I just keep doing what I do and I don't think about that all that much, much to the dismay of my feminist friends. I think I'm naturally a feminist, but I don't lead with it. I think there are amazing opportunities certainly in television right now. I'm doing a series for Netflix. There are women writers there writing jokes about male anatomy, but there are also vaginas in the room. I don't know how I feel about this preoccupation with salaries. I'm more interested in questions of poverty, criminal justice and social justice than I am in sitting here talking about prices in Hollywood. That's just who I am.

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