If you were watching films in the 80s, chances are, you’re a fan of Debra Winger. A relative unknown (save for her appearance as Wonder Girl in the “Wonder Woman” TV series), Winger kicked off the decade with a trifecta of hits — “Urban Cowboy” (1980), “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) and “Terms of Endearment” (1983) — that made her a major Hollywood force in the short span of three years. Unfortunately for cinemagoers, that is no longer the case. Fortunately for Winger, that’s of her own doing and not because Hollywood stopped fielding her offers.
At 40, after a slew of commercial and art house successes, Winger stopped considering parts altogether, favoring a quieter life with her husband (Arliss Howard, who directed her in “Big Bad Love”) and three children. She still acts from time to time on projects she’s especially passionate about, such as Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” and HBO’s show “In Treatment,” but mostly stays out of the limelight.
At the 2014 Provincetown International Film Festival, which just wrapped over the weekend in the Cape Cod beach town, Winger made a rare appearance to accept the event’s Faith Hubley Career Achievement Award. Indiewire was lucky enough to sit down with the actress for a brief chat.
Is this your first time in Provincetown?
It is my first time in Provincetown! My friend’s been trying to get me up here for years, so he was instrumental in this. I’m sold. It’s a beautiful place. We walked the length of Commercial last night so we picked up on all the aspects [laughs]. It’s like going to a Portuguese wedding or something.
Where do you live?
In the Catskill mountains most of the time and in New York City.
I was just talking about about how I choose to go out. Now a lot of what I choose to do is informed by my 17-year-old son. He’s a cinephile. Sometimes I’ll bring an event up and he goes, “Are you kidding? We’re there!” So I’m a little bit of a slave at this point.
Sometimes I’ll show him other things and he’ll say, “Is that a thing?” I try to split it evenly. We’re going to see Shakespeare in the Park next week.
I heard it’s great this year.
Yeah, well Hamish Linklater [who stars opposite Lily Rabe in “Much Ado About Nothing”] is one of my favorites.
Did you see his film with Miranda July?
“The Future”! I love that film. Hamish and I did a little film together [“Lola Versus”]. We were sitting next to each other in a makeup trailer, I didn’t know who he was at that point. But I saw his name on the call sheet…this is the story of my clueless life. I said, “Oh Linklater. That’s spelled unusually. I read a book once by a woman with the same spelling when I first started to act and I think it changed my life.” And I said, “So that’s interesting that you would have the same last name.” And he said, “That’s my mother.” Kristin Linklater who’s a famous vocal coach and wrote a book, “Freeing the Natural Voice.” It was intrumental for me in discovering a sort of method to my madness. And there I was sitting next to her son who was a grown man. I don’t feel old in moments like that, I feel really lucky.
Did you feel lucky when the Provincetown Film Festival reached out to you about the honor?
I keep forgetting that I’m accepting something, because I’m a little bit allergic to awards. I never accept something that says lifetime in it, because I think that’s at the end. I don’t think I’m done yet, unless they know something that I don’t know. But I also just, I forget that it’s hard to just get invited somewhere. They always want to give you a prize. I’m really fine being prize-less and have spent most of my life being that way. And so we’re just ignoring that part.
I’m here for the festival. I love the casualness of them. The spirit of them is…I don’t know…like fire runners. The people who run village to village with embers so they can start fires. I feel like that’s what festivals do with film until the business re-finds itself. The advent and the proliferation of them has helped films stay alive.
When you got started in the industry, film festivals were in no way as predominant as they are now.
No they weren’t! “Terms of Endearment” opened the Berlin Film Festival in 1985. We took “Big Bad Love” to Cannes in 2000. I have very rarely been to them, but they were the only big ones then.
Coming to a festival of this size, does it get you thinking about the direction your career would have taken had you come up during a time when festivals like this were thriving?
No, I never have thought that. I don’t know if I would have found my fit. I really fit in the time I made movies. I really had a burning desire as a young woman to tell love stories. I really wanted to feel all types of love. I was exploring love all the time. ’80s mainstream, that was perfect for me! I’m sorry that I can’t still find that version now, because I still feel it could be my specialty.
Why are you so drawn to love stories?
That yearning for love? I don’t know. I could psychoanalyze and tell you my life’s effort is to love myself, to always understand the things I feel scared of, or the people I’m afraid of. But all of these love stories for me, between mother and daughter, between lovers, between same sex, between opposite sex, all the different kinds of love that fill your life are what animate life. I believe that and I’m an organism. I want to tell those stories. The dark side is great too. There just seems to be a… I think a cynicism took over, which is fine. So we had to break out that cynicism and that gave us superheroes. Which really is this decade. I see pretty much all of them because of my son. It isn’t that I dislike them..it’s just like okay.
My son asked me the other day, “If you could have a super power, what would it be?” and I realized it was really a moment, because what he was asking me was pretty important. You don’t answer that lightly.
What was your answer?
I ended up chasing him around the house saying, “I’m changing, I’m changing!” My first answer scared the shit out of me. I was thinking of “Wings of Desire,” I was thinking that I’d like to hear people’s thoughts. Then I thought 20 minutes later, I take it back! Because just of the horror of it. I wanted to hear people’s thoughts to feel compassion. Then I was like, “I want to teleport, I want to teleport!” Not time, just space. I want to go to different places and not go through airports.
Going back to your desire to explore love onscreen — is that the sole element that now draws you to a project?
I know in print this is going to sound so hokey, but I’m going to treat it like riptide, relax and float. I can’t help it! That’s where I begin and end. But that doesn’t mean that it has to be lovely. It just means that I feel fierce about the love. I don’t know how else to relate to shit other than that, whether it’s passion, release, death or dealing with your family. It’s all about that. John Lennon said it better than me – and succinctly! He would have been finished with you by now [laughs].