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An Interview with Debra Winger

Debra Winger recounts her experience in her 2008 book, _undiscovered, of landing her first significant movie role in Urban Cowboy as Sissy, a sassy Texan cowgirl.

The day I read about Sissy Spacek and John Travolta’s falling out in Variety, I found myself at the Paramount lot with a tale about how I had misplaced my portfolio.

(This portfolio was obtained through a cigar-smoking agent who had signed me up for a blue movie while I was waitressing.) Fortunately, they allowed me in.

I located the building where the casting for _Urban Cowboy was taking place, and seated myself on the steps outside, thinking about what I should do next. Unlike the other actresses, I hadn’t made an appointment.

Two men were heading towards the doorway, so I had to step aside. The one with the disheveled hair and a half-amused look asked me if I had come to audition for the role of Sissy. I looked up at his gentle face, and in my best Texas accent, I answered, ‘Who wants to know?'”_

At the beginning of her career, Debra Winger accomplished Oscar-worthy roles in films like An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment, The Sheltering Sky, Shadowlands, and Rachel Getting Married, among many others.

Writing in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael praised Winger as “one of the two or three best and most intrepid actresses in the film industry”.

In the period between October 2010 and January 2011, I was able to conduct an interview with Winger through email.

 From her responses, I could almost feel her presence and it was clear how powerful, unique, and mesmerizing her voice was.

 She also provided me with some amusing comments as I communicated with her. For example, when I informed her that I would be sending the first question the following day, she replied that she was going to bed early to prepare.

Vendela Vida has stated that

I.ENTRANCES

BLVR asked why the author began collecting antique doors in their work, Undiscovered.

Throughout my experiences, I began taking photos of doorways, gates and other portals. Instead of having separate chapters in the book, I collaborated with Philippe Petit and had him draw the same items.

We both put forth our own photos and ideas, as well as records of places we had been to.

I captured images of laundry in many places I visited. There is a lot to be determined from looking at the laundry. When I purchased an old farmhouse and barn, I started to restore old doors and often put them in wooded areas to create a sense of possibility.

The washing is something that appears to accumulate on its own.

BLVR: What criteria do you use when you choose the location of the doors? How many are there?

DW: The piles of stones are kept in the barn, although I suspect one has been taken by the forest in the higher terrain. The one depicted on the cover of my book was taken from the upper field during the last season.

I haven’t kept track of the total number. As soon as I need to ignite my personal experimental area (which I created and is not found in any scientific journals), I collect them.

BLVR: Motivations for writing a memoir can be varied. In Under My Skin and other books, Doris Lessing wrote memoirs to protect herself from others writing about her life. What drove you to write “undiscovered”?

In dedication to the memory of a friend who had been editing my stories for 10 years and was then diagnosed with a serious illness, I made a promise to him. This book is a reminder of that vow.

BLVR: Can you tell me about the process of writing your book? Did David E. Outerbridge, who edited works by Liv Ullman and Ali MacGraw, spur you to explore topics you hadn’t considered before? Did he live to witness the culmination of your project?

DW: He had the last output in his grip when he had made his way back to the medical facility one last time. It had been just in the nick of time.

He would put forward his ideas based on what I had created and he never ceased in trying to persuade me to write something about the Entertainment Industry; he inspired me to come up with the piece about The Sheltering Sky. I was so fond of his enthusiasm.

BLVR: Reflecting on the production of “The Sheltering Sky,” you allude to it being the most invigorating experience since you were a teenager. You also mention how upon completion of the film, you were so overwhelmed that you tried to hide under the covers, saying that “everything in my life looked different.”

What kind of personal transformation did you undergo as a result of spending time in the desert while making the movie?

DW: I’m still aware of the impact it has on me. I recently saw it once more at MoMA, something I hadn’t done since its debut. A comforting thought is that one can find solace in faith or religion.

However, when these beliefs become governed by a list of moral codes, they tend to lose their original purpose, which is to provide an individual with a place to go to remember special moments.

Making this film and the lifestyle surrounding it had a great effect on me, but the journey never ends. The Sheltering Sky is a great reminder of how challenging the journey can be, but if you try to escape it, you won’t get anywhere.

BLVR: Kit’s imitation of Tunner, just prior to allowing him into her accommodation, is hilarious, unexpected and spot-on. Did you spend your childhood doing impersonations of others?

I am not an excellent impressionist, however, Kit had the ability to imitate voices and mannerisms.

BLVR: My most recent novel was greatly impacted by “The Sheltering Sky”. When you were making the movie, did you take time to meticulously read the book, or did you try to avoid it?

Was it challenging to read Bowles’ depictions of Kit – your character – which often seemed to carry a hint of cruelty towards women, as per Bowles’ writing style?

DW: I had already read the novel, but the experience was mainly about my bond with Paul (we became quite close) and my exploration into Jane’s life – I was aware that Kit was basically Jane. I felt the combination of her, Paul and me was the ideal combination.

I don’t have any issue with harsh depictions of women. This transpires because of their multifaceted nature, their strength and the inability of other people to keep up with all the stuff a woman needs to accomplish.

What process do you use to become more familiar with the characters you portray?

DW commented that the key to a closet needs to be found, and for that to be accomplished, a certain degree of freedom is necessary. He pointed out that the artists he knows have an internal craziness that functions within the bounds of sanity.

Looking for the key, he said, is a wild experience, and once that part is over, the door can be opened and the contents become more identifiable. He went on to mention that the journey to finding the key is a wacky deal.

  1. FAMILIES AND THE MIDDLE EAST

BLVR: You depict Abby in the film “Rachel Getting Married,” who is the mother of Rachel and Kym. She often arrives late and departs a bit too soon for her daughter’s rehearsal dinner and wedding, yet her daughters still love her and rely on her.

Abby is different from the usual characters of mothers that we observe in movies, who are usually excessively involved and worried (especially when it pertains to their daughter’s nuptials).

What attracted you to playing Abby, and how did you interpret her behavior and character as an actor?

DW is of the opinion that Abby cannot be totally condemned for her absence from the wedding. It is clear that her family has been dealing with the tragedy of losing a son/brother for some time, so Abby is likely in a state of great distress.

DW believes what he contributes to the story is a perspective of a mother who has had to emotionally shut down in order not to feel the seemingly unstoppable hurt of the loss.

The family has been scattered and her role as a mother has been lost, so it’s hard to say what she “should” be doing. Nonetheless, it’s still worthwhile to show up and attempt to salvage something from the important relationship she has with her family.

BLVR: On my second viewing of the movie, I pondered whether there was more to Abby’s decision to let Kym watch her brother than she claimed. It seemed like Abby needed a babysitter to allow her to spend time with her lover – why else would she employ Kym, who she described as being “good with him”?

When did Abby’s relations with her family begin to change? Did it occur before her son’s death, or after?

It’s possible that certain movies should not be seen more than once, as the humor might not work if viewed again.

As parents, we’re impressively skilled at avoiding reality – you wouldn’t understand. Pause.

The split between them happened later on. Kym’s troubles provided the initial spark, but it was their son’s death that really caused the rift to open.

BLVR: It’s amusing to joke about films that shouldn’t be viewed more than once, but there’s something to be said for that concept. I once saw a movie when I was 20 (Rossellini’s “Viaggio In Italia”), and it has stayed as one of my top picks.

It’s had a major impact on my writing and continues to do so, which makes me apprehensive to watch it again. I’m frightened that it won’t be the same as I recollect.

DW: I clearly understand this. It is not only about seeing a movie, but when and how. If younger individuals are exposed to the movies at the ideal time, they act almost like a booster to cause something inside them which may have occurred eventually, but we will never know.

I took my older son when he was almost of age, to watch Fitzcaraldo and The Burden of Dreams. I attempted to demonstrate to him the challenges and craziness of filmmaking.

He had been on film sets for the majority of his young life, strange areas, hard shoots, so I thought I could guarantee his aspirations in another direction, not make it the “family business.”

During his college years, he created his first movie and is now an independent filmmaker who is able to sustain himself.

BLVR: Do you have any words of wisdom for him when it comes to collaborating with the subjects of his documentaries (not actors)?

DW revealed that he answers direct questions, but the more someone ages, the more they can hear an eye-roll when unsolicited advice is given.

Noah Hutton, however, has a knack for making people feel comfortable and he is non-judgmental; two qualities that are essential for directing.

Additionally, DW commented that the ability to inspire and assist someone to trust their intuition and creative thinking cannot be taught – and he noticed that Noah was managing well without much input from him.

Do you still have an active role in production and remain invested in it, given your many producing credits?

I recently created a documentary that was aired on HBO, GASLAND, regarding the harms of gas drilling in the U.S., but that’s a different situation, right? In general, I only produce when I’m tied down.

Big Bad Love was an incredibly loose adaptation of some short stories by the late Larry Brown, and was helmed by my husband Arliss as both writer and actor.

I was the line producer on the project, not the executive producer, and it was quite the trying experience. However, it’s been said that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.

If I had the chance to do it over again, I would have a better understanding of who to recruit for particular tasks such as dealing with unions and disposing of the trash during the night.

BLVR: You just interviewed Sayed Kashua for a film fest. How did it go? Did talking to him make you think of any queries you wanted to be asked?

DW: In my opinion, the event did not go well. The audience was stuck in a lobby, the seating was uncomfortable and many of them were already knowledgeable about the ‘issues’ of Sayed.

It was like a nightmare! We decided to forget about it and went out for a drink. It made me wonder if there will ever be peace in the Middle East; the Upper West Side is a good example.

BLVR: Oh dear! However, you drank afterwards to make yourself feel better.

Are you a longtime fan of the writings of Kashua and is this the reason why the Jewish Film Festival invited you to interview him?

DW: At the Jerusalem Film Festival a few years ago, we met as fellow jurors and quickly became friends.

After that, I informally joined the board of Hand-In-Hand, a co-educational, multi-lingual school which Sayed’s two children attend.

We share a humorous outlook on the Middle East situation, which can be seen in his successful series Avodah Aravit (Arab Work), a show which is similar to Curb Your Enthusiasm, but with Israeli Arabs.

BLVR: How did you come to be involved with an educational institution in East Jerusalem?

DW confessed that everyone desires to insert themselves into a certain area of the world in an effort to assist with some kind of healing, not meaning to sound too much like a “new-speaker”.

Have you ever stayed there for a period of time?

I have had the pleasure of travelling to the Middle East, including Israel, Jordan and Egypt, since 1972. I have only become involved with Hand In Hand in more recent times.

Do you practice a faith or religious belief on a regular basis?

DW: What does that statement mean for me? The phrase “actively religious” has a certain ring to it; it makes me think of nuns in the depths of a monastery, self-inflicted punishment, or even demonstrations for mosques and the wearing of leather armbands. Those were the first images that came to my mind…

My primary focus of study is ancient texts as a means to understand our history as humans.

I’m especially intrigued by Sufiism and Judaism, yet I find the Lutheran teachings a bit difficult to comprehend.

In the current world, religious beliefs are often expressed through attending church or celebrating holidays, which is acceptable, but I feel that a daily practice should come from within and be something we can investigate through the events of our day.

Rumi is a great example of this type of practice, and the Yoga Sutras and Torah also provide great starting points.

  1. A LUNAR ECLIPSE

BLVR: Recently, I had another look at “Terms of Endearment” and was really taken aback by the scene with you and Jeff Daniels as your husband in the movie.

You two were lying on a mattress in a fresh home with your clothes on, and each of you imitating the other’s sound while having sex.

This seemed to me like an uncommon way to depict intimacy, and much more delicate and revealing than the typical sex scenes with actors unclothed and supposedly doing the deed.

Do you recollect anything in regards to shooting that scene? Was everything written in the script, even the noises the other person would make?

DW recently had a conversation with Arliss in which the discussion centered around the traditional wedding tune “Here Comes The Bride.”

He noted that the script should provide sufficient detail to help an actor find the right place in their performance, and serve as an inspiration for the actor. In other words, a good script should provide inspiration.

BLVR questioned if it was a pleasant experience creating the movie and remarked that looking back on it now, the movie could be seen as the start of the cancer film genre. He also noted that not many other films had addressed the same subject prior to “Terms of Endearment”.

DW: It was a great journey, yet a difficult one. With its prominent figures and extensive content, it was a lot to take in. But recently, I was dropping off my in-laws at Penn Station when I spotted John Lithgow. We ran towards each other, delighted to see each other, and I exclaimed about how long it had been since we last saw each other. His response? “Yesterday.” It’s like this in these kinds of heightened realities – short-lived, but always seeming like it was just yesterday.

Regarding the cancer issue…I’m not sure. Yes, essentially, the issue Jim attempted to address was the unacceptability of discussing it in open forums – the stigma associated with it was huge – however, only in certain situations.

Later, I had to take on a role in which I visited the “Shadowlands”, and it was handled quite differently. My response to queries on this topic is usually that I wish cancer had only impacted my life as much as the number of times I’ve depicted it in films. Unfortunately, in reality, it has had a much larger impact.

Bernardo Bertolucci is in New York City right now for a retrospective of his artistry at the Museum of Modern Art. Recently, I’ve been deeply immersed in The Sheltering Sky and all things related to him. It’s amazing how our art can shape our lives.

At a party a few nights ago, chatting with Patti Smith, I realized that many women over the age of fifty don’t want to look at their lives and work as a narrative, but for some, it is. The key is to keep turning, bit by bit. Last night I stayed up all night to witness the Lunar Eclipse.

I hope I can remember the strong thought I had: the Earth, perfectly aligned between its light and its Moon. I hope I never stand in the way of my own light for more than one night!

BLVR: I was enchanted by Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids.” It had me yearning for my twenties in New York to come back. I miss the way I used to perceive time: as a vast and shimmering canvas that I could arrange around me however I wanted.

DW said that taking care of children can make someone feel like their own childhood is long gone, but he could feel something positive coming out of the other side of that. He reminded the person that they had talked about this previously, and encouraged them to stay strong.

BLVR: As I was reading “Just Kids” it made me yearn to be older and gain the ability to look back on my twenties from a distance. When you recall your life thus far, what really stands out to you as amazing, or something that bothers or surprises you?

DW stated that he does not view the reflection of his life as looking ‘back’, but rather as ‘looking into’ it. He believes he used the term correctly, as the events of his life have not allowed for deep contemplation.

He did, however, manage to make time for his boys. Recently, he experienced a sensation like a retro-rocket being fired off as he watched the eclipse. The light and darkness coexisting on either side of it, passing through the middle, served as a metaphor which gave him energy.

BLVR: Your idea that avoiding becoming a story means consistently changing grabbed my interest.

The narrative that has been created of you is that you were a successful actor who chose to stop working. When you made that decision, did you realize that this story was forming? Do you think the documentary “Searching for Debra Winger” is an accurate portrayal of your life?

Have you felt that going back to work has been a way of “turning” and altering the narrative?

DW” I’m done with the sensation of standing on the outside looking in. After achieving fame, there is a tendency to feel like your name has been used as a commodity. I’m not a product, but Debra Winger has become one.

Consequently, I have many other names I refer to myself by. I anticipate that I will be able to find some sort of work which will be part of my rebirth. If I’m not given an opportunity in creating movies, I’ll look for something else to express myself artistically – but I still hope to act.

BLVR: What is your approach to depicting your character’s sexuality? The female characters you’ve portrayed have had a very distinctive sensuality.

After watching URBAN COWBOY and an OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN back-to-back, it was fascinating to observe the contrast in their sexual energies. A less talented actress might just find one seductive manner of appearing on screen, but it appears that you delve deeper.

DW suggests that sexual energy, in its most natural form, is somewhat similar to the feeling of falling in love.

We often enjoy the freedom of this feeling, however, it can often be disrupted when the realities of life enter into the picture. Most stories we encounter in our lives are about characters struggling with their own sexuality and the expression of themselves.

Both Sissy and Paula are at the stage of finding out their own sexuality and how to express it. To conclude, it gets more complicated from here.

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