Debra Winger was born May 16, 1955 in Cleveland, Ohio. She fell in love with acting in high school but kept it a secret from her family. She was a precocious teenager, having graduated high school at an early age of 15. She enrolled in college, majoring in criminology. She worked part-time in the local amusement park when she got thrown from a truck and suffered serious injuries and went temporarily blind for several months. She was in the hospital when she vowed to pursue her passion for acting. After she recovered, she abandoned college and studied acting. When Sissy Spacek refused the role in James Bridges’ “Urban Cowboy”, almost every young actress in Hollywood pursued the role, but she won it over a then-unknown Michelle Pfeiffer and gave a star-making performance as John Travolta’s wife Sissy. Her follow-up film, “Cannery Row” was a flop, but, the same year (1982), she provided her deep throaty voice to the title character of Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and received her first Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for Taylor Hackford’s highly acclaimed “An Officer and a Gentleman”. A year later, she earned her second Oscar nomination for Best Actress in James L. Brooks’ “Terms of Endearment” that won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at the Transilvania International Film Festival where she is being honored with a Career Achievement Award.
First of all, congratulations on the award! You mentioned your superstition regarding awards at today’s press conference but I did not know that when I wrote my questions! However, what does a “Lifetime Achievement Award” mean to you?
Debra Winger: I’ll tell you what it means. It means that you’re about to die! So, I don’t accept the Lifetime Achievement Award. I came to Cluj not to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award. I am accepting that these lovely people wanted to give me an honor and I am very, very grateful. I just have to have a laugh at the words “Lifetime Achievement”. The only time you’ve achieved life is at the end.
Now, something you’ve been asked so many times… You “left” the film scene after Forget Parisand you “came back” to it in 2001, right before Searching for Debra Winger that came out in 2002…
D.W.: I have nothing to do with that, though. That was Rosanna Arquette’s documentary. I never saw it. I was interviewed for it when it was called State of the Art; it was not called Searching for Debra Winger. So, it was kind of a trick that she played because she wanted to interview actresses but, in the end, she wanted to call it that because I stood for something, you know, and what I did but, really, I didn’t have anything to do with that. In fact, it sort of ruined my plan because I was working on “obscurity” and she ruined my “obscurity” for a while because my name was back out there.
But, did you achieve what you wanted by “staying away”?
D.W.: I just got interested in other things and the roles that were being in offer weren’t that interesting. I didn’t know it would go on for as long as it did but the movies were not that good, I mean at least to me, from what I would be able to do. And, life was more interesting…
I think that I used to love reading film criticism.
James Toback and Alec Baldwin’s Seduced and Abandoned was released last year. Do you feel the same way about the film industry? And, because you were “away”, did you feel, right before “stepping out”, “seduced and abandoned”?
D.W.: Oh no! No! I did just as much seducing as I was seduced. And abandoned, no, because the cast of characters changes, you know… The people that I worked with, are my age or older and they don’t exist, as the business is always changing. But, I did like very much that film. I found it very entertaining. I know both those guys. It can be a very humiliating business if you let it. I just don’t let it. So to use those words, “seduced and abandoned”, it means I am humiliated and I am not humiliated.
Back to Alec Baldwin. You were in his show Up Late with Alec Baldwin last year and you talked about fracking. Do you think that making documentaries and feature films about the environmental issues such as Trashed, Gasland or Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves is a step in the right direction to solve those issues?
D.W.: First of all, I would say that I differentiate between environmental issues and public health. So, we have a very serious moment in our evolution as humans on this earth with climate change. This is public health. This is not a nice tree or a bird that is going to be lost although they’re usually indications that we’re doing something wrong. So, I would first differentiate between that and public health and I would say that it’s essential that we tell these stories. If they have to be documentaries, fine, but I think we should also make narrative films so that there is not one person walking on this earth that isn’t aware that we have to change the way we live.
You said you weren’t a tree hugger in that show but do you have any other causes you are passionate about?
D.W.: I am passionate about corporations not running our lives. In our country, the Supreme Court passed a law called “Citizens United” which declared that corporations are citizens. I disagree. And, I think it is our downfall right now that we are run by corporations. I mean, I come to Cluj and I see that it is a city on the cusp. If you have another galleria or another international chain of stores coming, you’ll just go the way everything else goes and every place you go is starting to look the same. So, we have lost our individuality and we have lost it to corporations and I don’t think it’s too late. I still have energy to fight.
Since your “comeback” in 2001, you have also been behind the camera as a producer. How much importance do you give to film criticism and to film critics both as an actress and a producer?
D.W.: Well, I think that film criticism has also gone the way of the dinosaur in recent years. I mean, I can count on one hand with a couple of fingers missing the true critics that I would read and I wish for that art form to come back. I have a son who is very talented at writing about Film. He’s a real cinephile. I say sometimes “you love everything!” but he does find something to love even in the things he dislikes. I think that I used to love reading film criticism. Andrew Sarris and even Pauline Kael. So, I look forward to that. I am not aware so much of European writers and I’m a little bit ignorant on that front but I think it’s important just like any art criticism. It’s important to tell us, help us know what we’re seeing and to also connect what we’re seeing with he world; tell us, maybe, what some of the underlying themes that we can bring into our lives are; that we start to understand the world around us through films.
What do you prefer: being an actress or a producer?
D.W.: I don’t see them as that different. I mean, in the Stanislavki’s theatre, the actors always produced. I think it’s a natural combination. What I like about producing is bringing together people that will work well together and that will challenge each other and making sure that they get taken care of.
What is your favorite role among all those you’ve played?
D.W.: I have yet to play it.
What do you think of the initiative to save the Film Warehouse in Cluj? Do you support it?
I think it’s a great metaphor, a living metaphor. And, I think that we need that in our lives. We need to have living metaphors. Second to telling stories, metaphors are the most potent way to get a message and I think that that building, as I see it now, is a great metaphor for where we’ve come from and I hope to see where we’re going in the same piece of land.
What are plans for next projects?
D.W.: I try not to plan too much, you know… If I live past this award tonight, then we’ll see…
This interview was conducted at the 2014 Transilvania International Film Festival.