Book World: Debra Winger on 'Undiscovered'

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Debra Winger
Actress and Author
Tuesday, July 22, 2008; 12:00 PM

"We are all, in so many different ways, telling stories. Whether it be in politics (where tales can be really tall) or at the family table, in society or popular culture, storytelling has always existed.

The trend toward celebrity culture is often at great odds with the actor who is working to tell a story, to hold a character aloft. For me, the moments between the words 'action' and 'cut' were some of the freest I have known. The tether of experience was there, but there was a weightlessness of the imagination that was liberating. Ultimately, however, the script an actor enlivens is someone else's words. I began to think that I might want to make a place in which I come back to myself, use my own words. Writing became a way to do that."

Actress Debra Winger was online Tuesday, July 22 to discuss her new book, Undiscovered, and her article on The Writing Life from the current issue of Book World.

Winger is a three-time Academy Award nominee, known for such films as Urban Cowboy, An Officer and A Gentleman and Terms of Endearment. In Undiscovered, her first book, she reflects on the transformations and turning points in her public and private lives.

A transcript follows.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book Worldor in the weekday Style Section.


Debra Winger: Hi. This is Debra, and I am virtually here.


Freising, Germany: Your Washington Post article reminds me of my student days, when I had a roommate studying dramatic arts, and how we'd discuss the greatness of Henrik Ibsen, the brilliance of Laurence Olivier or the disguised sexual content of Shakespeare, often into the early hours of the morning. Eventually, years later, I'd buy the book, "On Acting" by Laurence Olivier, and I recall that Olivier believed that all human beings act to some degree in social occasions. He also believed that writing the book was torture for him and torture for actors in general, because actors aren't naturally introverted people. How did you find the aspect of solitary writing versus socially engaging acting?

Also, I was reminded today of your hobby of collecting doors, and your search, "for the next door, the next role, the next change", when I cycled by a barn today (it's pretty pastoral out here in Freising) and saw a couple of goats bleating in front of the closed door to the barn. I thought that actors, like goats, must in some way be pretty stubborn people in order to present themselves, their artistic interpretations, their beliefs, etc., to a fickle public that may love them one day, but reject them the next. Do you think that there's anything to my theory?

Debra Winger: well, it sounds like you have a lot of them (theories not goats!)...but no I do not think of it as stubborn. Tenacity can be an asset, yes, and I think sometimes a sort of one-pointedness toward a goal or aim, but this is different. I also think to be careful to differentiate between narcissism and the exploration of a character and its presentation. There are all kinds of actors, certainly, and in the end the craft is the thing.


Lawrence, Kansas: In your opinion are there go-to, independent Web sites that report reliably on movies, actors and the industry?

Thank you

Debra Winger: no


New Orleans, La.: When it comes time 40 years from now to write your updated autobiography, what are some of the things you'd like it to be about?

Debra Winger: Very dubious endeavor - planning 40 years in the future! since I still don't think of "Undiscovered" as an autobiography, I reserve the right to tell all the stories if anyone is still around that cares about those people!

As far as another book, I see it as a constant process, but who knows how long it will take when you start it.


St. Pete, Florida: I met you very briefly about six years ago at the release of Big Bad Love in Oxford Mississippi. I loved that film and your performance in it. I loved Larry Brown too, needless to say. I know it's not necessarily germane to the topic at hand but I wonder if you could talk about what that movie meant to you. I suspect a lot of people haven't seen it (or read Larry's work) and I, for one, think they should. Thanks!

Debra Winger:"Big Bad Love" (the movie) is very close to my heart. As it turns out, it was the only film Larry Brown would live to see made from his work. It was an amazing experience to line produce a film that Arliss Howard (I am also married to him) wrote, starred in and directed. We had a ball.


Ellicott City, Maryland: As writing is a mostly solitary profession, do you miss the artistic collaborative process that can often enhance personal creativity when making movies?

Debra Winger: I do miss that - I love the feeling one gets on a set and in the preparation of a film that makes each one totally unique because of the combination of people. Although my home can get quite crowded at times and I love every opinion, whether I've asked for it or not, a set is still the real soup pot.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Debra, I very much admired your work and thought of you as a very natural actor. Which director(s) would you say informed your method the most and why?

Debra Winger: James Bridges (of China Syndrome, Paper Chase, The Baby Maker, urban Cowboy) really was my mentor in so many ways. He took me under his wing, so to speak, and allowed me to experience the making of the film from the beginning through the editing and marketing process. He also taught me how to trust myself - the only real acting lesson one can have.


Philadelphia, Pa.: How did you go into acting? Was it a childhood dream being fulfilled? Were your family and peers supportive or did they resist your becoming an actor? Did you study acting and, if so, did it help?

Debra Winger: I became an actor because I couldn't not.

I trained with various teachers.

It is too reckless to do it if you have a choice.

It is not for the faint hearted, lazy, or easily overwhelmed.


Washington, D.C.: Loved your Writing Life essay. It says something really important about how pliable creativity can be. I love that you can take what you've learned in films and make it work for you in a book. And it's inspiring to see an accomplished woman recreate herself in Act III. Rock on, Debra!

Debra Winger: thank you for that


Washington, D.C.: Maybe this is a dumb question, but -- what do you know now that you wished you knew when you were 30?

Debra Winger: that I would really age!


Los Angeles, Calif.: Dear Ms. Winger -- Anxious to read your book. Miss your screen presence terribly. But then how often do films like "Mike's Murder" and "The Sheltering Sky" (my two favorites of yours) get made anyway? Every OTHER Blue Moon these days. Jack Larson says you've always been half in the movie business and half out. Is literature your other half?

Debra Winger: I would say that is an accurate assessment by Jack.

I am still that way - it is not a reticence. I just find a whole lot of other things interesting as well.


Washington, D.C.: In Bertolucci's Sheltering Sky, I seem to remember a scene where you make love to John Malkovich while crying. We've all been there but what did that signify? Also, you stayed in Morocco after filming, what did you learn from that and did it help you?

Debra Winger: There were rocks sticking into my back. But I think it was meant to signify the frustration that can happen even after years of loving one another - how things can change.

But mostly it was the rocks.

yes I have learned a lot from Africa in general - Morocco, Kenya, Togo, Algeria, Niger and Rwanda


Alexandria, Va.: What is your next film? What kind of roles do you look for?

Debra Winger: I acted in a small role in Jonathan Demme's film called "Rachael Getting Married" which will be out in the early fall.

I hope to find the roles that are age appropriate but not yearning to be younger, or parenting ad nauseam.

I want to start a trend of women as we really look. Some good things, some not so good. I am tired of looking at frozen faces


Washington, D.C.: Loved you since French Postcards, your first film. Bette Davis said you were most like her of all working actresses, and although I've not met you, I did meet her and that is high praise. You seem to wear the label of "difficult" as a badge of honor in Hollywood, do you ever think how different your life might have been if you could have gone along, and do you want that life? I think you've made brave choices.

Debra Winger: I never noticed that being 'easy' got anyone anywhere I wanted to go.


Bethesda, Maryland: what made you decide to write this?

Debra Winger: A gentleman by the name of David E. Outerbridge, who had edited Liv Ullman's memoir, approached me and really, stuck with me over years, because he believed there was a book that needed to come out.

I wish I could say that with or without him I would have done it, but I doubt it is true.


Washington, D.C.: I often quote the writer and philosopher Helene Cixous, who says, "Writing and reading are not separate; reading is a part of writing. A real reader is already on the way to writing."Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, p. 20. Do you agree? Whether or not you do, the answer to this question always fascinates me: May I ask, who are you reading?

Debra Winger: Right now, having just finished "Human Smoke" by Nicholson Baker, I am re-reading Nathan Englander's short stories and am loving these new Russian women, none of whom I can recall the name of right now...


Roswell, Ga.: In Terms of Endearment and Shadowlands, you played 2 women facing death - I was very moved by both movies but wondered how you approached the work, differences and similarities, and how growing older has changed how you view the characters and their men.

Debra Winger: I just considered both of those films stories about life.


Bethesda: Hello Debra, Congratulations on your book, which I'm looking forward to reading. I don't want to demean the work of actors, but it seems to me that while acting certainly requires a range of talents and artistic risk-taking, it really doesn't compare to what a writer does. A writer is given lines, has a director, make-up, costuming, etc., while a writer has to create an entire universe in her head. The film industry is very actor-centric, or star-centric as you've suggested, but I'd appreciate your thoughts as to whether you think writers need to be valued more in the industry.

Debra Winger: Well, I don't agree totally. A great actor is quite a 'risk taker' by this luxurious standard we use. Writers have the ability to edit themselves, actors often do not and so there is a fierceness and braveness that exists when it is done right - all too rare, agreed. Especially with the press never letting a performance be just that.


New Orleans, La.: What is undiscovered about your life? If you are writing about it, have you discovered it? Or are there things even you have yet to explain about yourself?

Debra Winger: I would hope there is much that is undiscovered. I would say that what I have written about are both the uncovering and the discovery.

I feel somewhat superstitious that publishing is like a retro rocket that fires you into the next atmosphere...


New Orleans, La.: Who were some of the people you most enjoyed working with, and what about them made them special?

Debra Winger: I loved Attenborough and Hopkins - quite the gentlemen. Loved Bertolucci, Storraro quite the Italians. Loved Redford and Travolta - quite the movie stars.

Loved, recently Rosemary DeWitt and Bill Irwin. Loved Glen Gordon Caron - he makes me laugh.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Do you think if you were just starting out now as a movie actress it would have been too hard dealing with the tabloids and paparazzi? I kind of feel bad for these starlets with these gauntlets of photographers everywhere. Do you think it is worse now than when you were a 20-something? Do you think actors can avoid it?

Debra Winger: Yes they can avoid it if they'd like to.

yes, it is worse than ever. And frankly, in my opinion, moronic.


Arlington, Va.: What was your childhood like? Were your parents strict, lenient, yellers, calm, spankers, non-spankers, and how did this upbringing, in your observation, affect who you are today? What differences and what similarities would you recommend in bringing up children from what you experienced?

Debra Winger: I think my parents were typical for their age and positions. My father was not an educated man but he was hard working. They both let me know I was loved and would always have a place to land. Whatever else they did or did not do, I was saved by that knowledge. I often called my mother from far away locales so that I could hear a familiar voice.

this was not a generation known for their touchy-feely approach to life!


Washington, D.C.: Of all the actors whom I've seen come and go on the big (production) screen, I think I've missed you the most. First time a movie moved me to tears - a good thing - was Terms of Endearment. I have your performance to thank for that. Having read the Book World essay in the Post this past weekend, I was happy to see I can now catch up with you in print. Finding your 'voice' when attempting to write something though, is not always easy. Will you be attempting any fiction? I know a writer must have a purpose/message when writing fiction (analogous, I believe, to you selecting to do the film Betrayed w/Tom Berenger to bring to light the underpinnings of prejudice). Is there a message you might be attempting to convey in future novels and if so what can we expect?

Debra Winger: perhaps women between a certain age, who are made somewhat invisible (if not in politics) in our society, in particular.

In a big portion of the rest of the world women are held up for their devotion and wisdom - elders if you will - but here, relegated to a sort of de-sexualization and a fight against the dreaded wrinkled skin.


Washington, D.C.: Speaking of aging as an actress, I am curious about the movie Rosanna Arquette made called "Searching for Debra Winger" in which she interviewed actresses, including you, about the challenges of finding good roles into the 30s, 40s and beyond. Did you know she was making this film inspired by you? (before she taped your interview, I guess?) What did you think of it? Are things changing at all?

Debra Winger: this film was made as "State of the Art" and later changed to the present title. I admire Rosanna for chasing down her question. I was a little embarrassed by the title, but hey, it's a good name.


Arlington, Va.: How did becoming a mother change your career - both in terms of how you approached roles (artistically) and in how willing you were to travel and otherwise be away from your family (practically)?

Debra Winger: It grounded me only in the good way.

It inspired many a trip I might not have taken.

It made me choose my work more carefully.


Annandale, Virginia: What were you looking for from people who have seen your movies and what are you looking for from people who read your new book?

Debra Winger: I never enter into a project thinking about what others will think of it or me. that would be paralyzing.


Plainville: hi Debra. Obviously, we miss seeing you on the screen. You're a very talented and beautiful actress. Is the writing going to replace the acting on the creative side? How do you feel about going from a situation where you will be concerned about movie attendance, versus units of books being sold? Do you see yourself wanting to do book tours?

Debra Winger: I just see this as another endeavor - all the same need - to make things. I hope there are roles for the likes of me!

I am quite interested once again in telling some stories on film - but the business has changed in enormous ways and I am not so sure it will settle down anytime soon. We'll see.

I DID go on a mini-book tour and had a perfect time - I loved meeting people. Sadly, I did not make it to Plainville.


Federal Way, Wash.: Hi Debra, Did you attend drama classes at Monroe High School? I graduated from there in 1972.

Is that where you got the spark to become an actor?

Debra Winger: I never attended a drama class at school. Everyone was too weird in that department. Oh. Were you in that department? Sorry.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Debra, have always been a fan of yours. You have always seemed to embody the character you're playing. I really support what you said about being tired of frozen faces and of seeing women as they really look. How can we help that along?

Debra Winger: Resist those stupid magazines that sell it to you, I think.

And the programs that give us those faces on TV. I guess this is an old activist mentality but it is based on a mixtureof commerce and fear.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I presume from your article you are a method actor, or you at least agree with their belief of staying in character even when not before the cameras. Do you think the actors who claim they can switch their characters on and off are really able to do so, or do you believe they would gain from tricking the mind by remaining in character even when not acting?

Debra Winger: No I have worked with all kinds of actors, and you cannot always tell - if the craft is strong and the role is right, they will succeed even if they are napping up until "action". But I think eventually it shows, so that for an actor to have longevity, he or she must have flexibility, not just good resting habits.

Also, it's good to be well hydrated.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the chat. I wish you the peace you can't find in any book. Thanks again.

Debra Winger: thanks and you're welcome


Alexandria, Va.: Do you have a screenplay in you? Could you write a part you'd want to play?

Debra Winger: Screenplays seem to require an organizational skill and rhythm that I lack. I have been told I am a great person to bounce off of though.


Washington, D.C.: I thought you were wonderful in Searching for Debra Winger, honest, open and beautiful, to boot. Did this documentary affect your writing process in any way?

Debra Winger: no. but thanks.


Sterling, Virginia: Hi, Debra. I enjoyed your performances. I was particularly interested, as were many other Midwesterners, with your relationship with Governor Bob Kerrey. I lived in Western Iowa at the time and, if there had been a marriage from it, it would have been regarded (at least in rural Iowa) as the Midwest version of Lady Diana and Prince Charles (with a much happier ending!). Do you keep in contact with Bob Kerrey?

Debra Winger: Occasionally now, but I'm afraid politics do NOT make great bedfellows. He has voiced his support of the Iraq war just a few more times than I am comfortable with. Ah yes, that was a nice time though.

Except for the press hiding in the bushes.

No pun intended.


Boston, Mass.: You mentioned "invisibility" of some women.

Interesting that yesterday an Op-Ed writer addressed that same notion - "visible invisibility" in reference to women who are black and are highly educated and working in various professions. I also write about that same notion at the Wordpress blog, Home of the Brave, in the context of the population of women who practice professional nursing. Perhaps the visible invisibles is a theme which should get more attention. (My one and only stage play in progress is titled Invisible, and is about a nurse who is invisible in plain sight.)

Would this be a subject of interest for future writing for you?

Debra Winger: Yes I think that is all part of it. I think it stems from a nation more interested in Viagra then in cures for Cancer.


Virginia Beach, Va.: Was it difficult to assume the role vacated by Raquel Welch in Cannery Row given media coverage? Was it a challenge or bust in your opinion? (BTW you were a better choice.)

Debra Winger: Now we are into DEEP history (thank goodness it's 12:52!) - It was weird replacing a sex symbol like Raquel and remembering that there was a role to play. The costume designer had the biggest job...


Los Angeles, Ca.: Actresses get to play their own age in Europe. Charlotte Rampling (whose first film was "The Knack" back in 1965) is at the height of her powers and success in France. And Jeanne Moreau at 80-something is as much in demand as ever.

Parlez-vous Francais?

Debra Winger: Bien sur.

Let's not forget the great Simone Signoret


Debra Winger: Well, I'm so glad we had this time together (sort of). Thanks for making me think of things I might not have on this sultry afternoon.

Debra Winger


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