Debra Winger talks "The Lovers" [Interview]

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How rare it is to find a romantic comedy about a middle-aged couple in this day and age of American cinema. The marriage at the core of Azael Jacobs’ “The Lovers” is so authentically rendered to the audience that many of the scenes come off as painfully real.
“The Lovers” is about those who love, but also about those who discard love. The couple at the center of this tragi-comedy are Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts), both pursuing seperate affairs and all, but having given up on their marriage. Don’t be discouraged by the morose nature in which I describe “The Lovers,” for it springs surprises of hope and healing in its tightly-knit running time o 94 minutes, that no writer should reveal.
The film is a scathing, but humorously authentic take on the state of true love and being faithful to one another. Its young writer-director, helmer of the vastly underrated “Terri,” is asking tough, everlasting questions about what love means and if it could ever be realistically sustained trough a lifetime. The film implies that middle aged couples can be, and are, as sexually screwed up as any younger couple in their mid-20s.
Debra Winger is at the center of these sustained, depth-filled questions. She gives one of the very best performances of her career as Mary, a woman filled with disappointment, wounded by a lackluster marriage and on the brink of telling her spouse she’s had enough. There’s an abundance of passion and wit in Winger’s tour-de-force performance. Unpredictable, intense and filed with abundant wit, Winger shows a vulnerable side to her art by opening herself up to a role that Jacobs had specifically written for her.
She spoke to me about the film and what it means to have such a depth-filled, female role come her way at this stage of her career, a role which, as I cross my fingers, could land her a fourth Best Actress nomination.
It’s a pleasure meeting you, despite this little hiccup we just had on the phone. What was that music as we weren’t being put on hold!?
Hello Jordan, did you have the same technological glitch there? From my perspective I was stuck in what sounded like, you know the music you have no control over when you’re on hold, it was sort of like an elevator between a piercing place and a tattoo salon, the kind of music they would play in a place with that hybrid.
I think that’s what I was listening to as well
So we’re already on the same page here [Laughs].
Well, I have to say, loved your performance, loved the movie so it’s very exciting to talk to you about this. So I presume you still have offers to act in movies. What made “The Lovers” the right movie for you? Did it come at the right time?
I had met [director] Azael Jacobs before, so I knew him. I had written him a letter, I had asked him if he ever had anything where he felt like somebody like me could be in. So we kept a relationship where we spoke a couple times a year. At some point the script arrived and I knew that I really wanted to work with him.
Oh really? So you write notes to directors often? Or was it just Azael?
I wouldn’t say often, but I have been known to drop the occasional fan note.
Any other directors you would be allowed to name check in this interview?
Oh, I think I’ve written notes to Paul Thomas Anderson, I think I’ve written notes to Mike Leigh, Olivier Assayas, yeah I’ve written some notes [Laughs].
You definitely have good taste
So you like the film. You sound like a younger person.
Yeah, I loved it. I got married a year ago, so it still feels fresh.
So this movie didn’t depress you?
No, because I know all about the territory that I’m getting myself into.
Yeah, that’s true. You don’t have to be married to know that the institution creates some traps. I remember the first time I got married around 31 years ago. The first movie that we saw, oh shit can’t remember the title, but it was Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson and Nora Ephron wrote the screenplay about marriage, and it was so depressing and it was like everybody hated each other, marriage was horrible and I was like this is not a good honeymoon movie.
Are you talking about “Heartburn”?
“Heartburn,” yeah, but I feel like “The Lovers” is a cautionary tale and I think in my life, as far as love is concerned, because I do love love stories, always liked to tell love stories, I find them mysterious and the question about how to make love stay is a lasting question and I like to keep asking it and I think cautionary tales are a good thing.
Well, I find the movie is, in the end, not that depressing because it feels almost hopeful, it gives you hope!
I agree.
It also explores all the strains that eventually develop in marriage and how to defeat those demons.
Right, and how easily we could fall asleep and how we don’t even notice it because it just seems more convenient not to confront it. And also I have this whole theory going in that good writers don’t even realize it, they’re writing on such an intuitive level, that when the actors start pulling it apart and inhabiting it, things come out. And when we got up to Santa Clarita, where it was shot, and I saw where we were going to shoot, this suburban middle class neighborhood, I was like, man this is a whole sector of America that is white-knuckling it right now, you know? And it’s a luxury to afford to divorce. You’re not getting along, your relationship isn’t going well, “oh let’s get two apartments, pay two electric bills.” People don’t realize what a privilege decision that can be.
Oh yeah, completely agree with that. That side of the story is never tackled.
So, I was very interested in the socio-economic side of it in that, you stay in the same house, you kind of avoid each other, you try to find some happiness wherever you can, then one day you wake up and you’re like “wait a minute, this is my life?”
I know a couple that’s in that situation. They’re pretty open about it as well.
Yeah, well it moves to that stage if it doesn’t move to the other stage, which is where “The Lovers” is. I think it also is a timing thing. You could do that for a while, but when your kid goes off to college and you’re left with this glaring lie in your life, it’s pretty hard to realize that you’re not doing well. We forget how tentative we are, we’re only here for a little while.
That moment of finiteness. But, yeah when the kid goes to college you both just look at each other and you’re like “Ok, I have to be with YOU now?”
Well, you know, if you’re doing this whole sneaking around and cheating thing just to keep the structure of a marriage which is somewhat familiar to a child, that tends to fall apart, plus, for the most part, you find out that he’s known all along anyway because as we know when we have a baby they are totally vibratory creatures, I mean they pick up on everything and it doesn’t matter what they “know or don’t know”, they know it in their bodies.
The chemistry that you have in the movie with Tracy Letts to showcase these details is quite incredible. I know him mostly as a playwright, what was it like working with him?
Yeah, he’s been a sort of late bloomer to movies and, as he would tell you, usually plays the guy in a suit ordering the drone strike. For him, I think he was kind of lit up by the role itself. You know, being able to be in that situation in a film, I mean, I’m sure he’s done it on stage, but I was just so delighted because he was just so available and for me, I say yes to a director, and I mean YES. I show up and if I’ve said yes, I’m pretty much willing to explore anything. If you make yourself available you don’t really have much protection and that can be super painful, not in a physical way, but it’s like any other situation in life, movies are no different if you’re doing it right, so I don’t have a craft that allows me to go in and protect all my corners and, sort of, nooks and crannies and give an honest and open performance. I have to be in a trusting environment and I think Azael created that and I think Tracy was just so up for that, that’s how he looks at having a scene partner. We hit it off and we used that feeling and we ran with it and I think that when you’re younger you mistake that feeling in life and that’s when so many actors screw up [Laughs].
A whole bunch of stuff happens
Yeah, a whole bunch of stuff happens in a movie because you’re emotionally available and, in this case, the right exact thing happened. You know, we’re both happily married to other people and we just access that part of ourselves that would have probably gone wild and off the rails years ago.
How long was the shoot?
24 days.
That’s fairly …
Shocking. That was shocking to me. I mean, I come from a world where we shot almost three months on a film. I’m telling you, it was rollicking, I don’t mind it, but I think that a few more days would have been nice.
That’s actually a very common thing for an actor to tell me these days, that the shoot was way too short.
Well, because independent films now are just, you know, shot out of the canon. There’s usually not a lot of time for preparation, I was lucky enough to have some time on this, and you’re working, you know, 14 hour days, and you’re driving yourself to locations. I’m really hoping that the business is finding its watermark because when the bottom fell out of the independent film business it was just so shocking that all that could be made was a 500 thousand dollar or a 500 million dollar film and we’re starting to see the advent between a $1M movie and a $30M movie, which we haven’t seen since, I don’t know, the late ’70s early ’80s. I made one called “Mike’s Murder,” sort of at the beginning of the independent film boom and then, of course, “Big Bad Love” was at the end of it, so I think we just have to find this place where we can make right-sized movies that good actors want to make and you don’t have to sit for five hours and have to play a superhero’s movie or a purple Amoeba from another planet, but that you can tell some stories that we need to hear. Hopefully the budget can come up a bit from this one and give you a little more time so you all don’t fall under the weather and we can make some movies.
I guess this is a little better than shooting “Sheltering Sky” for, what was it, five months?
No, I don’t think it’s better. That was a transformational experience. I had my kid with me, I had my whole life with me, I loved that shoot, I have no complaints about that shoot. I don’t think every movie should be five months. I do also find that the experience of making “The Lovers” was transformational for me because, at my age, to be able to tell a story about the vivacity and the connection into life that I feel inside, it so rarely finds a place in society to live. You know, we like to put older people in a box and keep them separate and believe that it’s never going to happen to us. I’m here to say that at 61 it’s a really vibrant time.
I’m sure you’re always searching for those opportunities
I am, I just don’t think that they’re written for the most part.