March/April 2011
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Debra Winger

[Actress]

“I don’t much mind cruel descriptions of women. I think this happens because of their complexity, their power, and others’ inability to process as fast as a woman has to, to get done all that she has to do.”
Some aids to understanding our human story:
Ancient texts
Inner insanity
A lunar eclipse

In her 2008 book, undiscovered, Debra Winger describes how she got her first major role—that of Sissy, a sassy Texan cowgirl—in Urban Cowboy:

“I arrived at the Paramount lot the day I read about the recasting of the female lead in Variety (Sissy Spacek and John Travolta [who had been cast as the male lead] had a sort of falling out, I believe), with a story about how I had misplaced my portfolio. (What portfolio? A cigar-smoking agent had signed me while I was waitressing, but that only resulted in a blue movie.) They let me in.

“I found the building where they were casting for Urban Cowboy and plopped myself down on the steps outside, trying to figure out my next move. I didn’t have an appointment like all the other actresses I would be competing against for the role. Two men walked toward the entrance, and I had to move aside. One of them, with rather tousled hair and a bemused look, asked me if I was there to interview for the part of Sissy. I squinted up at the kind face, and in my best Texas, I replied, ‘Who wants to know?’”

This was the start of a career that would include Oscar-worthy performances in An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment, The Sheltering Sky, Shadowlands, Rachel Getting Married, and many, many more films and TV shows. Writing in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael called Winger “one of the two or three finest (and most fearless) screen actresses we’ve got.”

This interview was conducted via email between October 2010 and January 2011. I felt I could hear Winger’s voice in every response—she is one of very few actresses (Katharine Hepburn and Catherine Keener are the only other ones who come immediately to mind) who have a voice that’s so strong, distinct, and captivating. Winger was witty throughout our correspondences. After she’d agreed to the interview, I wrote to tell her I’d be sending her my first question the next day. She responded, “I’m going to bed early so I can get ready.”

—Vendela Vida

I. Doors

THE BELIEVER: In undiscovered you write about how you collect old doors. Can you talk about why you started doing this?

DEBRA WINGER: I’m not sure exactly how or when I started—I found myself, all throughout my travels in life, taking photographs of doors (meaning doors, doorways, gates, portals, etc.). I didn’t want to have chapters in the book, but rather drawings of these same things.It was a collaboration with Philippe Petit—we shared photos and ideas and records we had kept of places visited—and he sketched each one.

I also photographed laundry pretty much wherever I went.One can tell a lot of what needs to be known about a place from the laundry. When I bought an old farmhouse and barn, I started reclaiming old doors and sometimes placed them in the forest to create a possibility.The laundry, I find, collects all on its own.

BLVR: How do you decide where to place the doors?How many do you have?

DW: They are stacked in the barn, although I think one has been reclaimed by nature up in the woods.The one on the cover of my book came down off that upper field with the last season.I have not counted them.They are put up when I need to jump-start my new possibility center (this is one I have made up—you will not find it in a journal of neuroscience).

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Vendela Vida edits the Believer.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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