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Debra Winger: The return of a class act

More than a decade ago, Oscar-nominated actress Debra Winger quit Hollywood. Now she's back. She tellsGaynor Flynn what she was up to...

It's 13 years since Debra Winger pulled off one of the great disappearing acts in Hollywood. While many actors talk about quitting the business, few actually do and Winger's departure sent shock waves through the industry. Studio executives refused to believe that the actress who had earned Oscar nominations for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Terms of Endearment (1983) and Shadowlands (1993), would turn her back on her career.

Then, just as suddenly, she was back. The 53-year-old actress was at the Toronto Film Festival recently with a new film, Rachel Getting Married. Would the actress, of whom Pauline Kael said she was "a major reason to go on seeing movies in the Eighties", be worth watching in the 21st century? According to the critics, the answer was yes.

"I don't know what people are talking about when they say I've come back," snaps Winger, whose renowned feistiness has clearly not dissipated over the years. "I've been working all along, just not in things that interested you, obviously. I did some theatre in Boston with my husband. [She married actor Arliss Howard in 1996.] I taught a course at Harvard. I published a book [Undiscovered]. I did a couple of TV movies, including one about Columbine. I got nominated for an Emmy. What have you done?" she says, those distinctive blue eyes of hers flashing in annoyance.

Despite what Winger says, most people had no idea what had become of her. Rosanna Arquette decided to find out and made a documentary in 2002 called Searching for Debra Winger. Arquette assumed it had something to do with Winger turning 40 in a youth-obsessed industry.

"Do we have to talk about this?" asks Winger in that deep smokey voice of hers. "It wasn't any one thing that made me leave," she says with a sigh. "I wanted out for years and by that stage I'd worked for almost 20 years as an actress and it was just how I was feeling about life in general."

But what really upset Winger was the newly emerging 24/7 news cycle. "It was insatiable," she says. "The publicity for something became more consuming than the work, and what you're doing is basically keeping your celebrity bubble happening so that people will offer you movies. I couldn't do that."

You might wonder why she's come back, then, given the culture of celebrity today. Winger shrugs. The business might not be different, but she is. "I know all the things I hate about the business still go on, but I no longer feel like, oh God, I have to put up with all that to do this. I now think, OK, I can handle some of that to be able to do what I like to do."

It's thanks to her husband (who appeared in films such as Full Metal Jacket) that we're seeing Winger back on the big screen. He tried for years to get her back in the game. Then in 2002 he made his directorial debut with Big Bad Love. When he got down on his knees and begged, Winger caved in. In the film Winger plays Abby, a woman whose family implodes after a tragedy. Estranged from everyone around her, Abby is a powder keg of repressed emotion. When she's invited to her eldest daughter's wedding it's a recipe for emotional disaster.

Born in Ohio, to an orthodox Jewish family, Winger was six when her family relocated to Los Angeles. At 17 she left home to study criminal rehabilitation but a near-fatal accident left her blind and partially paralysed. Winger vowed that if she ever recovered she'd become an actress. She made her acting debut in the 1976 film Slumber Party 57. Four years later she became a star playing Sissy in Urban Cowboy.

Winger went on to become the highest-paid actress in the Eighties. On screen she could do no wrong. Off screen, it was a different matter. She dated high-profile men like Nick Nolte and Bob Kerry, the then Governor of Nebraska. There were tales of wild partying and drug taking. She came to blows with Shirley MacLaine. She refused to work with certain people, and walked off the set of A League of Their Own when the director Penny Marshall hired Madonna.

"I didn't care about those movies," she says. "I didn't want to do blockbusters all the time. I didn't want to do the same movies all the time. I wanted to take risks."

But at 53, won't it be even harder to find original roles? "Well, I haven't played somebody like Abby before because I had to be this age to play her. And my experience of being a mother was central to me understanding her." Winger has two sons, one from each marriage. Noah, her son by Timothy Hutton, is 21, and Babe Ruth Howard is 11. "I think there is a new world of roles open to me now because of my age and that makes me feel juicy about acting again."

The plan now, says Winger, is not to have a plan. She hopes there will be more film offers. Given her recent performance, that seems inevitable. Critics at Toronto were so impressed they were already speculating that she'd be up for her fourth Oscar nomination next year. Winger groans. "I so can't tell you how much I hate the whole notion that we have to talk about that as if it's some goal," she says. "I mean, the conception of the Academy Awards was meant to be a jury of your peers, have you stand up so they can say bravo. It wasn't even televised. Look at what it's turned into. What a nightmare. Shame on you for bringing that up."

'Rachel Getting Married' will be released in the UK next year