NEW YORK — What ever happened to Debra Winger? It’s a question that transfixed the moviegoing public for years.
One moment she was one of film’s most famous and formidable female actors, a wild child beloved for her combination of feistiness and vulnerability, who had picked up three Academy Award nominations in just 11 years (for “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Terms of Endearment,” and “Shadowlands”). Then, poof, she was gone, having pulled one of the most talked-about vanishing acts in modern-day Hollywood.
But over the years, she’s often insisted that she didn’t quit or retire from the business.
“It was an organic thing,” Winger, now 61, says of her six-year film-acting hiatus between 1995 and 2001. “I think with anything you’re choosing or finding your way with, if it’s not pulling you forward a little bit, you’re going to feel like you’ve come to a dead end eventually.”
There’s still that honey-smoked, sandpaper-and-sexpot rasp that fills the room when Winger speaks. She’s fielding a reporter’s questions in a Manhattan hotel the morning after her new film, “The Lovers,” had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. “You’ve got to feel that you’re reaching for something that extends further than your grasp,” she says. “Otherwise I think you feel tired and old at some point.”
While she always loved acting, she says she’d become disenchanted with the business and resented the compromises actors have to make to stay on the treadmill of the Hollywood machine. She also wasn’t finding a “fierceness” in the parts she was offered.
“I had reached my sell-by date on perky,” says Winger, who remains as feisty as ever, with her famously wicked wit still in full snark. “There weren’t stories I wanted to tell. It’s so much better now with television and roles for women.”
Indeed, the woman who walked away from Hollywood has been slowly winding her way back. She just wrapped her second season as the straight-talking, saloon-keeper matriarch on Netflix’s dysfunctional family sitcom “The Ranch” with Ashton Kutcher and Sam Elliott.
She’s also making an anticipated return to the big screen with “The Lovers,” a barbed yet surprisingly buoyant comedy that centers on a long-married couple stuck in a desiccated marriage. Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs (“Terri,” HBO’s “Doll & Em”), the film opens in Boston on Friday.
During Winger’s years away from show business, she was busy raising three sons and running a working farm with her husband, the actor Arliss Howard, in a small Hudson Valley town. She also spent an extended period of time in Cambridge. She taught a course on the Literature of Social Reflection at Harvard and acted at the American Repertory Theatre in Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” in 1998 and Chekhov’s “Ivanov” in 1999, both opposite her husband.
“I look back on that time very fondly,” Winger says. “Life seemed pretty perfect there. I just remember my husband and I riding bikes across Harvard Yard to our jobs, and I thought, well, this is the good life.”
Winger eventually returned to making movies, but it still takes a lot for her to say yes. Howard pleaded with her to play a repressed mother estranged from her family in his 2002 directorial debut, “Big Bad Love.” She created a stir with her brief but memorable turn as the icily detached mother-of-the-bride in Jonathan Demme’s 2008 film “Rachel Getting Married,” with the New York Times praising her for “lifting the film onto another plane altogether,” and appeared in a well-received recurring arc on HBO’s therapy drama “In Treatment” in 2010 as an actress grappling with aging and memory loss.
As the unhappily married couple in “The Lovers,” Mary (Winger) and Michael (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and “Homeland” actor Tracy Letts) have become de facto roommates, both engaged in clandestine, extramarital affairs. Mary has been jumping into bed with an earnest novelist (Aidan Gillen), while Michael is juggling a tempestuous tryst with a needy ballet teacher (Melora Walters). The tables quickly turn, though, when the passion between the spouses reignites and they secretly start sleeping with each other again — while sneaking behind the backs of their lovers.
Jacobs’s idea for the film centered around “what happens after happily ever after?” Jacobs says. “After Richard Gere carries Debra away [in 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman”], what’s the next beat after that? Cut to  years later, and here we are.”
Winger says she, Jacobs, and Letts brought diverse viewpoints on marriage to the table. “We all have these really thrilling perspectives that were vastly different from one another and that came together and clashed in the middle and brought all of this prismatic life to the film.”
“I’ve been together with the same person for 25 years,” she says. “So there are things that you understand about marriage and how to keep love alive. And there’s no easy answer to that. But the mystery is intriguing. And if you can come together on that and live that question, you can have some real awakenings inside of a marriage that lasts and lasts, and it can feel really new.”
In the movie, it’s the arrival of the couple’s son Joel, who harbors a wellspring of resentment about what he sees as his parents’ sham of a relationship, that ups the stakes from the buoyant comedy that precedes it. “Suddenly what has seemed kind of frivolous or light takes on a real weight,” Letts says, “after you see the collateral damage and the consequences of living your life like that.”
The outspoken Winger has never seemed afraid of the consequences. She may have been “a major reason to go on seeing movies in the ’80s,” in the words of critic Pauline Kael, but Winger had earned a reputation for being combative on set. She was a frequent target of the tabloids, who were transfixed by her off-camera exploits and romantic escapades, including a relationship with former Nebraska Governor Bob Kerrey.
She and Shirley MacLaine famously clashed on “Terms of Endearment,” she battled costar Richard Gere while filming “An Officer and a Gentleman” and criticized him in the press. When she expressed her disappointment with the 1986 movie “Legal Eagles,” director Ivan Reitman claimed “she’s historically been a difficult actress to work with.”
While she may have rubbed some people the wrong way, others viewed her confessional candor as refreshing. She insists that most of the on-set frictions were honest debates about a scene or moment where each side was arguing over what they felt was right. She says the tension often produced better work.
“I have no regrets. I feel like because of the internet, I’m now going to be answering this question until I’m dead,” she says of her cantankerous reputation. “I guess at some point in my life, I didn’t see the purpose of sugar-coating things or saying an answer that I thought wasn’t honest about how I really felt about something. You know, I probably was uncouth. I probably was disrespectful. I didn’t have a lot of filters. I did not edit myself.”
Despite her disdain for the celebrity industrial complex, she understands “that’s the price that you have to pay for what you get to do as an actor,” she says. “But I do know people that wear [their celebrity] better than me and enjoy it and use it correctly, and I do not begrudge them. The ability to carry that sensibility and not have it change you, that’s a talent, and I just don’t possess that talent.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.