NEW YORK — Debra Winger is pondering life. Her left arm is raised to eye level, the elbow perched on the opposite wrist, and her cigarette slants upward as it rests between her fingers.
The actress spent six months in the Sahara filming "The Sheltering Sky," and in some ways she hasn't quite returned. "It's a joke, isn't it?" she said.
But her career still matters, more than ever. Winger works full time--reading, thinking, talking--looking for self-knowledge that can be collected and stored for future roles and looking for roles that can bring her self-knowledge.
"My life affects my work, and work affects my life," Winger explained. "I work more and more toward homogenization. I don't want to be the sort of person who puts on a hat by the door and goes out. You have to find a way to intermingle the two. You have to find a way to show your growth in your work."
"The Sheltering Sky," based on Paul Bowles' acclaimed 1949 novel, stars Winger and John Malkovich as a wealthy American couple who travel through the desert in Africa, discovering unpleasant truths about their marriage and themselves. Bernardo Bertolucci directed, his first film since the Academy Award-winning "The Last Emperor."
She summed up the past in two words: "No regrets." Not about fights with directors and fellow actors, not about her brief marriage to actor Timothy Hutton, not about turning down the part in "Broadcast News" that made a star of Holly Hunter.
Two other words momentarily upset her, make her gag and cough as if someone had put a fly in her coffee. The words are "turbulent brilliance," and they were used by Shirley MacLaine on Academy Awards night in 1984 to assess her "Terms of Endearment" co-star.
"I have a T-shirt that Shirley gave me the day after the Academy Awards when she felt the necessity to call me turbulent and brilliant instead of just brilliant," said Winger, who lost to MacLaine for best actress.
"She heard I was a little rattled, and the T-shirt said, 'Turbulent Means Brilliant.' Oh, give me a break! If it needs an explanation, don't say it."
On sand or on pavement, it's been a bumpy ride for Winger, born in Cleveland in 1955. Her decision to become an actress was turbulent, a matter quite literally of life and death.
On New Year's Eve, 1973, she was thrown from a moving truck and nearly died from a cerebral hemorrhage. Winger was studying sociology and criminology at the time, but quickly lost interest.
"I wanted to act before, but I was still under the pull of my parents and sort of under the middle-class work ethic. It was a hobby, you know. You don't actually do that for a living.
"But when somebody experiences death, near death, you realize you're all alone at the end. And I said I can't do something another day that I won't be completely fulfilled in."
Winger admits to problems with drugs and temperament in the past, but insists they didn't keep her from working, that she knew which experiences were best to draw on.
An old story about John Barrymore draws out her bubbly, staccato laugh. The actor was in London, supposedly to star in "Hamlet," but spending most of his time chasing women.
Hours before opening night, he succeeded. His dress rehearsal consisted of Scotch, wine and a hospitable duchess. He arrived half an hour before curtain time and passed out in his dressing room.
"I was the first American to play Hamlet on a London stage, and I was also the first drunk to play it on any stage in the world," he recalled.
The lights made him dizzy. He had to lean on another actor to keep from falling down. He would exit in the middle of a scene and vomit in the wings. He performed his soliloquy sprawled in a chair.
"But I missed no words of Will Shakespeare's, and I missed no cue," Barrymore boasted. The critics raved, never had turbulence and brilliance worked so well together. Art had triumphed over life, or was it the other way around?
Winger said: "For every actor, there's that Adrenalin that gets going once the curtain goes up or once the camera starts rolling. Only for me, the process begins a little sooner.
"Sometimes I feel like the town idiot. People can be saying terrible things about me, people can hate me, but I don't care, I just want to keep doing what I'm doing."