Debra Winger's latest role: Activist

When she walks across the dining room at Red Hat On the River in Irvington, Debra Winger doesn't turn heads. She's a presence, no doubt about it, in dark sunglasses, with curly auburn hair and a scarf twined around her neck. That trademark deep, throaty laugh should be enough to give her away to the lunch crowd here, but the locals are used to celebrities.

And Winger, a three-time Academy Award nominee, has chosen to live quietly among them, every once in a while breaking out with a bravura film performance -- as Abby, the flinty mother in "Rachel Getting Married" -- trekking into the city for a juicy role in a recent episode of "Law & Order" -- "I was told it was a rite of passage for New York actors," she says -- and, oh yes, taking on big oil, Dick Cheney and T. Boone Pickens, all in her spare time.

Lately, Winger has been deeply involved with "Gasland," a documentary about the destructive effects of natural-gas drilling on communities all over the country. "Gasland" has gotten strong reviews and a lot of momentum since winning the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. HBO bought the rights to the film and will air it June 21. Winger worked as a producer -- "actually, more as an adviser," she says.

"Well, here's the thing, it's not my documentary," she says by way of explanation. "I jumped on a moving train. I am a property owner in the Catskills, which is the home of my heart, and so that's how I began to find out about the gas drilling that was coming to the area. I became horrified."

Josh Fox, the director and star of "Gasland," contacted the actress for advice, and she jumped at the chance to become involved in getting Fox's message to a wider audience. She even consulted with her friend and "Legal Eagles" co-star Robert Redford, since Redford has been successful in warding off gas drillers in Utah until their extracting methods are more reliable environmentally.

"Josh shot it and assembled it, and he thought, 'I may have a film,' " she says. "Originally, he was feeding it to his Web site to inform people about what was going on; he didn't go out there to make a film. In the great history that is documentaries, that is a great way for it to happen."

Fox has created a visual hyperbole, cross-cutting gorgeous American scenery with the grim realities of the issues faced by property owners who have been paid for drilling rights on their land. Gas companies then "frack" the wells, pumping in chemicals to release the gas.

Fox, who turned down a $100,000 check for his own family's property in the Catskills, hit the road in his car and filmed residents in 24 states, some of whom find their water is poisoned. In one scene, a homeowner takes a match to his tap water and ignites a fireball in his kitchen sink. Some suffer from chronic illnesses with mysterious symptoms, and others battle waste pools that kill cattle and vegetation.

Winger, a self-described country girl, reserves special wrath for those who would despoil the environment, especially oil and gas companies and their supporters in Congress -- the villains, she says, behind the problems showcased in Fox's film.

"We all grew up with those commercials about clean natural gas, and yes, it's clean when it's pumped to your house, but to get to it is filthy, and that's the dirty secret," she says. "You will be so surprised to hear it's Halliburton and Dick Cheney who singlehandedly dismantled the EPA Clean Air Act so they don't have to tell you that the 500 chemicals that go into the fluid that they frack through the rock with hydraulic treachery will end up in your drinking water and by the time it does, it will be too late. And that's the diabolical part, and they know this."

Canary in a coal mine

The issue, which Winger calls "a canary in a coal mine," has her in fighting form, ready to battle evil and feed her twin passions of doing and being.

"I don't want to be too cynical," she says, "but there is almost no direction you can look in that isn't pretty grim. You have to do what you can to help, but my sort of gallows humor is, how do you want to go? I don't want to get poisoned from my drinking water. I can think of a lot of other ways, so I am choosing my battle."

That's an apt analogy for Winger who was labeled "difficult," after sparring with co-stars and directors alike during her career, although her riveting and indelible Academy Award-nominated performances in "Terms of Endearment," "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Shadowlands," as well as other roles, have won her legions of loyal fans. She has, she says, pulled back from just being "an actress for hire," but that doesn't mean she's out of a business she alternately loves and hates, for different reasons.

"I always fought being a celebrity," she says. " I really differentiated that I was creating characters, and that's who I owed to the public. And I didn't owe Debra Winger, nor did I necessarily relate to that name."

The in-between years

If great parts in Hollywood are not exactly flowing her way, it's not for lack of talent or trying.

"I loved 'The Hurt Locker' from the moment I saw it, but ultimately, was there anything for me in that film?" she says. "The things that I love that are out there are not really providing work."

Instead, she's made her mark in small films, such as "Sometimes in April," a 2005 HBO film framed by the Rwandan genocide, and Lifetime's "Dawn Anna," for which she was nominated for an Emmy in 2005. It was written by her husband, Arliss Howard. She wrote a book of essays, "Undiscovered," illustrated by her friend Philippe Petit -- yes, the tightrope walker -- and taught a fellowship at Harvard. But acting still has its pull.

The circumstances of how and why and when she takes a role aren't clearly defined.

"It's different every time," she says, adding that she prefers not to have to work with jerks. "I am one, every once in a while, too, so I have to cut a little slack.

"Look, I am interested in working as an actress again, but I have been saying that for a few years, and it hasn't really turned into that much," she continues. "And I think I am in a sort of strange in-between age. Without a lot of nipping and tucking and because of cable and VCRs, people see me now (as opposed to 1980s "Urban Cowboy") and say, 'Wow, what happened to her?' And I'm like, what did you look like 25 years ago? I have a metaphysical approach to it that, when it's right, it'll happen."

The stars aligned when Winger bumped into Jonathan Demme at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville. He was casting "Rachel Getting Married" and asked her to play Abby, the mother of Anne Hathaway's Kym, a recovering addict whose prickly relationship with Abby culminates in a shocking physical confrontation the night before her sister's wedding.

"Ironically, the character, if you notice, is not exactly friendly and heartwarming, and so, it wasn't a schmooze fest for me," she says.

Still, Demme's loose script and improvisational shooting style appealed to her.

"He was just really smart about it. He came and he said, 'Here's the script, but it's really kind of an outline, and what I want you to do is create a character and show her getting ready to go to a wedding.' And I was attracted to that."

Life on her own terms does have its attractions. She's raised a family out of the spotlight. Her son, Noah Hutton, is a filmmaker who made the documentary "Crude Independence," about what happens to a small town with the boom-and-bust cycle of oil.

"It's just a coincidence, but I guess I have a soft spot for young men who make films about the environment," she says.

Stepson Sam Howard is gainfully employed in the advertising business, and her youngest is still in school.

She also has a great partnership with her husband, a journeyman actor who has appeared in such works as "The Time Traveler's Wife," "Medium" and "Full Metal Jacket."

"He works hard," she says, "and he is a wonderful actor. We both have a sort of ambivalent relationship to the biz: We love it, we hate it," she laughs.

Although audiences have seen her less on screen, it has meant time for Winger to spend on causes far and near, such as Sight Savers International, which does great work for the visually impaired, and locally for groups that support the environment and the Hudson River, where Howard kayaks, such as Clearwater.

Last year, Winger interviewed folk singer and Clearwater founder Pete Seeger for a documentary that celebrated his 90th birthday.

"I got a call, and I said, 'Let me get this straight: You are asking me to drive 25 minutes from my house and sit for an hour uninterrupted with a camera rolling and talk to Pete Seeger? That's really imposing.' I just hung up the phone and said, 'I love my life!' "

Where to see 'Gasland'

The documentary, directed by Josh Fox and produced by Debra Winger and others, won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. "We're showing it everywhere we can," Winger says. It will be shown April 10 at the Philadelphia Film Fest and April 11 at the Yale Environmental Film Fest. HBO will premiere "Gasland" on June 21. For more information about the film, go to:


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