Why are Debra Winger and Sam Elliott doing a multi-cam sitcom for Netflix?
Through long, varied, and successful careers in show business, Debra Winger and Sam Elliott have done a little bit of everything. She was one of the world's biggest movie stars in the '80s thanks to films like An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment, but she also played Wonder Girl on the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series, did stand-up comedy at the start of her career, and was one of the final patients on HBO's In Treatment. Elliott was a late-period castmember on the Mission: Impossible TV show, has played dozens of heavies and heroes in the movies, and even turned up clean-shaven on the final season of Justified.
Starting Friday, though, you'll get to see them do something they've never done before: act in a traditional multi-cam sitcom, shot on a stage in front of a studio audience. In Netflix's The Ranch(*), they play an estranged Colorado couple who are parents to Ashton Kutcher (the prodigal son returning after a failed football career) and Danny Masterson (the one who stayed and always lives in Kutcher's shadow), and who keep hooking up on the sly, even though he's still working the family ranch while she lives in an Airstream trailer and runs the local bar.
(*) The Ranch is yet another example of how Netflix doesn't have, or care about having, a unified brand. Created by Don Reo and Jim Patterson, it's very old-school in a way that other Netflix comedies like Master of None and Love very much are not, even if there are occasional curse words mixed into the punchlines. What's particularly notable is that, like on CBS' Mom, the show is comfortable turning serious for long stretches as the characters grapple with how their lives have turned out. Also, like Mom, it's much more effective in those darker moments than when the characters are slinging punchlines at each other. It's not perfect, but it's really interesting, especially if you have fondness for multi-cam to begin with.
Back in January at TCA, I spoke with the two screen veterans about learning a new kind of acting at this stage of their lives, about some of their previous stints on TV — the last one inspiring Winger's very frank discussion of the most famous scene of her career — and more. These two have done everything and have no filters, so this was a fun and candid conversation.
Am I right that the two of you have not worked together before this?
Sam Elliott: You’re right.
Debra Winger: And you’re never going to work with me again.
Sam Elliott: We’ve never crossed paths as actors. We crossed paths as wives.
Debra Winger: And husbands.
Because I think (Winger's husband) Arliss Howard did a movie with you at some point.
Sam Elliott: Right. That’s when I met Debra.
And what do you remember of that meeting?
Sam Elliott: Very little. She had babies.
Debra Winger: I had a baby hanging off my tit.
Sam Elliott: I mean, it was 17 years ago. I don’t remember anything from 17 years ago. Not a good sign, I realize.
You're both doing multicam for the first time in your careers. What for each of you was the biggest adjustment to doing this versus any other kind of acting that you’ve done?
Debra Winger: It was a combination of efforts. To me, it was like there were things that were my favorite thing about show business, like the coming together to make a show. There were aspects that were my favorite part about theater, which was the live audience. There were aspects about the character that I was going to be in on the creation. And then there were just hair-raising aspects, like that you have so little time to work on your dialogue to memorize it and you really have to have it down. There’s no cue cards. So it was this weird combination of great aspects and terrifying ones. And I think the most compelling thing for me anyway, Sam might feel differently, was that it’s hard to find challenges. The older you get, the more you’ve done. It’s easy. It doesn’t mean that material’s not good, but the challenge to have a new muscle is still desirable.
Sam Elliott: I find as Debra does: some of it couldn’t be more stimulating and more exciting, and some it couldn’t be more terrifying and daunting. I like to be able to hear myself think even though I can’t remember anything from 17 years ago. I’m not a quick study, so I’m always struggling for my words right up until. And this carnival atmosphere is really off-putting to me, because there’s this person there whipping the audience and keeping them alive between takes or whatever that motivation is.
Debra Winger: Frothing them.
Sam Elliott: I’m not even sure I understand it, but I find that very unsettling. Also, the immediacy of the whole process, going from A to Z in seven days. You get that new script come Friday night. You’re shooting it. You’re putting it on tape a week later.
Debra Winger: And then you’re shaking it off.
Sam Elliott: And then you shake it off and go to the next one. It’s quite a wild ride.
Technically, what would you say is the biggest difference between doing this and doing theater?
Debra Winger: Oh, rehearsal. Theater is all about the rehearsal process. In fact, I think a lot of times opening night there’s a mixed sadness because you’re finished with a lot of people’s favorite part of the process, which is finding the character and discovering it, and then you get to live it. And also that you’re doing the whole story every night and you get another shot totally at doing the whole story. That isn’t this. This is more like a movie in that sense. You never get to do that again.
How many episodes into doing it did you start to feel comfortable? Or do you feel comfortable at this point with the process of it?
Sam Elliott: Not yet.
Debra Winger: Not yet. I have fun. I get in the car to go to work and I’m happy, and that’s really great that I still feel that way. I still want to go and that’s good. I just want to get really good at it and I don’t know that I am yet. I want to get really facile. It’s fun to be loose. Just like on stage, all of your great ideas come from looseness.
How did it feel the first time that you got a big laugh from that studio audience?
Sam Elliott: I love that. I love the fact that I’m having an opportunity to make people laugh and you actually get to hear it.
Debra Winger: I started out in stand-up, so it’s very satisfying to make people laugh, but it usually means at your own expense. Very rarely do you have them in your hand.
I had forgotten you did stand-up. How long was that for?
Debra Winger: I started out in stand-up when I was 18, which is really masochistic, and I did it really till I started going in movies. I did it for about three years out in LA.
Sam, you’ve done a few series before this. Debra, you've basically only done In Treatment.
Debra Winger: In Treatment, which was not really anything close to a series. It was finite. You knew it was finite. And I did (a few episodes of) Wonder Woman at the beginning of my career.
Had you been offered one in the past?
Debra Winger: Yes.
What sorts of things were you offered?
Debra Winger: (mimes pointing a gun at an imaginary perp) “Stand up against the wall!” That’s what everybody gets offered, especially women. When women started appearing on TV again in something other than the girl or the mother role it was all, “Get up against the wall," or, "The skin underneath her fingernail would tell me that she,” you know, forensic stuff. Oh, God gross. Now, they’re hunting terrorists. I mean, it’s great, but I don’t believe it really and I don’t particularly want to hold a gun. I did in this show. I’ll hold a hunting rifle, but I don’t want to go, "Stand up against the wall!"
Sam, the last time we saw you on TV, you were clean-shaven because you had shaved for something else when Justified came along. Was there any discussion about 'stache or no 'stache for this? Was the 'stache mandatory?
Sam Elliott: No, it wasn’t. It was an interesting thing. I went and did that show. I had a photograph of myself from a movie called The Contender, and I went to a meeting with the (Justified) creators and the writers, and we were talking about the look of this character and I was talking about I wanted to cut my hair off like this gal had done on The Contender. And I mentioned this woman’s name, the hairdresser, and the creator of the show looks at me and said, "Her daughter is our hairdresser." Anyway, I went in the trailer and I told her, Maxine Morris is her name, that, "I want you to whack it off." And she said, “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to give the same haircut my mom did.”
So, I ended up having this kind of pompadour look and it was the first time I’d ever in my entire career combed my hair that way, and it is the weirdest thing. I’ve had that experience on a couple of different shows where you go into a trailer and one of them where I was clean-shaven and I wore a wig, and a mustache when I played Wild Bill Hickok. In that experience, I’d gone into a trailer and gone through the makeup thing, and walking out of there feeling like you’re a fucking different person is really one of the wonderful things that comes. It’s just really amazing. Because every time I went in there and I got my hair combed back, I looked like some fucking dufus that I’d never looked like before. It just put me where I needed to go.
I thought it worked. There’s a lot of sneering that you were doing and having the naked lip worked for that.
Debra Winger: Naked lip.
Sam Elliott: Yeah, it was the right thing.
Debra Winger: The naked lip.
Sam Elliott: That guy was a dope dealer, he wasn’t a cowboy. He was a different animal.
How different do you find your performances when you’re playing comic versus dramatic?
Sam Elliott: I don’t think my performance was really that different. I wish I could say that I was really a brilliant actor or comedian. I think I’m more one of those kinds of characters that you know what you’re going to get and you want to go. That’s not saying I don’t commit to my work and I don’t believe my work, but still I come from the Gary Cooper school or the Jimmy Stewart school. It's, "Do the same shit and hope that they come and watch it again."
So, if you’re doing something like Lebowski, you’re not doing much that's different?
Sam Elliott: It’s the same thing. I mean, back to this Contender movie. I was playing the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States. Jeff Bridges was playing the President and I remember discussing with Rod Lurie who wrote and directed the piece, “What do you want this guy to sound like? Do you want me to do an accent?” and he said, “No, he’s from the South. He talks like you. He sounds like you.” The thing in Justified was the first time I ever made an attempt to sound a little different. I went with the sneering.
Now, you hadn’t worked together before this but I’m sure you had seen each other’s work.
Debra Winger: I never saw a frickin film he did.
Really? So, what was your sense of Sam, and Sam what was your sense of Debra as a performer before you came in to work together?
Debra Winger: The way this happened was I was kind of snooping around to see if he was available to do this independent film I was thinking of doing, so I’d always wanted to work with him. And I think what he just said is so beautiful. You hardly ever hear a secure actor say that. Actors always want you to believe something else even though that’s the truth and to do that well it’s almost a dying art. Because right now, the people that would be able to say that are celebrities — they’re not actors. They’re a celebrity and their persona on film is the same, and it’s like, “Uh?” Sam, he has his life, but there’s a comfort zone within the characters he plays that he just does better than anyone else, period. I think that’s very attractive.
And Sam, what’d you think of Debra the actress before?
Debra Winger: You don’t have to say.
Sam Elliott: Fuck, I never got over Debra from Urban Cowboy. I was just pissed that I wasn’t there.
I was going to ask: how were you not in Urban Cowboy?
Sam Elliott: I was kind of pissed that I wasn’t Scott Glenn or somebody. I never fucking got over it.
Did you read for it?
Sam Elliott: No.
Debra Winger: No, (Urban Cowboy director) Jim Bridges had worked with Scott on The Baby Maker. Jim had been friends with Scott before I knew him.
Scott’s also on Netflix.
Debra Winger: What is he on?
He is on Daredevil. He’s doing ninja stuff.
Debra Winger: Right, I saw him. He does all that stuff by the way. I used to wake up on Urban Cowboy to this sound the first couple of days, and I thought it was some kind of weird bird. And then I opened my door and it was Scott jumping rope at 4:45. He’s a nutcake. He climbs mountains with his fingers.
With The Ranch, what was it like working with two younger costars who know this particular format and style of acting much more than you do? Did you find yourself going to them?
Sam Elliott: I mean, there are certain things about it that I fucking won’t even go to. But overall as an actor, watching these two kids is astounding. You know (Kutcher's) career. That ‘70s Show, not that it wasn’t something for me, but it wasn’t anything for me. But at the same time, I’m going in there scared to death, nervous, always grasping for the dialogue. Not always — I mean at some point by the end of the week it finally settles in — but these fucking guys, right off the bat, man. By midweek they’re in deep and their fucking speeches are that long some of them, like, every week. If I have a speech like that, I need a week to recuperate.
Debra Winger: Yeah, but to be fair they’re also in on the writing of them.
Sam Elliott: Well, true.
Debra Winger: To be fair they’re generating them more than we are. But there’s a school going on about the way in which you do this.I was writing terms down, because I didn’t even know what it meant. “Debra, drop into the slot.” I’m like, “What’s the slot?”
What is the slot?
Debra Winger: The slot is between two people for your camera. It’s very simple. It’s just that they have their lingo, and they’re proud of it, so you ought to learn the language. But I think also I want to get to the point where we hit a cruising altitude and what we’re good at is also in play. Whereas now, we’re sort of white knuckling, and I think we find out on Friday night that what we have is very much in play, but we don’t get to enjoy it Monday through Thursday so much.
What’s a joke that either of you had that you were most surprised got a reaction from the audience?
Debra Winger: I know what yours was. I don’t know what mine was and I just also watched them. But you stood still, do you remember? You were just watching them be idiots at the doorway.
Sam Elliott: In which piece?
Debra Winger: On the porch. I don’t know which segment it was. I think when you come out in your...
Sam Elliott: In my shorts.
Debra Winger: In your shorts, but it’s not about that; it’s the look. It just went on and on. There were like three rolls of laughter where people stopped laughing and then they’d just started laughing, and he didn’t do anything different. He just stood there and that was the brilliance of it. Like, I might’ve moved after the first laughter subsided. He just stood there because it was working, goddammit. And boom, sure enough it commanded a whole other thing. And then he went, “Well, see, it worked again. I’m just going to stay,” and of course they’re being morons, so it made sense. But it was three complete rounds of laughter and all he did was he didn’t move a muscle.
Sam Elliott: I find that when you look at what you call the morons or whatever, but when I, Sam, feel that way because I often do, I look at these two and it’s another perspective I have on these two guys, which I shouldn’t even say is, "How much longer are these two grown men going to do this same stuff?"
Debra Winger: That’s never going to stop, darling.
Sam Elliott: And it’ll probably go on forever. But I look at that as an actor and at the same time as a parent, and I’m looking at these two fucking imbeciles. And so, there’s a real crossover there, so it’s really easy. And to me, it is funny to just sit there and just watch it. Because you know the fucking audience is thinking the same thing.
Getting back to In Treatment for a second, your character was interesting in that in the three years of the show, I think Francis is the only patient whose story was not really wrapped up by the end of that season. Was there any talk that if Gabriel (Byrne) had been willing to do more, the idea was you would’ve come back?
Debra Winger: No. I worked with directors I really like on that. They bring in film directors to direct those segments and I think I have a way of saying, "Let’s not wrap things up on everything." I like enigmatic endings of films. Because I think I suffered really early on from being carried out of that fucking factory (in An Officer and a Gentleman). Once that happened, I’m like, “I never want to do this." And it’s of course a huge thing that people wait for, and people still tell me that they carried their girlfriend out of the theater, and of course they’re in an old age home now.
But I’m just saying that I think I developed an allergy to tying shit up because it made me feel like my life is going to peak at some point. It started to be synonymous to me. Life is not that. Case in point, this is so thrilling to be able to have this new work. Most of my friends are getting their free bus pass, and I could get a free bus pass too if I didn’t feel guilty. I pay for the bus, but I’m just saying that it’s a time previously that denotes a kind of retiring. And I retired early, and this is really fun for me to do. What I would say about In Treatment is I think that probably was a coercion on my part. I never thought of doing another season, it wasn’t for that reason. It was to say something about life.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com