By RUTH LA FERLA
The gaggle of diners glanced up from their table at Locanda Verde in TriBeCa, their eyes out on stalks as they took in the lithe figure heading their way.
Clearly she was somebody, but who? Their puzzlement could be forgiven. It turned out that she was Debra Winger, the actress who is almost as famous for turning her back on her career midstream as for the steamily subversive characters she played in American classics like “Urban Cowboy,” “Terms of Endearment” and “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
A couple of decades ago, she had soured on celebrity, once and for all, so it seemed.
“It wants to name you and diagnose you and keep you as a comfort animal,” Ms. Winger said the other day before quietly changing her tune. “Celebrity is not my favorite part of the gig,” she confided. “But it’s the price you pay for doing what you want.”
Has she mellowed over time? Could be. As she settled into brunch, the once notoriously thorny star was friendly, even downright cozy, as she talked up her current project, “The Lovers,” a dourly comic look at marriage (it opened Friday), and began to reminisce.
True, she feuded viciously with former co-stars and directors. She once called John Malkovich, who appeared with her in the 1990 film “The Sheltering Sky,” “nothing more than a catwalk model.” She endlessly needled Shirley MacLaine during the filming of the 1983 movie “Terms of Endearment,” tonguing her thigh during off-camera moments and teasing her crudely about her attire, her psychosexual antics causing Ms. MacLaine to flee the set.
At 61, Ms. Winger is offering no excuses. “Sometimes I have less tact than other times,” she said. “If I have an intention I’m going to try to stick with it and not be taken by someone else’s energy.
“I’m on a quest; aren’t we all? With humans, it’s always a dance. If somebody’s moving slower than you are, you’ve got to get them out of your way.”
Her truculence did not sit well with her long-ago peers or her studio bosses. “People said I’m too intense,” she acknowledged. “People can’t handle that.”
These days she is reserving that surfeit of passion mostly for her work.
Pretty, willful and precociously seductive in her teens, Ms. Winger cherished an ambition to become a Hollywood star. “But my father put that to rest really early,” she recalled. “He said, ‘You can’t be a movie star; movie stars are beautiful.’
“So I told myself, ‘O.K., well, I’ll be an actress.’ What I really wanted was to find a way to tell stories.”
In many ways, she has never really stopped. What seemed like a hiatus in the mid-1990s was in fact a fertile time. Ms. Winger taught at Harvard, married the actor Arliss Howard, brought up three sons in Sullivan County, N.Y., and worked on memorable indie projects, among them a turn as Anne Hathaway’s estranged mother in “Rachel Getting Married” from 2008. There was the 2010 HBO therapy drama “In Treatment,” in which she was Frances, a bristly, relentlessly self-involved actress — “just another in a long line of women I hope never to become,” she said at the time.
In “The Lovers,” directed by Azazel Jacobs (“Doll and Em”), she performs opposite Tracy Letts as one half of a battle-weary couple in advanced middle age, each engaged in amorous adventures on the side. All that ceaseless ricocheting from husband to lover and back proves exhausting to Mary, Ms. Winger’s character, whose furrowed features and unruly mop attest to the gnawing anxiety that comes with age.
There are some real-life parallels, the actress noted wryly. The night before, she had watched a screening of “The Lovers” at the Tribeca Film Festival with some trepidation. “It’s hard to accept your aging face,” she said. “You’ve got to be tough.”
Still, you can hope to ease the pain. “You just give away the mirrors in your house, one with every birthday,” Ms. Winger said. “By the time you reach the right age, you have just one little mirror over your bathroom sink to make sure you don’t have any green in your teeth.”
She did not have time to ponder the topic for long. She had sandwiched this meeting between a flurry of interviews and a flight to Los Angeles, where she is filming the second season of “The Ranch.” In that Netflix series she appears as the brash, bartending mother of a former sports star, played by Ashton Kutcher.
As she spoke, her youngest, Babe Howard, 20, loped toward her for a visit and gave her a hug, careful all the while not to muss her airport-ready turnout.
In her youth she had been a renegade, raffishly dressed in miniskirts and combat boots. More recently she has come to terms with her ever-evolving fashion sense: “It’s all about finding your groove at every age.”
Still there are limits. “I refuse to go into the future nomadic,” she all but rasped. “I’m not going to wear some tentlike schmatta that doesn’t say anything.”
Her pronouncement drew a smile from Babe, who had accompanied her to the previous evening’s screening — never mind that the film includes a bounty of racy scenes. They provide grist for the film, which Ms. Winger characterized as “not a rom-com but a mystery, one that asks how do we keep love alive.”
Love and sex, like style, are part of an evolving process, she maintained. “It’s all about chi, your life energy,” she said with Yoda-like serenity. “Like everything else, it goes through iterations. If it’s alive it changes.”
Till when? She fixed her companion with a sphinxlike gaze and grinned. “Can I get back to you on that?” she said.