After a successful career in Hollywood with starring roles in touchstone ’80s films such as An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment and Urban Cowboy, Debra Winger shocked everyone when she decided to leave Hollywood at the age of 40.
“I don’t know what Hollywood is. I’m living under the freaking sign now, and I just stare at it and laugh,” Winger, now 62, tells PEOPLE. “Los Angeles is a place, but the idea of Hollywood doesn’t really exist for me. Broadway is more of a family than Hollywood, although there must be some in-crowds that I just don’t know about.”
But she insists her decision to leave the business had less to do with her professional life and more to do with her personal one.
“The parts that were coming, I wasn’t interested in. I’d already done that or I’d already felt that. I needed to be challenged. My life challenged me more than the parts, so I dove into it fully,” says Winger.
She points out that she never left Hollywood for good but simply “pushed the pause button.”
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During her six-year hiatus, she moved to New York City, focused on her 1996 marriage to actor Arliss Howard and became a mother again at 42, to son Babe, now 19. (She also has a son, Noah, 30, from her previous marriage to actor Timothy Hutton.)
Winger says she has taken plenty of risks in her life even if at the time, she didn’t know she was doing so.
“I definitely would call myself a risk-taker, but that’s because I was too stupid to know there was a risk at the time. I’m never quite clear until later that, ‘Holy s—, do you realize what could’ve happened?’ ” Winger tells PEOPLE. “I’m interested in what scares me. I just try to scare myself most days. You’re really only here for a very short time, so I’m not really understanding the point of protecting something. The ultimate insult is coming for us all.”
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Today, she is back on the big screen in her new role opposite Tracy Letts in The Lovers. She says one reason she was drawn to the film was because of the questions it asked.
“It asks how to make something permanent — love, marriage — with impermanent materials,” says Winger. “Everything in the universe is impermanent. It’s not meant to last, and change is the thing that is life.”