Debra Winger was 24, with one blue movie under her belt, when she was cast in “Urban Cowboy.” She recalls her introduction to Hollywood in “Undiscovered,” her just published literary memoir.
People give me things. When I go into a store now, there are samples, discounts, out-and-out gifts. It was not always so.
When I was cast in my first big role, I wanted only to be a documentation of the character, Sissy. .
I had spent most of the last couple of years at a small cabin that my boyfriend at that time owned in Ruidoso, New Mexico, a small mountain community not far from El Paso, Texas, and filled with drugstore cowboys and honky-tonks. I knew this girl. I knew what she looked like and I knew what she was about.
I arrived at the Paramount lot the day I read about the recasting of the female lead in Variety (Sissy Spacek and John Travolta had a sort of falling out, I believe), with a story about how I had misplaced my portfolio. (What portfolio? A cigar-smoking agent had signed me while I was waitressing, but that only resulted in a blue movie.) They let me in.
I found the building where they were casting for “Urban Cowboy” and plopped myself down on the steps outside, trying to figure my next move. I didn’t have an appointment like all the other actresses I would be competing against for the role. Two men walked toward the entrance, and I had to move aside. One of them, with rather tousled hair and a bemused look, asked me if I was there to interview for the part of Sissy. I squinted up at the kind face, and, in my best Texas, I replied, “Who wants to know?”
I went to Houston and worked the club scene. I was there every night, living what we would soon be filming. I was broke.
After the battles were fought, and the director, James Bridges, with a loyalty I had not witnessed in my life, prevailed, we decided on a shopping trip.
There was a huge western-wear store — we entered. Immediately the crush began. I slunk off to the outer corners, as Johnnie was being tossed lizard belts, ostrich boots, and 10X beaver hats by the rabid, half-crazed saleswomen.
As I made my rounds of the store, I could hear snippets of, “Oh we’d love for you to have that, Mr. Travolta, our gift, it would be an honor,” and, “Please take that, it’s great on you.” I loved the openness and honesty of it all. He was sweet to all of them.
I had found the perfect belt buckle — the one I would end up wearing throughout the film — a little metal thing with a swirly “S” on the front.
I put it near the neat pile that had amassed on the counter. When we were all finished and things were being put into bags and boxes and some being worn out the store, the saleswoman turned to me, off to the side, and through her tightest Texas lockjaw smile said, “Honey, that’ll be $16.95.”
I paid it, gladly.
From “Undiscovered,” by Debra Winger. Copyright © 2008 by Debra Winger. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc., N.Y.