Around a year ago, photographs of Burt Reynolds and Ariel Winter surfaced online. The images were striking for a few reasons. First, Reynolds—whose combination of charisma, raw masculinity and swagger helped make him Hollywood’s top movie star for a five year stretch in the late seventies and early eighties—looked gaunt, a shell of his former self. Second, Winter—who rose to prominence as a bookish smart-aleck on Modern Family—was dressed as though she’d just left a Slipknot concert, covered in tattoos, including one of a giant spider on her upper thigh. Third, and perhaps most prominent, Burt Reynolds and Ariel Winter were hanging out. Together.
We soon learned that the reason for this odd coupling was an independent film called Dog Years, in which Reynolds plays Vic, a washed up movie star who gets conned into attending a makeshift film festival to accept a lifetime achievement award. Winter meanwhile, stars as Lil, the sister of the festival’s head honcho, and Vic’s handler for the weekend. Together, they embark on a journey through Vic’s past, in which the once great actor must confront the choices he made that led him up to this point.
If it sounds like art imitating life, that’s because director Adam Rifkin wrote the part specifically for his boyhood idol, and based it on Reynolds’ own experiences as a notorious Hollywood lothario who pissed it all away. Throughout the film, the 81-year-old Reynolds trades pieces of wisdom with different versions of his younger self, taken from the biggest hits of Reynolds’ real life oeuvre, including classics like Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit.
Both Reynolds and Winter find themselves at opposite ends of their careers. While this may in fact be the last time we see Reynolds on screen, Winter has only just begun to plant the seeds of her post-Modern Family career. But despite their generational chasm, the mutual admiration between the two actors was palpable when we interviewed them ahead of their film’s Tribeca premiere last month. Here, our conversation about the pressures of fame, the power of regret, and the value friendship, with the unlikely kindred spirits, Burt Reynolds and Ariel Winter.
Burt, I read that upon reading the script, you called Adam the next day and said you were in. Is that true?
BURT REYNOLDS: Absolutely true. I felt that. How do you say this without sounding like an actor with an ego? Not all actors have egos
ARIEL WINTER: It is so shocking to hear you say that.
REYNOLDS: I felt that it was very close to me and my life. And I liked Adam immediately, so I thought “let’s go.”
You’ve worked with some great directors. What qualities does a director need to have that makes you feel compelled to work with them?
REYNOLDS: Well I have worked with some great directors and a lot of guys who should’ve gone into another line of work. I think that it’s kindness. And Adam was very sensitive and had a good sense of humor, which was very important to all of us. He has a sense of humor about himself. I asked him “What movies have you done? because I can’t find any of them,” and he said “Oh they’re all burned; they burned the negatives.” He just had a great attitude.
The character you play is prone to regrets. Is that something you can relate to or do you feel like the choices we make define who we become?
REYNOLDS: Oh definitely. But you can’t rub it out. It’s like a blackboard that you write on and can’t erase. I did a lot of films I shouldn’t have done. But I did a lot of films that I’m really proud of.
What about you, Ariel? What’s your relationship with the idea of regret?
WINTER: I feel like I don’t regret anything. Like you said, the choices we make define us and I think even the mistakes we’ve made are part of our lives and you shouldn’t regret things. I’ve done a lot of things I’m proud of and I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, but I don’t regret any of them.
Burt, are you like Vic in the sense that you’re prone to retrospection? Do you ever look back at your old films or the places you grew up and what they mean to you?
REYNOLDS: No, I’m not a look behind guy. I don’t beat myself up. I have too many people standing in line to do that.
What was it like watching your current self talk to your younger self?
REYNOLDS: First of all, I hadn’t seen any of the film, so I thought it was very clever of him to do that. Looking back on it now, I would have been very scared of that, but I didn’t know how it was going to work, so I just did it. When you are talking to yourself, it’s like “I am a handsome guy. Who is this guy?” You know? I had no idea what they were going to use. He did a wonderful job.
Ariel, how much did you know about Burt and his career prior to meeting him?
WINTER: I knew a bit. I never really grew up with movies. I wasn’t really taught about movies and I wasn’t really taught about actors. My parents didn’t really watch movies. I grew up in a very interesting environment as a kid. I mainly read books, so for me there wasn’t a lot of learning about actors in books.
REYNOLDS: You were Amish.
WINTER: (laughs) Yes, I was very Amish. I had seen a few films and I was definitely a fan, but getting to work with Burt was the most incredible experience.
I saw photos of you on the red carpet with Robert De Niro and Chevy Chase. All of a sudden you’re surrounded by these living legends. That must be pretty surreal.
WINTER: It’s absolutely crazy. I’m definitely the luckiest 19-year-old in the world right now. I got to make this movie with Burt and Chevy. And I got to meet Robert De Niro. I am just a young actress, so it was very exciting.
What was your relationship like the first day on set, and how did it evolve as you got to know each other?
REYNOLDS: It was like every movie. You start out butting heads and you slowly start to like each other. But more importantly we started to respect each other. And I am crazy about her now. I think she is very special.
Both of you have had very unique experiences with fame. Ariel, obviously your experience is very different from Burt’s experience. Did you look to Burt for any advice on how to navigate the celebrity machine, which can be a brutal on young actors?
WINTER: I don’t know if I’m at that point yet, where I would feel those struggles. My struggles are very unique to women. I face a lot of struggles with body confidence issues and with other women to accept their choices and accept themselves in the press, so I think it’s a little different for men and women in the industry.
You’re also growing up in the age of social media, which is something Burt never had to deal with. Burt, can you imagine coming up under that kind of scrutiny? REYNOLDS: No. When I was a studio actor for a while, I was at Universal. And I was in trouble all the time and I had this wonderful lady named Monique James, who was my agent and my friend. She was my friend before I went there, and she was my agent at one time at MCA. And MCA gobbled those people up and took them to Hollywood. She was special, she became Vice President under the man, Lew Wasserman. And when I met Wasserman, I was so young and stupid that I said “Hi Lew!”.
REYNOLDS: He was Mr. Wasserman but I didn’t know that, so I called him Lew. And I’ve always called him Lew. He was a charming man and he asked me to his house one time. I thought “Oh, this will be interesting, I’ll get to meet some big stars.” But there was nobody there. It was just me. I met his wife, who was lovely. We’ve always been friends, ever since I called him Lew. “This is the guy who calls me “Lew!” So, you know, we got along great. Universal was a factory, always was, always will be. But you have to fight that.
Actors aren’t just actors anymore. They’re public figures. Do you ever think about what your lives would be like with some of your anonymity back?
REYNOLDS: Ariel’s got her head on straight. She’s got a great boyfriend, and they’re a great couple. I didn’t have that. I was just running around trying to get laid.
At the end of the film, your character decides that he doesn’t want to be an asshole anymore. You’ve said in the past that everyone has this devil inside them. Has it become easier to grapple with that as you’ve gotten older?
REYNOLDS: Yes. I don’t know if I’ve gotten over it. But I recognize it. I recognize it and I say “You are a jerk, you’ve got to stop that.” Everybody has those moments and it’s particularly hard for actors because everybody is helping you straighten your tie and straighten your coat. And then when you’re away from there, it’s hard to get dressed by yourself. But I’ve somehow managed to find a beautiful girl. She’s smart as hell. And that’s good.
Ariel, you’re so well known for playing this one character on Modern Family and now the choices you make will define your post-show career arc. What’s the strategy, or is it callous to think in those terms?
WINTER: Well I loved the character I played in this film because she’s so different from the character I’ve played for so many years. What I also thought was so important about her character is that she is so relatable for a lot of young women and a lot of young men. She’s trapped in an abusive relationship that she doesn’t have the confidence to get out of, and I think a lot of people feel that way. She also struggles with mental health issues and I feel like that is something that is really prevalent these days, that a lot of people don’t discuss, and that isn’t visible. And that is something I’ve also dealt with in my life.
Do you feel pressure to be a role model?
WINTER: A lot of people ask the question “Is she a role model? Is she this?” But I think the term role model gets thrown around in such a loose way. People always want role models to be cookie cutter perfect.
Especially when you’re a public figure.
WINTER: Exactly. They want you to wear the right thing. Parents want you to have your dress down to your ankles and never say anything wrong, and I think that’s the wrong image for people. That’s the wrong idea of role model. What I think is important and what I like about Lil is that she is very much her own person. She is herself. She says what she wants and she does what she wants. And she is very open and vulnerable. People need more of that. People need more of the idea that being a role model is being who they are, being unique.