As if Ariel Winter’s criminally sexy Instagram feed weren’t indication enough that she’s dying to bust out of her eight-years-running post as Alex Dunphy, Modern Family’s exasperated know-it-all, her new film should just about settle it.
In Dog Years, Winter plays way against type as a clinically depressed drifter with crappy taste in men and an apparent aversion to bras. When her tatted-and-pierced Lil is hired as a temp chauffeur for Vic Edwards—a wistful, past-his-prime movie star based on (and played soulfully by) Burt Reynolds—the unlikely pals take an extended detour through Vic’s hometown and lengthy catalog of regrets.
The flick, which just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, may be Reynolds’ umpteenth road movie (although Lil’s beat-up clunker would make Bandit’s '77 Trans Am weep with shame), but it officially marks new territory for 19-year-old Winter, who was drawn to Lil’s “complex and troubled” (read: decidedly un-Dunphy) vibe. Winter spoke to Maxim about getting into those short shorts—er, character.
This is your first grownup starring role—and it's opposite the legendary Burt Reynolds. Did you binge all the Smokey and the Bandit movies or what?
I watched Boogie Nights! I didn’t know much about him, I’ll be honest—I wasn’t allowed to watch that many movies growing up, I grew up reading—but I did a lot of research and was like, this guy is an absolute legend. I love Burt to pieces. He’s the most kind, genuine, talented man you’ll ever work with, and we just have such a connection. Both our characters are lost souls at different stages of our lives, and we come together and fill these voids for each other. It’s very touching. Burt and I watched the movie together and were like, Ahh, we can’t cry at our own movie…but it’s sad! Getting to work with him was an absolute dream.
He used to be a swingin’, bolo-tie-wearing lady killer. At 81, does he still have that swag?
Oh, he does. He’s still that cool. He is still that cool.
Your character, Lil, has huge scorpion and spider tats, wears teensy short shorts and cropped muscle tees, and has a septum piercing—safe to say it’s a departure from Alex Dunphy, the bookworm you play on Modern Family.
I’ve been playing Alex for eight years, and I love her, but I’ve been wanting to transition into more adult roles, because I’m an adult now. I wanted to show that I have a broad skill set. Lil is in an abusive relationship that she finally gets out of, and through her, the movie also puts a spotlight on mental illness. That’s something that’s been really important for me.
As something you’ve struggled with personally?
That’s been my whole life, ever since I was a kid. There’s a scene in the movie where Lil rattles off a bunch of different antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills she’s taken, and the thing is, I’ve actually taken most of them. When I recited that whole thing, a lot of it was just reciting experiences. As I got older, I finally tried to find treatment—and I did, and it’s been wonderful. But mental health is considered so taboo, which I find ridiculous. People need support and for people to get behind them and understand that it’s a real issue. There needs to be a bigger discussion about it.
So based on shared life experience, would you ultimately say you relate more to Lil than to Alex?
I’m definitely a lot more driven than Lil, and not as lost about where my life is going and where I want it to go—so that’s more like Alex—but I’m also like Lil in the sense that I don’t really have time for bullshit and I never have. I also love the way she dresses and carries herself.
Burt’s character definitely doesn’t love Lil’s style—he makes a disparaging comment in the movie about how her "ass is hanging out" of her shorts. Was that a wink to how much flack you get in real life for wearing revealing clothes?
It actually wasn’t, it was just in the script. She dresses similarly to me and she doesn’t really care what people see of her. You know, I post photos of my butt and I have cleavage out on the Internet—who cares? Guys post their naked bodies and nobody says anything to them—a bunch of girls comment and are like, "This is amazing, you’re so hot!" But if we do it, we’re like the sluts of the world. It’s super offensive. I make a point now to just post it. If I take a good picture of my butt, it’s gonna go on the Internet. And you can enjoy it, or don’t.
Speaking of men and their own naked pics, did Burt’s infamous bearskin rug centerfold ever come up in conversation?
It did—and he hates it! I think it’s absolutely incredible. I didn’t know about it until I actually was working with him and someone was like, “You know, Burt posed nude”—and I about fell out of my chair. I finally saw it and I was just crying laughing. Knowing Burt and then seeing this photo of him is so amazing. I showed it to him and he was like, “I hate that thing!” So I just hid it away and kept looking at it myself.
You’ve been acting since you were around six—and playing poker for just as long.
I’ve been playing poker with guys in their 50s since I was a little kid. It’s funny—they underestimate you and think you’re just a little girl who doesn’t know what she’s doing. And then you go and you whoop their ass and take their money.
Do you try to play the part—like curse and smoke cigars?
I have! For the aesthetic. There’s very few things that I get really competitive about, but with games like that, it means a lot to me. I know I’m good at it, and I know I can win, so I need to win. I get really aggressive. Sometimes I have to reel it in.
Sounds a little…Alex Dunphy-ish?
How’s your poker face?
You need for people to never know when you’re bluffing, but for a lot of people it’s hard—everything shows on their face. But you also have to understand betting patterns and really look at how everyone else is betting. Then, when you see their hand at the end, you know what they had, which card they bet on, which card they didn’t, and which card really made the change for them. It’s a game with a lot of skill, but also a lot of luck. You can play bad cards only to a certain point.
Have you ever tried to throw off your competition by, say, wearing an especially distracting outfits at the table?
It’s never my intention. It could change a game but it’s also like: Dude, grow up. It’s just boobs. You’ve seen boobs in your life before. If boobs are distracting you from winning a game, then maybe you shouldn’t be seriously playing.
You get an endless stream of attention for your Instagrams and what you happen to be wearing at any given moment. How do you handle it?
I definitely used to feel a lot more anxious about what I posted and what people commented, and now I just really don’t care. I struggled for so many years with people hating on what I’m doing, saying I should change the way I look, the way I dress. I tried to change for years and I hated the person I became—and hated that people were still just as negative. I realized the only person I should worry about pleasing is myself. I have this policy. If you don’t like what I post, don’t follow me. If you don’t like what I say, don’t read it.
Does the constant brouhaha over your clothes still surprise you, or do you just expect it now?
It’s not surprising, but it is. I’ve worked so hard to get where I am, to be on the show and have worked in this film with Burt, to have done half the things I’ve done. And all people talk about and all people notice is, are my boobs out? Is my butt out? Am I showing my midriff? I hope people wake up and realize it’s not always about what we’re wearing. For the Dog Years premiere the other night, most of the things that came out—yeah, they had a review in it, but the headline was, "Ariel Winter Wears Sparkly Mini Dress." It’s like, not the point.
What else have you read about yourself that missed the mark?
So many bizarre things. It’s awful, but sometimes I buy those trashy magazines at the store before flights. There was one that said I was pregnant, and I was like, "Alright, I’m not...but OK, whatever." There’s one that said I have a feud with this person, or I’m copying that person. I was like, I have no feuds with anybody! This is weird.
You’ve been dating actor Levi Maeden—who’s ten years older than you—since last November. What do you like about dating an older guy?
A lot of things. I grew up a lot earlier than I should have, and I’m only 19 but it feels like I’m a lot older. I needed somebody who had a lot of life experience and who was at a point in their lives that they could take care of another person, but where I didn’t have to take care of them. Being with an older guy isn’t always amazing, but I got lucky—I have an amazing guy who’s super supportive and loving and is just an all-around wonderful human being. He’s also Canadian, so, go Canada! Canadians are like, so much nicer.
He may be nice, but is he a Burt Reynolds fan?
Yes! He is definitely a Burt Reynolds fan. He was very excited.
You’re obviously spoken for, but what do you generally look for in a guy?
Someone who truly cares and isn’t afraid to show that. A lot of guys have a macho complex, like, I need to be a man! And it’s like, no, that’s not what we want. We want someone who can be vulnerable, who can share things—people don’t do that anymore. A lot of guys are really into themselves and all they care about is a number or what you look like. It’s disappointing.
A lot of those very guys probably send some crazy DMs your way. Do you ever engage with them?
I only read DMs from people I follow—because of the amount of gross DMs I got. I would look at them and be like, this is nasty…I’m not gonna reply to this. I’d get some from guys that were saying really vulgar things, and I’m just like, Listen—I’m a vulgar person! But I don’t know you.
Vulgar person? Really?
I’m just a give-no-shits person, honestly. And I’ll swear more if I’m like riled up or something. I’m not just gonna sit here and be like, Fuck, shit, fuck—but in a certain situation, maybe.
Like in a high-stakes poker game?
With poker games, all bets are off—I could, like, fly through the room on a jetpack. Who knows!