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EXCLUSIVE: Why Ariel Winter Is Disappointed in the Media

by Stacy Lambe 12:15 PM PDT, May 05, 2017
Photo: Getty Images

Having played Alex Dunphy for eight seasons on Modern Family, Ariel Winter has literally grown up on TV. Eleven years old when the show first premiered, Winter has embodied the book-smart, middle child even as she’s matured faster than her onscreen character. And despite the character attending college on the show starting in season seven, it’s hard not to think of Winter as nothing more than that cute kid with glasses from the early seasons of Modern Family. But now, at 19 years old, the actress is making her transition from child star into working adult actor no matter what happens to the Emmy-winning ABC series (which, having wrapped production in March, is currently negotiating a possible ninth season).

Winter’s first dip into the proverbial adult pond is the independent film Dog Years, which had its world premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival in late April. Lil, an emotionally unstable girl who has been assigned to drive around aging actor Vic Edwards (Burt Reynolds in a meta-performance) during a local film festival, is about as far as the actress can get from Alex. The tattoos and revealing clothing are an obvious visual shock, but Winter gives the role her best effort, showcasing promise for what’s to come in the aftermath of Modern Family. “I hope they,” Winter says of both Hollywood and audiences alike, “see something completely different with my acting abilities.”

Like many young stars before her, Winter is now navigating that tricky path that comes with wanting to be taken seriously as an actor and to be seen as more than an iconic child role. In her case that’s Alex, who the actress says still does very similar things from season to season. “What I really want for people to see is that I can play different roles and that I’ve had enough life experience to be able to play darker roles that are more complex,” Winter says, while adding that her time on Modern Family has been incredible. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m the luckiest girl.”

But having seen what happened to other young actors who made that transition before her -- or rather, those who didn’t quite succeed -- Winter can’t but help take notes on what not to do. “A lot of people, when they want to go into their adult careers and transition over, pushed in a way and tried to make people believe they were an adult instead of letting it happen naturally in their work,” the actress says, knowing the key is not to force it. “Part of being an adult is just living and making your own choices and being who you are. That’s it.

“For me, it’s been slightly easier,” Winter acknowledges. “I know some parts of the world still see me as little Alex Dunphy, but I’ve always looked older since I was younger. I developed a lot earlier than a lot of my cast mates or a lot of other people I know. I was always seen as more mature and older. So it [has been] a little easier to transform into being an adult.”

MORE: Ariel Winter Talks Young Fame and Life on 'Modern Family'

In fact, Winter has more or less been an adult since she was emancipated from her parents in 2015 at 17 years old. Prior to that, the actress moved in with her older sister, Shanelle Gray, asking the court that she become her guardian while alleging that her mother, Chrisoula Workman, had been physically and emotionally abusive. Winter’s mother denied any abuse and after reaching a settlement over guardianship in 2014, they released a joint statement saying that “the family has moved beyond the conflict.” Meanwhile, that and Winter’s breast reduction surgery in 2015 became tabloid fodder, with much of the actress’ teenage life played out in headlines and on magazine covers. “I have grown up in the eyes of the media,” she says. “That’s why I’ve been seen as more mature and more developed, because people have been talking about it since I was 12 years old.”

Now, the media’s focus, much to Winter’s chagrin, is centered on her provocative Instagram and red carpet outfits. “I have to say I’ve been super disappointed in the media for my entire life,” Winter says, while acknowledging the back-and-forth relationship that comes with promoting passion projects like Dog Years. “I'm constantly being photographed and in the news for what I wear and who I'm with.”

Ariel Winter with director Adam Rifkin and Burt Reynolds at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo: Getty Images

Speaking with ET the day after the Dog Years premiere, Winter lamented the fact that most of the headlines -- admittedly, this outlet included -- were focused on her outfit (a black, bedazzled minidress). “I was like, ‘This is kind of stupid. This is kind of offensive,’ because we’ve worked so hard and put so much into [Dog Years],” she says. “For women, it’s really difficult to move past that in the media and I just hope it changes.”

But when asked how it should change, Winter, like many, doesn’t have a clear solution -- but she doesn’t believe it should be on her or other women to have to do it. “It should be the people writing the stories that should say, ‘Alright, enough is enough, let's see what they're really doing and see what we can put out there that matters more,’” she says. “It's not fair to us. We should be able to be what we want to be and dress what we want to dress. I’m not wearing a sparkly dress so people cover the sparkly dress. I’m wearing a sparkly dress because I like my damn sparkly dress.”

MORE: Burt Reynolds Praises Co-Star Ariel Winter During Rare Red Carpet Appearance

Outfits aside, Winter’s primary focus and goal is to continue to make more diverse films and play different characters. Though, she acknowledges it’s a journey to get there. “It is hard as an actor because what we want to do doesn’t always translate into what we get to do,” adding: “I really just want to work.”

In the near future, that may be more movies (though she doesn’t have any projects aside from Modern Family and Sofia the First currently lined up). “I like TV, but I love making movies,” she says of getting to play a character for a couple of months and then moving onto something else. For now, it’s just a matter of being seen as something other than Alex Dunphy.

“I’m just waiting to see where it takes me,” Winter says. 

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