Whether she’s accepting her high school diploma in a pale pink body-con dress or sporting a shredded crop top at Coachella, everything Ariel Winter wears seems to become news, packaged for consumption in articles with perfectly optimized headlines and a pithy 300 words or fewer.
So you could be forgiven for thinking Winter spends most of her free time shutting down body-shamers on social media. But in real life, Winter is a thoughtful — and busy — grad. At 19, she has one of television’s steadiest gigs as sarcastic overachiever Alex Dunphy on Modern Family, a job she’s had since she was 11. And now, in Adam Rifkin’s comedy Dog Years, which screened at Tribeca last month, Winter turns in a commanding breakthrough performance opposite Hollywood vet Burt Reynolds as Lil, a tattooed temp chauffeur with a zero-fucks-given attitude.
The transition from child star to adult actor can often be tumultuous for young stars, but Winter was audacious — effervescent, even — when I sat down with her. And she had a lot to say, not only about her newest role but also about how she handles all of those stories the tabloids write about her.
“People should be inspired to wear whatever they want and feel however they want and say whatever they want, to be able to have that freedom,” Winter said. “[Lil’s] confident enough in herself to not particularly care what other people think about her.”
Winter’s Lil is tasked with driving around a past-his-prime Hollywood star (Reynolds) for a weekend when he lands in Austin to be honored at a film festival. The layered role not only allowed Winter to showcase her versatility as an actress, but it also gave her a chance to advocate for mental health, something she’s struggled with in her own life.
“Mental illness is such a taboo thing, you know? I have older family members who don’t believe in it at all,” she shared. “It’s something that needs to be normalized and talked about to make people feel OK to go through something and not feel like they’re freaks or [that] something’s wrong with them.”
Winter credits a healthy relationship with her therapist for helping her talk through her own issues, some of which derive from the constant scrutiny she faces as a young woman in the spotlight. “[Therapy] was really important for me growing up,” she said. “It helped me share the way I was feeling and what was going on in my life, how people were affecting me, and it was really nice to have that in my life.”
Of course, the path to peace wasn’t a particularly easy one for the young star to navigate, especially as she went through puberty, a period that included a growth spurt broadcast to millions of viewers each week on Modern Family. Growing up in front of the camera is often hard for child stars, but it was hell for Winter. She called the experience “confusing.”
“People were like, ‘Oh, you got fat’ or ‘Oh, you have huge boobs, you’re a slut’ or ‘Oh, you’re wearing a tank top, so you’re obviously asking for it,'” she recalled of comments on her social platforms and the nonstop media objectification that came with them. “It was just so disgusting and so disheartening, and for many years I thought, Let me cover up, and then maybe, you know, people will accept what I do. But it never mattered. People never stopped hating on what I did.”
The television starlet has amassed more than 3 million followers on Instagram, where she has had to deal with hateful comments or vulgar DMs from strangers. Frustrated, she turned to older sister Shanelle for advice. With her sister’s help, Winter learned to focus on herself and not the internet trolls. Most importantly, she discovered how to drown out the noise. It’s the only way you can have a healthy relationship with social media, Winter realized.
“It’s so unfair that instead of talking about people’s talent and work and things that matter, we talk about what they wear and what they decide to show,” Winter shared. “My underboob in that [graduation] dress wasn’t bothering anybody. It wasn’t committing a crime, it was just in a picture. … It’s not fair for any of us when we look at the internet and that’s what pops up when we google our name.” As opposed to the fact that she plans to study political science at UCLA, a goal she’s had since she was a little girl, for example.
So the very driven Winter has been pushing back and taking control of her story. That means posting photos that make her happy, regardless of what others think. Winter explained that it’s all about posting what feels right for you. “It’s less about who likes your photos and more about if you like a picture and you want your friends to see it,” she said.
“I really don’t put that much thought into it,” she added of her selfies, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.