“I went through a really bad chapter,” says the 19-year-old actress who started acting at 4, landed a role on the Emmy-winning comedy at 11 and emancipated herself from an abusive stage mom at 15. Now the social media firebrand is off to UCLA and plotting a future she’s earned.
Ariel Winter is making everyone laugh. “I think my house is haunted,” she says to the crew between setups at her THR photo shoot. “The lights went on and off last night.” Warming to her topic like a stand-up, she continues, her delivery somewhat at odds with her perfectly made-up face and saucy outfit (white tank, torn jeans and 5-inch stilettos). “I literally was clutching my Care Bear. I put the covers over my eyes so I couldn’t see what was happening.” Pause. “Because that protects me somehow.”
This is a role — comic foil, cute-girl cutup — that Winter knows well as one of the stars of ABC’s Modern Family, which is up for three Emmys Sept. 17, including the comedy series award, a prize it won consecutively for its first five seasons. The actress — who plays Alex Dunphy, the brainy middle child of uptight Claire and self-proclaimed “cool dad” Phil — has been through a lot in her 19 years: While her show minted awards and topped the ratings, she was living in a home much colder than the Dunphys’ and navigating a relationship with a mother who made the comically immature Claire and Phil look like Parents of the Year. Now the show has been renewed through a 10th (and likely final) season, and Winter is plotting her own next chapter, starting with college at UCLA.
She keeps things light — at first — when she meets me for lunch. Dressed in a low-cut gingham romper and well-scuffed cowboy boots, she’s just come from an Emmy fitting. “I haven’t decided what I want to wear yet,” she says giddily. “Do I want tight and sparkly? Do I want something that’s more mermaid and puffs out? I’m very indecisive.”
Soon, though, over a burrata appetizer and a chicken enchilada, she segues into the heavier topic of her early years. Winter, who started acting at 4, garnered success easily and early — she was the kind of grade-schooler who could make a moving mark in a two-episode arc on Jericho and was worthy of appearing in the final episodes of ER. But the profession wasn’t her choice. It was the deferred dreams of her mother, Crystal Workman, that she was acting out, Winter says, which led to stage-mom antics and worse. Things got so bad for the actress that at 14, she was placed by the courts in the temporary custody of her adult sister, Shanelle Gray. Winter’s allegations against her mother included both physical (“slapping, hitting, pushing,” according to court documents) and emotional abuse