Tracy Letts is having what tends to be called “a moment.” Although he balks when described as “famous” and insists he has yet to be recognized on the street, his delicate, nuanced performances in 2017’s Lady Bird, The Lovers, and The Post brought him acclaim, attention, and awards buzz. His new play The Minutes, a dark comedy set in a small-town council meeting, premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and is currently being prepped for Broadway. His wife, the actor Carrie Coon, who is having a moment of her own, just announced that the couple are expecting their first child.
Letts tried for Hollywood success once before in the ’90s—you can spot him in the Festivus episode of Seinfeld—but returned to his artistic home of Chicago to focus on acting and writing for the stage. In between then and now, he wrote August: Osage County. Drawn in part from family lore, the play’s first act also featured his own father Dennis, who died of cancer while the play was on Broadway. “I stopped watching the prologue after he passed,” Letts told the New York Times in 2014. “I just had such a clear memory of him. I didn’t want to interfere with that.” While Letts was largely unknown outside of Chicago at the time, August: Osage County cemented his reputation as an artist of national significance. The play was a box-office phenomenon, virtually swept the Tonys, won the Pulitzer, and was adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.
In other words, this isn’t Letts’ first moment. Yet when I talked to him over a fuzzy phone connection while he ate a cheeseburger in between meetings, he seemed like the journeyman ensemble actor he’s been most of his life, and he was particularly sanguine about the industry and his place in it. In our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, he discussed his acting and writing work, the phenomenon that is Lady Bird, and the ways The Minutes speaks to our present moment without once directly addressing our president.
Isaac Butler: What do you gravitate to when you’re choosing a part? Lady Bird’s Larry McPherson and The Post’s Fritz Beebe and The Lovers’ Andrew Lockhart are all pretty different.
Tracy Letts: The truth is, the only way I know to choose material is based on the strength of the material. There may be other metrics, there may be other ways one can make that determination. “Oh, but this person is producing it and this person is directing it, and it’s this kind of role.” I’m no good at that. All I’m good at is, “Oh, that’s a good piece of writing. I wanna be part of that.”
I mean. How stupid would you have to be to turn down Lady Bird? It was such a great script. It was so great on the page. Of course I was gonna do that.
It’s also true, of course, that I would like to mix it up a little bit. If only because I got a chance to play a real variety of characters over 30 years onstage. So, I don’t always wanna be the hard-ass in the suit. People saw me on Homeland for a couple of years so they think that’s what I do. “Oh, he’s the hard-ass in the suit.” So, another reason it made it very easy to take on Lady Bird. In a lot of ways, the father in Lady Bird is just a lot closer to the person I really am.
Right, there is a way in which in Hollywood they like to find the slot that someone is in. And then put them in that slot as many times as possible.
You have to actively fight against it. Or you don’t. I suppose you get to a point where you say, “All right, I guess I’m that guy. Or I’ll be that guy because that’s what everybody wants to see.” But, if you don’t have to do that, and you’re interested in doing other things, you just have to be kind of vigilant. Rigorous about saying no, I’m not gonna be the guy who orders the drone strike in this movie. I’ve done enough of that.
You get offered Drone Strike Okayer a lot?
Yes. I’ve been offered that several times.
Lady Bird, obviously, has become this cultural juggernaut. Beyond it being a good movie, why do you think it struck such a chord?
Well, I would say first and foremost being a damn good movie might be reason enough right there. Damn good movies are not easy to come by.
Beyond that, Lady Bird deals with a very specific moment in a teenager’s life, which is leaving home. And it’s something I think we all identify with. The challenge of that moment. The poignancy of that moment. What it means to leave home. Lady Bird not only really covers that territory, but it does so with such specificity. If you’re a teenager or a young adult who is going through that moment or has recently been through that moment, it has a lot of meaning for you. If you’re a parent who has gone through that moment with a kid recently, it has a lot of meaning for you. Hell, if you’re an adult who just remembers what that moment was like as a kid, it has a lot of meaning for you.
I’m really curious about your approach as an actor to building a character. And I was thinking about Larry McPherson from Lady Bird as an example. What was your line in there? You mentioned you feel he’s a lot like you.
First of all: This is a story about women by a woman. The man in this particular story is not the center of it. It’s not about him. He’s not trying to make it about him. And I appreciated that about Larry. This isn’t about him losing his job and suffering from depression. Those were grace notes. They run in the background. The truth is Larry, for better or worse, is more comfortable letting his wife run the house for the most part. And I’m like that. I’m a lot like that.
I don’t mean to be too dismissive of an actor’s process, because there is such a thing. At the same time, if you know what you’re doing, and it’s on the page, there’s not a hell of a lot to do. Some of it is just instinct, you know?
I was in Australia—Carrie was shooting Season 3 of The Leftovers in Australia—so I was with Carrie. I was just hanging out. So I grew a beard ’cause I was kinda bored. I grew a boring—a Boredom Beard.
So I left Australia to go to Los Angeles because of this movie, and I thought, “Well, I’ll let Greta look at it and see what she thinks.” And the second she looked at me, I said something like, “I thought maybe this beard, you know, like, Life is Sweet,” which is a Mike Leigh movie.
See, Greta and I have all the same opinions as it turns out. I didn’t know that going in, but it turns out we agree on everything. And she said, “Yeah, Life is Sweet. You know, my dad has a beard.” The beard was intuition. It’s not like I had to act like I was depressed. I mean, it’s all there. It’s all in what the other characters say about him. And sure, I’m depressed. Who isn’t?
Which is almost like that saying that you don’t play the king when you’re the king in Shakespeare. The other people play that you’re the king.
Right. That’s exactly right. And one of the ways to establish character as a writer is not only by what the person does, what the person says, but what other people say about them. So, you know, I don’t have to do a lot. Sometimes, if the script is really good, and the fit of the character is right, you really get to just show up, put on the clothes, learn the lines, and occupy the space.
Is preparation different for a film and the stage? Like the sustainability you needed to do George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Does that shape your process?
Yeah, a terrific amount. I mean, to do something like George, it’s like climbing a mountain. There’s a long process in advance of doing that. And you also just have to appreciate the process of doing it again, and again, and again. You’re not going to be ready to play George by opening night. It takes longer than that, you know?
I had done the role a few years before we did it at Steppenwolf. I was a little too young for the part, and the woman who was playing opposite me had done Martha two or three times. And she said to me, “The way to think about this is, this is just the first time you play this, this is just getting you ready to play this part later on in life.”
And it’s really true. We ran it for 10, 11 weeks in Chicago. We then moved the play to the Arena Stage in D.C. We ran there for a couple of months. We took a year and a half off before coming back to do it on Broadway. And I will tell you that, for my own sense of satisfaction, maybe two months into the Broadway run I started to feel some confidence with the part. My God! Lady Bird took a month! Just a month and I was done. In and out. You’re not even done with rehearsals for a play in a month. It’s one of the great things about doing a movie. It’s one of the things I’m really enjoying about this time in my life right now.
I did my last play as an actor about four years ago, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to, you know, write three plays, and do a couple of TV shows, and do a few movies. Because I’ve had the time.
The Post was rather famously completed very quickly to get it out in the first year of Trump’s presidency. Did that kind of compression and urgency affect your work?
No. Somebody like Meryl normally takes a long time to prepare a part. She plays really big parts. She needs a long time. Gary Oldman when he was playing Churchill, the first thing he said when he turned on was, “I need a year.” The kind of parts I play, we don’t get a year. If I said, “Well, you know, I’m gonna need a year before I play Fritz Beebe in The Post.” They would’ve said, “Yeah, great. We’re gonna get somebody else.” [Laughs.]
I get about a month. And they sent me a box of research. And so, the book I picked up was the history of the Washington Post written by Chalmers Roberts, and I think well, since I’m playing the chairman of the board I guess I should know something about the Washington Post. I’m a very slow reader. I got up to like, Teddy Roosevelt, and then I had to work. It’s not like I have time, I can’t go, like, live with the family for a month to get ready to do this. I’ve gotta play this guy.
For me, the dramaturgy is on the page. He supports this woman. He wants this woman to make the right decisions. He wants to inform her to the extent that he can, but I also love that he respected her enough to recognize: This is your decision. It’s your company. You’re gonna make the decision. That’s all I knew. That’s kind of all I needed to know. That was all him on the page.
Do I look exactly like Fritz Beebe? I don’t know. Somebody else was looking at the research like, “Well, he needs a wig.” OK. Where do I go for my wig fitting?
That dynamic between Beebe and Graham is at the root of my favorite moment in the film, your chuckle after she makes the final decision.
Well, that scene was really hard to shoot. Some of those scenes in The Post—Mr. Spielberg, I don’t suppose I’m telling you anything when I tell you he’s really good.
Those scenes, some of those scenes are balancing a lot of people in a scene, and we’re not talking about extras. We’re talking about people in a scene who are characters, who have investment in the outcome of the scene. To move those bodies around in the space, you know, you’re actually making distinctions as a director. You’re making distinctions about hierarchy in the room, power dynamic, you know, where the eye is supposed to be focused, what we’re supposed to be looking at.
That particular scene was very challenging. I think any actor who was in that room would tell you that. It took us about a day and a half to shoot that scene in that room. And, yeah, the chuckle at the end was, I don’t know. I suppose that was an improvised moment. Mr. Spielberg was happy with that and said, “I feel like it gives the scene an ending,” which is what we kinda needed. But again, it comes out of, not of my knowledge of who Fritz Beebe actually was. I don’t know if Fritz Beebe is the guy who would chuckle in a moment like that. It came out of my love for this love, and appreciation for this woman who was making this decision.
You know, I hate parsing moments like that. I don’t know what the fuck, you know?
I read in an interview, it was back from when August: Osage County was on Broadway, where you said something to the effect of you liked talking about acting more than writing because you knew what the job of an actor is but the writing is all in the subconscious. Do you still feel that way?
I lie in all these interviews.
OK! Good to know.
Yeah, sure. Sure, yeah. I do think so.
I was wondering because I think about the interplay of your work as a writer and an actor a lot, because I’m an admirer of both. Chicago has a very specific acting and writing culture, particularly in the ensemble ethos that’s born out of Steppenwolf. And I was wondering how that shapes your approach to acting and writing.
It’s shaped it completely. I still live in Chicago. I’m still very much involved in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. They’ve done two of my plays this year.
Ensemble, to me, is everything. It’s just what I know. Aesthetically, it’s what pleases me. It’s what I think makes for the best theater, the theater that draws people in. Some people would disagree with me. Some people like a more tour de force theater. Some people like, you know, a star system in the theater, which you have here in New York. Some people really respond to that, obviously. They love it here. It’s not what I love. It’s not my aesthetic. So, it’s formed me completely.
And I think the good thing about it is that when we get on the set of The Post, or we get on the set of Lady Bird, I think the only question I’m asking is, “How do we best tell this story?”
The story has primacy. The story is above all other considerations. “What is the best way to tell our story?” is the governing question, I think, for most Chicago actors. Not “what is the best way to feature this actor?” Not “what is the best way to make our point?”
Do you write with particular actors in mind?
No. I have in the past. When I wrote Superior Donuts, the actor Jon Michael Hill was very much in my head when I wrote the role of Franco.
And with August: Osage County, ’cause I knew I was writing for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Rondi Reed was very much in my head when I wrote the role of Mattie Fae. But for the most part, no I don’t, because I think it would limit me, like suddenly I would not wanna write something for the character if I felt the actor couldn’t pull it off.
Your new play The Minutes is coming to Broadway this season. Is it your first play to deal explicitly with the political process?
I think so. I mean, I think all the plays are somewhat political. Politics play a role. But yeah, it’s certainly the most overtly political of my plays.
I read that you finished writing a draft of it shortly after the election. When did you start it? Was it inspired by the election season?
Probably, just paying attention, yeah, to what was going on in politics, and in the world, and in our country. But I don’t think that my paying attention to that started just with the election cycle. Certainly, the election seemed to focus everybody’s attention in a new way. It is true that I was about three-quarters—maybe about two-thirds, somewhere in there—through with the play when the election happened. And it did not go the way I anticipated it going. And so, it did take some doing to not change the play and make it about Trump, in response to Trump.
The truth is that both sides of an argument are presented in The Minutes. And two philosophies are presented in The Minutes. And neither one, I think, represents a Trumpian point of view.
I just read it over the weekend and I was really curious about where it began for you. Was it in a specific image or a specific line?
This is where I’m going to lie to you.
First, the true answer is that I don’t remember. I never fucking remember. I don’t know where, ’cause I tend to think about them for a very long time, and my thinking about them evolves over a very long period of time. What started me thinking about city council meetings? I have no fucking idea. At some point, it was kind of there. It seemed like, “Oh, what a great location for a play.”
We look for these points of intersection where people come together. That’s often the great starting place for a play. That’s a great milieu for a show. So then I started the process of watching hundreds of hours of YouTube videos of town council meetings.
You know, they all videotape these meetings and they put them on the internet now, and you can see them. And they are unbelievably boring. But, it’s also the work of the people. If you get a new street sign on your street it’s because somebody had a meeting about in a town council meeting. So, that was it. That was how I got to a play. I don’t get the opportunity to do a lot of research when I’m an actor. When I’m writing a play, it’s a different matter.
One of the things that is deeply enjoyable about the play is the sense of humor that comes out of these almost absurdist procedural motions and discussions of process. I got the feeling that was just a little bit heightened from how absurd these things can really be.
Well, it’s heightened only because of how boring they can really be. I mean, those meetings are really fucking boring.
And of course the milieu of The Minutes, a small-town council meeting somewhere in the heartland … that’s two areas where there’s been a lot of increased attention since the election, both to local politics and to what gets called “Trump Country.” Do you read all those stories in, like, the New York Times where they interview small town Trump supporters? Are you infuriated by them?
Yeah, I’ve read a couple of them. But then I stopped. I don’t need to keep doing this. I don’t know why they keep fucking doing it. It’s like, yeah, we get it. There’s a small percentage that are gonna support him regardless of what he does.
I get it. I get it. He could go out and he, what did he say? He could shoot somebody—
—on Fifth Avenue, yeah.
He’s right. And so I know that, and now I don’t need to see those people anymore.
Weirdly, what they don’t do, is they don’t go out and talk to a town of people, go to their local diner and find some people who voted for Trump, and like, “Yeah, actually now I’m having second thoughts. I think maybe that was a mistake.” ’Cause those people are out there.
The Minutes isn’t speaking directly to Trump, but it is speaking to this question of what we do with our history. Which I think is very much on August: Osage County’s mind as well. And that’s a debate we’re having all the time. Like with the Confederate monument statues.
You can’t talk about where we are as a country without talking about where we’ve come from with the country, and how we built the goddamned country to begin with.
You can talk about it, but you’re talking out your ass, because the people who don’t consider their history or their context, who believe that we are in whatever political moment we’re in, who believe that that started five minutes ago, or an hour ago, or a year ago, or in their lifetime—that’s a stupid and short-sighted way of looking at the world.
The way we disseminate information, the way we latch on to sound bites, blips, internet clips, viral shit, the way all that shit works, it discourages a more thorough appreciation of history and how we got to where we got to begin with.
And I think that not paying attention to that shit comes with a reckoning.
There’s a reckoning in that.
So, hence August: Osage County. Hence The Minutes.
When August: Osage County hit Broadway, there was a lot of discussion about the autobiographical aspect of the work, and how it was based on real events and real people from your family. After that was over, did you set out to write away from the autobiographical?
You know, immediately after August I wrote Superior Donuts. The idea there was that I was gonna write about something that was not quite so personal. And it turned out Donuts was much more personal than I imagined it was. Turns out you can’t just make a decision not to write personally. The personal will out.
But I will say, I think The Minutes is perhaps a reflection of the way I think, but it’s not necessarily about me, in a way that it feels like the other plays are. Which is—I don’t know. It’s new. If anything, I try to focus on the new, whether it’s as an actor or as a writer. What energizes me is something new. There’s something scary and fresh and dynamic about the new. I’m not at a point in my life where I’m ready to start regurgitating the same old shit. And just, “All right. Here’s another drone strike, everybody.”