Tracy Letts On His Busy Year Acting in 'Lady Bird,' 'The Post' + 'Divorce'

Photo Source: Illustration: Nathan Arizona/Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Tracy Letts has found himself with what he calls an “embarrassment of riches.” Aside from his career as a stage actor and playwright—he won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for “August: Osage County” in 2008—the last year has seen the actor gracing both the small and silver screens in roles as Larry McPherson in Golden Globe winner “Lady Bird,” Fritz Beebe in “The Post,” Michael in “The Lovers,” and Nick on HBO’s “Divorce.” Here, Letts discusses theater versus film and what drew him to his recent projects.

You’ve been working on a lot of projects lately. Did you ever think you’d be doing press for a few different roles at one time?
I guess I always thought that given the opportunity, I’d work a lot. When you’re a young actor and you can’t get enough work, you become like a starving dog that when presented with food will eat itself to death. I always anticipated if I ever got the opportunity to work a lot, I’d work too much.

What was your most memorable survival job?
One of the reasons I live in Chicago is [it’s] a city where you can always work. You won’t necessarily make any money, but you can always work. There’s always some interesting theater happening that you can be a part of. It’s not a steppingstone to another thing, it’s not a star system, but there’s lots of good work here for actors. One of the great things about it is that people who are here making theater, they are here for the sake of the work, and nothing beyond that.

Check out our cover story with Letts’ “Lady Bird” co-star Laurie Metcalf!

What has working on ‘The Post’ and ‘Lady Bird’ added to your acting skills?
I have to say, for a guy who was on a stage pretty much constantly for 30 years, one of the nice things about doing these films for me [is that] a movie like “Lady Bird,” I get to shoot in a month. That doesn’t even get you through the rehearsal process in most plays. I like how quick it seems. You get in, put on someone else’s clothes, say the lines, and then you get out. Having done so much theater, I will always embrace the idea that we, as actors, are responsible for telling a story from start to finish over the course of an evening. I don’t think there’s another art form quite like it. As an actor in film, to be able to go in and do these little beads that are strung together that you don’t know what it’s going to be until you see it months later, is fun.

What movie should every actor see?
Film is primarily my life. I was a movie buff as a kid and grew up watching the gamut: new movies, old movies, foreign movies, horror movies. I would be hard-pressed to narrow it down to one thing or one strain. I love the form.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Do your own stuff. As an actor, we get into a habit of waiting for somebody to give us a job. Unlike music, where you can go and play the piano by yourself, as an actor you don’t really have anything to do unless you’ve got a job, you’ve got an audience, you’ve got a script. As a young person, you’d better learn how to generate your own work. Whether that means writing, which I took up between jobs as an actor, self-producing, improv—there’s no excuse for not working. To fill your downtime as an actor, filling yourself up with experiences, literature, life outside of the business—that is really important, too. The other thing is patience. I never really made any money in this business until I was maybe 42, when “August: Osage County” hit. There were some lean times and some desperate times, but I wouldn’t trade any of them.

Do you have any special skills that helped you stand out early on in your career?
Reading and writing. My folks were both English teachers. They really taught me and my brothers the value of not only the arts but of the written word. I think actors should read a lot. I can’t stress that enough. You will be asked to do things and be a part of things where you will have benefited so much from being steeped in language.

What did you hope to bring to a father role within a mother-daughter story such as “Lady Bird”?
One of the really appealing things to me was clearly it was a woman’s story, by a woman, about a woman, for women. To be asked to be the male presence, the fatherly presence, in that environment is something I’m really comfortable with. The guy as he’s written on the page is something I felt I could do, somebody who felt closer to me perhaps in personality than in some of the other roles I’ve played.

As an actor and a writer, what things stuck out in the scripts of “Lady Bird,” “The Post,” and “Divorce” that drew you to the projects?
They all bring something different. “Lady Bird,” the script was so tight, so solid, so complete, there was nothing else that needed to be done. The movie that we made was very much the script that was on the page. I admired Greta [Gerwig] already as a performer, but I admired how much of her personality was in the writing and how much economy there was in the writing. As a woman who’s not written a lot of screenplays, I really admired her economy. It’s hard to achieve that. The appeal of “The Post” was very different. “The Post” was about this historical event, a moment in time that speaks to where we are right now as a country, the importance of free press. I think everybody who signed up for “The Post”—aside from Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks—all that is appealing, but I think everyone who signed up for “The Post” signed up because it was about something we all believed in. “Divorce” was a happy accident. I was booked one or two days on the pilot and I died on the pilot. But they liked what I did and it seemed like a good fit. I had a nice relationship with Molly [Shannon] that they thought they could explore a little more, so they wrote me into the show. It’s not about people I necessarily closely identify with, but at the same time, I value the kinetic look at the downside of marriage and divorce and relationships and the fact that they’re all middle-aged people exploring those things. To be a part of a show where it’s not about the kids, but rather it’s about the old people.

In both of those film roles, you’re supporting strong women who have to make big choices. Do you think that says something about the way stories are being told?
I’m certainly drawn to that kind of material. I certainly hope we’re pushing more and more to telling women’s stories. It’s a bit mystifying to me that we haven’t, because I know that obviously women like seeing themselves represented on screen. I like not only being a part of those stories, but I like seeing those stories.

That’s the fun of film and television: finding similarities between the characters and yourself.
Just storytelling in general. That’s one of the reasons we have stories—so it enables us to get in somebody’s shoes and walk around in them for a little. It’s a very valuable thing for human beings to be able to do.

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