Tracy Letts Is Making It up as He Goes—and It’s Working

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Photo Source: Emily Assiran

As both a writer and actor across film, television, and theater, Tracy Letts has become one of the most prolific players in showbiz. But over eggs and coffee at the legendarily no-frills Waverly Diner in Manhattan’s West Village, Letts insists there is as much a plan in place now as there has ever been. Which is to say, there isn’t, just as there wasn’t one when he moved to Chicago at age 20, or when he wrote his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning canonical giant “August: Osage County,” or when he booked a role in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and won himself another Tony for acting.

As he and his wife, actor Carrie Coon, navigate immense opportunity across the board, Letts is making it up as he goes. And if his illustrious career spanning disciplines and mediums is any indication, you might want to give it a try, too.

On this September morning, he’s one day out from the first Broadway preview of his new play, “Linda Vista.” The sardonic comedy, which he wrote but doesn’t star in (we’ll get to that), arrives in New York after successful runs at Letts’ artistic home, the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and then in Los Angeles. Mounting a new show on the world’s most prominent stage would, for most, be one-track. But for Letts, it actually is just one track. 

“Linda Vista” coincides with the tail end of his promotional tour for “Ford v Ferrari,” a Matt Damon– and Christian Bale–starrer in which he delivers a Letts specialty: one of the film’s standout scenes in a supporting role. The feature, directed by James Mangold, has generated early buzz as an awards contender, and it isn’t Letts’ only such film this year.

Along with “Ferrari,” he stars in Greta Gerwig’s anticipated “Little Women” (opening Christmas day), reuniting him with both the “Lady Bird” auteur and his on-camera daughter, Saoirse Ronan. While he’ll be doubly represented in film this season, the same is true of the stage: In February, Letts’ “The Minutes” will begin performances at the Cort Theatre, making him one of the few playwrights in modern theater history to have two new plays debut on Broadway in a single season—oh, and he’ll also be starring in that one, too. 

Not bad for a guy who’s certain his career is a series of happy connections. “One thing has to kind of lead to another thing,” says Letts. But he’s certain of something else, too: “I have no regrets about any of it—but I am damn lucky.”

I want to start where I imagine many of your conversations start: Chicago. How seminal has it been for your career?

You know I still live there? It’s still my home. Certainly, my origin as an artist is Chicago. I did some stuff before in Dallas, but it really [began] in Chicago—I mean, I moved there when I was 20.

Did you arrive with a plan?

There’s never been any plan. I’ve stumbled blindly from thing to thing, from success to failure to dead ends. I moved to Chicago because I had a girlfriend who was moving to Chicago. It didn’t occur to me that maybe she was moving there to get away from me. But in any case, I moved shortly after she did and I just really thought it seemed approachable, [coming] from Oklahoma, from a small town. I didn’t know anything about New York. I didn’t know anything about Los Angeles. I was probably intimidated by those places. There’s something about Chicago and the Midwestern sensibility. The nature of storefront theater in Chicago is truly street-level. You walk in off the street and into the theater, and that just seemed like a really good fit for the kind of work I was interested in. I was mainly pursuing acting. I have always written—I’d even written as a little kid—but I had not started writing plays yet. It had not occurred to me to write for the theater. I had written a couple of bad screenplays, but my focus at that point was as an actor, as a 20-year-old in Chicago.

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What made Chicago such a great place for you during the budding phase of your career?

It’s a small enough community that you can learn your way around it, but it’s a big enough community that it’s not a clique. People in smaller cities are really locked in, and it can be harder to break into those places. There’s a lot of work going on at any time. Chicago has a worker ethic. Others have said, “You’ll never get rich in Chicago, but you’ll always have work.” It was understood that to be in Chicago meant it wasn’t a platform to another thing. It’s a great city for actors because you get to practice your craft with like-minded people and you’re not necessarily looking to the next thing, the next horizon: “Who’s going to see the show? Is this going to lead to a television series?” Which is why, I think, so many artists do come to Chicago.

In an industry that can incite toxicity, that sounds like a very healthy mindset, especially at the start of a career.

I don’t want to idealize it, because you have a love-hate relationship with any big city you live in. I think American artists have a really hard time—regardless of whether you’re in New York or Chicago or L.A. or anywhere else, it’s very hard to walk the line between the work and the promotion of the work. They’re inextricable. So much of our time and energy as artists is spent promoting work, even to the extent that you start to forget it’s promotion. You’re like, “This is what I have to do in order to keep working.”

It is in fact what we’re doing right now.

It’s true. And it’s true everywhere. Even things like awards; it’s all promotion, all of it! It also contributes to the culture of celebrity, because promotion becomes even more important than the work itself, [and] you can become more known for promotion than anything you’ve actually done.

You don’t have a BFA or MFA, which is, perhaps unfortunately, unusual for successful playwrights and actors—and you’re both. How did you hone your writing and acting skills?

Trial and error, paying attention, working with good people, and always choosing good material. To this day, the only metric I have for deciding what I’m going to do is how good the material is. That’s the only thing. My wife and I are constantly involved in that discussion of “Well, this thing has got this going for it, but the script’s not very good.” 

How did you learn to analyze a script in that way?

First of all, my folks, they were really smart people. They were both English teachers and very involved in creative endeavors, [and] there was a real premium placed on the written word. That’s the beginning of it, but then also just trial and error in Chicago, doing plays and learning what you have to do in order to make a bad play work, because sometimes you have to do that. As an actor, you have to figure out how to make bad material work. Over the course of time, you start to recognize what’s a good script, what’s a script that isn’t good but has potential, [and] what are the scripts that are flat-out bad.

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How does the fledgling actor who doesn’t necessarily have room to turn anything down grapple with that?

If you’re in a position where you have a choice about what you get to do rather than taking the next gig, you’re in pretty rarified air. Sometimes it feels like not such a great way to make a living. Sometimes you have to fight through that stuff. Hope that you learn from the bad stuff. Hope that maybe you meet somebody doing the bad stuff who becomes an important artist in your life, because there is something to be said for long associations with like-minded artists.

At what point did the notion of on-camera work—acting and writing—enter into the equation? Was it a conscious ambition?

Yes and no. As a kid, I was a real movie buff, and growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, I didn’t have access to a lot of theater. My access to things like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” came from movies. There’s probably a childhood fantasy about being in the movies, but then, when you start to actually learn the craft—probably just like any endeavor, when you are met with real life and start to learn the reality of the situation—those goals change. I did go to L.A. when I was 32. I had gotten to the point where, as an artist, I wanted to know more about that side of the business. I found [L.A.] really dissatisfying. I went back to Chicago after four years. People were like, “Why’d you come back? Seemed like you were doing pretty good out there.” I booked some work, but I wasn’t happy doing it, so I moved back to Chicago and said, “This is where I’m happiest. This is what I prefer to do”—and then I wrote “August: Osage County.” Talk about stumbling through success—or failure—blindly.

You didn’t anticipate the play’s success?

I didn’t anticipate the success of “August,” nor did I anticipate that I probably wouldn’t have been able to come to Broadway [as an actor] in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” had it not been for “August.” Because of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Alex Gansa put me on TV in “Homeland.” Because I’m on TV in “Homeland,” some movie people started calling.

You can’t plan for anything in this business, basically.

No. You try to associate yourself with good people and good material and good work and let the chips fall where they may.

Is that not maddening?

Sure! Yeah, it’s maddening. We were just in Toronto promoting “Ford v Ferrari,” and a reporter asked us, regarding the fast cars, “Are any of you risk-takers?” There was a moment of silence and then Matt [Damon] said, “We’re actors!” It can be a really hard life; not just in a practical sense, it can also be hard psychologically. Rejection is really hard for people. When my wife first started having some success as an actor, her family looked at that with big eyes, like, “Wow! Look how her life is blowing up!” And then, as they’ve gotten to know what it is exactly she does, what her schedule is like, some of them say, “There’s no way I could live like that. There’s no way I could live with that kind of uncertainty.”

And that’s the best-case scenario! Even when you attain financial security in this business, there is still no certainty.

It comes with sacrifices. Believe me, I’m so freakin’ grateful, and we take nothing for granted. We remind each other of it every day, like, “You know how lucky we are?” I mean, I’ve had a lot of lean years. I didn’t have a credit card until I was 43 years old. I have no regrets about it. I didn’t regret it at 43! I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done. I’ve met a lot of amazing people, traveled to a lot of amazing places, I’ve gotten to do a lot of great work. That was true before I ever saw any real success or financial success.

So maybe you’re lucky to have had those tough years, because it gives you perspective.

Tell me about it. Very lucky. Damn lucky. Lucky as a playwright, lucky as an actor, lucky as a person. Again, there’s no formula. There’s some combination of luck and perseverance and a little bit of talent; a mixture of those things has to happen for a successful career in the arts. Maybe there’s some other formula that amounts to success in any endeavor. The luck is intangible, so you just have to keep putting yourself in situations where the luck can happen. I guess that’s a way of saying you make your own luck.

That’s very in keeping with the oft-cited advice for actors to “write your own stuff.” And yet, despite excelling in both disciplines, “The Minutes” will be the first time you’ve acted in something you’ve written. How come it took so long?

I just didn’t think I’d be as good at either thing if I were doing both at the same time. I thought, If I’m trying to do both at the same time, I’m going to be worried about the way the writing makes me look or I’m going to be worried about the fact that I’m not acting the writing well enough. Ego is going to get in the way. Whereas the kind of storytelling I admire isn’t a lot of tour de force acting or writing. It’s where the performer or the writer disappears a little bit and the story takes the prime seat. Acting and writing are both storytelling. I’m a storyteller as an actor and as a writer. I think one of the things I learned in Chicago was to ask the question, first and foremost, “How can I help tell the story?” which doesn’t foreground the performer, doesn’t foreground the personality of the person who’s creating. There are people who do that as actors and writers and they’re great at it, but it’s just not what I value as an artist. Let the artist disappear [so you] just see the work. If I were acting in something I wrote, I just think there’s a real risk of people coming in and looking at it with a cynical eye. It always made sense to me to pursue both on parallel tracks.

Does one provide fuel for the other?

Certainly as an actor, you have a lot of downtime, so there’s a good opportunity to get some writing done; [it’s] a healthy outlet for all the spare time you have as an actor. I’m not one of those guys who can get up and write three pages a day, every day. I have discipline, but not that much discipline. My friend Amy Morton, who also directs as well as acts, she refers to it as crop rotation: the idea that you keep the soil fertile by tilling it and turning it over. It feels like, when I get disgusted, bored, or disappointed as an actor, I draw my attention to writing. It’s one of the reasons I’ve directed a couple of things, but I don’t want to be a director: I’m satisfied as an actor and writer. Directors have to worry about shit I don’t want to worry about.

Have you found your writing and your acting informed in real ways by one another?

I’ve learned a lot as an actor that’s found its way into my writing. In terms of creating good roles for actors, providing actors with not only what they need, in terms of creating a character and telling a story, but also what they want; what’s fun for an actor and what keeps it challenging and keeps one’s interest. And similarly, I think being a writer has taught me a lot as an actor, about delivering a story efficiently, effectively. For the most part, as an actor, I’m a character actor. The job is a little different for a character actor; you’re there to further the story, which is right in my wheelhouse. That’s what I like to do.

Inspired? Check out Backstage’s theater audition listings!

Photographed by Emily Assiran on Sept. 18