Tracy Letts won both a Tony and a Pultizer for his 2008 play August: Osage County. He has adapted his plays for movies directed by the venerable William Friedkin. Ashley Judd, Matthew McConaughey, and now Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, and Julia Roberts have all played his characters. He's acted on Home Improvement, Seinfeld, and Prison Break. But currently Letts is immersed in the character of George, the whiskey-soaked college professor who is married to the president of a small liberal arts college and never quite realized his potential. That's merely one of the many issues roasted over the spit of domesticity in the blistering three-hour Broadway production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, that stars Letts and his Steppenwolf colleagues Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, and Madison Dirks.
We spoke with Letts about how his portrayal of George has changed with age, how Albee's characters aren't necessarily archetypes, and whether or not he wears his Pulitzer to breakfast.
I walked out of the play totally emotionally and physically exhausted. Most of the audience looked drained too. How do you maintain the intensity to perform this play day in and day out like this? I guess it's just the job. It's just what the job is. It's typically one of the first things we hear from audiences when they walk out of the theater: "God, I know I'm tired! I can't imagine how you must feel?!" Well, that's being said by an audience member who might have gotten up at 6:30 or 7 and went off worked a full day and then comes in and to watch the play. Our day is built around that three hour period, that's our work day.
You know, I sleep very late, I eat well, I take care of myself physically, I give my voice a lot of rest. There is some part of my brain that is always in reserve for the performance that night because so much of it is about concentration and relaxation and whatever. You know, that's the gig, that's what the gig is. The fact that the play takes you to some pretty dark places, some pretty extreme places is particular to this play—it's a very well-written play so it sort of takes you along, from two o' clock in the morning when you walk into their living room to when you out the door. You sort of play it moment to moment, it takes you where it takes you.
George uses the phrase, "reflex response" to describe his and Martha's well-worn marital sparring, but your performance as an actor—the slurring, the booze-palsy, how much of that becomes a reflex response onstage after a certain number of performances? Well, you know, that's also part of the job—how to keep it fresh. How to both duplicate something from night to night so where you're not constantly surprising each other and at the same time also keeping the thing fresh and alive. Some of that is just technique and some of that is just being alive and being open to the moment and paying attention to your scene partners and listening really hard to what your fellow actors are doing.
I mean, we're Chicago actors, and we embrace ensemble performance as an ethic, not just a way of working but it's really our aesthetic. It very much has to do with looking out for each other and listening to each other. We feel very much, when we're up there, as a four-headed organism. So much of what I will do any given night is informed by the other three actors I'm on stage with that night, and what particular emphasis they supply that night or the mood they may happen to be in. It's all very fluid.
It's been noted that you and Amy Morton portray a somewhat "warmer" George and Martha as compared to other performances, especially the film, which is obviously different medium. But that warmth can cut two ways. The tone might be gentler, but the things you're saying to each other might cut that much deeper because the audience feels that initial, strong affection. How much of that has to do with your many experiences performing with her, or was a conscious decision among the four actors saying, "This is how we want to shape this?" You know i don't think we ever, I don't think—I know, we never said to each other, "Let's do something different with this, let's do something new." We never talked about it in those terms, those terms are relative to other performances. We tended to treat these things, I think these things are best served, when treated like new plays.
We open to the first page, and say, what is going on here? And what do I want and what am I willing to do to get it? Those sort of "actor" questions. You take the information that is being given from the script, what is it that I'm saying and what is being said about me, and you just, sort of, go through it from there. We never said let's make this a "warmer" Virginia Woolf, or lets make these characters warmer than they've been portrayed.
I think we were looking at the heart of these character, hopefully, in the script, the heart of who they are. I mean, Martha is the daughter of a small town college president, she's not Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. And George is a history professor, and they've been married for twenty-three years. And hopefully, when you take that into account, they become people: not symbols, not archetypes, they're just people that we're portraying. I'm sorry that's not a very interesting answer, but it's the simple answer.
Correct me if I'm wrong. You performed this role a while ago, right? Yeah, I first took this on, I forget...seven or eight years ago, Amy directed me in a production at the Alliance theater in Atlanta. And then we first did this production at Steppenwolf almost two years ago, and then took that production to the arena stage in D.C., and about a year and a half before we came to New York with this.
So when you began this latest production, you didn't ask yourself, "What was my George lacking, this is what I could have done better." It was just strictly going back to interpreting the text? Yeah, I think so. The fact that I've got three other actors up there with me, and the fact that Pat McKinnon is directing instead of Amy shifts things, and then there's the fact that I'm a different person now than I was eight years ago. I really feel the generational divide with these other two actors who walk through the door, more than I did years ago. When you're thirty-eight years old you can almost still convince yourself that you have something in common with those young people, when you're 47, it's a little harder to do that [laughs].
You recognize that there's a whole different agenda walking through the door right now, who have a whole different set of concerns than I have. I'm just at a different place in my life. So things like that change it for you. It's not a question of looking at the performance and saying, 'I didn't do this well, I'll do that differently this time." It wouldn't be very objective if I did that anyway. Hell, I'd have to have a better memory to do that! I'm not that gifted.
This past summer Killer Joe was released. You wrote the play and then the screenplay for it. Now they're shooting August-Osage County? Yeah.
When you're writing the screenplays for these plays you've written, do you feel that because it's an entirely different medium, you can tweak it and do things to it that you maybe couldn't have gotten away with in the play? Well, it is an entirely different medium, there's no getting around that. I could write the screenplay, not changing a word of the play, and just hand it to them and say "film this" and it would still be entirely different.
The fact of the matter, is, William Friedkin wanted to make a movie of Bug, and of Killer Joe, and he said to me, "First, do no harm. I like the material. I'm not asking you to completely reinvent this material, just you yourself take a stab translating this material into screenplay form and I'll take it from there."
With Bug, it didn't make much sense for these agoraphobic characters to be leaving their motel room just for these characters to broaden the horizons of the picture, so we didn't think it out much. Truth is, with Killer Joe, one of the original challenges with the play was how to keep the characters confined inside the trailer—I mean, how do you keep all the action inside the trailer? With August, it is clearly a bigger piece with more characters and more sprawl, so it was pretty easy to let those characters do what they do and go out in the world. But still, they are still very recognizably based on the plays that I wrote.
The truth is, it is not a comfortable transition from stage to screen. I mean, stage is primarily a verbal medium and screen is primarily a visual medium. So it is not an organic translation. But, sometimes, the focus in a play is not the story focus, it is more a focus on the characters. And we like a good focus on the characters and the story in movies whether they are especially visual or not. Truth is I like the movies of Bug and Killer Joe, I enjoy those movies in their own right. They are not the plays at all. They are an entirely different animal. If someone said to me that they really liked those movies, I would say, I wonder how you'd like the play, because it is not the same thing at all. It's a completely different thing.
Speaking to the difficulty that you just described at translating between those two mediums, did you always aim to be this sort of—for a lack of a better phrase—Renaissance Man, acting and writing for the stage, film, and television? Or was that versatility something that just happened over time? I didn't aim to be anything to anything other than busy and employed. That would presuppose that I had more of a plan than I ever had. I guess I have a lot of interests and I've been really steeped in the theater, and the language of the theater my entire life. I've always had an inclination to write, I've written since I was a little kid. And once I became an actor, it made a certain amount of sense to marry the two disciplines to write for the theater.
But I've always done them both almost on parallel tracks. I don't act in stuff I write, and I don't write stuff for me to act in. I've just always done one, then done the other. Depending on what the job is, whether I'll get paid to do it. Amy Morton calls it "crop rotation." She's a director too. You act for a while, and it informs you to write or direct, and then you go back to the stage and hopefully the other thing informs you on stage. I never aimed to become a Renaissance Man nor do I think I've become a Renaissance Man. I think a Renaissance Man could do a lot more things than I can do. [laughs]
I've never spoken with anyone who has won a Pulitzer Prize. Do you wear it around the house, while you're eating breakfast or something? [Laughing] Yes, I wear a medal on my smoking jacket. You know, the Pulitzer Prize, It's kind of funny. I'm not entirely sure what the Pulitzer Prize is, the actual prize. I think it's the check. I think that's the "prize." In fact, they gave me a little piece of Tiffany glass with "The Pulitzer Prize" written on it, and I thought, "Is this the prize?"
It turns out they didn't used to give that, they just give that out now because now they do a little ceremony, they didn't used to do a ceremony. And even when they gave it to me, it had the wrong year stenciled on it, so my agent called them and said, "Uh, it says 2007 on it." So they sent me another one. I actually have two of those things sitting on my shelf. It looks like I won two concurrent Pulitzer prizes. So, in your face David Lindsay-Abaire! [laughs]
Someone recently tipped us off that a man vomited from the balcony on to the orchestra section during Grace. The guy left and the performance went on. Has something like that ever happened to when you were performing? You know, in a lifetime of performances there's been some wacky shit. People have had heart attacks and EMTs get called, and I'm sure I've made a lot of people vomit, but I wasn't necessarily aware of it at the time.
I guess, my favorite story along those lines, is when I was doing a production of Three Days of Rain, with Amy Morton, in fact, and I was about 30 seconds into the play, when a fellow in the audience said, rather loudly, "Oh, it's going to be one of those 'walkin' around' plays!" [Laughing] I had no idea what that meant, but it tends to sort of freeze you in your tracks when you're up there. But I suppose it is one of those plays. We are going to do some walking around up there.