Best known for his work off the screen, as a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (for “August: Osage County”) and Tony award winning theatre actor (for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), Tracy Letts has been taking on more and more roles in front of the camera.
In “Indignation”, a coming-of-age (in the 19050s) tale of a young Jewish college student based on the novel by Philip Roth, Tracy plays Dean of Men, supporter and antagonist of Logan Lerman’s Marcus.
I understand you were just hanging in Melbourne while your wife [Carrie Coon] has been filming “The Leftovers”. And then everyone discovered you were here and they’ve put you to work doing Q&As at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), and talking to the press. If that’s the case I’m sorry but I am very excited to speak with you!
Tracy: [laughs]. Well that is the case. I really was just here to support my wife and be a ‘house husband’ and enjoy Melbourne but we were surprised to see a couple of the films that I’m in, “Christine” and “Indignation”, at the Film Festival and this naturally turned into some promotion – but I’m proud of the films so I’m happy to do it.
We actually met many years ago at SxSW when I was doing an interview with you and Matthew McConaughey for “Killer Joe”. I really loved that film. I know it was one of your first plays, does it still hold a special place for you?
Tracy: Oh I remember that! Yes absolutely. That play was really the play that made me the ‘playwright’. It introduced so many wonderful people and events in my life. And the film, although I wasn’t able to be there when they shot the thing, I have great fondness for the film and [director] William Friedkin and for being a part of the McConaissance! I think we all take a little pride in that.
Absolutely. He was that rom com lead guy and then I saw him in “Killer Joe” and was like ‘hang on’…
Tracy: ..he can act! Yeah.
You’re in “Indignation” purely as an actor. Do you enjoy speaking other people’s words?
Tracy: Oh god yes. It’s so much easier to only have to worry about the things I have to say and not worry about the things that everyone has to say. It’s a great pleasure to do it, especially when the material is as good and smart and eloquent as Philip Roth and James Schamus. It’s a beautiful script, I’m just really glad to be a part of it.
You had a very long scene, I think it was something like 18 minutes on screen, just yourself and Logan Lerman’s character having a conversation. As an actor, is that something that’s attractive to you?
Tracy: Well I’ll tell you the truth…when I took the job I hadn’t read the screenplay. I took the job based on, believe me, not based on the money [laughs], I took the job based on James Schamus, Philip Roth – that’s the kind of material I want to work on. I love the idea that people are still making adult films for adults. I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Then when I signed on and read the script and I read that scene in particular I realised – first of all that it was great – I really admired the material, and also that it was very challenging. It was a real challenge. Fortunately though I’ve spent a lot of time in the theatre and I know it’s just a matter for me of rolling my sleeves up and starting to learn it. I didn’t have a lot of time. I received the script less than a month before we shot, so I had some time to learn the material, but again, in the world of the theatre, normally we’re learning that much material in that amount of time, so I just set about the work of learning it. I was excited and scared to shoot it. It’s a scary scene to have to do in a day, but took on the challenge!
I understand you filmed it all in single takes, so you went you through the whole scene every time?
Tracy: Yes! I didn’t know it was it was going to be that way, we I didn’t know how much James was going to cut around it. We showed up, they had the camera set up, we sat down, we did the scene – all the way through from beginning to end – and we did it again, all the way from beginning to end, then they reset the camera, James whispered a couple of notes to us, and we did it again. And we did that all day long. We did a full day’s work on just that scene. James gave his editor four and a half hours of material that we filmed on that day alone – which is a terrific amount of material to shoot in one day. It was very exhausting. I don’t know if everyone’s aware just how physically taxing it is to use your brain for that period of time. It’s really something. I slept like a baby that night!
What was it like working with Logan Lerman?
Tracy: He was a delight from beginning to end. I was not familiar with Logan or his work beforehand. He’s very talented, very knowledgeable, he’s been doing this since he was a kid. He knew his material backwards, forwards, he was deeply respectful of the crew and the job everybody had to do. I think he’s the real deal, I think you’ll see him do amazing things over the course of his career.
He seems to pick really interesting roles.
Tracy: Well that’s a big part of it! The truth is that for young men like him, I’m sure it’s very tempting to want to take the new “Fantastic Four” or whatever. It takes some gumption to turn things like that down so you can do things like “Indignation” for no money and associate yourself with challenging adult material. You bring up the choice of material – for an actor like him I think that’s the first battle he’s got to fight.
And I’m sure it’s the first battle he has with agent.
Tracy: Yes [laughs].
You mentioned your theatre acting background, I understand James cast a lot of Broadway actors in this film as you were shooting in the area and he knows there so much talent to draw from there. Had you worked with any of the actors previously?
Tracy: Well I knew Linda Emond who plays Logan’s mother, I knew her back when she was a Chicago actress, before she moved to New York. I live and work in Chicago, I’ve been there for 30 years, but Linda had been there for a while, so I knew Linda. And I’d met Danny Burstein through theatre circles in New York, very nice guy. I think it was a smart move of James’s. He wasn’t going to get big movie stars to play these parts in such a small film, so I think he was smart to say ‘well then let me surround myself with theatre actors who I know are going to bring a real sense of life lived to these roles before they even come on the screen’. And I think Linda and Danny absolutely do that expertly. I think it was another smart move of James Schamus. A new ending array of smart moves!
It was his first time in the director’s chair. Did he seem like a first time director to you or was he quite comfortable in the role?
Tracy: That was my only concern going into it. I thought, I wonder if James – because he’s spent a lifetime in and around movies but he’s never been in this chair – I wonder if he’s going to feel like he’s got a lot to prove? Like’s he’s got to be Orson Welles first time out with a lot of tricky ideas about where to put the camera and a lot of high fallutin direction that actors don’t understand. And I have to say, the exact opposite was true. He could not have been more relaxed, humble, and simple, which in some ways is the smartest thing he could be. Really simple. He had already worked out the material on the page so shooting it was just a matter of getting smart performances and putting them together with some nimble direction as well. I was really impressed with the work James did.
So for you, you’ve got some time off (technically). Will you be doing any writing while you’re in Melbourne?
Tracy: I’ve been doing some, yes, I’ve been working on a new play. I’m about to leave here and go back to the States, I’m shooting a movie that Greta Gerwig is directing. She’s written a screenplay about growing up in Sacramento and she’s directing the film. Saoirse Ronan is playing the young Greta Gerwig and I’m playing her Dad so I’m excited to take part in that.
And I understand you’re doing TV as well? TV seems to be having a real golden age at the moment.
Tracy: Yes I’m doing “Divorce”, Sarah Jessica Parker’s new show on HBO. We’ve already shot the first season and I hope we’re going to shoot a second season. The first season goes to air here in the Fall so I think we’re going to shoot a second season early next year. It’s Sharon Horgqn. I don’t know if you’re seen “Catastrophe” but Sharon Horgan is a very gifted English-Irish comic actress and writer and “Divorce” is her creation. It’s really really good. If you haven’t seen “Catastrophe” you should check it out, it’s a really really good show.
Indignation is now showing in Australian cinemas.