What Can’t He Do?
Homeland’s Tracy Letts, Writer of ‘August: Osage County,’ Says Oscar Mania Is Frustrating
Tracy Letts isn't exiting stage left anytime soon. The Pulitzer-winning playwright behind August: Osage County (and its film adaptation), plays a bombastic senator on Homeland.
On a stage, there’s seemingly nothing that Tracy Letts can’t do. He won the Pulitzer and Tony Awards in 2008 for writing the drama August: Osage County, and picked up another Tony in June for his incendiary turn as George in last season’s Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
When he stepped in front of a TV camera this summer, however, all that confidence vanished. After agreeing to appear in Homeland’s third season premiere as Sen. Andrew Lockhart, Letts found himself on-set for the first time since 2006. “I haven’t worked on camera in a long time, and the first thing we shot was that scene with Mandy at the end of the first episode,” says Letts of the scene in which he grills Saul, played by Mandy Patinkin, while chairing a committee hearing about the CIA’s failure to stop last season’s catastrophic bombing. “And I was terrified! There were 200 extras in the room, the cameras were on me, I have long speeches and a lot of exposition and stuff. I was very nervous.”
But like everything else he does, Letts nailed his character’s bombastic lacerations of both Saul and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), so much so that Homeland showrunner Alex Gansa almost immediately opted to beef up his role and bump him up to a series regular. “It happened pretty quickly,” says Letts, 48, “and it’s been great, great fun for me.” Sen. Lockhart returned in the season’s fifth episode, where he revealed that he’s gunning to replace Saul as CIA director, and will be a major presence for the rest of Season 3. “I thought he killed it, he did an amazing job,” says Gansa. “And wait until you see where the character goes. He does have a fairly significant role, especially as we move into the last four or five episodes.”
Because he lives in Chicago, where he works with the famous Steppenwolf Theatre, Letts’ on-camera roles have been minimal. “My career took me in other directions. They don’t make a lot of stuff in Chicago,” he says. He did appear in Seinfeld’s famous Festivus episode in Season 9 (he’s at the Festivus dinner table) and a 2006 episode of Prison Break that filmed in Chicago.
But last year, Steppenwolf’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? transferred to Broadway, where Gansa caught his Tony-winning performance as he was plotting Homeland’s third season. “We were sitting around thinking, who can we cast as a senator who can be in charge of an investigation and serve as the Frank Church model?” recalls Gansa, referring to the Idaho senator who headed the Church Committee, which investigated abuses of power among U.S. intelligence agencies in the ’70s. “We needed somebody who could command the authority, who would be believable as the chairman of the intelligence committee. But also somebody who could handle a mouthful of exposition and make the words understandable and compelling. And I heard him on Broadway playing the role of George, in which—talk about language—it was astonishing.” (Gansa also cast his Virginia Woolf wife Martha, played by Amy Morton, as Carrie Mathison’s lawyer.)
While Letts had been a fan of Homeland’s first season, he initially balked at the role. “I said, “I don’t want to be a guy in a suit, in front of a committee. That’s not my thing,’” Letts says. He was swayed after a long conversation with Gansa. “It wasn’t even so much what he said as the fact that he’s a really smart guy and he thinks about the larger picture. There’s actually some social consciousness about the creation of this show. This isn’t just a spy story made in a vacuum somewhere. There’s some awareness of reflection of events in the real world, and I was so impressed by that, that I thought, ‘This is a guy I want to work for.’”
Despite Gansa’s open invitation—“The first thing I said to him was, ‘If you feel like rewriting anything, go ahead!” says the producer with a laugh—Letts wasn’t tempted to try his hand at writing an episode of Homeland. “I couldn’t do what they do,” Letts says. “There’s no way I could write under the deadlines they write under, there’s no way I could write in a collective of writers. I just don’t think any of that is for me. And so I approached it like an actor: Who am I? Why am I saying this? What do I want? I’m rarely looking at the writing and thinking about the function of the writing. I’m just an actor on set with all the other actors.”
Letts had exactly the opposite experience when he adapted August: Osage County, his Pulitzer-winning dark comedy about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family, for the big screen (the highly-anticipated film opens Dec. 25). Because of his commitment to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Letts was only able to be on set the first day, during the table read for the all-star cast, which includes Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, and Margo Martindale.
Though Letts had previously adapted his plays Bug and Killer Joe, he struggled with having to cut the three-and-a-half-hour August into a more manageable film length. “That was the toughest part,” he says. “Here is a two-hour and ten-minute movie, and we’re still having conversations about pace. And my response is ‘Gee, we never had conversations about pace when it was three-and-a-half hours long!’ What they frequently want to do with a movie is, they want to cut out the valleys and just show the peaks. And valleys are important; the valleys make the peaks stand out. So trying to preserve that has been a real challenge.
Especially given the diminished stature of the writer in movies as opposed to plays. “One thing you have to do is you have to sign up for the idea that it’s not a Tracy Letts play, it’s a John Wells film,” he says, referring to August’s director. “In theater, the playwright is the boss, period. The decisions will go through him or her. In movies, the writer is pretty far down on the list.”
But that didn’t stop Letts from trying to work his way up it. “I bitch and scream and throw lots of paper and call people names and get on the phone and write long emails and say, “This is wrong, this is fucked up, can we change this, this is a mistake,”” he says. “That fight for me is about trying to make the piece as good as I can.
“I told John from day one, my job is to help you make the best movie you can make of August: Osage County. Similarly, John said to me, ‘If this thing is fucked up, I’m the one who they’re going to point fingers at. You’ve already written the play, you’ve got the Pulitzer. I’m the one they’re going to say fucked this thing up!’ So I say, ‘Well, let me help you try not to fuck this thing up.’ I viewed that as my job.”
And does Letts think he accomplished that job? “I always knew I was going to have a complicated response to it,” he says of watching August for the first time. “It’s not any one thing. It’s not disaster, it’s not triumph. For me, being involved in the theater, so much of theater is about the process and you’re always seeing the things that you want to try to make better. So I have the same experience with a movie. We saw it in Toronto [for its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival], and my first question to John was, ‘Is it locked, or can we still talk about it? Because if we can still talk about it, then I’ve still got things I’m going to fight for.’”
Now that the fighting is done, Letts is happy with the final product. “I think it’s very recognizably August: Osage County, and I’m proud of it,” he says. However, Letts is upset that the early reaction to August has been almost entirely in terms of its Oscar potential. Though he says “I hope it wins everything,” Letts admits that the awards season mania is “beyond frustrating. Man, this obsession with the Academy Awards in particular, who fucking cares? It drives me nuts. How the fuck are you going to compare Gravity with August: Osage County? Could you have two pieces any more different in every conceivable way? They’re both in color and they both have George Clooney involved with them [who is a producer on August], and that’s it. So I don’t know how or why you’re supposed to compare these things.”
Instead of getting wrapped up in Oscar hoopla, Letts is enjoying being a newlywed after marrying his Virginia Woolf costar Carrie Coon, who played Honey, in August. The pair have a wedding story for the ages: “We were married in the hospital after my emergency gall bladder removal!” says Letts. The couple had registered in Cook County to get married, but their 60-day window was slipping away as he filmed Homeland in Charlotte, N.C., and she attended to business in L.A. Finally in late August, “we had one day left. She came back from Los Angeles and we’re like, ‘Alright, we’re going to the courthouse tomorrow.’ Then I said, ‘Oh geez, I’m not feeling well.’ Three or four hours later, we were in the emergency room. And I went in for emergency gall bladder removal. While we were in the hospital, she found the hospital chaplain. She had never performed a wedding before and she came to the hospital room and married us. It was a lovely little ceremony.”
As Letts prepares to wrap his season on Homeland, he’ll turn his attention to the other high-profile projects on his plate. Among them: debuting his first original play since the 2008 comedy Superior Donuts. “My hope and belief is that Steppenwolf will do it, but it’s not firm enough to talk about yet,” says Letts, who is also finalizing a deal to adapt The Grapes of Wrath for DreamWorks. “It’s a real dream project of mine. I love the original 1940 film. To watch that movie and then read that book, you go, there’s a whole other story in this book they couldn’t tell in the film in 1940. It’s the kind of important story that needs to be told again and again.”
He also has two Broadway projects in the mix: he’ll be back onstage next year in the dark
comedy The Realistic Joneses, alongside Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei. Meanwhile, his first play, 1993’s Killer Joe, is also slated to make its Broadway debut in 2014.
It’s an abundance of good fortune, and Letts is trying to do something unusual for him: savor it. “I said to my wife just the other day, I was actually taking some time to consider all the blessings in my life and that things are really good,” he says. “I said, you would have to be a real churl to complain about the life I’m living right now. Everything’s going great. I’m having a good time.”