“The guy is a god. If you have any interest in American theater, you know this guy. You know and fear him.”
These are the first words director James Schamus had to say when asked for his thoughts on Tracy Letts. Indeed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Tony Award-winning actor is a legend of the stage, but only recently has he broken into film and television — as an actor. His latest role is on the HBO series, “Divorce,” and it’s a part that was only supposed to last one episode.
“I died in the pilot,” Letts bluntly put it, when IndieWire spoke with him in his Chicago home.
“But they liked him so much, they asked him to come back,” added Carrie Coon, Letts’ wife, former co-star on stage, and the current star of HBO’s “The Leftovers.”
Indeed, Letts’ character — the brash and successful Nick, married to Molly Shannon’s Diane — wasn’t supposed to survive the heart attack he suffers in the pilot.
“When the original pilot was written — and even when we shot it — he was a character who died of a heart attack,” “Divorce” showrunner Paul Simms said, “and the rest of the series was supposed to follow his wife as she had legal troubles [related to his death.]”
“In the pilot we loved him even more than we thought we were going to, and when we started showing it to people, they kept saying, ‘We really love Tracy’s character. It’s such a shame that he dies.’ And then we started thinking, ‘Well, maybe he doesn’t die?'”
“And they brought me back to life,” Letts said.
Be it for his positive buzz or the simple fact you cannot kill a god, Letts is still a prominent figure in “Divorce,” a series that’s come to embody the actor’s onscreen career; providing a figurative arc worthy of the great playwright. From landing bit roles on network shows in his early 30s, to commanding series regular spots (and earning awards buzz for his film work) in his early 50s, Letts is presently in the midst of conquering an acting world that once rejected him.
“Seinfeld,” “Home Improvement,” and the Value of Bit Parts
Before he broke out as a playwright but after he’d built a sterling reputation on the Chicago theater scene, Letts made the move to Los Angeles, as so many young actors do; actors with less experience than he had, and yet Letts saw similar results.
“I went out to LA when I was 32,” Letts said. “I spent about four years in Los Angeles. It didn’t agree with me and I came back.”
“You did make the ‘Seinfeld’ Festivus episode, though,” Coon added.
Though Letts shrugs off his bit parts in popular TV shows like “Seinfeld,” “Home Improvement,” “The Drew Carey Show” and more with a simple, “I did some work in L.A.,” Simms sees the experience as integral to Letts’ career.
“I think that’s probably why he’s so good at writing for actors,” Simms said. “Having experience playing a bit part on sitcoms gives him a sympathy and generosity to know that even the little parts need substance, so they’re not just a mouthpiece or a puppet.”
Letts cited the high cost of living in Los Angeles as a motivating factor, but his decision to leave was fueled more by artistic frustration. He wasn’t getting the kind of roles that inspired him; the kind of roles he could get in Chicago.
“I did some work, but none of it was enough to feed the soul,” Letts said. “I’d written a couple of plays here in Chicago: ‘Killer Joe’ and ‘Bug,’ and they both had some success. But a cultish success didn’t pay a lot of money, and L.A. was expensive. I hated the feeling in Los Angeles of waiting for the phone to ring.”
It’s important to note that Letts never sought fame and fortune in L.A. He merely followed his calling to the City of Angels, hoping to make a better living and shake the perception he felt in Chicago of being a “permanent understudy.” This desire not to be labeled as any “type of actor” never really left him.
“So I came back to Chicago and started working here in the theater again and just took a vow of poverty. I decided to live in Chicago for the rest of my life, and then Steppenwolf added me to the ensemble, and shortly thereafter I wrote ‘August: Osage County,’ and there goes the vow of poverty.”
The Power of New York
Letts earned the Pulitzer Prize award in 2008 for his heralded play (later adapted into a film, that Letts wrote, starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts). His writing career was booming and, as an actor, he was a towering presence on the Chicago theater scene, but it wasn’t until Letts starred in a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf” in 2012 that anyone really took note of his acting outside of his favored city.
“It kind of all flows from ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ Letts said. “That’s the power of New York. That’s the power of being in a media center like New York. When August first broke through in New York, some of the reporting suggested ‘failed actor turned playwright.’ [laughs] It wasn’t the case. I was just a Chicago actor. I’d done very little to go to New York or Los Angeles, and all the work here in Chicago isn’t about on camera work for the most part. It’s about stage work. So, I just was doing what I’d always done, which was to do plays.”
Simms actually saw the production in New York, and it left such an impression that he never doubted Letts could handle the role on “Divorce,” no matter how big or small.
“I loved it,” Simms said of the play. “You can probably tell from [‘Divorce’], but I love people in conflict; especially smart people in conflict. And it’s such a big role to take on because the movie version [played by Richard Burton] is so iconic. [But] Tracy is a man without the vulgar parts of what we associate with men. There’s an authority to his characters and a weight to them.”
The “power of New York” — and the authority of Letts’ presence — was what led “Homeland” showrunner Alex Gansa to cast him in a recurring role on the Emmy-winning Showtime drama. Gansa saw Letts on stage in 2013 and immediately thought of him for the role of Andrew Lockhart, the CIA director and former United States Senator who proved to be a thorn in the side of the series’ heroes.
“I was really surprised when the call came for me to do ‘Homeland,'” Letts remembered. “I originally turned it down because they had shown me the script and he was just an asshole. I thought, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ But then Alex got on the phone with me and I was so impressed with him — he’s such a smart guy, and it’s such a smart TV show — and he talked about what he wanted to do with the character over time. I took it on, and I’m so glad I did. It’s led to a lot of this other stuff.”
“Indignation” and Overcoming the “Asshole in a Suit”
One such role was in this year’s independent film “Indignation,” a period drama in which Letts played the dean of a school attended by Logan Lerman’s working class student. At the center of the film is an 18-minute back-and-forth between Lerman and Letts that’s earned raves from critics and a great deal of respect from his peers.
“I’ve been fortunate in that some good writing coupled with some passionate filmmakers has come my way,” Letts said. “‘Indignation’ was an example where I didn’t even read the thing. As soon as I heard it was an adaptation of a Phillip Roth book directed by James Schamus, I said, ‘I’m in. I don’t care how big the part is, I’ll do it.’ Then I saw the scene in the middle of that thing and was like, ‘Oh my God.'”
“We knew when we were planning to do single takes of 18 minutes each, we’d need someone who has the skills he has: the command and the experience in theater,” Schamus said. “These guys were completely off-book in the scene. He’s got a theater background, so I didn’t have to worry about his ability to take total control of the script — and own it.”
That being said, Letts doesn’t choose his roles without forethought. He says the writing, the story, and the character are most important aspects to him when considering a role — and he’s also quick to note “there’s nothing particularly original about that idea” — but he’s still aware of how he can be perceived, and he doesn’t want to be boxed in.
“When you play a part in something like ‘Homeland,’ Hollywood can be a place where people don’t necessarily have a lot of imagination,” Letts said. “They look at that and say, ‘Oh, that’s what that guy does. He’s that guy: that asshole in a suit.’ If they’d seen me in the theater in Chicago and the range of parts I get to play here, they’d see I could do other stuff. But I get it, that’s what they think I do. So I look for stuff that’s not just a repeat of the same thing over and over. I don’t want to just play the asshole in a suit.”
“The dean in ‘Indignation’ is not just an asshole in a suit,” he continued. “There’s a lot more going on. Christine’s boss in ‘Christine,’ there’s more going on with that guy than just being a bully — an asshole in a suit.”
“The core of his performance — and this is the tragedy of both the performance and the movie — is that there is a lot of love there,” Schamus said. “It may be misguided and constrained, even distorted, but the core of the performance is a human being trying to reach out to another human being and failing miserably. But he’s trying! […] I love that he’s imposing without having to act imposing. But he can also act anything, so that helps.”
The search for variety played a part in his choice to take on the role in “Divorce,” as well.
“I appreciated the fact that it was a comedy,” Letts said. “I don’t get to do a lot of that: a comedy with funny people; funny people my own age; funny people in my peer group.
“It’s different to do comedy on film than on stage. The parallels with drama on stage and on film are closer to each other, but with a comedy you just don’t get that bounceback like you do in the theater. Figuring out the timing of that, the facial gestures, [is hard].”
Cleary, he’s cracked it, though. His onscreen success can be measured by “Divorce”: His role is set for even further expansion in Season 2, and Simms is deliberately writing more scenes for Letts with Sarah Jessica Parker, because of how impressed he is with his shared scene work.
“It’s a much more prominent role in Season 2,” Simms said. “It’s more of an exploration of his agency. When you think of putting Tracy in scenes with other people, the permutations seem really fun. There are aspects of Season 2 that will really surprise people.”
The Value of Choice
“It’s so moving to see something that Tracy gave up, which was a television and film career — he just decided he wasn’t going to have that,” Coon said. “He came back to Chicago, he wrote plays, he was an actor on stage and had this incredible success as a playwright. Then to see this TV and film career come back to him at 50, it’s so extraordinary.”
“51 — but who’s counting?” Letts quietly added.
A theatrical legend in Chicago to a nobody in Los Angeles; back to Chicago as the predominant playwright of his generation, and then back to Los Angeles where he’s conquering the very world that once turned him away, it seems Letts’ towering talent knows no bounds. Now, he can pick and choose his parts, rather than take whatever comes his way; a privilege Letts will never take for granted.
“Oh, it’s the greatest thing in the world,” Letts said. “The first time I ever said no to something, I got an audition for a part on ‘Law & Order.’ I didn’t get the part I auditioned for, but they came back to me and said, ‘We want you to play this other part.’ ‘All right, well, what happens?’ ‘Well, Vincent D’Onofrio is interrogating you and throws you up against a fence. And I said, ‘OK, where’s this shoot?’ ‘It’s far out in Queens.’ ‘…how much does that pay?’ ‘It’s one day’s work. It’s gonna pay you $500.’ I said, ‘Wow, how much would it take for me to get thrown up against the fence by Vincent D’Onofrio all day? You know what? It takes more than $500.’ So I said no. I turned it down, and it was the greatest feeling in my life.”
In other words, it doesn’t sound like anyone will be killing off one of Letts’ characters anytime soon — not that you can ever kill a god.
“Divorce” airs its Season 1 finale Sunday at 10pm on HBO. “Indignation” is available on VOD and DVD now.