Tracy Letts is so transformative in his roles that the real person is something of a mystery. Turns out I had nothing to worry about as he has an incredible way of approaching answers to questions that helped make this interview feel like a conversation, but one that I enjoyed transcribing after the fact. Go see Tracy Letts in Ford v Ferrari, as it’s a riveting Oscar-worthy performance. We also can’t wait to see Letts in Little Women, one of our most anticipated movies of the year.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our special phone interview with the articulate and droll Tracy Letts.
Brief Take: You have an understanding of the sense of physical space within this movie. What did acting opposite Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca and Josh Lucas bring to the experience?
Tracy Letts: The physical space is really important to me and how I interact with the space physically is important to me because I’m a theatre actor first and foremost and because I am a physical actor. Some of this acting on camera, which still feels relatively new to me- in the past few years, I’ve been doing a bit of it but it still feels fresh to me. Trying to navigate physical space, especially vis-à-vis the camera and what the camera is seeing opposite my fellow actors, it’s one of the really interesting and pleasurable things about the job. I really like it. One of the first scenes that we shot, the first scene that I shot in the movie, I should say, is the move in my office in which (Jon) Bernthal has brought back the insult from Ferrari. That was the first scene we did, and obviously the physical politics of the scene are important: who’s got the power, who doesn’t have the power, who’s being dressed down, the kind of triangulation over by the bar of Josh Lucas’ character.
We worked all of that stuff out in rehearsals, but on a film, a rehearsal is very brief, you do it in 5 to 10 minutes, and then you show it to the camera crew, and then you’re shooting it. And with good directors, and Jim (Mangold) is a great director, he understands the importance of that, and he comes in with some ideas about how he thinks it plays out and then the actors also contribute some ideas. I have to say, too, that when I first start on a film, my first day or so is always terrifying. You don’t know the people and it feels like it’s your first day at school. And I didn’t know Josh and I didn’t know Jon and I didn’t know what to expect from those guys, but what a sweet…[chuckles] what a sweet couple of guys. Everybody on set of that movie was really sweet. All the guys in this movie are dads; dads of young children. And I even remember Josh having to leave that particular night early because we were shooting late into the night. And he had a flight at like 6 in the morning to go back to New York to see his kid, and it was apparent that he was going to miss his flight. And we actually…he didn’t want to ask if it was okay if he left while we were still shooting stuff, because you don’t normally do that. But of course because Jon and I are also dads, we’re like: “No, you should absolutely go make this. We are fine with it if Jim’s fine with it, you should go and make your flight”, that was a great introduction.
BT: How does your performance as Henry Ford II fit within your arc of ‘The Man Behind a Desk’?
TL: What I see is variations on a theme. With The Deuce, the nice thing about the role is that if he were just a monument, if he were a statue of Henry Ford II, it wouldn’t be as interesting to me, but the script did a beautiful job of delineating his insecurities. In fact, his insecurity is really the lynchpin…it’s the inciting action of the story. Because if he doesn’t get his feelings hurt by Ferrari, he doesn’t go and run in that race, race his car. That insecurity was really interesting to me. I mean here is a guy who’s a titan of industry and he runs I believe the second biggest company in the United States at that point, behind U.S. Steel, I think, and he’s got this enormous corporation under his control. But at the same time, he isn’t Henry Ford, he’s not the man who invented the Model T. Henry Ford is not only an important man in the automotive world, he’s an important man in world history, and to share that name and to take over the business, to have your name emblazoned on all of these cars, the pressure of all of that, and the fact that it’s not just corporate pressure, it’s also familial pressure. I found that a really interesting, exciting, fun thing to explore. The scene in the race car with Matt Damon, I mean, that’s what sort of lifts the lid on all that stuff and it was so much fun to explore that.
BT: Ford v Ferrari was written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. Jez Butterworth has written memorable plays such as The Ferryman. You know as well as anyone the language of the stage. What is the language of cinema and especially in this film?
TL: Well Bill Friedkin is a friend of mine, directed a couple of adaptations of my plays. Bill, of course, made the greatest chase scenes ever filmed in The French Connection, in my opinion, it’s the greatest, and Bill has said to me before, he said that “the movies do chases”, that’s the medium for a chase. You can’t do it on stage, you can’t do it in a book, can’t do it on the radio, TV budgets are somewhat limited, you don’t have the big screen, so there’s a fine line I believe between a chase and a race. But cars, I mean, American movies have always had an obsession with automobiles- they’re cinematic in and of themselves. You could do Ford v Ferrari on stage, but it wouldn’t be the same. [laughs] And you know, if you can get the car stuff, if you get the world of the car, especially this world of period cars, great cars from the mid-60’s and you can get that world of racing and chasing and the fantastic visual images of those cars, then the scenes of the people can seem as if they’re interstitial, they’re just a filler until we can get back to car stuff. But the beauty of the script of Ford v Ferrari is that it’s all credit to the Butterworths and the other screenwriters of the movie, that’s all credit to them for making these scenes not interstitial, but rather, as what the movie is about…the movie can exist without the cars. And I have to say: Mr. Mangold, again, he’s such a fine director, because he’s not only good at the big stuff- the big picture stuff of racing those cars, of photographing those cars, but he’s also great at the intimate stuff, the boardrooms and the scenes between people, about human level stuff, which is ultimately where your movie is going to succeed or fail.
BT: Tell me about working with Greta Gerwig on Lady Bird and Little Women.
TL: I think Greta…I mean I don’t throw around the word “genius”, and I won’t even throw it around with Greta, but she might be. I mean, I think, I’ve read those two screenplays, I read both screenplays before I did the films, and the films very much…I mean the one I read is what’s up there on screen. She wrote those films and she wrote them completely and with great governing ideas for both of those movies. That job of adaptation on Little Women is superlative. When she first told me she was doing it, I thought, well that’s a bad idea, why would you want to take on this thing that’s done six times previously and that’s to good effect. Then I read that screenplay and I realized why she wanted to do it, it’s such a…I won’t call it an updating, but she takes the story of Little Women and gives it real contemporary resonance. So I want to be a part of anything on which Greta Gerwig’s working. I think that she’s a great artist. And when she said to me, “do you want to play a part in this?”, I said: “I’ll play any part, I don’t care what it is, I’ll do anything”. I like being a part of it because I knew that it was going to be good. And then the actual work of the scene, we’d show up on the set, and she reminded me, I did a Q&A with her last night, and she reminded me that she threw a lot of extra material at us at the last minute, and I don’t actually recall that, but it’s a lot of discipline to write something on the page and then realize it on film, but it also takes a lot of confidence and trust to change it on the fly and to allow for your collaborators to add their own ideas to the mix, and Greta is very good at all of that. It’s funny, she and Jim Mangold could not be more different as directors, they’re just…because their personalities are so different, they conduct themselves on a set very differently, but they’re both very confident, they know what they want, they know what they don’t want, and they both have their own ways about going about getting it. I’ll do anything Greta asks me to do. If Greta asks me to show up and be an extra, I’ll do it.
BT: By appearing in Ford v Ferrari, and Little Women, even Lady Bird, would you say that exploring the past through a contemporary lens is critical to understanding where we are right now?
TL: It’s a fine question, you sort of put the answer in the question, because I do think it’s important. And I do feel a sense of responsibility when we’re telling those stories, I mean, we’re not making documentaries, and I always think a movie is set when it’s made, in other words to some extent, I don’t really believe in period. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid is a 1968 movie, as far as I’m concerned, it’s set in 1968, the mindset of that movie is 1968. These movies that we’re making are going to reflect contemporary times, no matter what we do with them, it’s important for us that we honour…how do I want to put this, it’s such an intriguing idea you bring up. [pauses] I think by honouring the past with truthfulness, and I don’t mean a documentary realism, I mean truthfulness- a truthfulness to the spirit of the time, I think we reflect the time we’re in right now.
BT: You’ve got an interesting year ahead. What are you excited for coming up?
TL: Well I’m excited about The Minutes for a couple of reasons. First of all, because it’s…well, this political moment that we’re in, or moments, I suppose that the moment changes every day, these moments that we’re in are fraught with what is a scary and it seems to me an important time. And I think to myself: “How do I want to contribute to the things that are important to me”, and the best way I know to contribute is to write about it. And The Minutes is a reflection on some of my thoughts and feelings about where we are as a country right now. And then additionally I’ve never acted in something that I’ve written before. I keep talking like I’ve never wanted to do it, I’ve wanted to do it, but for which I’ve never looked, I’ve never written roles for me in which to act, I’ve never looked for opportunities in my own play, this is not something in which I’ve ever had an interest, but it’s intriguing. It’s intriguing to think about going back to work on the play, and to continue to work on the play and get to be inside the play. I’ve never done that before and I think it’ll be a fun new challenge. Once I get over the discomfort I have with it, I think that it will a fun, new challenge.
BT: When you were primarily writing plays and acting in the theatre, and you thought about the future, did you ever imagine that you would be an actor in films and tv?
TL: No. Not at all. It’s all surprising for me and it’s all wonderful. When you’re a younger actor, you have dreams and aspirations, not as an actor, we all do. And what happens is that time has its way with you and you adapt. Human beings adapt to their circumstances, to the time which they live in, to all sorts of things. I guess that some of the ambitions and dreams I had as a young actor…I don’t want to say I gave up on them, they changed. My interests changed. There was a time in my life in which I really didn’t want to be working in front of the camera, I really wanted to be on stage. There were other times when I would have done anything for a job half as good as some of these jobs I’m doing. To have this [chuckles] sort of weird moment as an actor, at the age of- I’m 54 now and I suppose this started…I guess that it started a few years ago and it started with Homeland, as a result of doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway, this round of film and tv work that I have been doing. It’s so unexpected, and because it’s unexpected, it’s exciting and challenging, it’s great.
BT: What was it about Homeland and this role in particular that changed everything?
TL: I had not worked on camera in seven years when Alex Gansa asked me to do Homeland. I had kind of given up on the idea that I might do much of it, like I said, my focus had been on theatre, working on stage, and I thought: “Well, that’s not going to happen for me”, which is fine. I was having a great career as a stage actor and playwright. And then Alex asked me to do it and I initially turned it down, because again, all I saw was a guy in a suit, this hardass in a suit, and I didn’t see more to it than that. But then Alex got on the phone with me and we talked about the role and what he hoped to do with the role, where he saw the role going. He’s a persuasive guy because he’s smart and he’s a very good writer. And I had seen season one of the show, I think season two had already aired, but I had not yet watched it. But I had seen season one and I admired it immensely, not only because it’s a spy show and I like spy stuff, I have always liked that stuff. But beyond that, I admired that it had one foot in the real world, in real world concerns, and seemed to me, in a responsible way, that it was talking about real issues, responsibly. All in the context of a tv show about spies. He kind of won me over and I’m so glad that I did, because when I took it on I thought: “Well, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to get an opportunity now, because I’m working on…” All my roles prior to Homeland had been, you know, a day here, a week here, maybe a few weeks, all of them very sporadic, sometimes years between each gig.
When I was going to work on television in a series regular role, I thought: “Well, here’s an opportunity to learn something about the way the camera works, how to act on camera, what is the camera seeing…how do you relax?” And I went on the set and on the first day on the set, I said to both Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin, I said: “With your permission, I’m going to pick your brain a little bit about this work. I’m not confident doing this work and I want to know more about it and I want to get your insights into this work”. They could not have been more generous with their own experience and they’re lovely collaborators and (possess) very different ways of working. I learned so much from them, and the opportunity to do it regularly to the point when you know people on the set and you know their names, that level of comfort, to allow…going on set is not a miserable experience, but actually it’s like: “Oh, I’m looking forward to going on set. I’m looking forward to this, I can feel my shoulders dropping, and I’m able to relax and do this a little bit”. And the next stage from there is getting comfortable with the idea that there’s a camera in the room. For the longest time, I locked in on my fellow actors and think: “I’m not going to acknowledge…right? There’s no…I’m going to block out that camera”. But then you get to that point eventually where you go: “Oh! It’s okay that there’s a camera here. I’m fine. In fact, bring in that camera, I’m fine being here with that camera”. It’s a subtle but important shift that a theatre actor has to make when they’re moving into the world of on-camera acting.
Ford v Ferrari is now playing in theatres everywhere. Little Women opens in theatres on Christmas Day.