Tracy Letts currently stars in two high profile award-contending films, James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. The 54-year old is also a celebrated playwright and theater actor, having won the Pulitzer Prize for writing August: Osage County, and a Tony for playing George in Broadway’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Letts spoke to Casting Networks about both roles and why he’s glad he doesn’t have to audition anymore.
How does one prepare to play Henry Ford II in Ford v Ferrari?
I start with the screenplay. Then I had a conversation with James Mangold, the director and he was very clear in saying, ‘We don’t feel the need to do a Henry Ford II impersonation; he’s not so fixed in the public consciousness that people really know what he looked like and sounded like. It’s not like playing Johnny Cash. So unburden yourself from needing to do any kind of impersonation.’
With that advice and pressure out of the way, how do you form this character?
You do the research that’s necessary. The truth is, the kinds of roles I get cast in, I don’t get a year’s advance to prepare. I don’t move to Michigan and learn all about cars. I’ve only got a few weeks to prepare. I read a couple of books about Henry Ford and about Le Mans 66. I watched some YouTube videos. I watched the Le Mans 66 documentary that the Ford Motor Company commissioned at that time.
Was that helpful?
Most of it, frankly, was not that helpful to me (in preparing for the role). A good screenplay has dramaturgy on the page. What you need to know is right there for you. Luckily, this script was well written and the team making the movie was prepared. So much was done for me that it didn’t require a lot of invention on my part. From what I read, he was very powerful, very mercurial, could be quick to anger and unsurprisingly could also be deeply insecure. That was the part in the screenplay that I found to be an interesting element to the guy.
When you say, ‘the types of roles I get,’ what does that mean?
A little lower on the call sheet. By way of example, when Gary Oldman agreed to play Churchill in The Darkest Hour, he said, I need a year to prepare. A guy who’s further down on the call sheet, who’s not playing Churchill, but who’s in a scene with Churchill, doesn’t get a year. He gets a few weeks. Maybe a couple of months if he’s lucky. I would also argue, he doesn’t need a year. If the script is well written, you don’t need a year to do all that stuff. I can certainly understand why Gary Oldman would want a year to prepare for Churchill. There are some roles that would require that kind of investment and research. But I tend to play the guy who moves the story along for our principals.
“I don’t think I was ever especially good at auditioning… I don’t remember wowing people that frequently in the room.” – Tracy Letts
Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film was the one where when Matt Damon, as Carroll Shelby took you for a spin around the track. What was that shoot date like?
The movie is very analog. It’s tactile. It’s sensory. We’re really smelling gasoline. We’re really hearing engines. We’re really in fast cars. All the cars are real. The drivers are real. Matt and I were being driven by a camera car, but it was a camera car that gets up to some really fast speeds. We were going 100 miles an hour on the tarmac. Cameras were affixed to the car, the car spun and stopped and we were able to proceed with the scene.
You also star in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, playing Mr. Dashwood, the newspaper editor. The film is Greta’s follow-up to her directorial debut, Lady Bird, which you were also in.
Greta first told me she was writing Little Women while we were making Lady Bird. I thought to myself, well that’s a bad idea. It’s been done so many times I can’t imagine why we would need another version of Little Women. Yet her take on it was so contemporary, and so unique that I said, I’ll gladly do anything you want me too.
What kind of role is Mr. Dashwood?
I’m asked to play these roles a lot – guys who are essentially the gatekeepers, or the obstacle that the protagonist has to get around in order to get what they want. I love those roles. Those are fun parts to play. I always look for the thing in them that’s more than just the function they have in the plot – a human element.
What human element did you find in Mr. Dashwood?
One of the great things about Greta’s screenplay is Mr. Dashwood brings up some good points for Jo (Saorise Ronan). He’s a man trying to run his own business successfully, but also help this young writer sell her book. He may be a bit of curmudgeon, but the truth is he has some valid points to make. There is no animosity between him and Jo. It’s a business relationship. I really appreciated that. And I got a chance to do it with Saorise, after playing her dad in Lady Bird. It was great fun to show a different side of our relationship.
As an established playwright who obviously has a hand in casting his own plays, how sympathetic are you towards actors who come in to audition for you?
Auditioning such an imperfect process. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the best way to find actors, but it’s the best system we’ve got, and it seems to be the system we’re going to keep using. So I’m deeply sympathetic to what actors have to go through. There are things you’re told as an actor, but don’t realize how true it is until you’re sitting on the other side of that desk, which is that sometimes you get or lose the job as soon as you walk through the door.
That’s because we, behind the desk, are looking for something, and when you, the actor, walk-in, you may not be the thing we’re looking for. Sure minds can be changed. It’s not as if we sit there and go, there’s no possible way this person can do this. I’ve had my mind changed before. But for the most part, you get or lose the job when you walk in the door. It’s not personal, even though it seems deeply personal when you’re the actor. Believe me, I know that feeling. But it’s actually not personal. It’s not about me believing in somebody’s talent or not believing in somebody’s talent. I’m looking for what I need in order to tell my story, and sometimes the person who walks through my door is what I need, and sometimes not.
As an actor, what frustrates you most?
Not being given the respect of getting enough time with the script, and sometimes not even being given the script. Sometimes they are so protective of their material, they don’t want to let actors read it. They’ll send you one scene but it’s a representative scene, not even a scene from the actual project. I find that really unhelpful and disrespectful of the actor’s process. I would lobby for actors to be given more leeway with real scripts, and actual time to prepare.
Do you still audition?
It’s been a while. Maybe eight or nine years since I gave an audition. I don’t miss it. I don’t think I was ever especially good at auditioning. Sometimes I booked jobs and sometimes I didn’t, but I don’t remember wowing people that frequently in the room. I don’t remember jaws dropping and them saying, ‘Oh we got to get this guy!’ The truth is, I had kind of given up on film and TV.
I had gone to Los Angeles late in the millennium and was there through 2001. I just wasn’t working enough in film and TV to feel like I was getting it done. So I went back to Chicago to return to theatre which I knew and loved. I went a long time without working in film and television. In fact, it wasn’t until our production of Who’s Virginia Wolf? on Broadway, that Alex Ganza, the creator of Homeland, came saw that show, and asked me to play a part in his TV series (for Season 3 and Season 4). At that point, I had not been on camera in seven years.
Did you audition for him?
As I recall, I did audition for Alex. He wanted to see me read the role (of Senator Andrew Lockhart) on tape. But I still needed some talking in to as to whether or not I was going do the project because I already decided that that film and TV wasn’t where my life was going.
Obviously your mind was changed. What happened?
I thought, here is an opportunity not only to be on a good television show but maybe I could start to feel more comfortable in front of the camera. Because it was so spotty. If you only work a day here, and then you don’t work for six months, then you book another a few days, then you go without for a year, and then you book a week…. it’s hard to get comfortable in front of the camera, in the environment of a film and television set. It just doesn’t have the same sense of community that a theater rehearsal room has, at least not for me.
So how did Homeland get to be the job that changed that for you?
When I got a chance to work on Homeland, I got a chance to show up every day, learn people’s names and feel more comfortable with the camera. I told (the show’s actors) Mandy Patinkin and Claire Danes, ‘Look I haven’t done this work in a long time. I hope you guys are okay with me picking your brains a little bit about this work.’ They were very generous with me and I got a chance to do it enough that I started to get more comfortable and more familiar with the camera. That might have been the last audition I did, Homeland. I think I’ve not auditioned since then. It’s a great feeling, because like I said, I don’t think I was ever especially good at it.
What advice would you give to actors today gleaned from all your years of experience?
The first thing I would say is you should make your own work. If you’re just waiting for the phone to ring with the right audition, it’s probably not going to come, in my experience. You’re going to have to – and I don’t want to say self-promote, because I think that’s the wrong idea. People think promotion is going to help you get a job and it doesn’t. What helps you get a job is making your own work, whether that’s writing something or producing something. The truth is with the technology we have now, where people make movies on their iPhone, there’s just no excuse not to be generating your own work in some way shape or form. Otherwise, you’re just sitting in your apartment in Los Angeles, killing another day waiting for the phone to ring. That’s no good for you professionally or personally.
The second thing I would say is, don’t get jealous. It’s not helpful. Other people are going to get jobs and you’re not. Look at it as other people’s blessings. It’s that person’s journey. Somebody else getting a job doesn’t take anything away from you. The reason I give this advice is because I’ve seen a lot of actors who have been eaten up by jealousy or bitterness. Again, it’s not good for you personally, or for your craft. You’ve got to find a philosophical place to get through that very human – yet very unhelpful – emotion.